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Criminal Pursuits

July 11, 1993|CHARLES CHAMPLIN

The plots in crime fiction are nothing if not convoluted, as entangled as a basket of asps, and none more splendidly convoluted this month than Gar Anthony Haywood's You Can Die Trying (St. Martin's Press: $17.95; 216 pp.).

A white policeman, based in South Central Los Angeles and hated for his bigotry, has been bounced off the force for allegedly shooting an unarmed black teen-ager. Then, working as a night watchman, he commits suicide.

As he did in "Fear of the Dark," honored as the best first private eye novel of 1987, Haywood, a Los Angeles computer technician, writes about the angers, complexities and frustrations of life in South Central with a grim accuracy and an emotional insight that, as in the work of Walter Mosley, is the black man's view from inside looking out.

Haywood's private eye, Aaron Gunner, is approached by a client who was in the dark alley during the shootout, and insists the dead cop was framed, fired at before he gunned down the teen-ager he'd been chasing. The client wants Gunner to clear the officer's name, no matter how despised the man was.

Gunner's task seems hopeless. The police, happy to have the case closed, stonewall him brutally, in part because there is much to hide (there are echoes of Rodney King). Nearly everybody lies to Gunner, client included. He becomes a target himself. The woman he loves has left him to "think things over." He is isolated in every way.

"You can't make it down here giving the people the benefit of the doubt, all right? You can get blown away," one of the white cops snarls at Gunner. "How about just being human?" Gunner asks. He is his own best answer, and Haywood leads him to a rousing, satisfying and cinematic ending, even if it strains credibility.

Beyond his skills as a story-plotter (ingenious in this case), Haywood's strength is to capture so well and perceptively a time, a place and a likable protagonist in tough circumstances.

Timothy Hallinan, a Los Angeles public relations executive, lives part of the year in Thailand and writes often about the Anglo-Asian interface. In his fourth novel about Simeon Grist, an L.A. private eye, Hallinan's subject, obviously written before the recent headlines, is the lucrative trade in smuggling Chinese immigrants to California, debouching them from freighters into smaller craft just offshore.

The Man With No Time (William Morrow: $22; 304 pp.) is actually halfway along before the caper comes clear. There are troubles in the family of Grist's Chinese love, including the appearance and disappearance of her Uncle Lo, the kidnaping of her sister's two small children, the arrival of two feral Vietnamese teen-aged enforcers and a sadistic Chinese gent named Charlie Wah who is the principal villain. The story gains velocity thereafter.

As protagonists go, Grist is untidy and disorganized without actually being anti-heroic, and his wisecracking has the weary incoherence of a man who has lingered too long over the rice wine. But his ultimate caper to set things right is a blending of 007, "Mission Impossible" and the invasion of Sicily. Hallinan's scenes of torture and violent death are not for the tender of heart, although his story whisks you along.

Margaret Maron's heroine, Deborah Knott, introduced last year in the award-winning "Bootlegger's Daughter," is now District Judge Knott in a fictional North Carolina county. In Southern Discomfort (Mysterious Press: $18.95; 238 pp.), a central cause of discomfort is a lecherous building inspector. He gets bumped off, as seemed only right, although that is not the end of the troubles in town. (In an early chapter, we watch the murderer steal some rat poison at a hardware store--age and gender of the thief not, of course, revealed.)

The book qualifies as a "cozy" in the intimacy of its action, but that demeans the care with which Maron captures the feel of a small country town, conjures both the nervousness and the common sense of a new judge on the bench and demonstrates the strength of universal passions, including hatred.

It is a continuing irony that Marcia Muller, who launched the vogue of female investigators with Sharon McCone in "Edwin of the Iron Shoes" in 1977, remains less read than some of those who have followed her. Muller is very good, and seldom more ambitious than in Wolf in the Shadows (Mysterious Press: $18.95; 356 pp.).

Working for a San Francisco co-op law firm, McCone usually stays close to her home turf (sometimes dealing with crimes whose origins are in the turbulent '60s). This time she invades Mexico in search of her rather evasive lover, who has gone missing. He was delivering $2 million on behalf of a private security firm to ransom a kidnaped scientist; the suspicion is that the lover grabbed the loot and ran.

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