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CRIMINAL PURSUITS : Saving the Best for Last

June 23, 1996|DICK LOCHTE

As fans of Stephen Hunter's previous books, "Point of Impact" and "Dirty White Boys," probably know, the lawman father of "Impact's" protagonist killed the lawbreaker father of "White Boys' " antagonist, Lamar Pye.

What has not been clear from this seemingly marginal relationship is that these compulsively readable crime novels are the first two-thirds of a trilogy exploring the relationships between sons and fathers.

This fact is made abundantly clear by the final entry, Black Light, which marks the return of Bob Lee Swagger, "Impact's" man of action. It follows the progress of Swagger and Russ Pewtie Jr., the estranged son of the "White Boys' " hero, as they investigate the four-decades-old murder of Swagger's state trooper father. Pewtie is seeking the origin of the events that led to the breakup of his family.

Swagger, whose prowess as a Marine sniper during the Vietnam War earned him the sobriquet "Bob the Nailer," simply wants closure. Opposing them is a wealthy Arkansas power-broker named Ray "Red" Bama, who fears their quest will muddy his late father's reputation.

In the mix are national politics, a racial murder, squads of hit men, male bonding, CIA shenanigans and quite possibly the most suspenseful duel of snipers ever put on paper.

All of it has the ring of authenticity, whether it's a description of firepower so state-of-the-art it should send NRA members into paroxysms of joy or a portrayal of a golf match (part of it from the ball's point of view) so precise it just might improve any duffer's game.

The result is a big, bristly bear of a book, edgy and violent, moving forward with remarkable energy, speed and agility, but pausing at unexpected moments for a graceful and humorous dance. The first two books in the trilogy were terrific, but Hunter has saved the best for last.

*

Robert B. Parker is no slouch when it comes to entertaining readers, but after 24 novels about Spenser, the world's most perfect private eye, his act is growing a little gray. In Chance--and won't Dick Francis be annoyed he didn't use the title first--Parker's self-confident sleuth journeys from his native Boston to Las Vegas to hunt for the errant son-in-law of a Beantown crime boss. The good news is that the dialogue is as brisk and clever as always.

The bad news is that the plot is both contrived and thin.

Yes, there is a murder and an interestingly demented and dangerous foe. But the motivating forces, which include, from out of almost nowhere, the Russian Mafia, are none too convincing.

And Spenser blithely strolls through the tale with all the assurance of a man who's read the last chapter. The guy never makes a wrong move and is never at risk. Gamblers may appreciate a sure thing, but readers seeking suspense in their fiction usually prefer at least an element of chance.

*

Almost the antithesis of Spenser is Richard Barre's no-nonsense Southern California private eye Wil Hardesty, who, when we were introduced to him in last year's "The Innocents," was wrestling with his complicity in his son's accidental death. His burden grows no lighter in Bearing Secrets.

In the new novel, a drought discloses the wreckage of a plane that had been submerged in a lake for more than 20 years.

The sudden disinterment prompts the suicide of a famous '60s Berkeley radical whose daughter hires Hardesty. And the detective turns his back on his troubled marriage to probe a crime of vast complexity, firmly rooted in the past.

A sensitive, introspective private eye, the mixture of natural and human calamity and past crimes breeding present discord: These were the specialties of the late Ross Macdonald, a novelist who, like Robert Parker, began by emulating Raymond Chandler.

Unlike Parker, he eventually eschewed the wise-guy patter and the smart set-pieces in favor of psychological character study and meticulous plotting. It's the more difficult way to go, but a new writer of Barre's obvious skill and sensitivity should do himself no harm by starting out along Macdonald's less-traveled thorny path.

*

For quite a while novelist, essayist, opera buff (as well as performer) and racetrack habitue William Murray spent a portion of each year in Italy, from whence he would write articles about that country, primarily for the New Yorker. He may still, though it seems the New Yorker's European interests rarely stray from London these days.

What Murray definitely is writing are additions to his original, highly entertaining series featuring sleight-of-hand magician and horseplayer Shifty Lou Anderson. Having clocked Shifty from his maiden entry, "Tip on a Dead Crab" in 1984, through seven subsequent outings, I've found that while he always finishes in the money, the big wins occur when the author adds several of his specialties to the mix.

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