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Mysteries

Short Crime Tales Are Long on Quality of Narrative

March 04, 2001|DICK LOCHTE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's been a while since slick magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post and Esquire made the task of creating short crime stories financially viable. But though the mini-mystery may never see those golden days again, it is undergoing something of a renaissance, thanks mainly to the widening gap between big publishers and their feverish 24-7 quest for bestsellers, and small houses, for whom a collection of tales from a well-regarded pro is a welcome addition to their list.

A strong case in point is "Fortune's World" (Crippen and Landru, $16, 250 pages), an assemblage of 14 short cases of veteran mystery novelist Michael Collins' one-armed private investigator Dan Fortune. As Richard Carpenter, professor emeritus of English at Bowling Green State University, points out in his introduction, the stories were written over a period of 30 years. To spin tales as intriguing and thought provoking as these for three decades is a remarkable enough achievement. Even more remarkable is the sustained quality of the pieces--from the earliest, "Scream All the Way," a nifty almost-perfect-murder plot, to the most recent, "Family Values," a powerful, contemporary puzzle that the prize-winning author wrote for this collection.

With the exception of Fortune, the tough but sensitive and extremely fair narrator, you won't find many nice people in these pages. Religious zealots hire hit men to "purify" their church, a woman lures her former husband to his death, a greed-head pushes a young mother into suicide and infanticide. Collins doesn't stint on motives or plot twists.

Most of the stories take place in California, centered in Santa Barbara, where, like his creation, the author has lived for a number of years. Usually, place gets short shrift in short fiction, but Collins manages to capture a location in just a sentence or two. He does the same with character. Of a young man in "The Chair," he writes, "His tongue lived in three worlds. Whole sentences from the high school where all boys are created equal. Words from the barrio where no one is equal. And the accent of salsa and mariachi and the past of Castilian cavaliers and slaughtered Indians and silent slaves both black and brown."

The social criticism inherent in that last sentence is very much a part of Collins' fiction. In "Family Values," arguably the best story in the book, Fortune not only uncovers a tricky murder motive while calling attention to a heinous criminal practice, but he also manages to offend both sides of one of today's most controversial topics. It takes style to bring that off. Bravery, too, of course.

*

In eight novels, Nevada Barr has put her self-reliant heroine, park ranger Anna Pigeon, in contact with a wide assortment of dangers from man and nature, but she's saved a beauty for the latest entry, "Blood Lure" (Putnam, $24.95, 320 pages). Assisting a biologist in charge of a bear DNA project, Anna carries odoriferous blood lure into "the heart of bear country in Montana's side of the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, nothing between her and the largest omnivores in the lower forty-eight but a can of pepper spray."

What ensues are two ferocious bear attacks, chillingly described with such authenticity that one suspects the author must've met a grizzly or two during her own days as a ranger. There is also a very ugly death in which a woman's face is carved to the bone. One of Barr's particular talents is figuring out a way to supply a corpse and a full complement of suspects in a remote campground.

Of even more importance is her genuine storyteller's ability to wrap her flights of fancy in a setting both familiar and foreign and utterly credible. But Anna is a bit nettlesome. Of usually only mildly spiky temperament, she's particularly impatient and intolerant here, expressing annoyance or outright anger at just about everyone in the book, friends and enemies alike. Must be all that sleeping on the hard, cold ground.

*

In "Birds of Prey" (Morrow, 400 pages, $24), J.A. Jance places her series hero, former Seattle cop J.P. Beaumont, in a Hercule Poirot-type situation. On board a cruise ship to Alaska (as chaperon for his 87-year-old grandmother and her new spouse), he is dismayed to discover a ship's videotape depicting one of his table mates, a no-show for several meals, being tossed, hogtied, into the drink by a shadowy figure. The victim is a dreadful woman who apparently joined the cruise to disrupt a conference chaired by her ex-husband, an internationally famous doctor who has developed a new treatment for brain seizures.

The ship is loaded with suspects, including the doc, his new trophy wife, his devoted daughter and a trio of the victim's traveling companions. Several FBI agents are also on board incognito, hoping to thwart the plans of members of a militant sect who want to do the doctor harm.

The story has humor and some suspense, and Beaumont is pleasant enough company. But unlike Poirot, who would have used clues and those little gray cells to expose the guilty party, Beaumont snoops around until an eyewitness tells him who did it. I suppose this is one of the byproducts of the new realism in crime fiction, but it does take a little pleasure out of the game.

*

Dick Lochte reviews mysteries every other week. Next week: Rochelle O' Gorman on audio books.

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