TRUE CRIME.Michael Mewshaw.hTC Poseidon Press.288 pages...


July 21, 1991|By SUSANNE TROWBRIDGE HOW TO MAKE AN AMERICAN QUILT. Whitney Otto. Villard. 179 pages. $18.


Michael Mewshaw.

hTC Poseidon Press.

288 pages. $19.95. Tom Heller is the author of several best-selling true-crime books, each one packed with lurid details about murder and mayhem among the very rich. "Some critics call me a muckraker, a carrion bird," he says. But when his own father, Big Tom, is shot and Tom tries to solve the crime, it's the start of an adventure that ultimately gives the writer a new perspective on his slightly unsavory profession.

An American expatriate who has spent the last several years living overseas, Tom leaves his wife and kids in Italy and rushes home to Maryland to be with his dad. As Big Tom lies dying in the hospital, the father and son of Tom's long-ago girlfriend are shot and killed at their posh bayside estate. Tom senses that her tragedy would make a great book, but once he begins his research, he comes to the disturbing conclusion that all three murders are somehow connected.

Michael Mewshaw is himself a writer of true-crime books -- he's a graduate of the University of Maryland and has lived in Italy for several years -- and his novel is full of pointed observations on the way that big-bucks publishing has made crime pay. "True Crime" is a fine suspense thriller, and it also contains some surprisingly touching scenes in which Tom comes to grips with the traumas of his past.

Whitney Otto's first novel, "How to Make an American Quilt," doesn't explain how to quilt. It explains -- or tries to -- the meaning behind a quilt.

Finn, the 26-year-old narrator, is in California, visiting her grandmother and great-aunt. She has been disillusioned by graduate school, where she's seen not the relatedness but the fragmentation of knowledge. Now she hopes to find herself by listening to the stories of these two older women. Their stories, though, are joined to the stories of six other women.

The novel develops in a series of flashbacks as each woman stitches the events of her life into a quilt. The result is a novel consisting of eight interlocking stories juxtaposed with seven sets of quilting instructions. Among these instructions are numerous observations on quilting, art, literature, history, the civil rights movement and the women's movement.

The point of this short novel seems to be that "all personal histories are intertwined." But the narrator digresses, and the narrative doesn't hold together.



Lawrence Sanders.


351 pages. $21.95.

The Starrett family has a lot of problems but also money -- a lot of money. The family owns a string of posh jewelry stores around the world. When the family patriarch Lewis is murdered, son Clayton takes over. He begins replacing the old-line store managers and changing the thrust of the Starrett empire from the jewelry business to speculating in gold bullion.

There was a $3 million life insurance policy on Lewis. The insurance company sends its chief investigator, Dora Contito, to investigate Lewis' death to see if it was a random act of violence or something more sinister. Assisted by a New York City cop, Dora's probe of the Starretts reveals a pattern of drug abuse, infidelity, financial shenanigans and murder.

"The Seventh Commandment" reads more like a bad spoof of "Dallas" than a serious novel. The Starretts are such a morally bankrupt bunch that it is difficult to feel any sympathy for them, and Lawrence Sanders can never decide if he wants "Commandment" to be a trashy novel or a morality tale on the sin of greed. It's a flat and unconvincing book.


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