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Criminal Pursuits

July 10, 1994|CHARLES CHAMPLIN

Michael Connelly's third novel, THE CONCRETE BLONDE (Little, Brown: $21.95; 392 pp.) achieves a kind of crime fiction hat trick. Like his award-winning debut, "The Black Ice," and last year's "The Black Echo," the new one is a police procedural of crackling authenticity. But it is also a courtroom drama worthy of any of those from the current crop of lawyer-novelists. And finally it is a cunningly conceived mystery in which, in the Agatha Christie tradition, a series of quite convincing suspects are set up and cast aside before the ultimate perpetrator is revealed. (And a surprising but acceptable jolt it is.)

Harry (short for Hieronymous) Bosch, Connelly's LAPD homicide detective, is on trial--a civil case--for killing a suspected serial killer during an investigation four years earlier. The nude and unarmed man was, as it turned out, reaching under a pillow for a toupee instead of a weapon. The widow is suing.

Bosch remains confident he got the right man, but a subsequent killing with the same characteristics is a gift to the tough prosecuting attorney, a woman, suggesting Bosch shot the wrong man in another instance of police arrogance and brutality. (Rodney King hovers over the trial.)

Connelly, who left daily journalism at The Times to concentrate on his novels, has created in Bosch a good, stubborn, perceptive, independent-minded cop who is neither a super-hero nor a burned-out case (although his life could stand improvement).

When Bosch can get away from the courtroom, he explores the new case (a woman encased in concrete), following a tenuous track into the sad and gamy half-world in the San Fernando Valley where porno filming and prostitution meet. Among its several virtues, the novel is vigorous, tautly suspenseful and finally confrontational.

Once in a rare while, Connelly strains for a Chandleresque touch (an empty house has windows "as empty as a dead man's eyes"). Far more often, his prose has the elegant accuracy and sensitivity of superior reportage.

He writes with anger as well: "Through political ineptitude and opportunism, the city had allowed (the LAPD) to languish for years as an understaffed and underequipped paramilitary organization . . . top-heavy with managers while the ranks below were so thin that the dog soldiers on the street rarely had the time or inclination to step out of their protective machines, their cars, to meet the people they served."

Connelly joins the top rank of a new generation of crime writers.

Marcia Muller launched the present wave of women writing about women as sleuths with Sharon McCone in "Edwin of the Iron Shoes" in 1977. Still less celebrated than Sue Grafton or Sara Paretsky, Muller quietly keeps getting better and better.

In McCone's 15th outing, TILL THE BUTCHERS CUT HIM DOWN (Mysterious Press: $18.95; 339 pp.) Muller has split from the San Francisco legal cooperative where she was the investigator to open her own firm.

Her first client is a hustler she knew on campus in the '60s, when he peddled exam questions, ghosted essays and controlled substances out of a battered suitcase. He became Suitcase Gordon, in fact. Now he's a so-called turnaround man, grown rich by moving in to rescue failing corporations by ruthless firings and closures, making platoons of enemies in the process.

He says one of the enemies is out to kill him. True enough. His Mendocino coast home is blown sky-high, with a victim inside. McCone, herself in jeopardy early on, explores Gordon's past in a Nevada ghost town he saved, a Pennsylvania steel mill he didn't, a San Francisco dockyard still in the works.

Muller has not previously created so wide and varied a canvas, nor so extensive a cast of characters. At 39, McCone is newly thoughtful about her life--a mix of boredom, danger and loneliness. Her love is a man often absent on mysterious errands, though you feel that in revealing a little more of him in each book, Muller is efficiently setting up stories yet to come. She is ready for much larger audiences.

The Victorian novel was thought skimpy if, after serialization, it did not fill three hard-cover volumes. In modern one-volume editions, Anthony Trollope runs well beyond 800 pages without getting winded. Elizabeth George, enamored of all things British from her Orange County perch, appears to have a comparable Victorian itch.

Her seventh novel, PLAYING FOR THE ASHES (Bantam: $21.95; 624 pp.) is of near-Trollopian dimensions, outdistancing "A Taste for Death" by P. D. James (another neo-Victorian in her spaciousness) by some 200 pages.

A torched cottage in Kent proves to contain the charred remains of a leading cricketer, Kenneth Fleming, a Mickey Mantle of the greensward and the white flannels. (The ashes of the title are the symbolic trophy of the England-Australia test matches.)

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