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MOMENT OF TRUTH By Lisa Scottoline; HarperCollins: 256 pp., $25

THE HOOK By Donald Westlake; Mysterious Press/Warner Books: 288 pp., $23.95

BURNT SIENNA By David Morrell; Warner Books: 388 pp., $24.95

March 19, 2000|EUGEN WEBER | Eugen Weber is the author of "Apocalypses" and a contributing writer to Book Review

Wheels within wheels, roads to misjudgment paved with good intentions and a cast that abounds in duffers. A silly, obsessed, alcoholic mother with money. A silly, indulged daughter, Paige, with migraines and knockout looks: big blue eyes, pillow mouth, glossy red hair cascading past her shoulders. A silly, self-sacrificing father, Jack Newlin, who pretends he killed the wife whom Paige, her daughter, stabbed. And a callow but smart young lawyer, Mary DiNunzio, who is supposed to defend the fool, Jack, who hired her hoping that she's inept.

Herself a former corporate lawyer, Lisa Scottoline makes Jack Newlin an attorney with the great Philadelphia law firm of Tribe and Wright, lodged on the six topmost floors of a pricey skyscraper. Behind the unfolding plot, Tribe and Wright's office politics and other magnanimities affect the springs and trapdoors of her intrigue, but not so as you'd notice for a while.

The parties are unconvinced by Newlin's self-frame job: Reginald Brinkley, the homicide detective who heard his confession, and inexorable DiNunzio, resolved to get him off. But Dwight Davis, the attack D.A., psyched to win and convinced Newlin is guilty, bays for his blood and rejects all deals. Father thinks daughter did it, daughter thinks so too, and so for a while does DiNunzio. Brinkley thinks it was the daughter's boy friend but changes his mind when a police lab report points to a man other than Jack or blemished boy friend. Finally, mettlesome Mary unravels the intricate plottery behind multiple deceptions and mayhem, Brinkley is justified and even baleful Davis sees the light.

Scottoline moves comfortably from trite motivation to contrived conclusion, but she is good on details and on twisty plot, easy to read and enticing to follow. "Moment of Truth" will be well worth the price of admission once it gets into paperback.

With "The Hook" you don't need to wait that long to get full value for your money. Wayne Prentice is an imaginative writer who can no longer sell the books he writes, because they don't sell enough. He will have to leave New York for a teaching job somewhere in the boondocks, which is where failed authors go; but his wife won't like it. Bryce Proctorr (no, it's not a typo!) is a successful author with a million-dollar-plus contract for his next book and a severe case of writer's block, because his bitchy wife is dragging out a divorce, hoping to take him for all she can get.

The two men, who once were friends, meet by chance and, over a drink, Proctorr has an epiphany: "I've got my hook. . . . I've figured it out. . . . You have a book and no publisher. I have a publisher and I don't have a book." Proctorr will publish Prentice's manuscript under his name, they will share the ample advance half and half, but first Prentice must murder the obstreperous soon-to-be-ex wife. No problem: the roadblock is removed in one brutal jiffy, the two men get away with the murder and the money, free to live happily ever after.

That's when the fun starts. Suspense thrillers are not about happy ends, even flawed ones. Predictable in an unpredictable world, they provide retribution at the end for creepy deeds that in real life may go unpunished. If society doesn't get you, conscience (or the unconscious) will as it festers within. You the reader know that something will happen and that the guilty party will be brought to judgment. You don't know exactly when and how; then it happens, and you find out. That's the gist of the psychological chiller that Donald Westlake spins with cunning craft. You'll want to turn the pages fast to keep up with the narrative hook, and when you get to the end, you'll find that it turns out to be just as sudden and deft as the beginning.

The idea of "Burnt Sienna" is not bad: Chase Malone, a reputed but reclusive artist, is literally bulldozed into painting the portrait of Sienna Bellasar, wife of a power-mad multimillionaire arms dealer. She is beautiful, of course, and we soon learn that she's caught in a Bluebeard situation: the evil husband likes 'em young and gorgeous. When perfection ebbs, he has the trophy wives' traits recorded, then kills them off to be replaced by a new improved model. Marry a millionaire and die to regret it.

Once a marine helicopter pilot, now shanghaied to produce the latest portrait in the series, Malone wants to save Sienna (yes it's also a painter's color). Meanwhile, the CIA wants him to infiltrate Bellasar's redoubt in the South of France and save the world from the arms dealer's poisonous clutches. Cut to a remote estate in the South of France, where Malone paints Sienna; doomed Sienna seeks escape; weapons being tested boom and clatter; evoking not a peep from neighbors or police, Russian chemists brew biochemical devastation. Sienna and Malone get away and then return to survive Bellasar's mini-Armageddon. They retire to Italy, where they spell Siena right. "They have each other. What more could they want?"

True. But readers expect more and, unless their sights are low, David Morrell does not deliver. The action, as it unfolds, can be engaging. But the writing is stiff, settings rigid, developments predictable, motivations unconvincing; the whole shoot is a waste of time and, if you paid for it, of money.

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