JUST BEFORE DARK:
Clark City Press.
320 pages. $24.95. Jim Harrison is a fine writer of fiction (especially his novellas) and poetry, and a crusty old soul who probably wouldn't mind jabbing you in the chest to make a point. Writing from rural Michigan, he loves hunting, fishing, great food (and great quantities of it) and solitude. He's the rare sort who can dress the deer he just killed and also quote extensively from little-known Russian poets.
What comes through in this collection of essays, magazine pieces and other assorted writings is exactly this mixture of the comic, the gentle and the quarrelsome. An ardent outdoorsman, Mr. Harrison tells you exactly what he thinks of one not-so-legal pastime in "The Violators": "I feel a very precise melancholy when I hear rifle shots in the middle of a September night; the jacklighters are at work after a tepid evening at the bowling alley."
Yet some pieces seem outdated, and his fine writing occasionally is tailored for a slick magazine (such as Playboy); in those, his prose is more flip and the answers come easier. Still, his wit, perceptions and questioning attitude carry this book through. It seems that New Orleans has a self-help group for everybody -- overeaters, alcoholics, sex addicts, co-dependents. Unfortunately, there's no Murderers' Anonymous; otherwise, policewoman Skip Langdon might have an easier time tracking down the Axeman, a serial killer who preys on people belonging to 12-step self-help programs.
The Axeman's second victim is a middle-aged man found with a teddy bear, which tips the police off to the fact that he was probably a member of a group dedicated to getting in touch with the "inner child." Skip goes undercover in the group, getting to know its members, including a psychologist, a self-styled voodoo priestess, a young doctor and his pretty blond girlfriend, but the sardonic policewoman has a hard time fitting in. "She had wondered if it would be like a cult and found that it was exactly as she imagined one would be -- the silly rituals, the rapt faces of the true believers, the utter lack of humor, the deep sense of purpose. Her skin crawled."
As in her first Skip Langdon mystery, "New Orleans Mourning," Julie Smith shows a fondness for exploring turbulent family relationships (including those within the Langdon clan). Still, Ms. Smith always takes care to leaven the melodrama with a touch of wit, befitting a book set in such a colorful city.
228 pages. $20.
Ex-sportswriter Jimmy Drover lives in Santa Cruz and works as the eyes and ears of a Las Vegas legal bookmaker. He is approached by a retired mobster and old neighborhood friend, Tony Rolls; he and his "friends" want Drover to investigate the possible fix of an NFL game. In return, they will help Drover avenge the ruthless victimization of an old flame by a particularly lTC loathsome Texas gambler named Slim Dingo. Considering his line of work, Drover accepts the offer. His cross-country investigation leads him to a complex scam masterminded by a couple of "Whiz Kids" from the Chicago Commodities Exchange.
"Drover" is a well-researched and offbeat novel that manages to overcome one big and annoying flaw. Author Bill Granger is so intent on making his characters urban and hip that they seem like refugees from a Damon Runyon work, and the dialogue comes off as self-conscious instead of snappy. Compared to the colorful Tony or the Cajun Denver quarterback named Lenny Gascon, Drover is singularly flat. Still, the link between the NFL and gambling, and the ease in which a game could be fixed, is quite interesting, and the solid research are enough to overcome any problems with the characters.