K IS FOR KILLER (Holt, $22.95, 285 pp.) is the 11th in Sue Grafton's hugely and deservedly successful alphabetized series about investigator Kinsey Millhone of Santa Theresa (Santa Barbara using an alias). The book stormed onto best seller lists even before its official publication date, and Grafton is already hard at work on the 12th title ("L," for Lethal, Larceny, Liar, Loser, Locksmith, Lamentations?).
The problem of a series always is to sustain freshness and surprise, keeping what makes the series work but not simply falling into repetition. Dick Francis changes protagonists with almost every outing. Ross Macdonald let Lew Archer evolve from something close to the traditional tough private eye to a sensitive observer capable of anguish and regret.
Grafton has obviously opted for the Macdonald mode. Millhone doesn't age much but she grows wiser, quieter, more feeling. And she confronts ever more ambiguous life situations requiring ever harder moral choices. "The problem," Millhone says, "is that so often the law seems pale in its remedies, leaving us restless and unfulfilled in our craving for satisfaction. And then what?"
Then what, indeed, and never more so than in the new novel, in which a mother begs Millhone to investigate the death of a daughter whose badly decomposed body had been found almost a year earlier. The police never came up with even a faint clue to the killer, the case not so much closed as abandoned.
Millhone quickly finds that the daughter's life was more complex than mother knew. She had a part-time office job, but she was also a hooker turned high-priced call girl with high-placed clients and a steely-eyed drive to make her pile and live as a free and independent woman ever after.
As always, Grafton is an expert plotter, placing the dead girl at the center of a tangle of people and events, and the resolution, when it comes, is both quiet and jolting. The author's command of the first person form, with both its rewards (the ability to probe deeply into Millhone's thoughts and emotions) and its challenges (everything must happen to or be discovered by Millhone, no godlike voice-overs to help advance the tale) continues to grow in strength and flexibility.
Whether Grafton will want to push on to " 'Z' Is for Zeitgeist" is uncertain and doubtful. The pleasant present surprise is that even within its limits of time, place and character, the series has not yet begun to exhaust its possibilities or its excitements.
For a wildly different first-person voice, there is the bungling burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr telling about his ludicrous capers in Lawrence Block's THE BURGLAR WHO TRADED TED WILLIAMS (Dutton, $19.95, 258 pp.). In his Matthew Scudder books, Block is one of the most serious of crime novelists. When he chronicles Bernie (this is his first appearance in a decade), Block is one of the funniest, ranking with Donald E. Westlake.
Bernie has been out of action, running a used-book store. But, like a smoker who never quite conquers the yearning to light up, Bernie is a sucker for a tempting score, where the ability to pick locks is crucial.
In the present plot, which is of a Swiss watch complexity, Bernie is conned into knocking over an apartment, obtaining much cash and a cache of baseball cards but discovering a well-drilled corpse in the bathroom along the way. Why the cops are on to Bernie in such a hurry is a good question, one of several.
Bernie's love interest grooms dogs and has her own off-speed take on life. The gent himself is enough to give burglary a good name.
Manuel Ramos, a Latino lawyer in Denver, last year introduced Luis Montez, not so coincidentally a Chicago lawyer in Denver, in "The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz," an outstanding debut. Montez returns in THE BALLAD OF GATO GUERRERO (St. Martin's, $18.95, 183 pp.), and it is again both a good, swift mystery and a sharp and telling look from within at being a minority in an often-hostile majority culture.
Montez is at least slightly more secure and solid than he was a year ago, but success seems a fragile veneer over deep trouble. The story is a long flashback from trouble: A nightmare in a rural nightclub in which a tejano performance is interrupted by gunfire, and Montez and a couple have to flee across the desert, pursued by killers. There is a noisy crash and then silence. Talk about a socko start.
The couple are Montez's boyhood pal, the Gato Guerrero of the title, and the love of his life, who is unfortunately the wife of a brutish and jealous gangster. There are other problems: troubled and angry clients and old family wounds that won't heal. THe book is entertainment that is also a revealing slice of social history.
Linda Grant's Catherine Sayler is another of California's remarkable crop of women investigators created by women. Sayler is partnered in a small San Francisco agency specializing in sniffing out business crime. In A WOMAN'S PLACE (Scribner's, $20, 261 pp.), fourth in the series, Sayler goes undercover, working as a communications expert in a software firm that recently merged with another.
The assignment is to identify and root out the sources of sexual harrassment (not all of it overt) that have left the women on the staff enraged and alarmed. There've been lewd messages on the computers, dirty pictures left on desks, then an escalation to unfunny practical jokes and ultimately the vicious murder of the firm's top female executive, a tough boss who had riled or humiliated most of the men in the place.
Grant's portrayal of the lower levels of sexual harrassment rings true. "I've been threatened and even shot at," Sayler says. "What I can't take is the stuff that gets handed out every day in office all over the world."
What is on view at last is not harrassment seen as traditional insensitive male conditioning and good old boy joshing, or even as disguised anger at women as competitors or bosses; there's a sexist psychopath taking aim at Sayler herself in a long and teasing stalk. Not yet as well-known as Grafton and Millhone, Grant and Sayler are worthy companions, and the present book is clearly heartfelt.
The fecundity of Evan Hunter, who is also Ed McBain, approaches the incredible. McBain's books run into the several dozen, and as Hunter he has written 19 novels, starting with "The Blackboard Jungle" 40 years ago. The new one, CRIMINAL CONVERSATION (Warner Books, $21.95, 398 pp.) has already been bought as a potential Tom Cruise film.
A young deputy district attorney in New York is wiretapping the new head of a major crime family. (The attorney sent his father to prison for life.) Listening to the tapes and watching a video surveillance, he discovers his wife is having a passionate affair with the mobster. It is, as they say, a surefire plot. The wife doesn't know who her lover really is; the lover's ambitious underlings tumble sooner than the lover does to hubby's line of work.
Like all of Hunter-McBain's work, the story moves at high speed, carried by stretches of very readable dialogue. The plot is straight-line but not without embellishment: The wife is a dedicated teacher at a girl's prep school; her most promising pupil a black scholarship student trying to survive with a crack-addicted mother in Harlem. By the standards of much recent fiction, Hunter keeps the love affair more implicit than explicit, and it really does contain a high quotient of love.
Another double-name author is Frances Fyfield, who is also Frances Hegarty, or vice-versa. An attorney who works in the Crown Prosecution Office in London, she is by any name a superior writer, not yet nearly well enough known in this country. She creates women protagonists who are unlike any others in their sometimes battered independence, their offbeat points of view and their sometimes eccentric behavior.
In PERFECTLY PURE AND GOOD (Pantheon, $20, 218 pp.), Sarah Fortune is sent by her law firm to tidy up the will of an eccentric family living on the east coast of England. There is a local back-story. A beautiful woman committed suicide by drowning a year earlier; her grieving husband followed her to town and then evidently walked into the sea to follow her in suicide.
The family is something else. The mother pretends to be batty but isn't; teen-age daughter is crippled by her low self-esteem; one brother commits cruel practical jokes and dreams impractical dreams; a doctor son is a glum workaholic, trying to forget.
"Ms. Fortune," Fyfield writes, "recognized no moral principles other than thou shalt be kind, few instincts which were not positive and no incontrovertible fact other than that men leave in the end." The author adds later that Fortune "eats like a delicate wolf."
There is a ghost, who is of course not a ghost but a madman trying to right imagined wrongs and taking aim at Ms. Fortune, who has meanwhile done more good than Mary Poppins and, unlike Ms. Poppins, turned cartwheels on the lawn in the nude. She is an enormously appealing, unconventional and affecting figure in a distinctly unconventional thriller.
Unconventional always is another English author, Peter Dickinson ("The Glass-Sided Ants' Nest," "The Poison Oracle"), and THE YELLOW ROOM CONSPIRACY (Mysterious Press, $18.95, 261 pp.) qualifies.
An elderly couple hear an ancient scandal being joked about on a quiz program and are enraged and moved to memory. They were part of the scandal, and at the heart of it was a murder which, at this late date, each still thought the other had committed. Now, looking back in alternate chapters, they recreate the family history that led to the murder.
The woman was one of five daughters of a fairly well-to-do country family, down-market from the Mitfords, but interesting all the same. The man was one of the swains who clustered about for games and other sport. The real world intruded in the form of World War II, in which both of the narrators did intelligence work.
The men were a mixed lot, including at least a couple of terrible bounders, and not for the first time, greed, evil and blackmail, with wartime echoes, precipitated the murder. At that, the murder is almost the least of it; the best of it being Dickinson's evocation of another time, another place and a colorful set of women (especially) and relationships. The book is its own slice of social history, and Dickinson's glimpse of old lovers at twilight is sweetly melancholy.
The Irish Troubles, a bloody present and a bloody past, sundering families from generation unto generation, are a fertile field for novels. The latest, unusual in its linkage between Manhattan and Dublin of today and yesterday, is Thomas Adcock's DROWN ALL THE DOGS (Pocket Books, $20, 341 pp.). It is the third appearance of an NYPD detective named Neil Hockaday, although the novel is so densely steeped in Irish history as to seem very little like one of a series.
Hockaday's Irish-born father had brought his bride to New York, gone into the U.S. Army in World War II, disappeared while stationed in London and is presumed dead, having left his widow to rear young Hockaday alone. Now the detective is summoned to Dublin by his father's dying brother.
Why then, is the suicide of an old Irish priest in New York somehow related to Hockaday's own past. Or, come to that, the death of another man in a bomb blast in the house of a fellow cop, who disappears, or the death of an ex-Dublin cop, an IRA fund-raiser. And why do death and deception and ancient angers follow Hockaday to London? Adcock spins a fine and tangled yarn.
The search for a father, or for the truth about a father, has seldom been quite so violent. Adcock knows Irish history and the Irish anguish, and his dialogue lets you hear by turns the soft brogue of Eire or the nasal snarl of pure Manhattan. It is an unusual and engrossing book.
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