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DEATH BENEFITS By Thomas Perry; Random House: 384 pp., $24.95

THE IMMACULATE DECEPTION By Iain Pears; Scribner: 240 pp., $25

EDGE OF DANGER By Jack Higgins; Putnam: 304 pp., $25.95

March 25, 2001|EUGEN WEBER | Eugen Weber is a contributing writer to Book Review and the author, most recently, of "Apocalypses."

I've killed a man or two in my time; lots of people my age have. And I never felt remorse; only relief and some weariness. I gave these rumpuses no particular thought until I began to read crime fiction in which heroes and heroines can barely bring themselves to squeeze a trigger to save their lives and, if they do, will not get over the traumatic incident. That's not the way it works. Perhaps we can't afford to admit it. Perhaps less hollow shams would be bad for the public health. They would, however, sharpen the realism of would-be realistic fictions in which, as a rule, only villains are permitted to squeeze triggers without compunction.

Despite such susceptibilities, Thomas Perry's "Death Benefits" is a galvanizing thriller. It makes room for several killings too, quite a few at the hands of good guys, which is preferable if one is forced to choose. But "Death Benefits" is only secondarily about murder and, mostly, about pursuit of rogues engaged in insurance fraud-with homicide on the side.

Insurance fraud provides a novel approach to criminal enterprise, and the insurance industry is an intriguing venue for dirty deeds. Perry demonstrates the possibilities of the genre and does it brilliantly by way of investigations concerning certain fraudulent claims that carry his two heroes and one heroine from San Francisco through a Florida hurricane (lots of claims there!), to bucolic New Hampshire, which turns out to be more deadly than most imaginable storms. And though the end proves more predictable than the errantry, the characters grow ever more engaging and the book more trenchant as you move along. Highly recommended.

The resolution of Iain Pears' "The Immaculate Deception" seems almost as predictable. Yet, though pace, setting and style are very different, it too makes a fine read. It also features a self-possessed aging lady thief who shoots a scoundrel dead. When a foolish man remonstrates, "What have you done?" she sensibly responds that the guy she shot was about to kill them. "Just a question of whether you want him to die, or us." That's telling him.

The place is (mostly) Rome. The time is (mostly) now. To celebrate Italy's turn to preside over the European Union, the national museum has planned an exhibition that would draw on all aspects of European art. One of the main exhibits has been stolen: a 17th century landscape by Claude Lorrain reluctantly lent by the Louvre only after the Italian government guaranteed its safe return. Flavia di Stefano, the acting head of Italy's Art Theft Squad, is called in by the prime minister to get the canvas back without fuss or publicity. Her only lead: The hijacker had worn a Leonardo da Vinci mask, brandished a fake pistol that played a Verdi tune when he pulled the trigger and distributed Belgian chocolates before speeding off with his loot.

Di Stefano, who has just wed her longtime lover, British art historian Jonathan Argyll, has many things on her mind, including the retirement of her boss, patron and friend, Taddeo Bottando; the politics of succession that this involves; and the problem of an adequate gift for the retirement. While she tries to recover the classical landscape, fathom its symbolism and negotiate the rapids of work in a land where laws are made to be ignored, Argyll will track down the origins of a small panel that has long hung on Bottando's wall, hoping to present him with a provenance that could make retirement more alluring.

Both quests involve thefts, murders, deceptions, corruption and lots of driving in awful traffic. Both involve much talk of connoisseurship and collecting. Both stir the embers of conniptions long past, revealing student radicals grown into adult immaturity, Communists reedited as priests and murderers metamorphosed into politicians. But the intricate plot matters less than the atmosphere, the sunny context, the readerly comfort of encompassing beauty and of Italians all around, seductive even when they are being shifty. The conversation is as good as the company, the ambience is animated yet relaxed and even the violence is muted.

Di Stefano, Argyll, their witnesses, friends and quarries move through a dappled country as hard to resist as a mood: enchanted landscapes, lovely villages that still have some Italians living in them, all gentle and surprisingly peaceful considering how many characters get popped along the way. A jaunty, cheerful fable for sagacious readers.

No one shows much compunction about shooting, knifing, drowning or breaking body parts in Jack Higgins' "Edge of Danger," his 32nd triumphant exercise in keeping readers hugely entertained. The publisher's blurb describes the book as a powerful thriller, and for once the blurb doesn't lie.

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