CRIMINAL PURSUITS

You have the impression that every lawyer in Western civilization has yellow legal pad in hand, making notes for a novel and determined to be the next Scott Turow. The appeal of the law and of lawyers at work for good or ill is evidently inexhaustible and, as Turow has demonstrated twice, the best of the law/crime-genre books are very, very good.

Consider the premise of The Firm (Doubleday: $19.95; 421 pp.), a second novel by John Grisham, who is a criminal defense attorney practicing in Mississippi and living near William Faulkner's home town of Oxford.

A brand-new Harvard Law graduate, who finished high in his class, owes $23,000 in school loans but has a choice of job offers, each more lucrative than the other. Wall Street beckons, but so does a small, obscure firm in Memphis that promises a fat salary, a BMW, a low-cost loan to buy a house and the prospect of retirement at 50 as a millionaire.

Irresistible, despite a curious aura of secrecy and enforced conformity about the place. Mitch McDeere takes the job and has hardly scrawled his first brief when an FBI agent (a college classmate) sidles up, warns him that the firm is bad news and urges McDeere to become an informant. By a set of coincidences, no one has quit the firm alive, although there are a few cheerful retirees. The last informants, McDeere finds, died in a mysterious boating accident.

The firm, McDeere also learns to his horror, was founded and is owned and run by a crime family out of Chicago, the more or less legitimate tax work a cover for a huge volume of money-laundering involving the company jet, which carries vast bundles of cash to cooperative banks in the Caribbean to await repatriation.

Our boy is caught in a tightening vice between the FBI, extorting him to play on threat of prison when (not if) the firm goes down, and his murderous and suspicious partners with a frightening, efficient security system Capone would have envied.

The character penetration is not deep, but the accelerating tempo of paranoia-driven events is wonderful: clandestine meetings, predawn prowlings, a dangerous imposture and a final cat-and-mouse pursuit through the South to a down-market stretch of Florida coast, leading to a fine ironic finish.

The emigre Czech writer Josef Skvorecky, now living and teaching in Canada, has alternated between "straight" fiction ("The Bass Saxophone," "The Engineer of Human Souls") and crime stories involving a lumpy, insightful detective named Lieutenant Boruvka. In both Skvorecky has been a sharp-eyed, sharp-tongued observer of pre-liberation Czechoslovakia.

Now, in The Return of Lieutenant Boruvka (W. W. Norton: $18.95; 159 pp.), Boruvka is a parking-lot attendant in Toronto. He escaped from a Czech prison where he was doing time for essentially political crimes under the old regime.

Here he is a subdued, background figure (but ultimately crucial, of course) in a murder case that enables Skvorecky to take an amused look at the emigre Czech community in Canada, where old loyalties and divisions and wartime memories have been imported still intact from the homeland.

A woman has been murdered; her brother tells the story. Boruvka's daughter works for an all-woman detective agency. Aristocrats in exile are deeply involved. Boruvka's intuitions still work well, although he wears a suit instead of a uniform and endures a dull job. The mystery is less important than the local color (accurate enough, you have no doubt) that Skvorecky provides.

Michael Palmer is an emergency-room physician on Cape Cod. He has previously written three paperback originals. His debut in hardcover, Extreme Measures (Bantam: $14.95; 390 pp.) is strewn with medical lore, much of it involving poisons that can produce all the symptoms of death, as in voodoo ceremonies. The plot complications are endless, including a spooky hamlet for mental patients in the Utah desert, a secret agent trying to bust a drug ring and a harassed young doctor trying to piece together what the devil's going on, difficult while under arrest with his hands cuffed behind him. The secret agent's spunky sister also is trying to piece it all together, difficult while assassins keep trying to do her in.

The embroideries are almost too much, but Palmer sustains high speed by judicious cross-cutting of the various strands, which he ultimately weaves together nicely. He's a welcome new (relatively new) storyteller.

Santa Barbara's Leonard Tourney has now published the sixth in his carefullly researched series of Elizabethan-era mysteries starring a Chelmsford clothier and constable named Matthew Stock and his shrewd and daring wife Joan. In Knaves Templar (St. Martin's: $17.95; 282 pp.), the Stocks, still in London after a previous caper, are asked by Sir Robert Cecil of Queen Elizabeth's court to stay on.

Three law students at Temple Bar, one of the Inns of Court, have died in circumstances unconvincingly suggesting suicide. Stock is to pretend to be a father reconnoitering the place for his son, a prospective lawyer. But it is Joan, stumbling out of the rain and into the notorious riverside Gull Tavern, who sets the tale in motion.

The Stocks are as warmly likable a couple as can be found in all crime fiction. Tourney's plotting is expert, and as a subtext, the story is a sharp comment on women's frustrations--Joan's included--at coping with a male-dominated society (no matter a queen sits on the throne).

A Real Shot in the Arm (Crown: $17.95; 255 pp.) is a first novel by a young English writer, Annette Roome, who won the John Creasey award for the best debut in 1989.

Chris Martin is a young woman stuck in a bad marriage. She finds a job as a newspaper reporter to get away from her loutish husband at least part-time (a nice trick if you can manage it). She discovers love with a colleague and a suspicious hanging she is sure was murder, not suicide.

The first-person narrative voice is engaging, and Chris is unusually sympathetic, trying amid the criminal events to uphold the tradition of a marriage preserved at all cost--even if the cost is ghastly to contemplate.

D. J. Donaldson is a forensic pathologist in Memphis, and his protagonists are Chief Medical Examiner (of New Orleans) Andy Broussard and Kit Franklin, a pretty young psychologist with whom he works. In Blood on the Bayou (St. Martin's: $16.95; 216 pp.), Broussard confronts a series of messy murders. A suitably grisly autopsy early in the book hints eerily, from the neck bites, that what we have here could be the work of a werewolf.

Crime novels, unlike horror stories, do not admit to such possibilities, not in the real world of forensic medicine. Then again, there's a saying about almost anything that thinking makes it so. Family tradition and valiant but unwise covering of tracks complicate Broussard and Franklin's life here. The bayou atmosphere--close, fetid, mysterious and latently violent, with alligators always a problem for pedestrians--is redolently captured by Donaldson, who is familiar with the turf as well as the science.

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