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Engaging Sleuth Bops Through Vivid 1950s

February 10, 1999|DICK LOCHTE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At the beginning of Ed Gorman's new novel, "The Day the Music Died" (Carroll & Graf, $22.95, 210 pages), you get a sense of good things to come.

The seemingly innocent 1950s are drawing to a close. The book's engagingly human narrator-protagonist, Sam McCain, is driving the love of his life, Pamela Forrest, home from the last concert that rock stars Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson will ever play. It's a 3 1/2-hour ride through the freezing Midwestern night in McCain's drafty 8-year-old ragtop Ford, but he's enjoying it because he's sharing it with Pamela.

He knows she's in love with someone else. Even when she tells him she prefers Perry Como to Buddy Holly, he continues to love her. McCain is that rara avis in contemporary mystery fiction, the cynicism-free lawyer-detective who refuses to let life get him down.

Oh, sure, he'd rather be the top barrister in Black River Falls, Iowa (population 26,750), instead of the legman for its wealthiest and probably wackiest woman, Judge Esme Whitney. But he's only a few years out of law school, and his future's still before him. McCain usually takes things pretty much in stride. But fate provides one reason for his complacency to be shaken--the tragic plane crash that robs the world of Holly, Valens and the Bopper. And the author invents a couple of other reasons--his schoolgirl sister's pregnancy and the suspicious shootings of the judge's nephew and his wife.

The mystery surrounding the Whitneys' deaths is properly intriguing, but what sets this novel apart (and should make it a candidate for next year's Edgar award) is Gorman's successful capturing of time and place. Without overworking those old warhorses, nostalgia and kitsch, he sharply evokes the twilight of the '50s while populating a whole town, complete with generational histories. The dust jacket promises more visits with McCain and his neighbors. I'm ready now.

*

"East of A" (Ballantine, $22, 213 pages) is a first novel by Russell Atwood, featuring Payton Sherwood, the latest entry in a long line of tough private detectives that dates to the pulp magazines of the '20s.

Like those earlier eyes, Sherwood withstands an abnormal number of beatings, stompings and other forms of physical mayhem (including a brush with a subway). Still, he remains true to the Golden Age code--he keeps battling the odds until he can save the damsel in distress.

What makes the novel worth our while is Atwood's cleverness in updating the age-old quest. Sherwood's milieu is New York's gritty Lower East Side with its skinheads, coffee bars, all-night raves and state-of-the-art drugs. His distressed damsel is a street teen who steals his watch after he's been beaten nearly senseless for saving her life. The characters are quirky, the dialogue smart and fast, the action relentless.

*

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

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