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Criminal Pursuits

April 11, 1993|CHARLES CHAMPLIN

Jonathan Kellerman, a child psychologist before he turned to writing full-time, chronicles the adventures of a child psychologist named Alex Delaware. As when cops write about cops (Wambaugh) and lawyers about the law (Turow et al.), the reinforcement of fiction by the real experience of life and work produces stories of uncommon solidity and depth.

This is seldom truer than in the new Kellerman, Devil's Waltz (Bantam: $22.95; 416 pp.). In its early stages, the novel favorably recalls an "Annals of Medicine" piece from the New Yorker, as Delaware and the staff of a failing hospital confront a strange series of fevers, convulsions and blackouts in an infant girl. By now she is hysterically needle-shy (Delaware is on hand to try to calm her) but all the tests disclose nothing.

The devil's waltz of the title describes patients who fake illnesses to get attention; in a terrible extension of the syndrome, parents fake illnesses in their children (sometimes with fatal results) as a kind of proxy call for attention.

Kellerman constructs a tense, dank atmosphere of suspicion and doubt. The plot strands tighten like knots. The threats to the child are real and ongoing. It grows clear that we are in the annals of crime, not medicine, and Kellerman keeps the blood pressure rising. A superior mystery-thriller.

Thomas H. Cook, a New York writer who keeps pushing at the limits of the form, does it again in Mortal Memory (Putnam's: $21.95; 285 pp.). A man has killed his wife and two of his children, but another son, detained at school, escapes the slaughter. The father has never been seen again.

Now, years later, the spared son, Steve Farris, is himself at age 44 a husband and father. A writer doing a book about fathers who have killed their families comes to town to probe and prompt Farris' memory about the fatal day, and all the days that led to it.

Farris' own family verges on the dysfunctional, and the effort at memory somehow further estranges husband and wife. It begins to seem possible that history might repeat itself. Meanwhile, in Cook's sensitive language, the past emerges like a landscape gradually disclosed as a morning fog burns away. The past produces dark but persuasive surprises and there are present shocks as well. Cook's insightful portrait of a man caught between present and past is unusually affecting.

Yet another of the women protagonists in mysteries by women is Cat (for Catherine) Marsala, a Chicago journalist created by Barbara D'Amato. Hard Women (Scribner's: $20; 249 pp.) is the fourth in a series (after "Hardball," "Hard Tack" and "Hard Luck"). Cat is researching prostitution for a television newscast. A 19-year-old hooker who has taken temporary refuge in Cat's apartment is murdered in an alley outside.

The mystery is not very mysterious, although the denouement in an El station late at night is a real heart-stopper. But the author has evidently done a large amount of research on hookers, from high-priced courtesans to street walkers, and the look at the life is both engrossing and depressing but handled with non-judging sensitivity by D'Amato.

Ken Kuhlken's "The Loud Adios" won a prize as best first private-eye novel in 1991. It was the first of a projected trilogy set in San Diego just before and during World War II. The second book, The Venus Deal (St. Martin's: $19.95; 296 pp.) now appears as a prequel to the first.

Tom Hickey, a military policeman when we first met him, is this time an ex-cop who is both a private eye and part-owner of a nightclub, which is flourishing because his dubious partner can lay hand to black-market steaks and gas coupons.

As before, a missing femme fatale drives the plot. In "The Loud Adios" it was a young GI's kid sister, forced to dance nude in a Tijuana night club. This time it is Cynthia Moon, the gorgeous chanteuse from Hickey's own club.

The plot has a complexity that might have given even Raymond Chandler pause, the more complicated because a terrible past is revealed partly through Cynthia's journal, which is sometimes coded and not necessarily trustworthy at best. She has been abused, there has been a murder and Hickey does another in a good cause. Never did a damsel in distress cause so much distress.

As in the first novel, Kuhlken captures the wartime Southern California past in remarkable detail; what the new book lacks is the straight-ahead storytelling that also characterizes the private-eye form but that is here weakened by the awkward handling of time.

Priests, with their detachment, feeling for character and love of truth, order and justice, make good protagonists, as G. K. Chesterton proved with Father Brown, and Ralph McInerny proves with Father Dowling and William X. Kienzle with Father Koesler of Detroit. Kienzle, who was himself a priest for 25 years, brings Father Koesler back for a 15th appearance in Dead Wrong (Andrews and McMeel: $18.95; 269 pp.).

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