PRIVATE EYES.Jonathan Kellerman.Bantam.475 pages...

January 26, 1992|By GERRI KOBREN QUEEN OF DESIRE. Sam Toperoff. HarperCollins. 276 pages. $20.

PRIVATE EYES.

Jonathan Kellerman.

Bantam.

475 pages. $21.50.

"Private Eyes" looks, at first, to be the kind of tight psychological thriller Jonathan Kellerman has produced in his other Dr. Alex Delaware books. Eighteen-year-old Melissa, the daughter of a severely agoraphobic mother and a rich old dwarf who died before she was born, comes to the psychologist-sleuth for advice.

Although she has been accepted by Harvard, she doesn't want to leave her mother, who was disfigured years before in an acid attack. The mother, Gina, has recently remarried, and she's in therapy with a stern young woman doctor who is married to a manipulative, older psychologist.

Raised by a cadre of secretive servants, Melissa doesn't trust these newcomers in her mother's life. She's also frightened by the fact that the old acid thrower is out of prison and back in town.

When Gina suddenly disappears, there's pathology aplenty for Alex to consider. Unfortunately, the author -- a psychologist-turned-novelist -- doesn't give us much else. Though he focuses, in excruciating detail, on people's clothing, their motives get short shrift. Homosexuals come popping out of closets, as if that explains everything, and readers still may be floundering around in a sea of red herrings when a sudden flash of insight sends Alex off to subdue the sexually sadistic homicidal maniac and rescue the damsels in distress. "Queen of Desire" is high-class info-tainment. A fictitious "biography" of Marilyn Monroe, it is Tinseltown's answer to Shakespeare's depictions of historical kings -- a character study of a member of American cinematic royalty.

What commends this fish-nor-fowl genre is that unlike biographies that follow the questionable practice of reconstructing thoughts and conversations, it makes no claim of journalistic accuracy. On the contrary, it's almost beside the point whether the young Marilyn ever accompanied a friend to an abortionist, or if, near the end of her life, she called a late-night radio talk show. Author Sam Toperoff is blending the real and the imaginary to get at the soul inside the icon.

The soul he uncovers is distant and distracted -- a woman misunderstood, in no small part because she refuses to understand herself. Ultimately, "Queen of Desire" is a treatise on the pathology of celebrity. It isn't pretty, but it's as slick as Hollywood and just as enticing.

@

J. WYNN ROUSUCK

FUGITIVE NIGHTS.

Joseph Wambaugh.

Perigord Press/Morrow.

336 pages. $22.

After 20 years of battling the male-dominated Los Angeles Police Department, Breda Burrows retires to begin a new business in Palm Springs. She becomes a private detective, and one of her first cases has to do with following a sixtysomething husband who is having an affair -- in all, rather ordinary except for the matter of checks written to a sperm bank.

To assist in her investigation, Breda enlists Lynn Cutter, a twice-married Palm Springs cop anxiously waiting for a disability pension to be approved. Their inquiry is sidetracked when the husband picks up a fugitive who is being hunted after attacking a policeman. They also must work with Nelson Hareem, a loose cannon of a cop whose ambition exceeds his ability.

Joseph Wambaugh's "Fugitive Nights" is populated with a wonderful cast of colorful characters and has the fascinating backdrop of the rich-and-famous Palm Springs and the desolate valley surrounding it. Where "Nights" fails is in delivering a plot that matches the build-up. The book simply takes far too long to get into the main theme -- the reason the husband picked up the fugitive. When the denouement arrives, any surprises or suspense have been lost in a sea of anecdotes and asides.

BOB BAYLUS

DTCCO: BOOK BRIEFS

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