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Mordantly Funny High Jinks Are Afoot in the World of Publishing

August 13, 2000|DICK LOCHTE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Donald E. Westlake's "The Hook," a mordant thriller about authors and publishing that appeared earlier this year, seems to have turned into a harbinger of mysteries featuring writers and editors. Loren D. Estleman's "A Smile on the Face of the Tiger" (Mysterious Press, $24.95, 295 pages), for example, is about a decades-old crime-fiction paperback based on a genuine 1943 Detroit race riot, that has become a hot literary property--possibly too hot. Its author, crusty and cantankerous Eugene Booth, has gone into hiding, and his editor, an old flame of series hero Amos Walker, hires the private eye to find him.

When Walker catches the slippery old gent at a deserted fishing camp, it's no surprise that the two tough guys hit it off. That Estleman intends the book to be a salute to paperback such heroes as Booth is clear from his dedication: To "Goodis and Woolrich and Dewey and Kane,/ Hamilton, Prather, McCoy and Spillane;/ Marlowe, McGivern, Miller, McBain,/ and hundreds of others, too many to name."

It's just as obvious how he feels about the current publishing climate. One of Walker's biggest obstacles turns out to be a mob hit man-turned-informant who is in the middle of a tour to publicize his bestselling tell-all. The author's amusing nibbles at the fingers that feed him and the unusual nostalgia that creeps into his hero's narration mark "Smile" as a series standout.

*

Though private detective John Marshall Tanner is a bit more compassionate than Amos Walker--a second-generation Lew Archer to Walker's Philip Marlowe--according to Stephen Greenleaf's new novel, "Ellipsis" (Scribner, $24, 267 pages), he shares fellow P.I. Walker's disdain for today's publishing scene.

Against his better judgment, Tanner agrees to bodyguard Chandelier Wells, a concocter of romantic suspense who "is the most successful novelist in San Francisco, Danielle Steel and Richard North Patterson not excluded." She's been getting death threats that nobody, not even Tanner, takes seriously. Even the reader may suspect that the demanding Wells, her snooty editor and her smarmy agent are merely secondary players in the novel, satiric examples of the difference between yesterday's literati and today's glitterati. As even the book's title suggests, the real story seems to be a continuation of "Past Tense," a powerful series entry in which Tanner and his best friend tried to destroy a cadre of crooked cops and failed.

Some of those cops are being investigated now, by Tanner's paramour, an assistant D.A. But, as in any private-eye novel worth its name, the two parallel stories eventually converge, in violence and death. That they mesh so well is no surprise. The Tanner series went into double digits a few books back, testimony to its author's spellbinding skill. There is, however, a third tendril here that ends in an epilogue so odd and uncharacteristically upbeat for the series that one wonders what, if anything, Greenleaf has in store for his usually dour dick. Die-hard fans who prefer Tanner in the rough can stop reading somewhere on page 251.

*

Derrick Niederman's witty "A Killing on Wall Street" (Wiley, $21.95, 198 pages) takes us away from Publisher's Row by providing mystery fans with a fair amount of inside knowledge on how the stock market works (and considering the price of hardcovers, that could come in handy). The author, described as a mathematician-turned-securities-analyst and life master at bridge, has designed a playful whodunit featuring Cliff Cavanaugh, an amusingly sarcastic day trader-detective, and his partner, Tracy deGrandpre, a beautiful and insouciant aspiring Broadway actress. As resourceful as Tracy is, she's an innocent when it comes to the market. This allows Niederman to explain such things as "carcass value" and "triple witch days" and even "closed-end fund," while his blithe detectives probe the murder of an unloved portfolio-managing wonder boy.

The dialogue is brittle and frequently funny, the setting is upper-strata Manhattan, the drink of choice champagne. "Killing" isn't exactly "The Thin Man"--its characters are so smooth they tend to slide off the page and the denouement seems almost beside the point--but it's not every day that you close the covers of a mystery novel with a better understanding of price-to-earnings ratio.

*

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

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