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L.A. Confidential

BASILICA;\o7 By William D. Montalbano; (Putnam: 304 pp., $23.95)\f7

ARCHANGEL;\o7 By Robert Harris; (Random House: 376 pp., $24.95)\f7

BE COOL;\o7 By Elmore Leonard; (Delacorte Press: 290 pp., $24.95)\f7

SOUTHERN CROSS;\o7 By Patricia Cornwell; (Putnam: 368 pp., $25.95)\f7

February 21, 1999|EUGEN WEBER | Eugen Weber is the Joan Palevsky professor of modern European history at UCLA. His column "L.A. Confidential" appears monthly and is devoted to mysteries and thrillers

Killings and killer catching are no longer enough to sell detective stories. "Been there, done that" calls for ever more imaginative settings. Travelogues, procedurals, craft guides, job descriptions and, not the least, explorations of the investigator's psyche proliferate until the luxuriant context, like a creeper, gobbles up the action. None of this is necessarily bad, as Patricia Cornwell's Dr. Kay Scarpetta reliably demonstrates. So, in their different ways, have the writers under review let location, milieu and history play major parts in their stories.

A priest plummeting to death from the dome of St. Peter's opens William Montalbano's "Basilica," which offers a savvy tour of the Vatican, Rome and the Catholic Church. Cast of characters: Brother Paul, a not-quite cleric who likes drink, baseball and women; Luther, a large Catholic monk from West Africa; and Pope Pius XIII, the church's first American pope, affectionately known as Tredi (from the Italian for 13: tredici). Between protecting the interests of the church and playing pickup basketball, the trio have to face ghosts from the past: vengeful survivors of the Caballero family, a cocaine cartel driven to destruction long ago when Tredi, in a former life known as "the Cocaine Cardinal," had been their nemesis and Brother Paul was Capt. Paul Lorenzo of Miami homicide.

The pope, as is only proper, has enemies. Personal, political and ecclesiastic feuds confuse issues; Paul's foibles permit villains to leave an expectably bloody trail; Tredi's saintliness spins out the conclusion of a predictable ambush that spoils the papal batting practice out in the countryside; but all ends well for the guys in white miters. Not a great story, but good-natured, engaging and eminently readable.

"Archangel" is a very different kettle of smoked fish, neither good-natured nor altogether pleasant, very much like the sullen, devastated post-Soviet Russia where it unfolds. The archangel in question is no member of the celestial hierarchy, but the rusting, foundering port of that name on the northern Dvina River, 30 miles from the White Sea. And while most of the action takes place in Moscow, part of its explosive conclusion is set in the unforgiving wastes of the river port's hinterland.

Robert Harris' book is as unpleasant and gripping as the country that it features. It begins with an international symposium held in the old gray concrete Institute of Marxism-Leninism, renamed the Russian Center for the Preservation and Study of Documents Relating to Modern History. Its hung-over, semi-academic antihero, Fluke Kelso, is a slightly worn Sovietologist. He has appeared on too many television programs, knocked out too many newspaper columns, reviewed too many useless books, sat through too many tedious talks. He would not face still more bad food, stale gossip and hot air if it wasn't for the lure of Moscow, its dark and renamed streets, the way history hangs in the air between the blackened buildings.

So he attends an academic shindig, and he is trapped by the possibility of snagging an unsuspected notebook of Stalin's jottings. In pursuit of this alluring document, Kelso and the Moscow correspondent of the Satellite News System, R.J. O'Brian, set off for the far north. Nothing good comes of their quest; nothing turns out as expected except for the trouble. As Harris plays cat and mouse with readers, his twists and turns keep one guessing until the very end.

However dismal its substance and setting, this is an enthralling book in which atmosphere enhances excitement. And Harris is not only good at re-creating milieu and mood, but also at imparting information. His dialogue teaches as it torments; his insertions insinuate history past and present in highly digestible form. Thrilling, suspenseful, well-researched and finely written, "Archangel," like too much strong drink, leaves a sour taste and a wish for more.

Nothing gloomy about Elmore Leonard's latest gig. Fans of "Get Shorty" will cheer Chili Palmer's return in a book as bankable as, and no less filmable than, its predecessor. Chili is still in movies, although the success of "Get Leo," "a terrific picture, terrific," forced him into a sequel, "Get Lost." "It didn't open big so the studio walked away," Chili observes. So now he's treading water, trying to invent his next movie, and finds himself propelled toward the music biz, where Leonard, once again, gives him the best notes.

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