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Mysteries

Suspense Builds for the Master Thief Who Doesn't Suffer Fools

November 19, 2000|DICK LOCHTE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Nearly 40 years ago, Donald E. Westlake, using the pen name Richard Stark, introduced the no-nonsense master thief Parker in the novel "The Hunter." In it, Parker is betrayed by a ruthless partner named Resnick, who steals his wife and his share from a robbery, and leaves him for dead.

When Parker eventually mends, he discovers that he'll have to work his way up through the Mob to find Resnick and recover his money (the wife is a write-off). "The Hunter" was the basis for two famously hard-boiled movies--"Point Blank" (1967) and last year's "Payback"--and prompted a series of novels, among which it is arguably the best.

The same driving force behind Parker's debut hunt--his desire to punish unprofessional behavior and reclaim money he feels he's earned--propels him into action in "Flashfire" (Mysterious Press, $22.95, 278 pages), a new tale every bit as effective as the first.

This time, Parker's partners in a successful bank robbery tell him they intend to use the loot as seed money for a bigger heist in Palm Beach. When he demurs, they tie him up, explaining that they're only borrowing his share; he'll be repaid with interest.

One of the nice touches, typical of Westlake, is that they seem to really mean it. Their good intentions are lost on Parker. As he sees it, they are fools who should have either paid him or killed him. The tightly written novel underscores that point as it follows Parker's plan to rob the robbers.

The scams and schemes are fascinating and totally convincing, the perils frequent and the pace unyielding. It's a fine, wild ride on a bullet-train of a book.

*

There's nothing on the jacket of T.R. Pearson's "Blue Ridge" (Viking, $24.95, 243 pages) to suggest that it is a mystery novel. But in fact, the first new book in seven years from the author of the critically acclaimed "A Short History of a Small Place" consists of two crime stories unfolding in alternating segments, both quite unusual, amusingly quirky and beautifully rendered.

In one, Ray Tatum, a young deputy sheriff newly arrived in the small town of Hogarth, Va., is assigned the investigation of human bones discovered along the Appalachian Trail. In the other, Ray's cousin, Paul, an insurance actuary in Roanoke, is summoned to New York to identify the brutalized remains of a son he barely knew.

As their stories progress--with Ray and a hostile female park ranger finding romance, along with clues to the murder, and Paul being dragged around New York by eccentric cops and even kinkier gangsters--Pearson uses mystery-story conventions, but in a brilliantly unconventional way.

Themes of identity and alienation mix and mingle with explorations of cultural and criminal differences between Northern metropolis and Southern town. But the real joy of the book comes from its striking use of language, in descriptive passages and dialogue.

Here's Ray being introduced to a fellow deputy: "Larry glanced sidelong and curtly at Ray before stalking across the squad room toward the back hallway, where he entered the toilet and slammed the door shut behind him. 'Don't mind him,' the chief said. 'He's just torn up abut his wife. She ran off with a dentist from Blacksburg--what was it--three, four years ago?' "

*

You won't find anything nearly as unique in James Patterson's recent novels about Alex Cross. The plots--inevitably involving Det. Cross with demonic, nearly omnipotent serial killers--are similar enough to qualify for a Parker Brothers game.

The characters are either bland (the African American Cross has all the ethnicity of a Mattel doll) or absurd (the slavering villains wouldn't even pass muster in a Dick Tracy lineup). In the last Cross epic, some meager amusement could be drawn from the goofy moniker given the bad guy: The Weasel.

The newest, "Roses Are Red" (Little, Brown, $26.95, 400 pages), doesn't even have the kick of kitsch. The new villain is the Mastermind, a name one would have thought put to rest with the demise of the Saturday matinee movie. He's a tough customer who seems hellbent on destroying Cross and all his loved ones.

Actually, Cross' loved ones seem to be having their own soap-opera troubles (post-traumatic stress, brain tumors) without the Mastermind's help. The novel bounces along from atrocity to Cross' soppy, unconvincing home life to his too-late arrival at a crime scene. The suspense is minimal, the thrills nonexistent.

And, as a special reader reward for staying with the book to the bloody end, Patterson has decided in favor of cliffhanger over closure. According to the publisher, 1,250,000 copies of the hardcover are in print. Now that's scary.

*

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

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