Fresh, Fearlessly Fast-Paced Pulp Portrait of '50s L.A. From Mosley

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Walter Mosley seems to have a jones for creating series characters. He forged his reputation with his fresh and beguiling tales of reluctant detective (and landlord) Easy Rawlins struggling and sleuthing his way through a Los Angeles of the past--from the postwar '40s to the early '60s ("Devil in a Blue Dress" to "A Little Yellow Dog"). Then he wrote two considerably darker books of linked short stories ("Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned," "Walkin' the Dog") about Socrates Fortlow, an ex-con eking out a poverty-level existence in Watts.

The author's new "Fearless Jones" (Little, Brown, 320 pages, $24.95) introduces a pair of new heroes we'll probably be reading more of--Paris Minton, a used-bookstore owner in 1950s Watts, and his good buddy, Fearless. The two pals couldn't be more unalike. Paris is a streetwise, laid-back, thoughtful gent who shies away from strife. When two cops drop by to give him a hard time, he explains, "I felt no rancor toward them. Being challenged by the law was a rite of passage for any Negro who wanted to better himself or his situation." The words might have come from Easy Rawlins' mouth. Fearless, on the other hand, is a big, bold man whose uncomplicated sense of what's right and flair for instinctive action draw trouble like a magnet.

Mosley's new peace-loving protagonist is enjoying the moderate fruits of self-employment when the beautiful Elana Love enters his establishment searching for a long-departed reverend. Before Paris can blink the Love-light from his eyes, he's beaten, chased, shot at, seduced, robbed and his bookstore is burned to the ground. In a similar fix, Easy Rawlins would probably have turned to his homicidal buddy, Mouse. Paris turns to Fearless, who, he tells us, is "stronger than tempered steel and an Army-trained killing machine. . . . But for all that he was a killer, Fearless was a good man too."

That goodness may be taken as a sign that "Fearless Jones" is arguably the most purely entertaining novel we've had yet from Mosley. While the racial inequity that flourished in L.A. half a century ago is definitely not ignored, the wild and woolly pacing, the events and the larger-than-life characters are refreshing examples of why the best pulp fiction continues to be so revered.

*

Gambling expert and card handler James Swain's impressive first novel, "Grift Sense" (Pocket, 304 pages, $23.95), introduces scam expert Tony Valentine, a retired Atlantic City cop who does consulting for casinos. When a blackjack table nightmare named Frank Fontaine repeatedly beats a dealer at the fading Acropolis Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, its owner sends for Valentine. The problem is that Tony can't figure out what Fontaine is doing to win. The one thing he's sure of is that the dealer, Nola Briggs, is in on the con, her longtime spotless record notwithstanding.

Valentine is a pleasant departure from the usual series hero--middle-aged, smart but not overbearing and realistically adverse to hard work and danger. Nola is the damsel in distress, taking heat not only from the Las Vegas police and her casino bosses, but from the hero as well. Fontaine's scheme is properly tricky and surprising, even though we're given the requisite clues to figure it out. The descriptions of casino high and low life are vivid and credible. I even like Valentine's son, a grifter who's trying to reform.

Less welcome is an eccentric neighbor who amuses herself by taking out supposedly funny fake ads in the paper. Swain has no trouble double-dealing us a fairly intricate series of scams that might have given David Mamet pause, but even his formidable magic falters in trying to convince us that those dumb ads belong in the game.

*

Steve Hamilton's "A Cold Day in Paradise" won the Mystery Writers of America Edgar and the Private Eye Writers' Shamus Award as the best first novel of 1999. It introduced Alex McKnight, a former Detroit cop who still wears the bullet near his heart that ended his career. McKnight, who was also a minor-league baseball catcher, withdrew to Paradise, a town in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, to supervise the rental cabins built by his father.

That's where we find him in his third adventure, "The Hunting Wind" (St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books, 306 pages, $23.95), sitting by a fire in the bar of his favorite inn. It's still freezing there in April, but that hasn't stopped an old teammate named Randy Wilkins from traveling from California to seek his help. Randy has decided to find a girl, the beautiful daughter of a fortuneteller, whom he loved and left 30 years before in Motown. As smoothly as Wilkins convinces McKnight to help him locate the dream girl, Hamilton draws us into his complex tale of friendship, betrayal, honor and madness.

The first part of the novel takes its time following the two men on what seems to be a journey of remembrance as well as discovery. Then, just when they've run out of leads and conversation, violence erupts, changing everything we've been told and sending the honorable McKnight on a faster-paced, action-filled quest. His eventual destination is a little town as dangerous and close-knit as Black Rock, with days (and nights) just as bad, only much colder. At this point, with approximately one-third of the book remaining, you'll want to give yourself all the time you'll need to finish up. The author's compelling, vigorous prose doesn't allow the option of taking a break.

*

In D.W. Buffa's "The Judgment" (Warner, 418 pages, $24.95) two Oregon circuit court judges are murdered in the same place in much the same manner by two different homeless men. The suspect arrested for the first crime--the slaying of Judge Calvin Jeffries--confesses, then commits suicide in his jail cell. Buffa's series hero, defense attorney Joe Antonelli, has had a long and unpleasantly antagonistic history with Jeffries (which I don't think was mentioned in his two previous novels).

Because the jurist had been such an arrogant, flagrantly unjust monster, Antonelli can't quite believe that his death would have been one of happenstance. Ergo, both crimes must be the work of some revenge-seeking criminal genius of a puppeteer. Well, sure. Following that line of thought, he decides to defend the addled homeless man accused of the second murder. If Buffa had just gone the legal thriller route, narrowing his parameters to Antonelli's preparation and trial work and his pal, ex-alky private detective Howard Flynn, and his investigation of other possible scenarios, the novel might have turned out to be a passable if somewhat incredible entertainment.

Instead, we have a big, hulking "literary" work with subplots, flashbacks, large helpings of pretentious profundities and a narrator-hero who talks like he's being paid by the word. "I could see it in my mind, feel it in my soul, all the pulse-pounding, heart-stopping rhetoric I threw at that jury of strangers, all those years ago, when I. . . ." It makes one long for Erle Stanley Gardner and the always on-point Perry Mason.

Dick Lochte, the author of "Lucky Dog and Other Tales of Murder" (Five Star) and the prizewinning novel "Sleeping Dog" (Poisoned Pen Press), reviews mysteries every other week. Next week: Rochelle O'Gorman on audio books.

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