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MESMERIZED By Gayle Lynds; Pocket Books: 416 pp., $24.95

THE JUDGMENT By D.W. Buffa; Warner Books: 352 pp., $24.95

HOLLOWPOINT By Rob Reuland; Random House: 274 pp., $24.95

July 22, 2001|EUGEN WEBER | Eugen Weber is a contributing writer to Book Review

Acrime novel is the investigation of a mystery, apparently inexplicable but apprehensible by reasoning based on facts and by inferences suggested by clues. The best crime novels are suffused with fear, specific or, better still, unfocused: uneasy blundering through realms of shadowy menace. The fear of something you can't quite pin down is harder to reason through, let alone reason away. Anxiety inspires investigation, but before that wears down, fear has to negotiate a tortuous course sown with delusions, snares and ambushes. Tracking an explanation sharpens the sense of danger that only explanation will dispel.

These are rules that Gayle Lynds follows supremely well. "Mesmerized" is not an apt title, unless it's intended to mean fascination--a term she could have used to describe not only her heroine's quest but also the effect of her story on the reader. Most mysteries, thrillers and whodunits invite skimming. "Mesmerized" is a page-turner that calls for hot pursuit from the word go.

Beth Convey is a hotshot attorney in a powerful law firm in Washington, D.C., "a killing machine with compassion," and the book opens on one of her courtroom knockouts. Then her own machine breaks down, her heart collapses, she is pronounced dead but saved in extremis by heart transplant surgery. That's when her troubles start because, although physical recovery is miraculous, the new heart affirms a personality and will of its own. Don't let this fool you: Lynds is not interested in sci-fi. What she serves up is spy-fi that moves at a feverish pace through Washington D.C., West Virginia, Pennsylvania and back to Washington. Beth's search for the identity of her donor leads her to Jeff Hammond, once of the FBI, now a Washington Post reporter, and into a menacing maze of explosive violence, plots and counterplots, spies and counter-spies.

Russians and Americans have so long burrowed into each other's intelligence networks that no one knows any longer who dissimulates what, who betrays whom. Are Russian defectors really defectors? Are they Russian agents? Or do they pursue private agendas of evil and greed? What secret agents of a foreign force have penetrated our security apparatus? What moles lurk in the darkness of D.C., threatening the safety and stability of the nation, the lives of our heroes and of countless others?

The bad guys are ruthless, cruel, crafty, treacherous; masters of disguise, fake-ups and frame-ups, just as the best bad guys should be. But Jeff too is not quite what he seems. Nor are the swarming FBI agents, Russian operatives and cat's-paws and other members of an ample cast. Whom can stout-hearted Beth trust, as she whizzes through one trap into another? Whom can intrepid Jeff believe as he stumbles through frame-ups and past pitfalls? And who will believe him?

You know it will turn out all right, but every twist and turn brings new surprises. Unfortunately, they also often bring instructive lectures by the author, eager to place international intrigue in perspective. Amateurs of dispatches from the Russian front will appreciate these; others will dismiss them as dispensable. But few will be less than mesmerized by an engrossing read.

W.D. Buffa's "The Judgment" is a clever legal thriller and a cheerless compilation of human interest stories set in Oregon. It begins with the murder of an omnipotent and obnoxious Superior Court judge, continues with the murder of another almost as noxious and ends in the trial that follows the second murder. On the way it raises disturbing questions about the legal system, the power of most judges, the ease with which most people can be fooled most of the time, the narrow margin between sanity and insanity and the dangerous possibility that some emperors really have no clothes.

When criminal defense attorney Joseph Antonelli agrees to defend a man accused of the second judge's murder, he begins to unravel a baneful skein of injustice and infection. Most of the action takes place in court, in lawyers' conferences and in lunatic asylums--between which, in the end, differences seem slight. The action is mostly verbal and psychological, the courtroom scenes that account for much of the narrative provide compelling theater, the writing is adroit and often elegant. Indeed, too many well-turned phrases sometimes decelerate narrative velocity, and Antonelli's spiritual travails slacken his briskness. But one reads on for the next twist in a guileful plot, and the jolts still to come in a beguiling story.

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