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Has the Footloose Lothario Found Love?

November 18, 1998|DICK LOCHTE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For nearly 20 years, Harold Adams has been writing about Carl Wilcox, an engagingly raffish and footloose Depression-era craftsman who travels the dusty roads of South Dakota, earning bread and board by painting signs and solving murders. Why this unique, entertaining series has not achieved at least a portion of the popularity of, say, the fairy tales about the millionaire with the psychic Siamese cats or the incredible yarns involving the neurotic forensic pathologist and her serial killer sickos, is a mystery yet to be solved. It will be even more perplexing if Adams' "No Badge, No Gun" (Walker, $22.95, 203 pages) fails to raise his recognition factor.

As always, the clear-eyed Wilcox narrates the story in economic, plain-spoken language rich in nuance, but this time there's a strong personal subplot. The former soldier, house painter, rustler and convict, who began solving murders because he was usually the prime suspect, was once a brawler, a boozer and a back-roads Lothario. Over the course of his adventures, he has cut down on his drinking and fighting but has remained fairly constant in keeping his romances strictly one-book stands. In "No Badge," his investigation of the brutal rape and murder of a precocious teenager is interrupted by stirrings of lasting love and affection. Hazel Warford, the victim's school librarian, seems the perfect mate for Wilcox. She's an attractive, intelligent, self-assured woman who could use a little help in handling a homicidal estranged husband.

One of the tenets of private detective fiction is that parallel investigations must converge. Here they do, in a most satisfying manner, enhanced by Wilcox's refreshingly unsentimental acceptance of the fact that he is head over heels in love. As a show of confidence in the new novel's potential, Adams' publisher has reissued two previous Wilcox tales in trade paperback editions: "The Man Who Was Taller Than God," the 1992 novel that was voted best novel of the year by the Private Eye Writers of America, and 1995's "The Ditched Blonde" (both $7.95, 157 pages).

Greg Rucka's "Smoker" (Bantam, $22.95, 307 pages), No. 3 in a series about a Manhattan bodyguard with the unlikely name of Atticus Kodiak, is concerned with its hero's attempts to keep an assassin from, ah, smoking a tobacco industry insider before he can blow his whistle in court. Usually series books can stand on their own fairly well, but in this case, missing the first two entries, "Finder" and "Keeper," places a reader in the uncomfortable position of having to play catch-up for a lot of the novel. Who is this semi-depressed guy Kodiak who chides F. Scott Fitzgerald for his characters' complacency? Why does he hate the man who's trying to hire him? Why does his prospective employer hate him? Who is the young woman who lives in his apartment? Why is he sleeping with his employer's daughter if they both feel so wretched about it afterward? And who, for heaven's sake, is the Bridgett he can't quite bring himself to phone to apologize for . . . what?

If one sticks with the book, most of these questions will be answered (though the thing with Bridgett is still a little vague), and there are other payoffs, including terrific action sequences and snappy patter. But, granted that the emotionally wounded, hence vulnerable, tough-guy hero is an idea whose time has come, it seems as if Rucka may be pushing it beyond its limited appeal.

Randy Wayne White's "The Mangrove Coast" (Putnam, $22.95, 290 pages) is the sixth book about Florida marine biologist Doc Ford. He and his amusing, usually stoned, neighbor Tomlinson, are reasonable stand-ins for John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee and his usually sober neighbor Meyer. Here, the daughter of a long-deceased pal asks Doc to help her reclaim her mother from the clutches of a truly loathsome predator. White isn't quite up to MacDonald in the storytelling department. He starts his novel with a death that means nothing to us, then uses the flashback technique to give the fatality significance. He also spends nearly two-thirds of the novel getting Ford ready for his rescue mission. MacDonald would have told the tale more conventionally and put Travis on the road by Chapter 2. But he's not writing much these days and White, with his likable, if guarded, protagonist, colorful characters and detailed descriptions of both land and sea, seems more than a match for any of Florida's fictioneers.

The Times reviews mysteries every other week. Next week: Rochelle O' Gorman on audio books.

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