BACK IN THE BLUE HOUSE.
Ticknor & Fields.
214 pages. $19.95.
When offered an autobiographical novel by a 26-year-old Ivy ** Leaguer, some may ask: Who cares? Jeff Giles, who writes for the New Yorker and Rolling Stone, has produced a book at once funny, wise, and promising, and at the same time inconsistent and incompletely realized. Focusing mostly on the perils of growing up in '70s and '80s America, the book is full of tales of suburban absurdism.
At his best, Mr. Giles writes exceptionally well, with a sharp sense of humor and fine eye for detail and insight. In describing his grandparents' relationship, for instance, he writes, "Ercole and Almerinda spoke to each other only in phrases. They were like two passengers sharing a train compartment, each noticing only the other's bad taste in novels and his habit of sleeping with his mouth open."
Many of his observations on popular culture and the generation gap are clever and precise, as when he describes his visits to the family: "I never knew what to say to my relatives . . . Our visits were like a scene in one of those Chinese movies where an immigrant generation returns to their homeland and shocks the grandparents with Walkmen and Reeboks. What was strange was that my family had never migrated."
For all his mentions of Kurt Vonnegut, though, Mr. Giles lacks the ironic distance, the consistent comic timing, and the philosophical warmth that made Mr. Vonnegut's early novels so alluring. Mr. Giles probably could use a tougher editor to tighten him up a little, but this book is still an entertaining -- even auspicious -- debut. Murder mysteries and classical music are a lovely combination -- the best of both feature cunning and careful organization. Cynthia Harrod-Eagles' "Orchestrated Death" begins with the discovery of the naked corpse of a young violinist, who died possessing a valuable Stradivarius seemingly well beyond her means.
An amateur musician, Ms. Harrod-Eagles has her musical details down pat, and she's also a skilled writer. Too bad the humor that shows up in the early chapters dissipates as the story continues. (A favorite example: "We know she wasn't interested in pornography . . . She didn't have a pornograph.")
It's also too bad the protagonist, Inspector Bill Slider, isn't more colorful -- an especially unfortunate lapse since the author apparently plans to make this the first in a series of Slider mysteries. However, like great musical creations, inspired mystery novels come along only rarely. Between masterpieces, this is at least a pleasant diversion.
J. WYNN ROUSUCK
216 pages. $18.
Detective fiction, unlike some other forms of fiction, lends itself to the series character. Loyal readers not only get the enjoyment of the mystery but also watch the protagonist develop. The author must provide a compelling story but also keep the reader engaged with the character's personal life. In the hands of someone such as Ed McBain or John D. MacDonald, a series is a pleasure.
"Quarry" is Bill Pronzini's 19th published novel concerning one of the most unusual private detectives in mystery fiction -- Nameless. Described as a "grass roots p.i.," Nameless is a working-class Everyman who has managed to retain his humanity despite some harrowing situations. "Quarry" is every bit as absorbing as the others in the series.
Nameless is approached by Arlo Haas, a farmer from a small Californian town. Haas is a widower with one daughter, Grady. Working in San Francisco for an insurance company, Grady takes a sudden leave of absence from the firm and returns home. Traumatized, Grady will not speak about the shock. Nameless is hired to find out what happened and take -- if possible -- corrective action.
For a short novel, "Quarry" is powerfully written and complex, and has a terrific ending. If you have not discovered Nameless, "Quarry" is an excellent place to begin.