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CRIMINAL PURSUITS

Julian Symons, who died last year at the age of 82, was a prolific writer of and about crime fiction. His “Bloody Murder” (Mysterious Press, 1993) is probably the best historical survey of the field. Now what is presumably his last crime novel is being published posthumously. It confirms his special and stimulating approach.

In Playing Happy Families (Mysterious Press: $19.95; 320 pp.), Symons leaves uncertain until the very last pages whether murder has in fact been done. The mystery is what has become of the Midway family’s lively daughter Jenny, who works in an art gallery and has disappeared without trace. The novel records the dissolution of a happy family--not nearly so happy as it pretended to be, of course--as the months go by and neither Jenny nor any sign of her can be discovered. Mommy finds a new career as a caterer-restaurateur; Daddy seeks consolation with his dumpy middle-age secretary (wonderful scenes as he must cope with her awful son); the other siblings and in-laws drift apart.

There are subplots, notably involving a faked Renoir, and a diligent policeman, Inspector Catchpole, who discovers what is clear early on--that Jenny was a more intricate personality than even her family realized.

The story, with or without a corpse, is satisfyingly teasing and suspenseful, well-rooted in careful observations of the quite believable turmoils lurking beneath the placid, even stolid facades of London suburbia. And the novel confirms what an original and artful voice has gone silent.

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Michael Dibdin, who now lives in Seattle after years in London, has also spent considerable time in Italy, and some of his novels feature a Roman detective named Aurelio Zen. In “Cabal,” Zen and Dibdin led us on a darkly atmospheric tour of Vatican corridors and intrigues. In Dead Lagoon (Pantheon: $21; 297 pp.) Dibdin takes Zen back to his native Venice.

While the Venetian Chamber of Commerce may not approve of Dibdin’s evocation of stinking mud-flats, garbage-strewn and polluted canals and crumbling real estate, the reader is likely to be engrossed. Zen’s ostensible reason for temporary duty in Venice is to check out the complaints from an elderly widow (family friend, actually) that ghosts are annoying her. The real motive is to poke into the disappearance of a very rich expatriate and, for Zen privately, to see how far the pervasive corruption of the Italian government has invaded the city.

Dibdin can capture the sense of place with the swift poetic accuracy of Lawrence Durrell, and Venice, its people, manners and mores are the center of a book. He provides a look behind the news stories, and there are seasonings as well of sex, danger, humor and action, leading to sardonic standoffs as pervasive as the corruption.

Jerry Kennealy, who has had years of experience as a practicing private eye in San Francisco, writes about a San Francisco private eye named Nick Polo, and there’s nothing like knowing the turf and the characters on it to put an added twitch in any author’s tales.

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In Beggar’s Choice (St. Martin’s Press: $20.95; 250 pp.) Polo, volunteering at a soup kitchen, gets to know a homeless man named Scratchy who asks Polo to check out some license numbers. Before Polo can do it (or learn why they were important), Scratchy is killed by a hit-and-run car. The plates in question lead to more murders, a rogue cop, a Chinese gangster and a cache of fake Rolexes which, however, have solid gold bracelets.

The events do not zing with originality but they move swiftly and logically, and the considerable satisfaction of Kennealy’s writing is that he does not strain for wisecracks or impose a side-of-the-mouth toughness on Polo. Polo is smart and persistent rather than dumbly heroic, but brave enough when asked to be. Kennealy has a good eye for social details: Pawnshops have gone upscale because a better class of clientele is now requiring fast cash.

Tony Dunbar is a New Orleans lawyer who has previously written heavyweight nonfiction (“Hard Traveling: Migrant Farm Workers in America,” with his sister Linda Kravitz). Now he becomes the latest recruit in the throng of lawyers writing crime fiction.

Crooked Man (Putnam: $19.95; 240 pp.) is the literary equivalent of a film noir --fast, tough, tense and darkly funny, and with an ending so deeply satisfying in the settling of the story’s several scores that a reader might well disturb the midnight silence with laughter.

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Dunbar’s hero is, naturally enough, a New Orleans lawyer, divorced, harrassed, not wildly prosperous, consoling himself with the matchless local food and drink and representing, among other clients, a crossdressing male stripper whose skin is now piebald after unsuccessful surgery.

The author introduces each of the players in short, swift chapters--a sexy refugee from her bad marriage, a drug-dealing saloon keeper, a sheriff’s sadistic bagman (complete with dumb sidekick), Tubby’s stuffy law partner and, as they say, divers others. He then stirs the mix to a grand froth. As always in lawyer-generated fiction, the court personnel--judges good and bad (especially bad), bailiffs, defendants and their weary attorneys--are drawn with what seems unsparing accuracy.

A big drug sale, meant to be knocked over by crooked cops, goes awry and a cool mil in cash turns up missing. No guesses as to its eventual custodian; Tubby is not our protagonist for nothing. The whiz-along crux of the story is the dilemma and the danger (a terrific chase through the French Quarter) the tainted but usefully unmarked loot causes Tubby.

His fancy footwork is enough to give lawyers a good name, except possibly before the Ethics Committee of the State Bar Assn.

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Tony Gibbs has written manuals about sailing, nautical thrillers, an offbeat historical novel and now; in Capitol Offense (Mysterious Press: $19.95; 368 pp.) a New York- and Washington-based thriller culminating in nothing less than a plot to rearrange Congress from the ground up, the hard way.

A senator in the tradition of Theodore Bilbo is throttled outside a Times Square porno cinema. The whodunit is not mysterious very long, but the plot enlarges as the killer seeks a vaster revenge against the government. An unusually vivid cast of characters includes a billionaire publisher with a family secret, a performance artist tending toward the explicit, a porno actor, a dealer in illicit weapons, a secret agent back from a bout with the bottle and a heroine, previously chronicled, who works in book publishing.

Los Angeles writer Melodie Johnson Howe’s first mystery “The Mother Shadow,” introduced a formidable, grande dame sleuth named Claire Conrad and her Watson-like functionary, Maggie Hill. It was a rousing success. They are back in Beauty Dies (Viking: $19.95; 224 pp.), caught up in the murder of a young model who had lately come to see them at their hotel during a New York assignment. Impostures and concealments and the worlds of fashion and fashion magazines are key ingredients.

It is a smoothly crafted entertainment, with trace elements of Rex Stout and Mary Higgins Clark, which is to say that the characters and events seem to take place in a world that even in its crimes and hatreds seems somehow tidier and more hermetically sealed than ours.

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Hear the Author

* To hear Melodie Johnson Howe reading from her book, “Beauty Dies,” call TimesLine at 808-8463 and press *7814. To hear readings from other recently reviewed books, press *7810.


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