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Roiling Plot From a Queen of Suspense

May 10, 2000|DICK LOCHTE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For someone who loves plot, Mary Higgins Clark's "Before I Say Goodbye" (Simon & Schuster, $26, 332 pages) should be like manna from heaven. The book's early chapters positively churn with information and event.

We meet: 1) heroine Nell MacDermott, a political columnist who experiences precognitive episodes involving death, and is being pressured by her gruff but loving grandfather to run for the New York congressional seat he occupied for half a century; 2) Nell's husband, Adam Cauliff, an architect on the verge of a multimillion-dollar deal, who resents Grandpa and isn't wild about Nell entering the political arena; 3) Jed Kaplan, a bitter ne'er-do-well, who feels Adam has taken advantage of his mother in a real-estate deal; 4) Sam Krause, a generally disliked, arrogant builder of skyscrapers, who is worried about being prosecuted for cutting corners; 5) Dan Minor, a surgeon new to Manhattan, who is searching for his long-missing mother, now thought to be a bag lady in the city.

And we meet a few other characters, each with his or her own agenda, obvious or hidden. After presenting her rather full cast, Clark then dispatches several of them in a yacht explosion that leaves Nell mourning the death of her husband. Plagued by guilt because her last words to him were in anger, and annoyed by rumors that he'd been engaged in shady business dealings, she feels compelled to put her political ambitions on hold while she investigates the explosion. Naturally, she discovers information that the police have overlooked. Naturally, this discovery places her in peril.

This sort of tale has accounted for 21 bestsellers by the author, and there's no reason to think "Goodbye" won't make it 22. Clark's use of telepathic powers, precognition and other paranormal plot elements may incur the wrath of suspense purists who label such fiction "woo-woo." Still others may find the tale's credibility undercut by the absence of media interest in a bombing in New York harbor that takes the life of a member of a prominent political family.

But Clark, whom her publishers have proclaimed "America's queen of suspense" (allowing such non-colonials as P.D. James and Ruth Rendell a little wiggle room), clearly knows what her readers want. Here she provides it, in spades.

*

Dan Barton's debut novel, "Killer Material" (St. Martin's Minotaur, $24.95, 304 pages), presents a fresh and fast-paced introduction to its engaging hero, Southern California comedian Biff Kincaid, and the strange, seedy yet exhilarating backstage world of the stand-up comic. The author's research comes from years spent performing stand-up, and the experience shows in his descriptions of the highs and lows of stage life. When murder and mayhem enter the mix, however, reality steps outside for a smoke.

Here's the setup: Roger Fisk, an ultra-wealthy, probably psychotic comic wannabe, has hit town and created an atmosphere in which, according to Biff, "bad things happen to good comics." The untalented Fisk has hired minions to steal routines and possibly even murder comedians who get in his way. One assumes that hard knocks, physical and mental, are part of the performer's lot. It's not surprising that Biff can hold his own in a fight. But the amount of punishment he dishes out and takes in trying to reclaim his stolen material is a bit over the top. And he keeps more armament under his bed than you'd find at a Posse Comitatus picnic. Jim Carrey (or Drew Carey) as Mike Hammer? That's a tough fit. But, with all that, "Material" definitely has its moments. And, after the Fox TV "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" fiasco, we should probably be willing to believe comics are capable of anything.

*

"The Campfire Collection: Spine-Tingling Tales to Tell in the Dark" (Chronicle Books, $15.95, 245 pages) is a sturdy trade paperback chock-full of scary stories. As edited by San Francisco author Eric B. Martin, some of the entries are fact (like a section of Beryl Bainbridge's "The Birthday Boys" that follows Capt. Robert Scott's doomed expedition to the South Pole), some are fiction (among them Tobias Wolff's "Hunters in the Snow"). All take place outdoors, where nature and man (and monster) can turn a wilderness outing into a nightmare experience. Authors include Edgar Allan Poe (of course), Jack London, Paul Bowles and anthropologist Judith M. Brueske. A disparate group, ordinarily, but all on the same page when it comes to making your hair stand on end.

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

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