CRIMINAL PURSUITS

James Lee Burke is one of the half-dozen best writers of crime fiction in America. His prose is an uncommon mixture of taut realism and poetic eloquence. Yet the hallmark of his Dave Robicheaux series is a sense of the author's compassionate humanity: his portrayal of good people wanting only to be left alone in their loving family relationships.

They aren't left alone, of course. Burke creates villains and villainies of high persuasiveness, brutal confrontations, the deaths of innocents and the meting out of grisly paybacks, seldom more spectacularly than in DIXIE CITY JAM (Hyperion, 367 pp., $22.95).

Are there one or more German submarines in watery graves off the Louisiana coast, sunk as they preyed on oil tankers in the Gulf during World War II? Robicheaux, the New Orleans detective and reformed drunk who also runs a bait shop in the bayous and does some deep-sea diving, remembers the U-boat stories from childhood. He is hired to spot and salvage one of the wrecks and thereby sets off a sequence of events suspenseful, violent and, even by Burke's own high standards, intricately plotted and compelling.

The sub is a prize for neo-Nazis, one shadowy, malevolent and sadistic creep in particular. Robicheaux's wife and the daughter he rescued and adopted in an earlier book ("Heaven's Prisoners") are imperiled. An accomplice posing as a nun is a classic villainess. The climax aboard ship in the Gulf at night is a thrilling set-piece.

Burke creates a large cast of characters, sharply drawn, colorful and, more often than not, likable. The affectionate accuracy with which Burke evokes the bayou country, life in the parishes as well as in New Orleans, infuses the imagined events (hovering close to the preposterous) with a kind of it-must- be-so veracity.

He is very good and, after a long climb that began in literary journals, Burke has broken onto the best-seller lists, enjoying large promotional budgets and now a film, with Alex Baldwin as Robicheaux in "Heaven's Prisoners," due shortly. The new book is Burke as his best.

Like other writers of crime fiction, Nancy Pickard pushes at the presumed limits of the genre. Her "I.O.U." looked hard at a mother-daughter relationship from the viewpoint of a daughter's guilt. In CONFESSION (Pocket Books, 307 pp., $20) Pickard's Jenny Cain confronts another in-family crisis.

A young man appears at the door, announcing that he is her policeman husband Geof's son from a long-ago liaison. The son's mother and adoptive father are lately dead in what the police concluded was a murder-suicide pact. The son disagrees, and demands that Geof investigate.

But it's Jenny, coping with anger, retroactive jealousy and confusion over what seems her husband's betrayal, who ends up doing most of the investigating. (By profession, she runs small-city charitable foundations, but crime-solving has become part of the job.) The truth is sad, complicated and surprising, and Pickard offers fine insight to character and relationships.

Stephen Solomita started writing in off-hours during his 12 years as a New York cabdriver. He has since parked the taxi for good. LAST TIME FOR GLORY (Otto Penzler Books, 310 pp., $21) is his seventh novel and a good and notably readable job it is.

A young private eye, a vodka-soaked old cop and a flamboyant criminal lawyer who has done more than his share to see justice undone combine to try to free a retarded man convicted of a murder he confessed to but didn't commit.

The triptych of portraits, especially of the cop, Bela Kosinski, is the engrossing heart of the book, although Solomita's demonstration of the justice system's lust for a convictable culprit at any cost, is also engrossing in its heart-chilling way.

Solomita tells a lively story, copiously flavored with irony and with a strong sense of underlying values in place. What's right and what isn't is never in doubt.

The Red Scream (Doubleday, 324 pp., $19.95) is the second thriller by Texas writer Mary Willis Walker. Her first, "Zero to the Bone," won one major prize and was nominated for another as best debut novel. The new book is an assured trip through that upper reach of Texas society where money mostly buys trouble.

Molly Cates is a newspaper reporter who has published a true crime book about the killing of an heiress by a murderous drifter named Louis Bronk, now on Death Row with his execution imminent. The chapter headings are his doggerel verses. Molly will witness the execution and so, by Bronk's invitation, will the victim's children.

But the victim's father makes a crude attempt to bribe Molly off reviving the murder story before the execution, and new doggerel, mimicking Bronk mimicking Bronk but with veiled threats on her life, show up in her mailbox. What keener ways to motivate an aggressive reporter to start digging again? The murders are not over yet, either.

The inflammatory title is the reporter's outrage at injustice, but irony is the flavor of the month, to be tasted again in Walker's clever and readable story.

Sacramento's Steve Martini is another of the lawyers, or former lawyers, writing superior thrillers about the law. "Prime Witness" was prime and his latest, Undue Influence (Putnam, 462 pp., $22.95) is up to standard, which is to say first-rate.

His continuing protagonist, Paul Mariani, is now a widower, his wife's dying request having been that he look after her kid sister. No small request; the sister is in a bitter custody fight with her ex, a potent state legislator with judicial ambitions. When his new wife is murdered, Mariani's protectee is charged with her murder.

The courtroom stuff is excitingly theatrical as always, but Martini is not stuck indoors. There is a dangerous detour to Hawaii in quest of a mysterious pair of government-protected witnesses. Later, a prowling pursuit through a darkened locomotive museum provides shivers that Hitchcock would have loved.

Nancy Taylor Rosenberg, drawing as before on her work as a police office and probation worker, explores the justice system again in First Offense (Dutton, $22.95, 338 pp.). Ann Carlisle, a young probation officer, is assigned a young first-time drug offender who's been given probation in lieu of jail time.

Bafflingly, she is shot and seriously wounded even as she leaves the courthouse. It is the onset of bafflements, not the least of which is a jar of severed fingers found in a refrigerator. Someone quite demented is stalking Carlisle, and it may well be someone who doesn't SEEM demented. The reader may be baffled less long than Carlisle, but the ultimate stalk is splendidly suspenseful all the same.

The Angel Gang (St. Martin's, $20.95, 262 pp.) concludes Ken Kuhlken's trilogy set in and about San Diego in the years just before, during and just after World War II. Now 44 and bald, Tom Hickey, sometime cop, MP and private eye, is playing sax for a living up in Tahoe, with his wife Wendy, whom he had rescued in an earlier caper, expecting a baby.

The past beckons: a call from a singer he had also helped in an earlier caper, now under arrest for murder and demanding his help. Subtlety is not Hickey's MO, and he pokes enough ant hills back in San Diego to endanger himself and his wife, who is kidnaped in Tahoe to make Hickey back off.

The new book is swift and active, but the first of the trilogy, "The Loud Adios," remains the best of the three in its recapturing of the period and its portrait of the younger, even wilder Hickey.

Valerie Wilson Wesley, executive editor of Essence magazine, makes her debut as a crime novelist with When Death Comes Stealing (Putnam, $19.95, 219 pp.). Tamara Hayle is a black ex-cop and single mother, now trying to make it as a private eye in Newark. Her ex-husband, who has a son by each of four wives, including Hayle, needs help. Two of his sons are dead, a year apart to the day. It's more than coincidence. A third dies, putting Hayle's own son at risk.

Revenge is the only likely explanation, and so it is, explained by a tragic history. But good as the construction of the story is, what may well linger with the reader is the incidental music--the tang of the speech, the sense of life observed or imagined as it is lived on the hard lower edge of a hard city. Wesley's book is a valuable debut.

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