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Criminal Pursuits

August 15, 1993|CHARLES CHAMPLIN

Manuel Ramos is a lawyer with the Legal Aid Society in Denver. His first novel, The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz, won the 1991 Chicano/Latino Literary Contest at UC Irvine. It has now been published (St. Martin's Press: $17.95; 201 pp.) and it is a very impressive debut.

Ramos' protagonist, Luis Mendez, is also a Denver lawyer, with a terminally ill private practice, troubles with the Bar Assn. and a weakness for strong drink. The burnt-out case struggling back to life is a familiar figure in crime fiction, but what gives Ramos' book fresh interest is Mendez's past as a Chicano campus activist from the 1970s.

He and some pals called themselves the Red Berets; then one of them, the Rocky Ruiz of the title, was gunned down, evidently by some hooded bigots. Now, 20 years later, somebody has begun knocking off the survivors, after giving them warning phone calls.

As usual, Mendez has to explore both the Denver present, where all the survivors live, and their pasts. There are clues in Brownsville, Tex., a visit nicely described. Back in Denver, Mendez finds his office trashed by an unknown party or parties also in search of clues.

The denouement is surprising, particularly in its reassessment of Ruiz's death, and the truth has a lot to say about the political climate of the '70s. The real power of the book lies in Ramos's unblinking account of a Chicano professional trying to survive--along with a handful of clients also trying to survive--in an Anglo-dominated society that has not yet abandoned its prejudices or its fears.

Martha Grimes has reportedly been at odds with Elizabeth George over who got there first, presumably as Yanks writing novels set in Britain with aristocrats as sleuths. It seems an unnecessary discontent. Dorothy Sayers' Peter Wimsey was a lord and so, too, although he kept it quiet, was Margery Allingham's Albert Campion (in one book he is even whispered to be an heir to the throne). Both were years ahead of Grimes' Richard Jury and George's Thomas Lynley, although the earlier authors were undeniably English.

In the genre, sleuths and sidekicks are dime a dozen, or a shilling the dozen. Style and plotting are everything, and the styles of the two Americans are at once disparate and top-rate. George's work has a Victorian mahoghany solidity, short on humor; Grimes is lighter of foot, often very amusing although also touchingly romantic as required, and she has an incomparable gift for drawing children who are prematurely wise, skeptical and endearing.

For whatever reason, Grimes has gone American this time, in The Horse You Rode In On (Alfred A. Knopf: $21; 332 pp.). She imports Jury and his title-rejecting but nevertheless aristocratic sidekick Melville Plant to Baltimore, where several murders seem related to the discovery (or the forging) of an Edgar Allan Poe manuscript.

A prototypal cabby gives Plant everything he needs to know about Baltimore, including a resume of the films of Barry Levinson. Grimes, who lives in Washington, catches Baltimore very well and as usual creates vivid supporting characters, including another enchanting girl-child, and for good measure invents a sizable hunk of the Poe story.

The new book is not the best of Grimes' work, but it is customarily ingratiating and pleasingly unpredictable.

Montezuma's Man (Mysterious Press: $18.95; 277 pp.) is the fifth installment of Jerome Charyn's outrageous but immensely readable chronicle of Isaac Sidel, the police commissioner of a New York in which everybody's worst dreams have become reality and in which there are no longer the corrupt and the incorrupt but only varying degrees of corruption, the Commish himself having notches in his belt for actual and attempted murders.

This time Sidel is being pushed to run for mayor, the better to represent the interests of one side of the underworld battle for control of the city. Sidel (said to be appearing shortly as a television character) is not entirely bad; nor is Joe Barbarossa, a very distant descendant of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce and the policeman now assigned as Sidel's chauffeur.

It suggests the madness of the proceedings to report that Sidel and Barbarossa don stocking masks and knock over illegal joints to annoy one or another of the really bad guys. But Charyn defies synopsis and makes Richard Condon's inventions seem positively benign. For all the antic goings-on and the preposterous humor, Charyn also invites suspense as to how long he can sustain so malevolent a charade.

Kate Coscarelli, whose five previous novels have been best-selling, well-observed romantic dramas, turns to the mystery-suspense form with Heir Apparent (St. Martin's Press: $21.95; 310 pp.). It is no mean praise to say that she hits Mary Higgins Clark terrain the first time out.

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