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Criminal Pursuits


May 5 was Kinsey Milhone's birthday and each year on that date, Santa Barbara's Sue Grafton gives a growing number of readers the present of a new Milhone alphabetical adventure. 'H' Is for Homicide (Henry Holt: $17.95; 256 pp.), seventh in a series that began with " 'A' Is for Alibi," already on best-seller lists.

It is one of the best, significantly different from the earlier books, confirming that the anthology form, which a series is, can be refreshingly variable in the right hands. John D. MacDonald, varying his formula hardly at all, ran out of time before he ran out of colors for his Travis Magee series.

Grafton may run out of enthusiasm before she hits " 'Z' Is for Zero" but it's clear that she knows her feisty, compassionate, gutsy insurance investigator inside and out and her Southern California terrain as well. (Home base, Santa Barbara, is called Santa Teresa, an homage to Ross Macdonald; that's what he called it.)

A new claims adjuster at Milhone's firm has been bumped off, always unsettling to the staff. Looking into his workload produces evidence of fraud and also turns up a young Chicana unsure whether a spurned suitor will marry her by force or kill her. Milhone is soon leading a nervous double life, befriending the girl and masquerading as a down-on-her-luck entertainer eager to join an auto-fraud ring that operates on a large scale. (The results of Grafton's research into that world are interesting and sobering in equal doses.)

More than a whodunit, the new book is an unusually sympathetic and sensitive character study of the girl, Bibianna Diaz, and a vivid, funny portrait of life in an ethnic underworld, viewed without judgment. Suspense there is, plentifully, and a final suggestion that Kinsey will be exploring different mischiefs next time. Outstanding.

Joseph Hansen's Dave Brandstetter series, which began with "Fadeout" 20 years ago, has been unique. Brandstetter, like Milhone, is an insurance investigator. He is gay, and Hansen has presented his private life style, loves, jealousies, betrayals with both candor and discretion, with a calm and never-exploitive honesty that commends understanding to the reader.

Now, with A Country of Old Men (Viking: $17.95; 175 pp.), the 12th Brandstetter mystery, Hansen concludes the series. Brandstetter, rich after the inheritance from his father's death, is in his late 60s and tired. AIDS and time have diminished his world and from the start there is a sense not so much of foreboding as of resignation in the novel.

There is a plot, a found child, a murdered rock star, a halfway house gone all bad, a rascally, colorful old novelist and other lively personages. Brandstetter is a sleuth more reluctant than usual. He gets the job done, and you hate to see him depart, because he has been fine and socially useful company in every sense. But the guess is that Hansen has other projects to pursue.

The rush in the legal profession to write fiction has advanced to the Supreme Court of Ohio, where Herb Brown sits as one of the justices. He studied writing at the Bread Loaf Conference and his Presumption of Guilt (Donald A. Fine: $19.95; 309 pp.) is a daring literary undertaking. It attempts to present a child-abuse trial largely, although not exclusively, through the perceptions of the abused child, a boy of 7 going on 8.

How to make credible such adult uses as voir-dire examinations of jurors? Brown cleverly has the lad be superbright and accordingly supersensitive, with a mother who works on his vocabulary constantly, having him write unfamiliar words in a notebook. The device comes off better than expected, although there are inevitable moments when the man speaking through the boy can't be ignored or denied.

The remarkable ploy is that a teen-aged baby sitter is on trial, but the boy and the reader know the baby sitter is innocent. The truth is so damaging to himself and the truly guilty, the boy feels (with irrefutable small-boy logic) that he cannot tell the truth even to save the baby sitter, whom he likes. When he tries to tell the truth at last, it is too late.

Brown preserves the secret until late in the book. Meanwhile, the proceedings are a disturbing insight into the system's rush to judgment, to find a culprit at all costs, including the coaching of the child witness until he only wants to say what he thinks adults want him to say. The justice suggests, in an engrossing and informing courtroom thriller, that justice is not always served, even when justice does its best. The ending is a study in bitter irony.

Like Ruth Rendell, Minnesota writer John Camp writes under two names, in voices that are distinct if not wholly different. As John Sandford, he writes hard-line police thrillers ("Birds of Prey"). In his own name he has done The Empress File (Henry Holt: $18.95; 231 pp.), a caper that suggests Dashiell Hammett's "Red Harvest" and "Mission Impossible" rolled together.

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