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A Bushel of Thrillers

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The bedside stack this month is divided among old reliables being reliable and new or relatively new voices well worth noting for present and future reference.

One of the newer voices belongs to Neal Stephenson, an Iowan who has lived in New England and now writes in Seattle. Zodiac, subtitled “The Eco-Thriller,” is Stephenson’s second novel (“The Big U” was the first).

His scene is Boston, where the harbor is being polluted into a puddle of poison. His untidy hero is Sangamon Taylor, an environmental activist whose pals call him “a granola James Bond” and who wears a wet suit instead of a trench coat.

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It’s the most energetic thriller in recent months--quantities of action, much of it in or under water, along with great dollops of bacterial science, all of it scary, and an abrasive central figure whose enemies regard him as an ecological terrorist.

Taylor shares the turf, so to speak, with Robert Parker’s Spenser. It is the lesser side of Greater Boston--but without the cuisine, and with a raging anger about the corporate polluters. The anger reads like more than a merely literary ploy, and Stevenson’s book is an impolite pleasure.

Among old reliables, Donald E. Westlake is year-in and year-out the funniest of the American mysterians. The strain of comic invention occasionally has shown as drops of blood on Westlake’s forehead, but more often, he gives his outrageous criminal fancies a life of their own.

There is a mystery in Trust Me on This. A young woman en route to a new job on a Florida publication finds a body at the roadside. It disappears and Security seems not to have reported it to the local cops.

The plot thickens, as they will, but the mystery this time is quite incidental to Westlake’s raucous and withering satire on the publication, one of those check-out-stand weekly tabloids that keep you posted on two-headed babies, star adulteries and killer roaches invading Bel-Air. (I saw a recent headline that said BABY BORN WEARING EGYPTIAN RING. Even Westlake might pause at inventing that.)

The real plot is about the workings of Weekly Galaxy, and the fall from journalistic grace of Sara Joslyn, who quickly succumbs to the pressure to produce and who as her initiation rite fakes a birthday party for 100-year-old twins, using an imposter after one of the twins has died untimely.

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Westlake’s great centerpiece is the tabloid’s all-out effort--helicopters, mounted reporters, wholesale bribery and relentless deceptions--to steal exclusive coverage on the wedding of a defiantly uncooperative television star.

“There is no newspaper anywhere in the United States like the Weekly Galaxy,” Westlake writes in a note, but the wink must have been so extravagant that you could hear it. Does Sara repent? Not hardly.

Gerald Petievich, a longtime treasury agent based in Southern California, turned writer to produce “To Live and Die in L.A.” and other well-informed and atmospheric crime stories, initially involving the counterfeiters he chased on a daily basis.

In Shakedown (unrelated to a forthcoming film of the same title), Petievich’s prevailing motif is corruption along the Las Vegas-Los Angeles axis. His protagonist, John Novak, is an honest FBI agent who feels surrounded and thwarted by bureaucratic fools. He has a vice lord in his sights, and one of the big man’s attendants is Eddie Sands, an ex-cop now specializing in extortion. (Petievich invents some wicked ploys for him).

There are hoods large and small, a moll and a sexy federal judge. It is all fast, all cynical, all satisfying. Petievich grows better and more inventive right along.

K. C. Constantine, the pseudonym of a Pennsylvania newspaperman, ranks with Albuquerque’s Tony Hillerman and Denver’s Rex Burns as the best of the regional crime novelists. Constantine’s half-Hungarian, half-Italian police chief, Mario Balzic, is one of the most authentic creations in all of crime fiction, and his small city is so real you could map it.

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Joey’s Case is the eighth Balzic novel, and of them all, it has the least to do with the crime, the most to do with Balzic himself.

He’s asked by the defendant’s family to reinvestigate a murder case that was badly botched by an officer from another jurisdiction. Balzic does his work, treading gingerly because he has no real authority. It’s a messy case, a love triangle that involved three unlovely people and ended in gunfire.

But Balzic has a tougher, more personal problem distracting him and driving him crazy. He has suddenly become impotent, and he can’t cope with it; can’t face his wife or his mother; can’t find consolation in drink although he tries. He sleeps in an empty cell to avoid going home.

It is admittedly curious material for the mystery form, handled not even for wry and affectionate laughs but to reveal a man’s anguish in the face of a demoralizing personal mystery.

Just to confound Balzic’s confusions, the rule and role of law suddenly seems more ambiguous than ever, leaving Balzic to wonder whose side he is on. This is harder to solve than Balzic’s problem, which improves. As the best crime writers do from time to time, Constantine is pushing at the limits of the form, and the results are affecting and untraditional.

Another impressive new voice is an Australian poet named Robert Brissenden, whose first novel, Poor Boy, is a thriller set principally in Thailand and Australia itself. The time is now. Tom Caxton a correspondent accidentally reunites with two pals from his Vietnam days.

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Drugs, as prevalent in fiction as in life these days, have changed the pals, and Caxton is quickly embroiled with sadistic officials, super-rich traffickers and thugs of several persuasions. In the ad copy, comparisons are offered with Eric Ambler and Graham Greene, but Brissenden does not yet have their powers of implication nor their ability to probe the soul.

No matter; Brissenden is a swift and powerful storyteller with, indeed, a poet’s gift for evoking the atmosphere of the exotic settings he appears to know well. He is a talent to watch, and he will grow.

A. E. Maxwell, which I think to be the joint byline of a Southern California husband-and-wife team, has authored three previous action thrillers featuring an adventurous investigator named Fiddler who lives in Orange County, drives very fast and appears to be a walking arsenal.

This time, in Just Enough Light to Kill, much of the action is along the Mexican border, where an old Fiddler pal has been bushwhacked. The night stalkings and the confrontations are well-handled in their own way, and the Maxwell narrative style gets cleaner and more direct with each outing. Fiddler has a good deal to say about social life in the county.

It is just that his bleak, quasi-poetical mixture of cynicism and battered idealism begins to seem an overstretched pose, as in: “I believe that yesterday always comes, bringing with it the wreckage of the past, leaving you standing by an open grave with a fistful of dirt and a gutful of regrets. . . .”

A polite, expert and comparatively bloodless mystery of the old school is A Worm of Doubt by M. R. D. Meek, an Englishwoman who is a retired lawyer and who can be mentioned in the same breath as P. D. James.

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She plots intricately and with unfolding surprises like those Russian dolls-within-dolls. Her characters have feelings and are consistent in them. She writes in a clear, graceful and unforced style.

Her continuing figure is Lennox Kemp, a lawyer who had a spot of trouble over some temporarily misappropriated funds and is fighting his way back to respectability. (A wife done him wrong; he is manifestly a good man.)

An unpleasant woman wants Kemp somehow to separate her husband from his beautiful Irish mistress. The mistress turns up dead, and all the logical suspicions prove to be misplaced. In the end, Meek has written a Who-probably-done-it, but justice has indubitably been served.

The African Poison Murders by Elspeth Huxley (who wrote “The Flame Trees of Thika”) is interesting less for its rather perfunctory prose than for its portrayal of farm life in colonial East Africa in the days just before World War II. A good deal of expertise is revealed, some involving esoteric poisons.

Vachell is a colonial policeman come to investigate ugly goings-on (mutilations and poisonings) at one of the farms. A German neighbor is known to be active in the local Nazi Bund, which complicates matters. Characters murmur lines like “I’ll get the swine for this,” and there is no doubt that the author knows the territory and the period.

The television journalist Douglas Kiker’s Death at the Cut is set on Cape Cod. A burnt-out print journalist restoring his soul with a little bird-watching spots a yellow VW sunk in shallow water, with a dead girl strapped in the passenger seat.

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“Another Chappaquiddick,” a lesser Kiker character says, which does not lift the unpleasant feeling that a tragedy has been trivialized for commercial gain.

The girl, a real swinger, has been a Washington secretary and dallied with a Midwest senator who is making a run at the presidency. He is staying with a super-rich backer just across the pond where the girl died. Is there a cover-up? Do senators vote?

Mysteries are all make-believe, yet for some reason, Kiker does not breathe even fictional life into the hero’s relationship with a rich widow, nor into the profane local priest, the senator’s drunken aide, the rich backer or the senator’s icy, ambitious wife.

Kiker offers authoritative side comments on politics and on presidential wives, but the information needs a stronger story to hang on.

What would be interesting to explore is why so many fictional protagonists in and out of crime these days are burnt-out cases. The authors may be trying to tell us something about our society.

ZODIAC The Eco-Thriller by Neal Stephenson (Atlantic Monthly Press: $7.95; 281 pp.) TRUST ME ON THIS by Donald E. Westlake (Mysterious Press: $16.95 ; 293 pp.) SHAKEDOWN by Gerald Petievich (Simon & Schuster: $16.95 ; 235 pp.) JOEY’S CASE by K.C. Constantine (Mysterious Press: $15.95 ; 216 pp.) POOR BOY by Robert Brissenden (St. Martin’s Press: $15.95 ; 254 pp.) JUST ENOUGH LIGHT TO KILL by A.E. Maxwell (Doubleday: $16.95; 250 pp.) A WORM OF DOUBT by M.R.D. Meek (Scribner’s Sons: $14.95; 191 pp.) THE AFRICAN POISON MURDERS by Elspeth Huxley (Viking: $15.95; 214 pp.) DEATH AT THE CUT by Douglas Kiker (Random House: $15.95; 264 pp.)

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