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CRIMINAL PURSUITS : The Insiders' Stories

January 21, 1996|DAVID McCUMBER

Inevitably, given the success of Scott Turow, John Grisham, Patricia Cornwell et al, crime fiction is replete with authors who are also doctors and lawyers (in some cases perhaps no longer practicing those professions). Happily, some of them can write, and a few can write very well indeed. All that insider knowledge can translate into intriguing detail, from crime scene to courtroom, as well as the occasional glimpse into the psychological stresses unique to crime-related professions.

A distinguished example is Robert Sims Reid, a Missoula, Mont., police detective. Reid's sixth novel, WILD ANIMALS (Carroll & Graf: $22; 293 pp.), is a taut, engaging duel between Rozette, Mont., detective Ray Bartell and Henry Skelton, a suspected eco-terrorist. Both are shown to be ultimately moral, fallible men at the mercy of forces beyond their control, fighting a common enemy even as they struggle against each other.

This is a finely drawn story, made all the more pleasing by an ending both surprising and realistic.

Paul Levine practiced law in Miami for 17 years before turning to crime writing. Now the Florida attorney has picked up the pen and we have the benefit of a most entertaining mystery series.

Levine's protagonist is Jake Lassiter, wisecracking former pro football player-turned-attorney. Levine is funny and deft enough to remind mystery readers of Jonathan Gash and Kinky Friedman, and Lassiter's latest romp, FOOL ME TWICE (William Morrow: $22; 374 pp.), will not disappoint. Lassiter finds himself charged with murder as he pursues a missing client and a femme fatale from Miami to Aspen. The plotting is workmanlike and the dialogue, delicious.

Lawrence Treat is credited with inventing the police procedural genre nearly 50 years ago. Masters like Ed McBain and Dell Shannon made it an art form, but never has it been in better hands than those of K.C. Constantine. Police work is a matter of understanding humanity, and so is writing novels. Constantine's portrait of the fictional Pennsylvania town of Rocksburg is as rich and detailed as a Michelangelo, deepening with each book.

His 12th in the series, GOOD SONS (Mysterious Press: $21.95; 320 pp.), is the work of a virtuoso at the peak of his craft. Chief Mario Balzic has retired, and his protege, Sgt. Ruggerio Carlucci, has a nasty murder, a meddling mayor and a senile mother to contend with while he waits to find out if he will be the new chief. Like Jon A. Jackson's acclaimed Fang Mulheisen series, Constantine's work allows us to see both police and perpetrators as they really are.

Human frailties, after all, are trendy attributes for fictional detectives. James Lee Burke has made Dave Robicheaux one of literature's best-known recovering alcoholics. In her J.P. Beaumont series, popular author J.A. Jance covers some of the same ground. She has neither the lyrical style nor the narrative drive of Burke, but Beaumont is a believably bumbling reformed drunk (despite being independently wealthy). In NAME WITHHELD (William Morrow: $22: 293 pp.), Beaumont falls into a troubling triple homicide and a series of personal crises and falls off the wagon (briefly). A quick, slick read.

It's not too early to think about a Valentine for your favorite crime fiction lover. MURDER FOR LOVE (Delacorte: $19.95; 323 pp.), edited by revered mystery editor Otto Penzler, is the perfect choice. It offers 16 previously unpublished interpretations of the crime passionel from guy writers (Jim Crumley, Elmore Leonard, Ed McBain) and gal writers (Sara Paretsky, Joyce Carol Oates, the two Higgins Clarks, Mary and Carol) alike. It even includes the delectably offbeat: a fable by Shel Silverstein, a poem by Donna Tartt. You'll love it to death.

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