LEGENDS.Jan Harold...

THE BABY TRAIN & OTHER LUSTY URBAN

April 25, 1993|By SUSANNE TROWBRIDGE NIGHTMARE ABROAD.Peter Laufer. Mercury House. 193 pages. $20. | SUSANNE TROWBRIDGE NIGHTMARE ABROAD.Peter Laufer. Mercury House. 193 pages. $20.,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE THE MUSIC LOVERS. Jonathan Valin. Delacorte Press. ` 233 pages. $19.95.

THE BABY TRAIN & OTHER LUSTY URBAN LEGENDS.

Jan Harold Brunvand.

Norton.

` 367 pages. $20.95. The friend who told me the following story swore that it was true: A young woman bought a large cactus at a well-known store in the Washington area. A few days after she had brought it home, the plant started to tremble violently. Terrified, she called the store, whose manager told her to leave her house immediately. The cactus burst open -- and out popped hundreds of tarantulas.

Having read all of Jan Harold Brunvand's collections of urban legends, I was immediately suspicious of this tale. How reassuring, then, to see a version of it turn up in the pages of the University of Utah folklorist's entertaining new book, "The Baby Train."

Mr. Brunvand gleefully debunks dozens of legends in "The Baby Train" and comments on their possible origins.

Here's another one that's made the rounds in Baltimore: A couple are honeymooning in the Caribbean, but while they're out for a swim, thieves break into their room and steal all their possessions -- except their toothbrushes and camera. When they arrive back home and develop the film, they see to their horror just what the burglars were doing with those toothbrushes. It's a funny story, true, but according to Mr. Brunvand, it's also nothing more than another urban legend. Stories of people caught in the U.S. justice system can be frightening. But the stories of U.S. tourists caught in foreign courts and jails are nightmarish.

That's the message of "Nightmare Abroad," an anecdotal and cautionary book from Peter Laufer that contains the stories and warnings of American tourists jailed around the world. Some of them were released through bribes and lawyers. Some escaped. Others are still behind bars. But their message to other travelers is identical: Know the laws of the land before you go anywhere. And don't expect the U.S. Consulate to do a thing on your behalf.

It may be hard to feel much sympathy for Billy Hayes, whose attempt to sneak drugs out of Turkey eventually landed him on the "Midnight Express."

But there are more surprising cases here. One tourist was arrested in Turkey when a cheap gewgaw she bought was identified as a genuine artifact. Another man was picked up in Greece for going over his credit-card limit. A third is in prison because of a traffic accident. (Travelers' advisory: Hit a person or even another car in Mexico, and you can expect to sit in jail until the whole thing is straightened out.) One of the pleasures of reading is finding a good book and then discovering that the author has written a slew of other titles. After finishing Jonathan Valin's literate, cultured detective story, The Music Lovers," this sleuthing critic can't wait to track down the previous nine mysteries featuring Cincinnati private eye Harry Stoner.

In "The Music Lovers," Stoner is hired by a wimpy stereophile named Leon who wants to recover some stolen vintage records. The case sounds as wimpy as the client, but matters quickly turn more complicated -- and dangerous.

Along the way, Stoner learns about such coveted record labels as RCA shaded dogs and winged-hat Mercurys, and that even erudite music lovers sometimes have records that have nothing to do with music.

Mr. Valin creates a palpable sense of place and populates it with colorful characters. In Stoner, Mr. Valin has fashioned a detective who has a winning way with a bon mot. Ya gotta respect a gumshoe who describes the art on hospital walls as "Tums for the eyes."

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J. WYNN ROUSUCK

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