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SUNDAY BRUNCH | BOOK SHELF

Mysteries

September 20, 1998|DICK LOCHTE | Special To The Times

In Norman Bogner's "To Die in Provence," (Forge, 384 pages, $24.95), the cheerful and sunny resort in the south of France takes on a decidedly shady cast. Actually, Bogner (author of the bestselling "Seventh Avenue") presents an Aix-en-Provence as picturesque as the one Peter Mayle writes about, but he includes such realities as crooked cops and prostitutes, and ratchets up the suspense levels with the invention of a particularly frightening pair of tourists, angel-faced Darryl "Boy" Boynton and his girlfriend, Maddie, a thrill-killer couple who should give even Quentin Tarantino nightmares.

Opposing them is Michel Danton, a heroic but hapless young police investigator who is working in his dysfunctional family's restaurant while recuperating from wounds suffered in the line of duty. He's also reeling from the ego damage caused by the defection of his callous girlfriend to an arrogant and incompetent local lawman. "Die's" cast is large, including Maddie's ugly-American TV mogul father and an assortment of unlucky folks who incur Boy's wrath, but Bogner manages to present them in full color and dimension. And each fits into his jigsaw puzzle of a plot so meticulously that the end result is picture perfect.

I should note that while the novel is by turns charming, funny and good-naturedly sexy, there are some sections that explode into extreme violence. Cozy readers should probably stick with Mayle, but fans of the Thomas Harris brand of intelligent, fast-paced suspense and hard-edged action should find Bogner's trip to Provence just the ticket.

*

With last year's "Night Passage," Robert B. Parker launched a new series featuring a hero who is in most ways the diametrical opposite of his famous Boston private eye, Spenser. Jesse Stone is a taciturn cop with twice the names and half the age of the 60-something sleuth. He also has a drinking problem and a tendency to get involved with the wrong women (including his ex-wife). Parker widens the protagonist gap even further by eschewing his Spenserian first-person narration in favor of a more objective method of storytelling. This works particularly well in "Trouble in Paradise" (Putnam, 336 pages, $22.95), the second book in the series.

Short, punchy chapters shift the action between Stone, engaged in his duties as police chief of a quiet upscale town on the Eastern seaboard, and a career criminal named Maclin, who is gathering a team of sociopaths to pick the place clean. It's a basic plot, in which the good guy and the bad are very much alike except for that little thing called conscience; but Parker deepens it with characters who are anything but ordinary. Stone's non-P.C., anti-Spenser behavior is a refreshing surprise, and his quirky antagonist is as charming as he is repulsive. Their minions, including oddball members of the constabulary and a proud but lethal Native American, offer strong support in this unusually engrossing adventure yarn.

*

There's an appealing strain of nostalgia running through John Leslie's books about Gideon "Bud" Lowry. Part of it is the way the piano-playing private eye reacts to the changing of his beloved Key West. Part of it is that the almost-over-the-hill Lowry resembles, at least in terms of honor and world-weariness and romanticism, what Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe might be like approaching the millennium.

In his fourth novel, "Blue Moon" (Pocket Books, 246 pages, $23), the detective has to deal with strip-mall developers who may be using arson to clear his neighborhood and with an ex-girlfriend who seems to be heading to the altar with Mr. Wrong. The two investigations are complicated by Tay-Sachs disease, anaphylactic shock and the wild party atmosphere of Key West on Halloween night. There are surprising guest appearances, via phone, of James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux and Charles Willeford's Hoke Mosely. But the star of this show is Lowry, who, when the chips are down, displays the sort of courage that Hemingway once described as "grace under pressure."

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

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