HARD WOMEN.Barbara D'Amato.Scribner's.249 pages. $20.Does...


April 11, 1993|By SUSANNE TROWBRIDGE THE CLIENT. John Grisham. Doubleday. 422 pages. $23.50.


Barbara D'Amato.


249 pages. $20.

Does Cat Marsala have nine lives? Cat, the free-lance journalist sleuth of Barbara D'Amato's dynamic series, manages to get herself into a death-defying situation in every book. Who would have guessed that journalism was a more dangerous profession than, say, firefighting or lion-taming?

In her fourth outing, Cat has been assigned to do a report on prostitution for a Chicago television station. While searching for interview subjects, she meets a waif-like young call girl named Sandra. Cat strikes up an unlikely friendship with the 19-year-old prostitute, but trouble lies ahead -- Sandra is on the run from her abusive father. When Sandra is murdered, her dad seems to be the likeliest suspect, but a hooker's death doesn't much interest the police.

Along with her talent for dreaming up wild, whiz-bang climaxes, Ms. D'Amato has a knack for creating refreshingly complex characters. She resists the temptation to idealize Sandra, who never quite proves herself worthy of Cat's trust. Gripping and poignant, "Hard Women" provides a fresh view of the world's oldest profession. When taken in the abstract, this is truly a terrifying story: A young streetwise boy named Mark Sway stumbles on a would-be suicide while out for an afternoon's illicit smoke with his kid brother. Mark's Good Samaritan efforts land his brother in a hospital in shock, and put him, his mother and brother in jeopardy -- at the mercy not just of the gangster who drove his lawyer to try to end his life but also of a legal system that cannot quite cope with a panicked child.

The best officials can do is offer Mark's family a witness-protection program, a haven that requires abandoning their lives completely and beginning anew. Mark's ally in his fight is lawyer Reggie Love, a Central Casting concept if ever there was one -- a middle-aged woman who leaves behind a fancy marriage and a bout with substance abuse before emerging as a defender of abused children.

There are all the makings of a poignant tale, including an %J opening scene that is quite breathtaking, a finely polished little set-piece. If only Mr. Grisham had followed through -- but he does not. The rest of the novel is lazy, built on pat characterizations and thin ideas, little more than an outline for the movie that has already been announced.



Steve Shagan.

Pocket Books.

358 pages. $22.

The scam was almost faultless -- almost.

Harry Walters, the head of Gemstone Pictures, has masterminded a plan for a bogus studio takeover. From an aging Mafia kingpin to a bank specializing in laundering drug money, the players are in place. All they need is a box office disaster to send Gemstone's stock plummeting.

The catastrophic film is "The Volunteers," a Spanish Civil War epic. Harry assembles a cast of writer, producer, director and stars -- all gifted but flawed. Harry is certain it is just a matter of time before the movie fails and, along with it, Gemstone. Of course, there is a possibility that everyone will jell and the movie will be the picture of the decade. But that is only a remote fear.

With two Academy Awards, several screenplays and eight novels to his credit, Steve Shagan knows his way around Hollywood and the studio system. "A Cast of Thousands" is the entertaining result of his years in the business. Mr. Shagan shows that not all of the action is in front of the camera.

The characters are vivid, and the corporate politics is mind-boggling. "A Cast of Thousands" is a blockbuster in sheer entertainment.


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