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Mysteries

The Main Characters Ride in the Back Seat of Two New Thrillers

March 18, 2001|DICK LOCHTE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Many authors of long-running mystery series grow restless enough to fiddle with their formulas, no matter how successful. Sometimes they start new series. Sometimes they simply move their heroes away from center stage, which is the method Stephen White employs in "The Program" (Doubleday, 350 pages, $24.95). After eight novels starring Alan Gregory, the author relegates his psychologist sleuth to supporting player in this clever and involving woman-in-jeopardy yarn.

When her husband is brutally murdered as a "warning" from a local drug lord, New Orleans Dist. Atty. Kristen Lord and her young daughter wind up in the Witness Protection Program. The twist is that she's been an outspoken opponent of the program and doesn't fully trust her handlers. Beginning a new life in Boulder, Colo., she becomes a patient of the program's temporary local shrink, Alan Gregory. Before long, she makes the acquaintance of another of his patients, a former Mafia hit man who for a number of complex reasons assumes the role of her protector, whether she wants it or not.

The novel offers a number of reader rewards--among them a likable, vulnerable heroine, a satisfying plot, brisk pacing and fascinating information (real or artfully manufactured) about the inner workings of the protection program. And Gregory and his now-pregnant wife play a key role in the feverish finale. But it's White's unusual button man who steals the show.

Carl Luppo hasn't quite divested himself of his homicidal tendencies, as an assassin on Kristen's trail discovers. He wants to make amends for all the people he's killed, but he's not sure how or even why. Nor is he certain that his feelings for the much younger Kristen are completely paternal. The evolving relationship between this benign version of Hannibal Lecter and the wary former DA forms the heart of this smart, stereotype-defying thriller.

*

In "Flight" (Simon & Schuster, 397 pages, $24), Jan Burke, winner of last year's Edgar Award (for her novel "Bones"), also moves her heroine, feisty reporter Irene Kelly, into the background for a dark police story featuring Irene's husband, Frank Harriman. A sort of odd-man-out homicide detective in the fictional Orange County town of Las Piernas, Frank is tossed a case designed to make him even more of a department pariah.

Ten years before, Philip Lefebvre, a moody detective with fewer friends on the force than Frank, took flight on the same night that a young boy, a key witness against mob boss Whitey Dane, was murdered. The resulting rumors nearly decimated the department. Now, Lefebvre's crashed plane has been discovered in the mountains, the bones of the presumed rogue cop still in the pilot's seat.

Looking into the death, Frank suspects Lefebvre may have been set up by a fellow officer, a theory not exactly appreciated by his bosses or co-workers. Worse yet, the real killer, a diabolic mastermind with a penchant for destroying reputations and lives, has set his sights on Frank. Fans of Irene should know that she is not exactly silent through all of her husband's trials and tribulations. She also plays a key role in the novel's most explosive chapter.

*

In case you thought that the bloom was off the thistle for new books about Sherlock Holmes and his pals, let me call your attention to three recent additions to the original canon. June Thomson's "Holmes and Watson" (Carroll & Graff, 288 pages, $24) is a detailed biography of the pair based primarily on the approximately 700,000 words (by Thompson's count) penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. "Sherlock Holmes: The Missing Years" by Tibetan writer Jamyang Norbu (Bloomsbury, 279 pages, $23.95) covers the heretofore uncharted period in the great detective's fictional life from immediately after his reported death at the Reichenbach Falls to his eventual return to 221B Baker St. two years later. As Norbu would have it, a murder in Bombay sends Holmes traveling from India to the Tibetan plateau and eventually to the frigid Himalayas, in the company of a resourceful secret agent from Rudyard Kipling's "Kim." And, finally, there is Gerard Williams' "Dr. Mortimer and the Barking Man Mystery" (Carroll & Graff, 270 pages, $24), the second in a series about the physician who infuriated Holmes in "The Hound of the Baskervilles" by describing him as Europe's second-greatest detective (after Bertillon). In "Barking," Mortimer and his new missis, Dr. Violet Branscombe, poke about the murder of a Russian diplomat like a Victorian Nick and Nora Charles.

Dick Lochte's collection, "Lucky Dog and Other Tales of Murder" (Five Star), and a new edition of his prize-winning novel, "Sleeping Dog" (Poisoned Pen Press), have just been published. He reviews mysteries every other week. Next week: Rochelle O'Gorman on audio books.

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