MISCHIEFEd McBainMorrow346 pages. $20. As usual, mischief...

BOOK BRIEFS

October 03, 1993|By BOB BAYLUS CRIME AND PUNISHMENT IN AMERICAN HISTORY Lawrence Friedman Basic Books 546 pages. $30 | BOB BAYLUS CRIME AND PUNISHMENT IN AMERICAN HISTORY Lawrence Friedman Basic Books 546 pages. $30,LOS ANGELES TIMES CHARLES DICKENS: THE MAN WHO HAD GREAT EXPECTATIONS Diane Stanley and Peter Vennema; illustrations by Diane Stanley Morrow Junior Books 50 pages. $15. Ages 8-12

MISCHIEF

Ed McBain

Morrow

346 pages. $20. As usual, mischief comes in bunches to the men and women of the 87th Precinct. A vigilante is shooting graffiti artists, and the city tabloids have named him the "Sprayer Slayer." A hostage situation turns deadly. And someone is dumping off sick, elderly people at hospitals. But the most troubling development is the reappearance of a villain known as the "Deaf Man." He begins by sending Officer Steve Carella arcane notes referring to a disaster. Carella must decipher the notes even to have a chance at stemming a nasty surprise.

This is not as sharp as the main enigmas the 87th has faced in some of Mr. McBain's more than 40 previous thrillers, mostly because the Deaf Man has been used in several other novels in the series and is a pretty stale character. But the other plots -- particularly those focused on the hostage situation and the graffiti killer -- are quite strong. As always, the dialogue is crackling and the people of the 87th beautifully drawn. "Mischief" may not be one of Ed McBain's best efforts, but it still surpasses most of the competition.

As in his earlier book, "A History of American Law," Stanford law professor Lawrence Friedman here has tackled an enormous, unwieldy subject through a seemingly endless series historical vignettes. These miniature essays succeed to various degrees -- Mr. Friedman convinces the reader of his overall (and fairly obvious) point that crime is intrinsic to this country's culture . . . "our evil twin," "a part of the American story, the American fabric."

He shows how crime in the United States has changed over the years: very much tied to religion in the 17th century, with "crime" and "sin" being virtually synonymous; encouraged by the social and physical mobility of the 19th century, which bred crimes like bigamy and swindling; redefined in the early 20th century, Victorian moralists inspiring spasms of legislation and enforcement against gambling, sexual liberty and eventually (only for a time, and, of course, counterproductively) alcohol.

"Crime and Punishment in American History" is more reference book than cherished companion, which is to say that even dedicated crime buffs are advised to approach it by way of the index. This back-door route allows the reader to go directly to the book's gems, such as an account of the dairy industry's long and successful campaign against oleomargarine.

Charles Dickens' life was filled with extraordinary contrasts, and in this book he emerges a strong figure in the 19th century. Some have called his time the Age of Dickens: The events in the books he wrote were representative of happenings in the world around him.

The reader of this book first meets young Dickens with his father, John, an important influence in the boy's life. But because of the father's extravagance, the family of eight children lives in poverty. Forced to leave school, Charles worked in a blacking factory with other poor children, 12 hours each day. His father was in prison for debt, and the family stayed with him -- except for Charles, who lived alone in a boardinghouse.

Charles' first success came with "The Pickwick Papers," sketches that appeared in monthly installments for the reading pleasure of Londoners. Drawing on his childhood, he wrote such books as "Oliver Twist" and "David Copperfield."

The authors of this fine new book tell of his two trips to the United States, and his performances and readings of his works. They stress that his characters live on in his books, in adventures that can make readers laugh and cry.

JUDITH B. ROSENFELD

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