Title: "Mothertongue"Author: Demetria MartinezPublisher...

BOOK BRIEFS

October 16, 1994|By GERRI KOBREN Title: "Last Chance for Glory" Author: Stephen Solomita Publisher: Otto Penzler Length, price: 310 pages, $21 | GERRI KOBREN Title: "Last Chance for Glory" Author: Stephen Solomita Publisher: Otto Penzler Length, price: 310 pages, $21,LOS ANGELES TIMES Title: "Sanctuary" Author: Faye Kellerman Publisher: Morrow Length, price: 396 pages, $22

Title: "Mothertongue"

Author: Demetria Martinez

Publisher: Bilingual Press

Length, price: 125 pages, $17

LTC The author of this novel, winner of the 1994 Western States Book Award for Fiction, was indicted on charges relating to smuggling Central American refugees into the United States in 1987 and later acquitted on First Amendment grounds. She has written a brave and complicated account of what it is to be a refugee, to help a refugee and to fall in love with someone fleeing an unbearable past.

"His nation," it begins, "chewed him up and spat him out like a pinon shell." On one level, the romance in this story has many similarities to "The Bridges of Madison County." One hesitates to say it, for the backdrop of this book is the violence of Central America, particularly El Salvador in the early 1980s.

Maria falls (yes, helplessly) in love with the man, Jose Luis, whom she has been asked by her wise old friend Soledad to help assimilate. He is a poet, a man who has been tortured, and whose wife-to-be was murdered by the police. He has trouble living in and trusting the present and is not looking to fall in love. Mary/Maria describes herself as "one of those women whose fate is to take a war out of a man, or at least imagine she is doing so, like prostitutes once upon a time who gave themselves in temples to returning soldiers." Her longing and his fear make the book simmer, carrying the reader through a somewhat hasty, pat and disappointing ending.

Diamonds are nobody's best friend in this latest entry in the Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus mystery series: An Israeli diamond dealer, his wife and two sons have disappeared from their Los Angeles mansion; and, while LAPD homicide detective Decker and partner Marge are investigating, Rina's old school chum Honey, who married a Hasidic diamond dealer in New York, suddenly asks if she can come out to the Decker ranch with her kids for a visit. Later, they, too, will disappear, and Honey's husband will be found dead -- drowned and shot -- in a closet in New York.

OK, so it's a clunky coincidence. A lot of the rest of the story doesn't stand up to careful examination, either. How, for instance, did one of the victims manage, on the way to being murdered, to create a subtle warning for her children? How can the bad guys, driving across Israel, fail to notice Rina, hot on their tail, in a rented car?

But those are the kinds of questions you ask only when you stop to consider, and the best way to resolve them is not to stop. After a dreary last book -- in "Grievous Sin," Rina moped and Peter coped -- Faye Kellerman has put the police officer and his Orthodox Jewish wife back on a fast, exciting track.

Max Steinberg is one of the most successful and dazzling criminal lawyers in New York. A man of many courtroom accomplishments, Steinberg decides to champion the cause of Billy Swell -- a homeless retarded man serving time for the murder of a wealthy New York woman. Since the case has been closed for two years, the odds seem daunting.

In his quest for justice, Steinberg enlists Marty Blake, a P.I. with a knack for electronic eavesdropping, and Bill Kosiniski, an alcoholic, retired New York cop who worked on the case. The three make for a very unlikely detective team. As the investigation proceeds and the two-year-old cover-up begins unraveling, the three find powerful enemies who would not hesitate to murder again.

With six previous novels to his credit, Stephen Solomita has quietly crafted a fine reputation for mean-streets urban detective novels. "Last Chance for Glory" will only add to his reputation. The characters are complex, and the serpentine plot is filled with twists. The atmosphere of New York and culture of the NYPD are as much a part of the novel as any character. With a slam-bang ending, "Last Chance for Glory" is an unusual and well-crafted thriller.

ROBERT BAYLUS

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