Different worlds, different detectives, both good

June 30, 1991|By Gregory N. Krolczyk

His name is Paul Giacomin. He is 24 years old. He is looking for the mother he left behind many years ago. Unable to find anything but dead-ends, Paul calls on the man who helped him long ago when he needed to get away from his parents: Spenser.

His name is Luke. He's about 8 years old. He killed his foste brother. The D.A. wants to send him to jail. Others, those who are hiding him, know that Luke is just as much a victim as the baby he killed. They know whom to turn to to help them get their proof: Burke.

It is interesting that both Robert B. Parker's "Pastime" (Putnam 223 pages, $19.95) and Andrew Vachss' "Sacrifice" (Knopf, 273 pages, $20) should have similar plots, for it's doubtful that any two characters could be more dissimilar than Mr. Parker's Spenser and Mr. Vachss' Burke.

Spenser, now 18 books old, is the white knight. A Korean Wa veteran, he lives in Boston in a nice apartment, wears stylish clothes and cooks gourmet food. He's in love with a wonderful woman named Susan; his best friend, Hawk, is a stylish black man with a dubious background; and he rarely steps outside the law.

Burke, now six books old, is a child of the night. An ex-con, h lives in the squalor of New York in an apartment that he gets rent-free (because he blackmails its owner). He dresses out of necessity, and frequently eats sweet and sour soup at Mama's restaurant (which openly refuses to serve the public). Every

woman he has loved has left him -- one way or another, his best friends are a collection of rejects and misfits -- and he has an open disdain for the law.

About the only thing these two do have in common is that eac has been the central figure in some very entertaining works of detective fiction. "Pastime" and "Sacrifice" are excellent examples of just how entertaining that genre can be.

If, after last year's "Stardust," anyone still needs proof that Mr Parker can be one of the best in the field, they need look no further than "Pastime." It is billed as being a sequel to the eighth Spenser novel, "Early Autumn," the book that introduced Paul Giacomin. Yet, since so much time has passed (both in Spenser's life and between novels), the term "sequel" seems misleading. Indeed, "Pastime" is much more of an independent work than some of the earlier works.

The plot is straightforward and involving, and features -- in addition to Paul -- several other characters from previous books who show up to again make Spenser's life miserable (and vice versa). Of course, there's plenty of Susan and not enough Hawk (there can't be too much Hawk, can there?).

Actually, about the only thing "Pastime" lacks is the witty dialogue that Parker/Spenser wields with such great flair. Not that it is totally absent, just in lamentably short supply. This, though, is not a failure on Mr. Parker's part, but because the plot simply doesn't allow for it.

While Mr. Parker seems back to form with "Pastime," Mr. Vachss just seems to get better.

The most noticeable improvement is in the plotting of "Sacrifice. Until now, Mr. Vachss' books have been rather lean, almost skeletal affairs. "Sacrifice" not only has a fully developed plot but an interesting subplot as well. That Mr. Vachss manages to tie them both neatly together is a plus.

Another plus comes from Mr. Vachss' continual development of Burke. A most compelling character, Burke has, since the beginning, been possessed by personal demons, ones that force him to do what few can or are willing to do. As each book leaves Burke with more demons to contend with, one can't help but wonder when and how it's all going to end for him.

Finally, Mr. Vachss has honed his prose to a razor sharpnes that, at times, borders on the poetic. Yet there is no beauty to this poetry, only the hard, cold reality of a world filled with the dying and the dead.

Two different worlds, two different detectives, two thoroughl entertaining books. Don't make a choice. Get them both.

Mr. Krolczyk is a writer living in Baltimore.

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