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Criminal Pursuits

September 12, 1993|CHARLES CHAMPLIN

The first novel by James Sallis, "The Long-Legged Fly" (a phrase from Yeats) in 1992 was a kind of spiritual autobiography in the form of a private eye novel. Both moving and literate beyond the expectations of the form, it was a sharp-edged portrait of a black intellectual hanging tough despite internal and external demons.

Now Sallis, a New Orleans poet, essayist and translator, and his Lew Griffin are back in MOTH (Carroll & Graf: $18.95; 241 pp.). Like the first novel, the new one answers to the basic demands of the form. Griffin is on a quest (to find and rescue the drug-addicted daughter of an old love). There is danger, violence, suspense; there are characters so vivid as to be documentaries in miniature and milieus as perceived by all the senses.

Years have passed, fictionally, since the earlier book. Griffin is a teacher and author with several books published. His great loves are all past tense; the greatest of them, the missing girl's mother, had herself lately died. Griffin's past and his reputation as "bad"--capable of killing, as he once had to--cling to him.

He is perhaps even more solitary and introspective than ever, but still capable of violent action in the honorable cause of trying to save the girl from herself. "Perhaps," Griffin says, "for all our talk of change, redemption or personal growth . . . we're doomed simply to go on repeating the same patterns over and over in our lives, dressing them up in different clothes like children at play so we can pretend we don't recognize them when we look into mirrors."

But it's a large "perhaps," and Griffin, with his own pattern of a gruff and instinctive nobility, is last seen thwarting, at some risk to himself, the street-mugging of a young woman. You lose some, but you win a few. And the reader has to hope the remarkable biography of Lew Griffin will continue.

Paco Ignacio Taibo II, the Mexican author who is president of the International Assn. of Crime Writers and a bestseller worldwide, now makes his third appearance in English translation (very expert, by William I. Neuman) in NO HAPPY ENDING (Mysterious Press: $17.95; 175 pp.). Its savage look at political corruption (expressed through a secret paramilitary organization of strikebreakers) makes most hard-boiled crime fiction seem like half-baked mud pies.

Taibo's protagonist, Hector Belascoaran Shayne, has been a seriocomic private eye, sharing shabby offices with an upholsterer, a plumber and a city planner. But despite the sardonic and even jokey approach to gruesome death and encroaching menace, the new book has an unrelenting anger that recalls Dashiell Hammett's "Red Harvest." Taibo taught history for years at Mexico City's Metropolitan University and there seems little doubt the corruption has its basis in fact.

The title is from a frontispiece poem by the author himself: "Deaf country, burned city,/the bonfire calls us,/in these times,/there will be no happy ending." Shockingly, there isn't, and the hope has to be that the ending is ambiguous. Shayne is an extraordinary guide to the Mexican half-world.

Michael Connelly, a reporter for this newspaper, has published his second novel featuring LAPD Detective Harry Bosch, THE BLACK ICE (Little, Brown: $19.95; 322 pp.). It's a terrific yarn, extending the boundaries of the police procedural in the ingenuity of the plot and the creation of a character.

A veteran officer, already under investigation, is found in a motel room, evidently a suicide by shotgun, which has blown away most of his head (always suspicious). Bosch, whose case it ought to have been, is shunted aside by a department relieved by the turn of events. Bosch, in the great tradition, won't be shunted aside and pursues a tangled thread into the dead man's psyche and past. The clues lead past the cop's alcoholic partner to a final rousing confrontation in an abandoned hilltop castle in Mexico.

Connelly's command of police workings and his knowledge of the turf from L.A. south and across the border, combined with a fertile imagination, give the book a high readability, and Bosch is a nice change from the glum burned-out cops who are in vogue these days.

A first-time author, Dianne G. Pugh, who works in the financial community in Los Angeles, has in COLD CALL (Pocket Books: $20; 264 pp.) created a clever mystery that begins with the murder of a crippled office boy (who turns out to have had a very secret life).

More to the point, Pugh has portrayed with fine, cold, malicious glee a brokerage firm that seems to operate about one floor up from a bucket shop. As at Scott Turow's Chicago law firm, you do wonder what they'll say at the water cooler. The last irony is that once the dust has settled, not much seems to have changed, sales-wise. A very expert debut.

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