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CRIMINAL PURSUITS

Happiness Is a Warm Subplot

September 22, 1996|MARGO KAUFMAN

Faye Kellerman has breathed so much life into Rina Lazarus that she's become more than the sidekick-wife of LAPD Lt. Peter Decker; she's become the soul of the mystery series. Even when Rina, a devout Orthodox Jew, fries salami and eggs, she adds magic to what otherwise would be just an unusually well-written detective story. However, in Prayers for the Dead, the reader is asked to believe that Rina--the same Rina who made Decker (born Jewish but raised Baptist by his adoptive parents) study Talmud for four novels until she was convinced he was sincere and finally married him--was once closely involved with Bram Sparks, an attractive young Catholic priest. The faithful reader's initial response is incredulity.

But such is Kellerman's skill that by the end I almost bought it. Lt. Decker and his Barney Miller-esque squad are called in when the priest's father, high-profile heart transplant surgeon Azor Sparks, is murdered. The list of suspects--Bram being a prime one--is longer than a prayer shawl and includes other members of the victim's large, dysfunctional family, his envious hospital colleagues and even some degenerate bikers. Decker, who should take a vacation in the next book, has to wade through a media minefield in the frenzied atmosphere of post-Simpson-trial Los Angeles.

As always, Kellerman is most fascinating when she's explaining the nuances of Judaism. (I've learned more from her books than I did in 12 years of Sunday school.) For example, "Wiping the dish, Rina thought about the Jewish concept of shalom bais, the keeping of marital peace. So important a tenet, a person was allowed to do everything in his or her power to keep home and hearth tranquil, even if it meant slight variations on the truth." Whether this concept justifies Rina jeopardizing her husband's investigation is arguable, but the book is first-rate.

Before devouring Sarah Smith's intelligent and ambitious The Knowledge of Water, the second in a trilogy, it's vital to read the first, "The Vanished Child." In it, Baron Alexander von Reisden, a melancholy Austro-Hungarian scientist, discovers his past is grimmer and radically different than he remembered it to be. While ferreting out his dark secret, he falls in love with Perdita Halley, a lovely, talented, nearly blind American girl who longs to be a concert pianist.

The new book is set three years later in Paris during the flood of 1910, when the Seine rose 20 feet in nine days. Von Reisden now heads an institute for the insane but spends most of his time helping his aristocratic cousin Dotty determine if her prized Impressionist painting is a forgery. Perdita studies at the Conservatoire, feverishly trying to balance her escalating passion for Von Reisden (she previously refused his proposal of marriage) with her desire for a career. Meanwhile, she moves in legendary Bohemian society, befriended by "Milly Xico," (a not-even-thinly veiled Colette), unaware that she and her beloved are being stalked by a madman.

The author's sensual re-creation of waterlogged Paris could be included in a textbook on how to write a historical novel and her mercurial characters ring true, with the exception of Milly. A surplus of subplots makes the book seem scattered, and the feminist rhetoric wears thin. Still, I eagerly look forward to the conclusion of the trilogy.

It's hard to imagine a heroine tougher than Kinsey Milhone and more focused than Dr. Kay Scarpetta, but Dr. Sylvia Strange, the star of Sarah Lovett's Acquired Motives, makes her sisters in crime seem warm and frivolous. Strange--and, believe me, the name fits--is a New Mexico forensic psychologist, one of those experts that you see in courtroom dramas testifying as to the mental state of the defendant.

After her testimony for the defense allows a murdering rapist to go free, Strange finds herself the target of a vigilante Santa Fe serial killer. The victims are all murdering sex offenders who got off on legal technicalities. Constitutionally unable to leave the sleuthing to her long-suffering boyfriend, sexy New Mexico State Police Det. Matt England, and undeterred by numerous attempts on her life, she takes on the killer with an assist from a memorable shaman-convict. The plot is as taut as the heroine's nerves, and though she's no Tony Hillerman when it comes to evoking the beauty and magic of the Southwest, Lovett's spare prose fits the landscape.

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