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His Pal Bubba to the Rescue : DARKNESS, TAKE MY HAND. By Dennis Lehane (Morrow: $24, 336 pp.) : THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS. By Julie Smith (Fawcett Columbine: $21, 338 pp.) : CONTRACT NULL & VOID. By Joe Gores (Mysterious Press: $21.95, 309 pp.) : HOTSHOTS. By Judith Van Gieson (Harper Collins: $21, 256 pp.)

August 11, 1996|DICK LOCHTE

In Dennis Lehane's novels, when the going gets rough for protagonist and narrator Patrick Kenzie, the Boston private eye calls for his boyhood pal Bubba. The big bruiser with the tiny conscience is the latest addition to a growing trend in detective fiction--the use of a sociopathic stooge to keep the hero honorable.

As far as I can tell, the trend began 20 years ago when, in Robert B. Parker's "Promised Land," the self-righteous sleuth Spenser first encountered the existentialist hit man Hawk--the start of a beautiful friendship that is still thrilling readers. Since then, Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder novels have introduced a Hell's Kitchen butcher boy, Mick Ballou, who takes some of the moral weight from Scudder's shoulders. Robert Crais' law-abiding Elvis Cole continues to rely on his more lethally resourceful partner, Joe Pike. In James Lee Burke's Louisiana crime tales, painfully noble policeman Dave Robicheaux is assisted by amoral ex-policeman Clete Purcell. And when Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins is in need of strong-arm support, he looks no further than his pal, the savage killer Mouse.

Unlike Hawk, Mouse, Joe Pike and the rest, each of whom has had his moments of charm or humor or even--gasp--nobility, Bubba is irredeemably evil: a racist, sexist, homophobic lunatic who kills with a grin. His buddy Kenzie describes him as "6 feet, 4 inches, 235 pounds of raw adrenaline and disassociated anger." Lehane's refusal to adhere to the likable psychopath stereotype is, I think, symptomatic of his approach to writing crime fiction. He wants to make it real. And, as may be surmised by his titles, "A Drink Before the War" and the new one, Darkness, Take My Hand, he also wants to make it poetic. Realism and poetry don't always mesh.

They coexist more comfortably in the new novel than in the overpraised "Drink." The latter was lumbered with too much exposition, too much meditation, too much violence and maybe a bit too much about the Boston Irish. "Darkness," with its gory serial murders, certainly doesn't stint on the violence. It's more Irish than Molly Malone's on St. Pat's Day. And Kenzie is still one of the most self-reflective of fictional sleuths. But this time, the story is strong enough to accommodate the excesses. "Drink" seemed to be using its plot, a mix of power politics and warring African American gangs, as an excuse for Kenzie to meditate on his past life and present prejudices. "Darkness" sends its hero on a gut-wrenching chase to stop an ultra-clever maniac intent on brutally murdering those near and dear to him. No wonder he seeks Bubba's help.

At the start of the novel, Kenzie gives us a tantalizing preview of what we're in for, "a nightmare that left me with wounds the doctors say have healed as well as can be expected, even though my right hand has yet to regain most of its feeling, and the scars on my face sometimes burn under the beard I've grown. . . . The office--Kenzie/Gennaro Investigations--is closed, gathering dust I assume. . . . Angie's been gone since the end of November, and I try not to think about her. Or Grace Cole. Or Grace's daughter, Mae. Or anything at all."

Angie Gennaro is his partner; a woman he's loved since childhood who married his best friend. Grace is the woman he was hoping to marry. What happened to them? To him? It's a promising beginning, and this time the promise is fulfilled.

When Sir William S. Gilbert waxed lyrical about the unhappiness of the policeman's lot, he might have had Skip Langdon in mind, disregarding such little matters as gender and era. Skip, since her debut in Julie Smith's 1990 Edgar-winning novel, "New Orleans Mourning," has not had an easy time of it on the New Orleans police force. The nearly 6-foot-tall, slightly ungainly offspring of a socially prominent family, she is viewed with suspicion by her fellow cops and with disapprobation by her mom and dad. But the fact is, Skip has an affinity for the job, and after solving five entertainingly documented murder cases, she has begun to gain some respect from her peers and even from her parents.

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