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James Preston Girard has published short fiction and one previous mystery as a softcover original under a pseudonym. THE LATE MAN (Atheneum, $20, 277 pp.) is thus his hardcover debut under his own name, and it is a sensitive, original, unpredictable and extremely moving novel he has written.

The late man of the title is Sam Haun, the night-shift editor on a Wichita newspaper. A recent widower, he has discovered from her journals that his wife had been having an affair with the paper’s editor, Frank Rule. An eager young reporter on the paper, Anastasia (Stosh) Babicki, is having an affair with Rule now, which complicates the fact that Haun and Babicki are both assigned to cover the renewed investigation of a series of apparent serial killings. The presiding detective, L. J. Loomis, is an estranged husband with his own griefs.

Girard’s book is far less a procedural about the search for a killer (which itself ends ambiguously) than it is a profound study of these four characters, their relationships and the conduct of their lives. Even so, the story is very suspenseful, pervaded with a fearful sense that the killer could be any one among us. Just how keen the suspense has become is made dramatically clear by a sudden confrontation in a shadowy park near a bus station. Girard can shock as well as analyze.


He has taught creative writing at two universities and he manifestly practices what he evidently preached. The prose is liquid and lucid, with an unforced poetic precision that is lovely to read. His ability to look deeply into the thoughts and souls of his three related but distinct characters--Rule, like the murders themselves, is more a catalyst than a protagonist--is the mark of the true novelist. His book does not so much cross as ignore any conceivable line between crime fiction and straight fiction.

Most remarkably in a cynical time, Girard charts the real despairs of his figures--Haun is suicidal--but in the end affords them grounds for hope and change. A novel which conveys loneliness and isolation so well finds that that is not all there is.

Girard’s book is the more engaging for going against conventional expectations. There is a heightened credibility derived from the sense that we haven’t been here before, and that we are in the presence of characters we know well, care about and are not likely to forget very soon.

Another author who pushes expectations aside is Minette Walters, an English novelist whose first book, “The Ice House,” was well-reviewed in 1992. In her new one, THE SCULPTRESS (St. Martin’s: $21.95; 308 pp.), a free-lance writer named Roz Leigh is hired to do a true crime book about a grossly fat woman serving a life sentence for the murder of her mother and sister. The bloody butchery of the corpses made “The Sculptress” an inevitable tag in the tabloid press.

Her real name is Olive Martin and she is bright and articulate when she chooses to be, but with a raging temper that has frequently erupted in prison. Walters, rightly compared to Ruth Rendell in her ability to convey aberrant psychological states, creates in Martin a mesmerizing, worrying but somehow sympathetic or at least pitiable figure.

The novel is more traditionally a mystery than Girard’s. As she digs into the past, the writer is increasingly doubtful that the sculptress did the actual murders. The picture she assembles is of a family and indeed a neighborhood far less tidily suburban than they seemed, more a writhing nest of snakes. The ending is both satisfying and unnerving.


“Mitigating Circumstances,” Nancy Taylor Rosenberg’s first novel, was a rousing success and will evidently become a Jonathan Demme movie. Rosenberg, a police officer who was more recently a Superior Court investigator before she turned to writing, revealed in her first book that she was a ring-a-ding story teller whose tricky plotting was buttressed by the authenticity of the courtroom and police environments she has experienced.

The mixture of intricate plot constructed within a vivid atmosphere works again in INTEREST OF JUSTICE (Dutton: $21; 367 pp.). Her protagonist is Lara Sanderstone, a Superior Court judge with nothing but troubles. She is forced to release a man accused of rape because his confession had been beaten out of him, occasioning death threats on her. Her brother-in-law and sister are murdered, leaving her in charge of their troubled and unruly teen-age son. Curious things start happening within the legal system itself; lethal prisoners released on her authority, although she never gave it.

Rosenberg misdirects suspicions in a magicianly way, leaving the villains almost too unguessable. The denouement is eventful and thrilling, and the author is once more an ace tale-spinner.

Peter Diamond, who quit the force in Bath, England, in last year’s “The Last Detective” by Peter Lovesey, is reduced to working as a night security guard in Harrod’s in DIAMOND SOLITAIRE (Mysterious Press: $18.95; 346 pp.). He loses even that demeaning job when an autistic Japanese child is found abandoned on his floor (the furniture department) on his watch.

Baffled when no one claims the little girl, and no longer having any police powers, Diamond takes up the case and gets the child’s plight told on a television show, after which she is kidnaped from a foster home. The chase, which includes a friendly Sumo wrestler and adventures in Japan, is a pleasure to follow, and Lovesey makes the relationship between tough cop and troubled child wholly beguiling.

William Murray continues the prolific career of his magician horseplayer, Shifty Lou Anderson, in WE’RE OFF TO SEE THE KILLER (Doubleday, $18.50, 212 pp.). As in many crime series, the incidental music is at least as entertaining as the main theme. The sounds, as before, are the shouts and moans of Shifty Lou and fellow horseplayers at trackside, and the lore of Shifty’s other career in hand magic.


The main theme this time involves a wondrous 2-year-old filly, under Shifty during his temporary stint as manager of a friend’s training stable. Troubles start with absentee owners and progress to a horse farm in Kentucky where things have gone murderously sour. Quick and witty, the new book, like the others, is a sure thing.

Emily Pollifax is not quite as offbeat as series characters get, not with a Mayan tour guide, a bishop in a wheelchair and a beauty parlor operator in competition. But as a grandmother who is active in her New Jersey garden club and also a CIA agent as prepared to kill as she is to crossbreed a begonia, Mrs. P. ranks high.

In MRS. POLLIFAX AND THE SECOND THIEF by Dorothy Gilman, (Doubleday: $20; 201 pp.), the tenth in the series, she is off to Sicily to help rescue an agent who has been wounded burgling a safe in search of a letter signed by Julius Caesar. (You have to go with the flow in these matters.)

There appear to be three sets of bad guys pursuing Mrs. P. as she careens around Sicilian mountainsides in company with a resourceful young agent named Kate Rossiter. Between them they flush a covey of illegal arms dealers, which is more than most garden club grandmothers can say. Featherweight but entertaining.

It’s a tribute to Ruth Rendell that these days anyone who writes first-rate psychological suspense novels, in England particularly, is inevitably compared to her. That’s true of Minette Walters and now of Frances Hegarty. Hegarty also writes as Frances Fyfield and as Fyfield published a fine thriller, “Shadow Play,” earlier this year.

In HALF LIGHT (Pocket Books: $20; 278 pp.) Hegarty has created an eerie tale with echoes of Poe, “The Collector” and a dash of Stephen King. Her story centers on Elisabeth Young, an art restorer and copyist whose self-image is so low she is almost paralytically passive. As such, she is unusually vulnerable and, since some of her troubles seem real enough, she excites sympathy rather than impatience.


A job arrives in the guise of work to be done at the ornate if forbidding flat of a wealthy recluse and his truly, classically mad sister. Given her passivity Young is a willing captive. But the situation is doom-laden and the question is simply when is the hell going to break loose.

Hegarty’s skill (like Rendell’s) lies in somehow infusing unlikely people and situations with a seeming psychological validity that deprives the reader of any chance, or urge, to say, “You’ve got to be kidding.” You do care about Ms. Young.

The month’s prize for Most Unusual Killing has to be the tableau in William J. Caunitz’s CLEOPATRA GOLD (Crown: $20; 303 pp.) in which a police informer is led, naked, onto the stage of an abandoned theater in the presence of a sordid assembly of dope dealers and other thugs. There is he is attacked, crushed to death and swallowed whole by a 15-foot anaconda imported for the purpose. Sweet dreams.