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SUNDAY BRUNCH | Book Shelf

Mysteries

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

Sixteen years ago, Lawrence Block published an admirable addition to his novels about New York private investigator Matthew Scudder titled "Eight Million Ways to Die." It offered, along with a first-rate plot, wry ruminations on the vagaries and randomness of death.

His similarly titled new entry, "Everybody Dies" (Morrow, $25, 292 pages), again finds Scudder pondering the mortality rate of those around him, but with the added wisdom and philosophy of a settled man of middle years. A good thing too, because in the course of the book a couple of people close to him get sent on the big sleep, along with a segment of Manhattan's general population.

This uptick in unnatural deaths is the work of a mysterious cadre challenging the criminal supremacy of Hell's Kitchen entrepreneur-mobster Mick Ballou. As followers of this series have discovered, the very Irish Ballou is one of fiction's more charming sociopaths. He is also Scudder's pal, an association that puts the detective and his wife and friends in jeopardy.

As you may imagine, a gang war allows for many action sequences, all of them, like the slam-bang finale, quite thrilling. But it's the book's quieter moments of discourse that deliver the most pleasure. Like the late John O'Hara, that past master of the colloquy, Block has a rare talent for imagining talk small or substantial.

Scudder's resourcefulness in sleuthing out the men responsible for the carnage should satisfy any mystery fan. But it's the quality of Block's conversational passages that distinguishes this excellent novel.

*

"Backflash" (Mysterious Press, $20, 292 pages) is the latest hard-as-forged-steel caper featuring Parker, the career criminal Donald Westlake writes about under the pen name Richard Stark. This time Parker targets a floating casino making a maiden voyage on the Hudson, filled with customers and cash. His plan is a good one, if a bit complex, requiring an unpleasant politician, a frail lady in a wheelchair and a small getaway craft. There is one complication that he's anticipating--an oddball partner--plus two that are the unpredictable results of his allowing sentimentality to override professionalism. As is the case in all the "Stark" novels, the style is lean, the pacing relentless and the plot chock full of surprising twists. An example of the latter is the way the author handles the casino robbery. Instead of describing it in the objective, hard-boiled manner we're expecting, he focuses on a beleaguered teller in the money room, letting us see the impact of the crime on one of its victims. This is topped by an unexpected human moment shared by the teller and a member of Parker's squad. Westlake is a genuine writing phenom, an author whose inventiveness continues to keep pace with his prodigious output.

*

The title of Keith Snyder's second novel about electronic music composer Jason Keltner, "Coffin's Got the Dead Guy on the Inside" (Walker, $22.95, 288 pages), seems slightly awkward until you discover on Page 2 that it's the punch line response to the gag question, "What's the difference between a coffin and a cello?" Much of this amusing mystery consists of the same sort of setup: You're presented with an element that's seemingly askew, then Snyder lets you in on the gag. The adventurous plot is kicked off by the murder of a multimedia guru and the theft of a computer dongle (a security device needed to access certain software). If that isn't contemporary enough, likable protagonist Keltner and his two pals, Martin and Robert, pepper their witty banter with more pop-cult references than Dennis Miller ever dreamed of. Their ensuing search for the dongle takes them from the seedy Pasadena apartment building they share to various trouble spots within the Silicon Empire. It's always a good idea for an author to keep the action slightly ahead of the reader, and that's how Snyder operates during most of this entertaining high-tech tale.

*

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

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