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Criminal Pursuits

October 08, 1995|MARGO KAUFMAN

It's difficult for me to relate to Kinsey Millhone, the quick-fibbing, lock-picking, spare-panty-toting P.I. in Sue Grafton's best-selling alphabet series. She only has one dress, hates to shop, eats revolting food like pork liver with sausage and garlic pickles, and has no regard for her personal safety. If she's going to the market and spies a robber leaving a neighbor's house with a suspicious duffel bag, she tails him to the airport and boards a plane--even if she's not being paid.

Still, hers is a singular voice, and L IS FOR LAWLESS (Henry Holt: $24, 290 pp.) is Grafton's best effort in years. Kinsey's vacation is interrupted when her octogenarian landlord Henry Pitt asks her to untangle a bureaucratic snafu for a dead friend's relatives. Supposedly, it will just take 15 minutes, but no literary detective has ever enjoyed a moment's downtime and Kinsey swiftly advances from basic snooping to fending off a psychopath with a sizable handgun to crossing state lines as an honorary member of a felonious dysfunctional family.

Between bullets, Kinsey is a caustic social observer. Noting her quarry's outfit: "I'd seen it in a gardening catalogue, a style favored by former hippies who'd given up dope and communal sex for organic vegetables and all-natural fiber clothes." I was also pleased that Kinsey's long-lost cousins from two books back are still hovering in the background.

Maybe someday they'll teach her how to dress.

SMOKE by Donald E. Westlake (Mysterious Press: $21.95, 464 pp.) isn't a mystery in the whodunit sense, but a wildly amusing and original comic crime novel. There's no body to discover because the body in question, that of small-time thief Freddie Noon, has been made invisible by a team of medical researchers employed by the American Tobacco Research Institute to find an upside to smoking. When Freddie breaks into their Manhattan townhouse hoping to make off with "many small valuable portable salable machines," they convince him to test one of two promising serums that turned their cats, Muffy and Buffy, translucent. Freddie unwittingly takes both serums and vanishes completely.

Invisibility isn't the worst fate to befall a career thief. With the help of his plucky girlfriend, Peg, a dental hygienist revolted by people's mouths, Freddie graduates from small machines to diamonds and furs. Unable to wear gloves, he leaves fingerprints everywhere and before you can stop laughing, he's being pursued by creepy lawyers, a crooked cop, the medical researchers and ambitious tobacco executives who imagine his usefulness "in jury deliberations, in closed congressional hearings. . . ."

The author deftly keeps the story moving and the characters evolving without ever lapsing into parody. Run out and buy "Smoke" before it disappears from the store.

CHOKE, a titillating thriller by Stuart Woods (HarperCollins: $23, 288 pp.) , made me nostalgic for John D. MacDonald and his sexy sea-dog Travis McGee. Set in Key West instead of Fort Lauderdale, it centers around tennis pro Chuck Chandler, who like Travis lives on a boat--a 32-foot twin screw motor yacht --and drives a memorable car, a bright yellow, late-'50s Porsche Speedster.

Alas, the resemblance ends here. On the tennis court, Chuck meets Harry, a rich, aging businessman, and Clare, his gorgeous, sexually predatory young wife. Travis would have instantly deduced that Clare was a schemer, but Chuck doesn't think with his brain. So when Harry dies in a mysterious diving accident Chuck becomes the chief suspect.

Curiously, Chuck doesn't turn bloodhound to clear his name; that honor goes to Tommy Sculley, a transplanted New York cop who doesn't have a neat boat or any memorable qualities--just a hunch that Chandler is innocent. The plot slaloms from one steamy sexual encounter to another until it reaches a predictable on-the-water climax. Men may enjoy this, but dieting females beware. In Wood's world, you're only as good as you look in a string bikini.

It's wise to read Jane Dentinger's earlier Jocelyn O'Roarke mysteries before tackling the tad precious WHO DROPPED PETER PAN? (Viking; $19.95, 274 pp.) . I didn't and I kept wondering what was so special about Jocelyn. The author reveals she's an unemployed brunette actress, who doesn't do musicals, doesn't like to leave Manhattan, and dabbles in crime. That's not enough to explain why she's being pursued by Jack Breedlove, a handsome, compassionate hairdresser turned horse breeder and Lt. Phillip Gerrard, a handsome, compassionate, extraordinarily well-dressed cop who coincidentally has the same name as the cop in the TV show "The Fugitive." Or why nobody questions her authority.

This backstage intrigue begins when her gay pal, P.J., confides that the Peakmont Playhouse has miscast tall, 40ish, flaming Rich Ravelson as the lead in Peter Pan. O'Roarke quips: "It's going to give a whole new meaning to the 'Clap if you believe in fairies' speech." (If you find that joke offensive, skip the book.) Someone cuts his flying harness, Ravelson falls to his death, and P.J., the stage manager, is arrested. Enter Jocelyn, assisted by her fabulous beau and more theatrical and police connections than the head of security for Paramount Pictures. The author has an encyclopedic knowledge of theater history, a gift for witty dialogue, and a showy grand finale.

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