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Criminal Pursuits

November 20, 1994|CHARLES CHAMPLIN

Even in our acronym-happy age, I'm not sure that anyone but Ross Thomas would have come up with VOMIT (Victims of Military Intelligence Treachery) but so he has, in AH, TREACHERY! (Mysterious Press, $21.95, 274 pp.). It is another in his unique succession of sleek, amusing, imaginative tales of duplicity, corruption, betrayal and other entertainments.

His plots do not respond to easy synopsizing, but it hardly matters. His protagonist this time, Partain, is having a thin life clerking in a gun shop in deepest Wyoming when a visitor drops by with word that an old and unresolved intelligence scandal in Latin-America is resurfacing. It turns out that Partain, then an Army major, had been a fall guy in the affair, the bribing of counterrevolutionary group in which the bribe disappeared. He is presumably still at risk.

There are subsidiary matters: a political fund-raising woman whose unaccountable $1.6 million slush fund has also unaccountably disappeared, and there are murders and discoveries, all largely revealed in Thomas' patented dialogue, which is urbane, economical and forever a joy to read.

Janet Evanovich is not new to fiction--she has published romances--but she is new to crime fiction and her first offering is a lulu. In ONE FOR THE MONEY (Scribner's: $20; 290 pp.), Stephanie Plum, just scraping by in Trenton, N.J., blackmails her way into a desperation job as a bounty hunter, chasing down bail-bond skippers for her cousin Vinnie the bondsman.

Her first absentee client is a vice cop charged with murder. By a nice fictional coincidence he's the smoothie who deflowered her in high school and told all. He's still an attractive devil, and thoughts of revenge sweeten the attraction of the bounty.

Evanovich, who lived in New Jersey before writing her way to Virginia, is funny and ceaselessly inventive, and describes Trenton to a gritty fare-thee-well. Stephanie keeps finding and losing Joe the cop, steals his car when her own heap conks out, runs afoul of a truly sadistic heavyweight contender (not so funny and indeed very scary), and all the while the evidence grows that Joe was set up and is in hiding to try to prove it.

Stephanie is imperiled almost daily and the finale, when All Comes Clear, manages to be both comic and suspenseful. The telling is first-person, with all the artifices the method requires, but Stephanie's voice, breezy and undauntable, is all her own despite the ever more crowded field of female PI's. Her own moral seems to be that when the going gets tough, the tough get funny. It seems no surprise that Hollywood has optioned the book for more bucks than a bounty hunter makes in a decade.

Sarah Dunant is host of a nightly cultural affairs show on BBC2 television in London. In her spare time she writes very good mystery/thrillers, of which FATLANDS: A Hannah Wolfe Mystery (Otto Penzler Books: $21; 215 pp.) is the third, after "Birth Marks" and "Snowstorm in a Hot Climate."

Her heroine is Hannah Wolfe, a private eye who works for a nice ex-cop named Frank and who upholds the genre tradition by having a rather tenuous love life. In the Sara Paretsky tradition, Dunant's novel is about something: animal rights. But while the author's sympathies are clear, the book is neither tract nor a preachment. The viewpoints flow from the events.

Wolfe is hired to pick up a teen-age girl from her boarding school and escort her to London for a day's shopping before Daddy, a pharmaceutical executive, gathers her up for the theater. The teen-ager is bright and complicated, her brattiness a cover for a hidden agenda. She eludes Wolfe's overview, turns the ignition in Daddy's car and is blown to bits. It's a shocker, because on brief acquaintance the girl had the sympathy of the detective and the reader.

What the girl was up to, what Daddy was up to, what his firm is up to, all make for fascinating revelations. Hannah is brass-knuckled at one moment and just does avoid taking permanent leave during the last seconds of hog-wild frenzy.

Dunant is a fine new name to know if, like me, you hadn't made her acquaintance before.

Another thriller that is indubitably about something is HALF NELSON (Pocket Books: $20; 279 pp.), the fifth in Jerome Doolittle's Tom Bethany series about a volunteer wrestling coach at Harvard (thus the titles, others including "Head Lock" and "Body Scissors") who also investigates.

Doolittle's targets (forget the balanced view) are the lumber giants who clear-cut the forests with a posterity-be-damned attitude. At the urging of his lady-love at the ACLU in Washington, Bethany tries to protect the soft-spoken but militant leader of an ecological group called Earth Everlasting. Bethany fails but engineers a score-settling that is majestically and perhaps wickedly ingenious. It may not save the forests but it reduces the villain population and is totally satisfying.

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