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Seamy, gruesome and grimy thrills

Judgment Calls Alafair Burke Henry Holt: 340 pp., $23 * Bad Company Jack Higgins Putnam: 288 pp., $25.95 * Stealing for a Living Naomi Rand Harper Collins: 246 pp., $23.95 * The House Sitter Peter Lovesey Soho: 346 pp., $25 * The Devil's Banker Christopher Reich Delacorte: 394 pp., $25.95 * Unpaid Dues Barbara Seranella Scribner: 294 pp., $25

September 28, 2003|Eugen Weber | Eugen Weber is a contributing writer to Book Review.

Summer is over, but crime, as one learns from Alafair Burke, is never ending. Menace lurks everywhere and at all times. Burke's "Judgment Calls" serves up gobs of grubby violence, rape, sodomy, child prostitution and those who feed off them and those who try to staunch them.

Samantha Kinkaid, an assistant district attorney in the Portland Drug and Vice Division, is called in when a 13-year-old girl is snatched off the street, brutally assaulted and left for dead on the outskirts of town. The story turns into a legal procedural, unfolding not just the jurisprudence and unexpected contortions of what started out as a pretty straightforward case but also the courtroom maneuvers, judicial etiquette, pyrotechnics and simple slogging of litigation. As the case sprouts unexpected ramifications, the atmosphere grows chillier and Kinkaid finds herself increasingly isolated, struggling not just against toxic villains who treat young girls like backseat candy but also against bent superiors.

The book is pleasurably irritating, gripping at times and spurting to a suitably gory wipeout by the end, but it's also a bit hobbled by an intermittently holier-than-thou heroine and her policeman boyfriend, who is troubled by the role of vengeance and discrimination in the war against pimps and blackguards. They might remember Shakespeare's advice in "Henry V": Stillness and humility are very well in peace, "But when the blast of war blows in our ears, Then imitate the actions of the tiger; Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, Disguise fair nature with hard-favored rage."

Of rage there is plenty in Jack Higgins' "Bad Company," a taut, absorbing thriller in which a German billionaire takes up the brutal Rashid feud (first described in Higgins' "Midnight Runner") against Brits and Yanks, while the action shifts to Central Europe and the British Isles. Nazi gold has survived to finance oil exploration in the Arabian desert, German arms deals and the further tattering of the peace process in Northern Ireland. But there's worse to come.

Much-decorated Sturmbahnfuhrer Baron Max von Berger of the Waffen-SS was never a Nazi, but Hitler took a fancy to him. In his last days, he entrusted the young man with a personal diary holding the record of a 1945 meeting between a member of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "kitchen Cabinet" and a representative of the Fuhrer. The idea entertained was for the Germans and Americans to turn on Russia and save the world from communism. It never came to anything because our president wouldn't buy it. But the son of Roosevelt's representative is now U.S. president. The fictional fiasco doesn't sound like a big deal, but Higgins expects the diary's revelation to create a political crisis to be avoided at all costs.

To quash Berger's evil scheme to reveal the diary, Higgins fields the same ruthless and hard-drinking team captained by ex-IRA enforcer Sean Dillon. The company is bad -- that is, deadly -- on both sides. But Sean's side is our side, and it takes care of ugly quandaries that ordinary folk don't know how to handle. Our chaps don't play by the rules because they know the justice system doesn't work, but they mean well while their dastardly opponents, led by the baron and his illegitimate son, a coldhearted killer, threaten to devastate democracy itself. The story culminates in a great shootout at the baron's corral, where the good guys cover themselves with glory and the bad guys go down in flames. All's well that ends well.

In Naomi Rand's "Stealing for a Living," an old doctor who runs an abortion clinic is murdered execution-style, her aide is shot dead, the clinic is bombed and further explosions target other abortion providers. Meanwhile a disgruntled black man has iced his Hasidic employers and, adding insult to injury, has cut off their side curls. The two plots interweave in counterpoint, and attempts to unravel their whys and wherefores do so too.

Rand enlivens and complicates the story with skeletons that pop in and out of cupboards and with digressions concerning women, race, prejudice, raising children, the death penalty and those who peddle it -- not to mention those who deserve it. Rand's heroine, Emma Price, an investigator with the Capital Defenders' Office, handles this as she handles the baby in her life -- as well as men and other adolescents -- with flair and frazzle. And the author turns Emma's saga into a fast-paced whodunit that keeps the reader captive to the end.

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