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Criminal Pursuits

October 09, 1994|CHARLES CHAMPLIN

Sharyn McCrumb, whose grandfathers were circuit-riding preachers in Appalachia, has now written three books in what she calls her Ballad series, set in the hills and hollows of east Tennessee and infusing the present with the spirit of its people's long, hard, tradition of survival. "The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter" was splendid. SHE WALKS THESE HILLS (Scribner's: $21, 336 pp.) is I think even better.

In a triumph of plot construction, several lines converge in a remarkably dramatic final confrontation. An old man doing life for murder and suffering from a syndrome that leaves him no memory of recent events (an hour ago, a day ago) escapes and becomes the object of a manhunt. A small town disc jockey takes up the old man's cause as an on-the-air lark. A dispatcher in the sheriff's office becomes a temporary deputy and sets out to find him single-handedly to advance her career. A college teacher who could get lost on a playground decides to retrace the trail of an 18th-Century woman who was carried off by the Shawnees, escaped and walked hundreds of miles back to her home, only to die young. She is the "She" of the title, and there are those who still believe they glimpse her ghostly figure among the trees.

An elderly woman, a kind of Scotch-Irish Greek chorus, has the Sight. When "the air was crisp and the light was right and the birds were still," she can see what was, even if it has been veiled by history, and can foresee what will be, even though she can't deflect the course of events.

The empirically minded reader is free to reject the mystical goings-on, but McCrumb's calmly eloquent prose leaves no doubt that these matters of the spirit are as real among the hollows as stills and brambles.

It is a richly detailed novel. There is, not least, a good deal of fascinating geology--a trail of rocks that links Appalachia with Europe, the consequence of prehistoric tectonic shiftings. The chapter headings are verses from an 1885 Tennessee Methodist hymnal, and they are movingly apt underscorings for a story in which the persistence of the past is so strong an element.

McCrumb, who can be very funny, and has been in earlier books ("Bimbos of the Death Sun" won an Edgar as best original paperback in 1988), is not all quaintness here. The new deputy's troubles with her philandering boyfriend, also a deputy, are acutely observed and earthily amusing. The plight of the lost academic is painfully real. And McCrumb does an affecting job of conveying the dazed mental states of the escapee, who is mostly a danger to himself.

There are, of course, mysteries present and past. Why did Katie Wyler, the walker of the title, die so suddenly on her return, and who murdered the escapee's ex-wife so brutally?

As happens with few books any time, the reader can't wait to see how it all comes out, but is at the same reluctant for the book to end.

James Sallis, the New Orleans translator-essayist-reviewer, has now completed his own trilogy of mystery-thrillers, begun with "Moth" and "The Long-legged Fly." BLACK HORNET (Carroll & Graf: $18.95; 150 pp.) is what is now called a "prequel," looking at Lew Griffin in 1968, early in his days as a private investigator with an edgy and usually defensive relationship with the police.

Technically the novel is a thriller; a rooftop sniper is reducing the population of New Orleans at a terrible rate and has to be brought down, as Lew ultimately helps to do. But defining the book as a thriller is as inexact as calling "Silence of the Lambs" a story about eating habits.

The trilogy is, thus far, a three-part examination of a black man with the gifts and soul of an intellectual, hanging on in a hostile environment in which he finds himself an anomaly, a kind of stateless, free-floating figure forced (the other choices are hopelessly self-destructive) to be true to his own solitary ideals.

The killer's scheme has a racist edge. It remains for Lew to discover just how complicated (and sorrowful) the racial motivations were. Sallis' theme is in some part memory, but it's hard to think of a protagonist other than Lew Griffin paraphrasing Jean Goytisolo's autobiography "Realms of Strife" on the impossibility of converting memory into words.

Sallis writes: "Our reconstructions of the past will always be a kind of betrayal. Put down your pen, Goytisolo says . . . for silence alone can keep intact our illusion of truth." Yes, the reader might say to Sallis, and no.

In LIFE ITSELF by Paco Ignacio Taibo II, translated by Beth Hensen, (Mysterious Press: $18.95; 210 pp.), a mystery writer named Jose Daniel Fierro, who is fond of paraphrasing American private eye writers, is prevailed upon to become chief of police of a (fictional) mining city north of Mexico City, where a left-wing party has ousted the administration of the country's long-ruling government.

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