Robicheaux on the Bayou, Maigret on the Riviera

HEAVEN'S PRISONERS by James Lee Burke (Henry Holt: $17.95; 292 pp.) MAIGRET ON THE RIVIERA by Georges Simenon, translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $14.95; 123 pp.) THE WAY WE DIE NOW by Charles Willeford (Random House: $15.95; 245 pp.) THE CROSS-KILLER by Marcel Montecino (Arbor House/Morrow: $18.95; 488 pp.) BERTIE AND THE TINMAN by Peter Lovesey (Mysterious Press: $15.95; 212 pp.) NOSTALGIA KILLS by Robert Westbrook (Crown Publishing: $17.95; 283 pp.) A MASCULINE ENDING by Joan Smith (Scribner's: $15.95; 186 pp.)

In last year's "The Neon Rain," James Lee Burke, who teaches creative writing at Wichita State, proved himself a prose stylist to be reckoned with. He caught steamy New Orleans and cold-eyed Hollywood with equal fidelity.

His dialogue sounds true as a tape-recording; his writing about action is strong and economical. But his hero, Dave Robicheaux, a Vietnam vet, a New Orleans homicide detective and a recovering alcoholic, has the soul of a poet-philosopher beneath the scar tissue.

The duality lets Burke mix hard-line action and terse dialogue (which puts him in a class alongside Elmore Leonard) with lyrical evocations of the bayou country and explorations of the deepest feelings of anger, revenge, love, compassion and understanding.

Burke is an important new writer. Popular recognition often comes slowly, as it did to Leonard, but his is a name to watch. In Heaven's Prisoners, Robicheaux has this time quit the force and is running a bait and boat shop in the bayous. (Burke grew up on the Gulf Coast, and his feeling for the territory is palpable.) He sees a light plane crash in the swampy waters and rescues a Latina child, but the adults are dead. It's mysterious from the start. Immigration officials understate the body count by one in the news releases, and the narcotics men know more than they'll tell him. Robicheaux is warned off by officials and thugs alike and severely beaten when he keeps prying.

Burke creates a whole cargo of characters, vivid and distinctive, and a great deal of hard action: nasties and decent men, loyal women and lethal ladies. One of the bad men is a good old boy he grew up with, now rich and mean. Balancing all the corruption is an abiding faith (Robicheaux's and, so you sense, the author's) in the redeeming, enduring power of love.

Georges Simenon stopped writing several years ago, but he wrote so much in his prime that his novels are still finding their way into English. Maigret on the Riviera was written in 1940.

It is a mystery only in the broadest sense. Jules Maigret has been sent to Cap d'Antibes to investigate the murder of an eccentric Australian, black sheep of an importantly connected family. He's been living with two women, his mistress and her mother, but spending a lot of hard-drinking time at a seedy basement bar in the village. Who stabbed him and left him in the shrubbery at his own door? It hardly matters. Discovering the dead man's inner self and his life story is the business of Simenon's little book, which is hardly long enough to qualify as a novella. Maigret, drinking a lot himself and perspiring in his Paris clothes, is at his perceptive best, sighing at the comedie humaine.

Charles Willeford, who died only a few days ago at 69, was a skilled veteran just beginning to be appreciated fully. In The Way We Die Now, his protagonist, Sgt. Hoke Moseley of the Miami Police Department, is almost a cliche: the nearly burnt-out cop with a broken marriage behind him and a future as bleak as a November twilight. His ex, who ran off with a pinch-hitter for the Dodgers, has dumped their daughters on him to raise.

He is an aging maverick not much admired by the brass, and he gets all the lousy details, none worse than posing as a migrant worker to see why so many Haitian illegals are disappearing. (Willeford provided a grand pyrotechnical finish to that assignment.) Moseley uses some guileful charm to unmask a murderer; his sympathetic company. Willeford's intimate command of the sights, sounds, geography and ethnic tensions of Miami and South Florida forestalls any worries about Moseley being a type instead of an individual. He's who Willeford says he is, and he and the author were right at home.

The burnt-out cop surfaces again, just as readably, in a first novel by Marcel Montecino. In The Cross-Killer, Jack Gold drinks far too much, lives in a one-bedroom slum, is hated by his ex-wife and estranged from his married daughter and hangs on to his career by his broken fingernails. A black mistress who was on drugs killed herself, and Gold wears guilt like a non-stop migraine. He despises the chief of police and it's mutual.

The setting is Los Angeles (being pressed hard by New Orleans and Miami as a favored setting for police and private-eye fiction). Gold is Jewish, an obvious choice to look into a chain of anti-Semitic vandalizings and killings.

The serial killer has become another crime fiction staple, not wonderfully attractive, and the cross-killer (he paints Christian crosses at the scene) is unusually repellent--a hater so deep-dyed as to seem evil incarnate. Before Gold finally tracks his man down, Montecino has led a Wambaugh-like tour of police procedures, good cops and bad cops, corrupt lawyers and cynical pols.

The materials are all more than familiar--including Gold's drive to see justice done even if it means breaking the law into smithereens. But Montecino's energetic inventiveness makes them all seem new-minted. It is an admirable debut, and Gold is an attractive invention.

Peter Lovesey is one of England's most inventive mystery writers, with a nice line in Victorian cases starring Sergeant Cribb. In Bertie and the Tinman, Cribb is replaced as sleuth by Edward, Prince of Wales, still suffering under Mother Victoria's disapproving grimaces and not yet Edward VII.

A top jockey has blown his brains out after rising in his sickbed and crying, "Are they coming?" It is the more baffling because the jockey was enormously successful ( tinman means money man, e.g., rich).

Bertie, fonder of the track, music halls and pretty women than protocol and stately duties, determines to solve the mystery. It leads him in disguise to workingmen's pubs. (Nice scene when he has only a guinea to pay a threepenny bus fare--not unlike offering a $50 bill.)

Lovesey's research into the period is detailed, exhaustive and engrossing, and the story, in the form of a memoir discovered posthumously, is colloquial, chipper and altogether engaging.

"That was deplorable," Bertie cries as a villain owns up to his villainies. Deplorable to be sure, but Bertie is delightful.

Robert Westbrook's novel, "The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart," became one of the period-marking films of the druggy, riotous '60s (it was released in 1970). He is now writing procedurals featuring the Left-Handed Policeman, Nicky Rachmaninoff, who plays jazz.

In Nostalgia Kills, the scene is mostly Los Angeles at its cokiest and kookiest. Present crime derives from the death in Rome 20 years earlier of a fabulously big rock star who drowned in the bathtub while zonked out of his mind. Whether he had help drowning is a belated question.

Nicky is--yet again--a divorced cop with an ex-wife who at least still digs him and a daughter who does too. (They evidently stopped inventing maritally unmarred police officers after Gideon of Scotland Yard.)

Hollywood and all its art forms--films, TV and rock--are seen in all their flash and avidity, and Westbrook writes about them with authority and amusement. How it all works out doesn't much matter, but there is a heartening suggestion that Nicky's divorce just isn't working out.

The mystery as mystery, as in "Oh, so that's who done it," is ever harder to find. Such as there are generally arrive from England, along with scotch and Jaguars. A new voice, Joan Smith, heartily endorsed by P. D. James, makes her first appearance with A Masculine Ending.

Her heroine, Lorette Lawson, is an English scholar off to Paris for an angry feminist seminar on masculine and feminine word endings. The title is fitting: One of the scholars is done in. Indeed when Lawson arrives at a friend's empty flat where she is to stay on the Left Bank, it is not empty but occupied by a corpse.

She goes out, returning to find the corpse no longer present. Knowing it can be tiresome to deal with the French police, she tiptoes back to England. But she is obsessed by the mystery and solves it with some sharp, persistent ratiocination, discovering with difficulty that the corpse was in fact the unpleasant Dr. Hugh Puddephat, a linguist. (Smith's names will need some work.)

It is all extremely tidy, polite and bloodless but, after all the mayhem and butcherings of the month's crime thrillers, oddly refreshing, like a glass of tonic on a hot day.

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