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THE LAST PRECINCT By Patricia Cornwell; Putnam: 464 pp., $26.95

THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2000 Edited by Otto Penzler; Houghton Mifflin: 488 pp., $27.50 ($13 paper)

THE ASSISTANT By J. Patrick Law; Simon & Schuster; 414 pp., $25

SHATTERED By Dick Francis; Putnam: 320 pp., $25.95

October 22, 2000|EUGEN WEBER | Eugen Weber is the author, most recently, of "Apocalypses."

I've read almost a dozen of Patricia Cornwell's books, most of them masterful. "The Last Precinct" is the best of the lot. It is about deception, double-dealing, suspicion, grief, guilt, duty, friendship, sadism and the rule of law.

Familiar Cornwell-land, Richmond, Virg., is as crime-prone as ever. Foul play flourishes there, malignancy thrives and murder prospers. It is Christmas, an uneasy season, and Dr. Kay Scarpetta, the state's chief medical examiner, and her staff have not a moment to spare as ghoulishly mangled corpses crowd their morgue. A werewolf haunts the banks of the James River, his gory victims engross media-fed fantasies and pose nightmare problems for Scarpetta. Tracked by a weird, mordacious killer, Scarpetta becomes the suspect in the murder of a harpy who got her comeuppance after hounding Scarpetta for no apparent reason. Distracted by unwarranted accusations and unexpected betrayals, she must untangle the skein of apparently unexpected crimes, and the web of suspicion being wound around her.

Almost overwhelmed, the strong resourceful woman who has always operated at the edge of her nerves becomes vulnerable, preoccupied, ruffled. But friends, old and new, will rally round, and she will rally too. Survival instinct, tenacity and mettle pull her through, villains are put to flight, her character vindicated. Life will go on, though not as it did before. Virtue has triumphed as we expect it to, but baleful malignity abides to strike again.

Plots within plots, fraught atmosphere and unrelenting suspense keep readers on tenterhooks while one trap after another springs under unwary feet. Cunningly designed, ingeniously laid out, composed with Cornwellian skill, this far-from-the-"Last Precinct" is a model of the art.

Edited, like its forerunners, by Otto Penzler of the Mysterious Press and Mystery Bookshops, "The Best American Mystery Stories 2000" provides the mixture as before: uneven, sometimes engrossing, sometimes disappointing, sometimes revolting. One man's mysteries can easily turn into another's tastelessness or gall.

The best is right up front: a seductive introduction by Donald Westlake that conveys a great deal in compact context--the much in mickle that is the stuff of good short stories too. Doug Allyn's "Miracles: Happen!" (about the music business and the preaching business and various other thugs) is a good example of the kind: swift-moving, hard-hitting, wreathed in menace but skirting open violence as it avoids digressions. So is Robert Girardi's "Defenestration of Aba Sid" (about Russian gangsters doing well over here, but then what gangsters don't?), a crafty, uneasy-making narrative that oscillates between self-delusion and baleful sleaze. And so is Benton Dadmun's engaging "Anna's Dream" (about an unexpected murder and a strange bequest), one of whose chief characters is a cat called Cat. In tales like these, the fur flies fast, scenes flash and are quickly gone, dialogue whizzes by, the story's told before you weary of it.

That is true too of the corrosively flinch-making "Wrong Numbers" by Josh Pryor, who teaches at El Camino College, which is about the hounding of an innocent woman by a free-wheeling psychopath; and, in a quite different vein, of Shel Silverman's waggish story of an anticlimatic trial whose zany coup de grace one can see coming, but there's no less fun for that.

Not so with the collection's emetically nauseating fantasies, sickening and well worth a wide berth because they present less craft than corruption: the twisted perfunctory horror of Peter Moore Smith's "Forgetting Girl"; or Brad Watson's rancid "Water Dog God," a mercifully brief account of benumbed brutishness and suffering. I wasn't clear what earned such dispensable compositions a place in these pages: Editors have reasons that reason does not know.

All in all, though, this "Best" is pretty good. Hard-boiled with Allyn and Geary Danihy (inspired by Joseph Conrad), soft-centered with Dadmun and Silverman, miasmic with Smith or Watsun, its stories remind us of this economical genre's fast-cut origins, and explain its perky persistence since its invention by Poe 160 years ago.

Far from the rustic setting where most of these stories throb, havoc stalks and strikes in novels as it does in magazines. J. Patrick Law's "The Assistant" is about Arab terrorists, Israeli spooks and American agents, shifting their intricate and deadly games from the Near East to Washington D.C.. A young Washington lawyer is caught in the web of their contention but conjures his way out. Superlatives like stunning and spellbinding are for once in order. Don't miss a thrilling thriller.

Sadly, the same does not apply to Dick Francis' latest. Traditionally, Francis heroes endure a lot of pain but seldom dish it out. This can be irritating, but action and interaction more than make up for it. This time they do not. It may be just that steeds and stables are here in short supply; but Francis' many fans should be warned that the good old formula has worn thin, the plot is threadbare, the hero wimpy, and the whole affair a bore. At least to this reviewer, who picked up "Shattered" with high hopes and laid it down a few hours later--shattered.

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