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A Louisiana Saga Propelled by Dark Deeds and the Politics of Greed

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

It is the fate of some mysteries to provide several hours of amusement. Some beg to be skimmed. Some require that you toss them across the room in annoyance. Kenneth Abel's "Cold Steel Rain" (Putnam's, $24.95, 400 pages) makes a different sort of demand on the reader. It is too stylishly written, too shrewdly plotted and its characters too well drawn to allow anything but our full attention.

A tale of dark deeds prompted by the politics of greed, Louisiana-style, "Rain" appears at a particularly inauspicious time, after a near glut of murder and mayhem fiction from that humid locale and within weeks of James Lee Burke's extraordinary entry in the Dave Robicheaux series, "Purple Cane Road." Abel's offering proves there is always room for one more very good novel.

The book begins with a mass murder in a strip mall restaurant in New Orleans. With just a few deft strokes, the author provides three of the five victims with enough history to enlist our sympathy and curiosity. He then follows the effect of the killing on a variety of disparate characters, among them a sympathetic police team; an African American Fagin who treats his young gangsta wards to the teachings of Mao; a loathsome but oddly funny, loquacious arms merchant; an efficient but vulnerable Chicana who works for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; and the book's protagonist, Danny Chaisson.

Chaisson, ostensibly a second-generation gofer and bagman for political boss Jimmy Boudrieux, is one of those suffering young gents whom fate has dealt a hand from the bottom of the deck. His way of coping with the loss of a loving wife and a meaningful job is to stay cool and apart. This potentially deadpan cipher is magically transformed by Abel into an engaging, proactive hero very much worth our concern. As he struggles to make sense of his father's death and his life, the various tendrils of the novel begin to knit. There's quite a lot of talk incorporating local political tales both tall and true and knowing observations about the way things work in the Pelican State. Most of the material is fascinating, but even if it weren't, Abel's style combines Dashiell Hammett's hard-boiled directness with the insight of a Robert Stone. It would make a laundry list worth savoring.

*

Dick Francis' "Shattered" (Putnam, $25.95, 320 pages) is his 41st novel, according to his publisher, and who else would take the time to count? By any standard, this is an awesome achievement. So I suppose we should cut the bestselling novelist a little slack if it seems a bit shy of his previous efforts. Still. . . .

This time, the genial but unfulfilled young hero, whose name is Gerard Logan, is a talented glassblower whose association with the racing profession is more tenuous than most. He's the good friend of a jockey. That rider's accidental death after a fall is like a starter's gun signaling the beginning of a murderous race with Logan in the lead. A monstrous woman and her band of cutthroats (one of them resembles Elvis Presley), are convinced the dead jock bequeathed a videotape of great worth to Logan and are determined to force him to give it up. Unfortunately, he doesn't have it.

A major credibility hurdle is Logan's inexplicable refusal to let the police know that murderers are attacking him, torturing him and trying to break his wrists. He's romancing a local constable (about as racy an affair as Francis has yet recorded), but keeps her pretty much in the dark too. A second problem is the elusive videotape. Actually, there are two of them. But the author never quite convinces us of the importance of either or why they should be so feverishly desired.

Making up for these lapses is a good deal of information on the art of glassblowing, including the fact that the heat of the glass globules is enough to sear human flesh to the bone. If you think Francis will not put that rather terrifying aspect of the profession to suspenseful use, you probably have not paid much attention to his previous 40 volumes.

*

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

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