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Criminal Pursuits


William Lashner's excellent first novel, HOSTILE WITNESS (Regan Books/HarperCollins: $23; 501 pp.), confronts us with that familiar crime fiction figure, the burnt-out lawyer. The present sufferer is Victor Carl, whose pride and integrity have been casualties of a long down slide that has seen his two partners split, one of them taking the firm's most lucrative cases with him.

Lashner himself is a Philadelphia lawyer who is also a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Program. He creates in Carl a living embodiment of a previously unspoken maxim, "Absolute failure corrupts absolutely"--the glum underside of Lord Acton's comment on absolute power.

When a posh main line firm offers Carl a case, defending a local alderman's aide who, like the politician, is up on murder and racketeering charges, Carl is ready. Is he ever. The blandishments are so suspiciously sweet that a blind man would know it's a setup, and Carl isn't blind. But he's so hungry he's pathetically eager to sell out.

The novel, long and thickly, knowledgeably detailed, charts the slow dawning of reality, as Carl perceives what a chump he is and, worse, that he's being paid to keep quiet so his unsuspecting client will take the rap for his boss. What to do? Or is it too late already?

Lashner melds a special kind of procedural investigation with an unusual and engrossing courtroom drama. Carl is double-chumped, so to speak, via seduction, as Lashner sustains a rich and nourishing flow of surprises, manipulated by an interestingly seamy cast of characters on both sides of the law. It is quite a dazzling debut.

Eleanor Taylor Bland, one of the best of the too-few black women writing crime fiction, brings back Marti MacAlister, a black homicide detective, for her third appearance, in DONE WRONG (St. Martin's Press: $20.95, 216 pp.).

MacAlister quit the Chicago PD after her undercover narcotics squad husband Johnny was shot/murdered/committed suicide; take your pick. The official conclusion, suicide, smelled of cover-up. Marti fled to the police force in a smaller, quieter nearby city called Prairie Village that suggests Waukegan, where Taylor actually lives.

Now another undercover cop in Chicago has died in similarly suspicious circumstances, and the new widow draws Marti into investigating both deaths. She finds a large can of worms, which, once opened, produces new violence.

At that, what gives the novel, like its predecessors, power and resonance, is Marti herself, trying to raise two teen-agers in a memory-haunted house, and finding common cause with friends both black and white. Avenging her husband's death won't bring him back, but it could be a way of restarting her own life. There is, refreshingly, not a stereotype in view.

Karen Kijewski, the ex-bartender who writes about a Sacramento private eye named Kat Colorado, in ALLEY KAT BLUES (Doubleday: $22.95; 342 pp.) has her commuting to Las Vegas. There her longtime boy friend is a homicide detective, presently trying to find and stop a serial killer of young prostitutes.

The novel is a curious work. Kat is not quite so side-of-the-mouth wisecracky as is her custom, and the cracks seem oddly pro forma. The story is as much about the boyfriend's obsession over the crimes, and about his infidelity, of sorts, to Kat. But the story is also concerned--obsessed, even--with the role of women within the Mormon faith, a voiceless servitude about which Kat, via Kijewski, has nothing favorable to say.

The author creates a complicated and vivid nondenominational villainess. The male villains are less complicated, not quite as vivid but thoroughly nasty hypocrites. Kijewski's ambitious novel savages Las Vegas which, as usual, retains its lurid fascination, and there is fascination as well in the author's theological anger.

Sharyn McCrumb is alternately very serious and very funny and it is sometimes bemusing to think that the author of "Bimbos of the Death Star" also wrote "She Walks These Hills" and other evocative stories of Appalachia. Even within her series on the forensic anthropologist Elizabeth MacPherson, the McCrumb tone varies.

In IF I'D KILLED HIM WHEN I MET HIM . . . (Ballatine Books: $20; 320 pp.) McCrumb is by some legerdemain both dead serious and very lively. Her heroine, reconsidering her life because her Scots husband has evidently been lost at sea, is doing some investigating for her brother's law firm. One client is a woman accused of murdering her abusive ex-husband and his new young wife; another client is a woman under suspicion of poisoning her bigamist preacher husband.

The title is the forepart of a battered and imprisoned wife's comment, which says in full, "If I'd killed him when I met him, I'd be out of prison by now." As a frontispiece McCrumb uses a quote from Dickens: Don't suppose, he said, "that I ever write merely to amuse, or without an object."

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