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Criminal Pursuits

February 10, 1991|CHARLES CHAMPLIN

Forensic science is already established as a kind of sub-genre of the police procedural novel, and we are likely to read more of the near-magical properties of technology in crime-solving. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a shaper of mystery fiction in several ways, could doubtless claim a helping hand here with Holmes' celebrated monograph on the varieties of cigar ash. But even Sir Arthur might be astonished at what the microscope now discloses.

Patricia Cornwell, a former newspaper reporter and biographer of Billy Graham now working in the office of the chief medical examiner in Richmond, Va., made her mystery debut last year with "Postmortem." Her heroine was Dr. Kay Scarpetta of the medical examiner's office, who was inspired by the office's real-life Dr. Marcella Fierro.

Dr. Scarpetta is back again in Body of Evidence (Charles Scribner's Sons, $17.92; 387 pp.). A young woman, known to be writing a controversial book, has had death threats and is obviously being followed. Yet she admits a visitor to her locked house and is murdered. The question is who, and specifically why.

Forensics, inevitably, are vital in determining the former, though the latter rests on more traditional sleuthing, which as always carries Scarpetta far from the refrigerated cadavers and the autopsy table. The silent testimony of various kinds of artificial fibers, gathered from auto upholstery, is helpful (and fascinating).

The second outing lacks the startling freshness of the debut. A heavily skeptical detective partner, a charmless Watson, is not much help, nor is the presence of an old lover, a lawyer now thigh-deep in lies and deceptions. The relationship, like the doubting colleague, seems a concession to the form, lacking the tang of actuality the forensic stuff inevitably has. Yet the essential mystery is interesting and well-plotted, strewn with some vivid characters and suggesting again that Scarpetta is here to stay.

New voices are always welcome, and Sam Reaves' first mystery, A Long Cold Fall (G. P. Putnam's Sons: $19.95; 255 pp.), is an exemplary beginning. The setting is Chicago, with whose infinite and frequently acrid variety Reaves appears to know as well as does Sara Paretsky.

His likable hero is Cooper MacLeish, ex-'Nam now pushing a cab and writing a voluminous history of his own world view. The book's smashing start is MacLeish's encounter with a gun-toting passenger. It establishes character and milieu with whiplash speed, so much so that it haunts the rest of the book perhaps more than Reaves intended. But it does grab your attention.

MacLeish reads, astonished, of the death leap of an old girlfriend, whose teen-age son may be the child of their one-night liaison. Someone (there are mysterious phone calls and an ambush) is after the boy as well. MacLeish hides him as best he can while he digs into a past that includes his own. The denouement is not really an amazement, but the suspects are all so credible that the truth is more satisfying than the rabbit-from-the-hat variety.

The remarkable Nicolas Freeling, that most stylish and impressionistic of mystery writers, is back with a new Henri Castang story, Those in Peril (Mysterious Press: $18.95; 212 pp.). Castang, having goofed up (by bending the rules) during a provincial posting that was itself a punishment for earlier unorthodoxies, is punitively posted to a minor bureau in Paris where art fraud is the specialty and Castang is in pursuit of some purloined stamps.

For consolation there is an agreeably sexy colleague who knows art and who proves a lifesaver in the catching of a culprit. Freeling's worldly cynicism tones the unmasking of a high politician as a child-molester. In his intimate conveyance of the French scene, Freeling is Georges Simenon, enriched by a very dark sense of humor.

In The Irishman's Horse, (Donald I. Fine: $18.96; 250 pp.). Michael Collins' one-armed investigator/adventurer Dan Fortune is led far from his tranquil home base in Santa Barbara and all the way to a Guatemalan mountain hacienda where the poppies grow and the drug dealers have private armies. Fortune, retained by an anxious wife to find her husband, a U.S. embassy idealist gone missing in Guatemala City, has his hand full all the way, with CIA, State Department and unidentified others outdoing each other in lethal guiltiness. A rousing tale, with an unusually colorful villain called The Irishman.

Another striking first appearance is Charles P. Wilson's Nightwatcher (Carroll & Graf: $17.95; 263 pp.). Wilson, a Mississippi writer, sets his dramatic story in a hospital for the criminally insane there. A young nurse is murdered with a particular savagery. Suspects naturally abound; the local sheriff counts 11, all inmates.

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