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COLD STEEL RAIN By Kenneth Abel; Putnam: 368 pp., $24.95

DEAD AND GONE, A Burke Novel by Andrew Vachss; Alfred A. Knopf: 336 pp., $25

OVERNIGHT FLOAT A Mystery by Clare Munnings; W.W. Norton: 288., $23.95

September 17, 2000|EUGEN WEBER | Eugen Weber is a contributing writer to Book Review and the author, most recently, of "Apocalypses."

New Orleans is the jewel in the bloody crown of the nation's murder stats. It does pretty well too in the corruption, graft and venality stakes. Kenneth Abel's "Cold Steel Rain" shines a dark light on other fetid aspects of its reputation: rain, of course, but also tortuous treachery, felony, many-sided betrayal and good-ol'-boy perfidy.

Threading his thorny path along a trail of corpses, a rather glum lawyer-bagman, Danny Chaysson, has been set up to take the fall for his high-flying wheeler-dealer political boss. But he will turn the tables on those who used him and who now seek to bring him down in their stead.

While winkling out the villains, Danny runs into several women whose outstanding characteristic seems to be bone structure: one "with cheekbones so sharp it made her face look like the stretched head of a drum," another "with cheekbones so sharp they looked carved into stone," another "with high cheekbones and skin that was the color of good bourbon whiskey." Where are Putnam's copy editors when you need them? Happily, the ladies who count offer more orotund charms; also more toughness than dweeby Danny, whom they help to help himself.

Decorative Spanish moss, meandering as Southern confabulations, full of excursions, reflections, digressions and causeries that turn into harangues, the plot is pleasingly anfractuous, which means that it winds intricately from boozy bend to murderous break. There's lots of good writing too: perhaps too much of it. But it did keep me reading.

You'll detect nothing wimpish about the hero of Andrew Vachss' latest thriller and nothing relaxed about its transactions. Anyone who wants a spry read that never stops zipping along should try Vachss' velocious "Dead and Gone," another in his Burke series.

Unencumbered by first or middle names, Burke, a dangerous, hard-working criminal-for-hire, is ambushed and left for dead but recovers to go underground and seek out whoever set him up. Burke's religion, as he tells us, is revenge. Hate gives him strength; rage arms him for combat. As the pathology of vengefulness hatched when he was very young focuses on those responsible for the slaughter he survived but which took the life of Pansy, the dog dearer to him than any other being. Implacable rancor drives him, as does fear of the anonymous antagonist, who is likely to try again.

Friends and allies, not least a young Cambodian woman named Gem, will help Burke track the unseen (and rather improbable) foe, uncover his identity and checkmate the degenerate predator in the last few pages. Hustling action, breathless reading: Suspension of disbelief is essential.

American college mysteries have been with us since the 1880s, and crime has flourished on campus ever since. Fictionally at least, academic dissensions generate literate loathings that turn deadly. Their murderous trajectories may nowadays intersect with politics, often with those of gender; witness Amanda Cross' feisty Kate Fansler and scores more like her. "Overnight Float" brings us Clare Munnings' articulate Rosemary Stubbs, once chief financial officer of a computer company, now chaplain of a posh women's college in Vermont, who tends to stumble over faculty corpses and may turn into one herself if she does not look out.

At Sanderson College, despite a stylish president, an alluring student body and a bucolic setting, college finances are in dubious straits, the athletic program is threatened with extinction, faculty salaries sag, tempers flare, menace lurks and sometimes pounces. But Rosemary's resolve and her accounting-cum-computer skills will triumph in the end, as they deserve to do.

Munnings (a pseudonymous conspiracy of two academically savvy women) provides scrumptious descriptions of campus and country settings and more intelligence and less violence than most books of this kind (or of any kind). The narrative flows easily. Literate exchanges abound, as do conversations sometimes as asperous as in real life but never as dull as the exchanges academic encounters too often generate. More reflection and less action is not an obvious recipe for success. Here, it makes you want to read on; and you'll enjoy the reading.

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