EPITAPHS.Bill Pronzini.Delacorte.232 pages. $19.After...

BOOK BRIEF

November 22, 1992|By BOB BAYLUS THE DIARY OF LATOYA HUNTER. Latoya Hunter. Crown. 128 pages. $16. | BOB BAYLUS THE DIARY OF LATOYA HUNTER. Latoya Hunter. Crown. 128 pages. $16.,LOS ANGELES TIMES YORUBA GIRL DANCING. Simi Bedford. Viking. 185 pages. $19.

EPITAPHS.

Bill Pronzini.

Delacorte.

232 pages. $19.

After nearly 20 novels and numerous short stories, little is known about the San Francisco private investigator called Nameless. The few details are that he is nearly 60, dark-haired, and of Italian descent.

In "Epitaphs," Pierto Lombardi, a friend of Nameless, asks a favor. He wants Nameless to investigate his granddaughter, Gianna, who is charged with stealing money from her landlord.

When Nameless begins looking into the matter, the charges are dropped by a terrified landlord, who had been beaten -- and Gianna cannot be found. As Nameless probes into the ominous happenings, people associated with Gianna begin to die. Nameless is acutely aware that much more is at stake than was first imagined.

In modern detective fiction, Bill Pronzini's Nameless series is a classic. But even classics have off days-- or off books. "Epitaphs" has the usual ingredients of a Nameless novel, but the results are surprisingly flat. The primary reason is the central story: There simply isn't much of a mystery to engage the reader or Nameless.

Nameless' personal crises, such as the relationship with his girlfriend, Kerry, also are starting to run thin. Let us hope that in Nameless' next adventure, Mr. Pronzini spends as much time on the plot as he does on ancillary issues. During her first year of junior high school in the Bronx, 12-year-old Latoya Hunter hears gunshots across the street on the night a neighbor is murdered. Her brother gets married. Her unmarried sister has a baby. Latoya suffers through her first crush on a boy, makes the honor roll and takes a disappointing trip to her native Jamaica. She struggles with her mother over her growing desire for independence. "I like guys," she admits. "There, I said it." And, like 12-year-olds the world over, she complains: "Parents just don't understand."

This book needs an introduction. Apparently the publishers approached Latoya in advance to write it. How and why was she selected? Was her diary edited and, if so, how much?

Just as objects of scientific inquiry are changed merely by being looked at, what Latoya wrote surely was changed by her knowing that the public would read it.

Beyond all these doubts, though, she's a bright and sensitive girl and a born writer, alive to political and religious issues as well as to rap music and diets, already shedding the typical teen-ager in favor of the individual sensibility she will become. Let's hope we hear from her again. Remi is without friends until she discovers her ability to write. Coming to the English school from her Nigerian homeland, Remi, 6, has been ostracized by the other girls. They object to her accent and call her English peculiar. They especially dislike her black color and tell her the black will run off on them.

Remi is the protagonist of "Yoruba Girl Dancing," Simi Bedford's autobiographical first novel. Ms. Bedford, who left Africa for an English boarding school, writes a coming-of-age/coming-to-terms-with-racism story. The voice and emotional texture of the book seem authentic. The protagonist is likable. But the plot is thin and without tension. It resembles a too loosely written memoir rather than a novel.

Ironically, this plot focuses on a schoolgirl who learns how to tell -- a story. Seeing that her classmates are not interested in "life in Africa" stories (they want life in the African wild), Remi is forced to imagine and to invent. Ms. Bedford has been forced to do no such thing, and it shows.

DIANE SCHARPER

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