PHILADELPHIA.Gillian Roberts.Ballantine...

I'D RATHER BE IN

October 04, 1992|By SUSANNE TROWBRIDGE PLAIN JANE. Eve Horowitz. Random House. 261 pages. $20.

I'D RATHER BE IN PHILADELPHIA.

Gillian Roberts.

Ballantine Books.

232 pages. $18. Recently, a lot of soft-boiled mystery writers have been tackling some pretty hard-hitting subjects, such as incest, pedophilia and mental illness. Gillian Roberts' latest mystery deals with the problem of domestic violence, and while the combination of humor and heartbreak can be awkward, the author's sincerity and sensitivity allow her to carry off this delicate balancing act.

Teacher Amanda Pepper is sorting through a box of books donated for her school's annual fund-raiser when she finds a paperback about battered women. The words "I am alone and terrified. Help me" are scrawled in the margin. So Amanda decides to locate the poor woman, despite her police detective boyfriend's warnings to "stay out of it."

Amanda eventually does find her -- just moments after the woman's husband has been murdered. Naturally, the battered wife is suspect No. 1. Convinced of the woman's innocence, Amanda searches for the real killer, and discovers that there were plenty of people besides his wife who wanted the man dead.

Ms. Roberts' prose is wry and witty (a fleabag hotel is described as one "no tourist with matched luggage had ever checked into"), and the likably nosy Amanda is a gem of a heroine. The book's message -- that wife-beating is just as prevalent on Philadelphia's tony Main Line as it is in blue-collar neighborhoods -- is one that bears repeating.

"Plain Jane" is the way the narrator of Eve Horowitz's first novel refers to herself. To her, "plain" is a compliment, she explains. It means "simple, natural, not fancy."

The same adjectives apply to this book about a teen-age Jewish girl coming of age in suburban Cleveland. But despite the satisfaction the story delivers as Jane finally reaches maturity, there's a mite more simplicity than seems natural.

The writing style -- intended as an homage to J. D. Salinger -- is at times almost cloyingly coy. And even in Cleveland, teen-agers tend to be more worldly than poor, sheltered Jane, whose semi-dysfunctional family forms almost her entire universe.

In the end, Jane heads off to college, and chances are, broadened horizons will make her a more compelling character. But then, that's another book.

@

J. WYNN ROUSUCK

LIZARDSKIN.

Carsten Stroud.

Bantam.

374 pages. $22.

For Montana State Highway Patrolman Sergeant Beau McAllister, it started when he responded to a call and found a local businessman of unsavory reputation involved in a gun-vs.-bows-and-arrows shootout with several Lakota Indians. He had no reason to assume that this incident was in any way connected to one seven days earlier when a Crow woman proved willing to die to "escape" the local hospital with her newborn. But a connection does exist, one that could rend the moral cloth of the entire country. And Beau's going to have to run gantlets on both sides of the law if he's to discover exactly what it is.

Carsten Stroud's first novel, "Sniper's Moon," marked him as a writer to watch. In "Lizardskin," he has met such expectations: Mr. Stroud's prose is razor-sharp, his characters well-drawn, his plot is multileveled, with excellent pacing. Add to this Mr. Stroud's extensive knowledge of police procedure and his attention to detail, and you have a novel well worth savoring. Carsten Stroud may not yet be recognized as the best of the new crop of cop/crime writers, but if he keeps writing them like this, he soon will be.

GREGORY N. KROLCZYK

DTC

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