ELENA.Elizabeth George.Bantam.388 pages...

FOR THE SAKE OF

September 13, 1992|By SUSANNE TROWBRIDGE THE MALE CROSS-DRESSER SUPPORT GROUP. Tama Janowitz. Crown. 314 pages. $20.

FOR THE SAKE OF ELENA.

Elizabeth George.

Bantam.

388 pages. $20. Elena Weaver was bludgeoned to death one morning as she jogged along the River Cam. Cambridge University, where Elena was a student, calls on New Scotland Yard to investigate the crime, and Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley promptly volunteers for the assignment; after all, his lady love, Helen Clyde, is currently in Cambridge, tending to her ill sister.

When Lynley arrives in Cambridge, the local police superintendent divulges his suspicion that Elena was not murdered by a stranger. "This wasn't any arbitrary killing. This was a lying-in-wait," he says. "If the body's any indication, Inspector, I should say you're looking for a killer who's craw-filled with hate."

In her fifth novel, Elizabeth George shows us a trio of troubled families. Elena's death reunites her divorced parents -- her mother, a Londoner, bitterly blames Elena's father, a Cambridge professor, for failing to properly watch over their vulnerable daughter. Then there's Lynley's partner, Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers, struggling with the question of what to do with her mentally ill mother; and Helen Clyde's sister Pen, deserted by her husband as she suffers from a monstrous case of postpartum depression.

Ms. George has a flair for creating complex, fully realized characters, and the passionate, enigmatic Elena and her tormented parents rank among her best. Powerful and deeply affecting, "For the Sake of Elena" is another satisfying addition to this superb series.

That slave of New York night life has grown up. Could it be that Tama Janowitz, the literary brat packer with the biggest hair, is confronting her biological clock?

Ms. Janowitz' fourth novel is an oddly engaging and genuinely funny story told through that now stock character: the single woman whose mother, job, apartment and variously hopeless men conspire to drive her bonkers.

Enter a child, in the most improbable fashion. (He follows her around until she finally takes him in -- in New York City!)

Still, Pamela and Abdhul comprise a truly sweet if unconventional family -- take that, Dan Quayle. They end up on a picaresque road trip in which small screw-ups pile on top of big misunderstandings and result in Pamela's having to return to the city as Paul. There are also the dismembered head, kinky sex, arson and other inconveniences that casually crop up along the way.

Somehow, this absurd plot works. Your heart breaks when the Pamela-and-Abdhul team seems torn apart by conventional attitudes, and the lovely, understated ending will leave you with a smile.

JEAN MARBELLA

IN THE HEART OF THINGS.

D. S. Lliteras.

Hampton Roads Publishing.

165 pages. $8.95 (paperback).

A college-educated Vietnam veteran who has a master's degree in theater wakes up in his car in downtown Baltimore. Robert Llewelyn has lost his wife (death), his home and his job (unexplained), and has $60 in his pocket. He is depressed, but intellectually alert. It is winter. For some inexplicable reason (fate?), he has driven from Virginia Beach and parked his car in a tow-away zone near The Block. Within an hour, he has embarked on a spiritual journey around the pre-Harborplace inner harbor with a street Zen master called Jansen.

You either accept this premise of "In the Heart of Things" or you don't. I didn't. With stronger writing, I may have been willing to cross the boundaries of reality that D. S. Lliteras, a Virginia poet, playwright and firefighter, seeks to explore and transcend in this novel. As written, however, this heartfelt parable about escaping into (not from) life adheres too inconsistently to reality to gain control over it. The story strains credulity.

To his credit, Mr. Lliteras, himself a Vietnam vet with a theater degree, experiments with literary structure, using a Pinteresque play-within-a-play and poetry to reflect his characters' metaphysical struggle and awareness. But his resolution, dependent on sex, violence and death, is an unenlightened one.

ANN G. SJOERDSMA

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