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Criminal Pursuits

May 08, 1994|CHARLES CHAMPLIN

K IS FOR KILLER (Holt, $22.95, 285 pp.) is the 11th in Sue Grafton's hugely and deservedly successful alphabetized series about investigator Kinsey Millhone of Santa Theresa (Santa Barbara using an alias). The book stormed onto best seller lists even before its official publication date, and Grafton is already hard at work on the 12th title ("L," for Lethal, Larceny, Liar, Loser, Locksmith, Lamentations?).

The problem of a series always is to sustain freshness and surprise, keeping what makes the series work but not simply falling into repetition. Dick Francis changes protagonists with almost every outing. Ross Macdonald let Lew Archer evolve from something close to the traditional tough private eye to a sensitive observer capable of anguish and regret.

Grafton has obviously opted for the Macdonald mode. Millhone doesn't age much but she grows wiser, quieter, more feeling. And she confronts ever more ambiguous life situations requiring ever harder moral choices. "The problem," Millhone says, "is that so often the law seems pale in its remedies, leaving us restless and unfulfilled in our craving for satisfaction. And then what?"

Then what, indeed, and never more so than in the new novel, in which a mother begs Millhone to investigate the death of a daughter whose badly decomposed body had been found almost a year earlier. The police never came up with even a faint clue to the killer, the case not so much closed as abandoned.

Millhone quickly finds that the daughter's life was more complex than mother knew. She had a part-time office job, but she was also a hooker turned high-priced call girl with high-placed clients and a steely-eyed drive to make her pile and live as a free and independent woman ever after.

As always, Grafton is an expert plotter, placing the dead girl at the center of a tangle of people and events, and the resolution, when it comes, is both quiet and jolting. The author's command of the first person form, with both its rewards (the ability to probe deeply into Millhone's thoughts and emotions) and its challenges (everything must happen to or be discovered by Millhone, no godlike voice-overs to help advance the tale) continues to grow in strength and flexibility.

Whether Grafton will want to push on to " 'Z' Is for Zeitgeist" is uncertain and doubtful. The pleasant present surprise is that even within its limits of time, place and character, the series has not yet begun to exhaust its possibilities or its excitements.

For a wildly different first-person voice, there is the bungling burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr telling about his ludicrous capers in Lawrence Block's THE BURGLAR WHO TRADED TED WILLIAMS (Dutton, $19.95, 258 pp.). In his Matthew Scudder books, Block is one of the most serious of crime novelists. When he chronicles Bernie (this is his first appearance in a decade), Block is one of the funniest, ranking with Donald E. Westlake.

Bernie has been out of action, running a used-book store. But, like a smoker who never quite conquers the yearning to light up, Bernie is a sucker for a tempting score, where the ability to pick locks is crucial.

In the present plot, which is of a Swiss watch complexity, Bernie is conned into knocking over an apartment, obtaining much cash and a cache of baseball cards but discovering a well-drilled corpse in the bathroom along the way. Why the cops are on to Bernie in such a hurry is a good question, one of several.

Bernie's love interest grooms dogs and has her own off-speed take on life. The gent himself is enough to give burglary a good name.

Manuel Ramos, a Latino lawyer in Denver, last year introduced Luis Montez, not so coincidentally a Chicago lawyer in Denver, in "The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz," an outstanding debut. Montez returns in THE BALLAD OF GATO GUERRERO (St. Martin's, $18.95, 183 pp.), and it is again both a good, swift mystery and a sharp and telling look from within at being a minority in an often-hostile majority culture.

Montez is at least slightly more secure and solid than he was a year ago, but success seems a fragile veneer over deep trouble. The story is a long flashback from trouble: A nightmare in a rural nightclub in which a tejano performance is interrupted by gunfire, and Montez and a couple have to flee across the desert, pursued by killers. There is a noisy crash and then silence. Talk about a socko start.

The couple are Montez's boyhood pal, the Gato Guerrero of the title, and the love of his life, who is unfortunately the wife of a brutish and jealous gangster. There are other problems: troubled and angry clients and old family wounds that won't heal. THe book is entertainment that is also a revealing slice of social history.

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