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Criminal Pursuits

October 14, 1990|CHARLES CHAMPLIN

Archer Mayor's "Open Season" two years ago marked the debut of the author--and of Brattleboro, Vt., as a crime scene. The story of a young policeman's struggle to prove a convicted murderer's innocence was resonantly atmospheric and very suspenseful. Now, in Borderlines (G. P. Putnam's Sons: $19.95; 257 pp.), Mayor leaps that highest of hurdles, the second novel.

The cop, Lt. Joe Gunther, has paid dearly for his success, which has loused up his personal and professional life. To escape, he takes a working holiday in a depressed village in an austere corner of Vermont called The Northeast Kingdom. He'd done some growing up there, trained as a volunteer fireman, and now finds the town divided over the presence of a secretive and sullen but prosperous back-to-nature commune.

Angry parents come seeking a daughter. There's a fistfight, a fatal fire in one of the commune's houses, then more murders. One of Gunther's oldest pals seems to have gone sour, but almost no one in sight is whole and without stain.

Mayor writes big scenes: Gunther almost buys it fighting the house fire, and there is a rousingly cinematic stalk-down in a granite quarry, with some final surprises going off like a string of firecrackers. Mayor also offers forensic detail in depth. (There's more to be learned about knife wounds than I thought there was to know.) But above all, Mayor catches the sights and the feel of the place, the leaf-smoke tang and the dank chill of the deepening fall, the fears and tensions of a place in trouble.

His book is a regional novel, a character study, a police procedural, and with it all, persuasive proof that Mayor's debut was a real beginning, not beginner's luck.

Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder books are as enjoyably readable as any in the genre. In A Ticket to the Boneyard (William Morrow: $18.95; 302 pp.), a demented killer that Scudder sent to prison during his policeman days is out again, and killing the women in Scudder's life (no matter how distantly), en route to Scudder himself.

Like James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux, Scudder is a recovering alcoholic, and his efforts to stay dry despite severe stress adds a parallel suspense to the story, never more anxiously than here, as the ferocious James Leo Motley seems to outwit Scudder at every turn.

Scudder tells it in first-person so you have to figure he'll be around at the finish, which makes the nail-chewing anxiety that Block generates all the more impressive. This is the eighth Scudder, and there are at least 29 other novels and two story collections by Block, but there's no sign whatever of battle fatigue or waning invention. The new one is rich, characterful stuff.

Reformed drunks are getting as numerous in crime fiction as bourbon-in-the-desk-drawer private eyes used to be, and it's a nice, coeducational change. Sarah Shankman's Atlanta newspaper reporter, Sam (for Samantha) Adams, is another who has set aside the bottle.

Now Let's Talk of Graves (Pocket Books: $18.95; 331 pp.) takes Sam to New Orleans for a Mardi Gras made even more colorful by a hit-and-run murder and a cast of characters alike only in their vivid corruptions. There is a lady evangelist, an ancient crone who does voodoo, a dimwit deb who deals drugs, plus miscellaneous miscreants and assorted thugs.

Occasionally the dialogue as well as the narration veer toward the peppy and breathless society reportage of yesteryear. But Shankman clearly knows her Mardi Gras and the varieties of Southern speech, and when her story gets going and elements begin to collide, Sam's outing is one of her best and liveliest.

Julian Symons is the patriarch of present British crime-writing: a critic, essayist and historian of the form who is himself a prolific crime novelist ("The Thirty-first of February," "The Man Who Killed Himself"). His newest book, Death's Darkest Face (Viking: $16.95; 272 pp.) is characteristically, trickily inventive, a piece of social history that doubles as an homage to the intricacies of the classic mystery.

Symons as author-critic has presumably received a manuscript from a neighbor who is a middle-aged actor. The manuscript, partly the actor's autobiography, recounts the circumstances surrounding the mysterious disappearance of an untidy poet, Hugo Headley, who might well have been murdered (some thought) by the actor's father for fooling about with the actor's mother. The actor hopes to clear his father's name posthumously.

The actor is himself now dead as Symons is writing. The clues are cold, the passions gone to dust. But Symons sorts out the turbulent past, and very twisted it all was. There is pleasure in the clever plotting, but it is Symons' portrait of life amongst the fairly rich in the '30s--the "Tennis, anyone?" weekends in the country, the spacious enjoyments of growing up--that gives the book its additional, burnished charm.

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