Some winter novels: terror, love, death

December 15, 1996|By MICHAEL SHELDEN | MICHAEL SHELDEN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In this busy season even the best new books can sink without a trace. Publishers have already spent most of their advertising money on the big titles in the fall lists, reviewers are exhausted after a long year of pruning the literary vineyard, and the common reader - distracted by the holiday frenzy - has little time to discover new titles. But some uncommonly good novels will appear in the next few weeks, and book lovers should not let these gems escape their notice.

Nicholas Shakespeare's "The Dancer Upstairs" (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 244 pages, $21.95) is a beautifully crafted tale of love, obsession and terror. A British journalist who covered the frightening deeds of the Shining Path terrorists in Peru, Shakespeare has turned this political drama into a gripping fictional account of a policeman determined to capture the elusive terrorist chief. In the best manner of Graham Greene and le Carre, the novel blends political intrigue with personal conflict, exploring the haunting struggle for truth and meaning in a country turned upside down by violence.

For a witty and acutely sensitive view of a modern woman's search for love, read Amy Bloom's "Love Invents Us," (Random )) House, 205 pages, $21). In razor-sharp prose Bloom follows her heroine's delightfully awkward efforts to make the most of love in a life that is far from perfect. Bloom approaches sex with all the fervor of Whitman singing the body electric, but with the bombast cut out. Her youthful adventures with a Mr. Klein of Furs by Klein are typical of her reckless pursuit of love in all the wrong places: "I wasn't surprised to find myself in the back of Mr. Klein's store, wearing only my undershirt and panties,

surrounded by sable."

The Australian writer David Malouf has received enormous praise in Europe, but his work is almost unknown here. Perhaps that will change with the publication of his latest novel, "The Conversations at Curlow Creek," (Pantheon, 240 pages, $23). The plot is simple enough: During a long night in 1827 a couple of settlers in New South Wales sit in a hut and talk about their lives. What makes this conversation enthralling is that one man speaks with the urgency of a condemned convict - the Irishman Carney is to be hanged at dawn -and the other man - a policeman - shows all the intense curiosity of an intelligent observer who longs to know the secrets of life and death. Few writers have the talent to make such a conversation work as a novel, but Malouf does it brilliantly and the words acquire a haunting effect that will not soon leave the reader.

On a less elevated, but no less entertaining, plane, Daniel Silva's "The Unlikely Spy" (Villard, 448 pages, $25) is an unusually literate thriller set in wartime Britain. A whole herd of writers have covered Silva's territory - the search for Nazi spies trying to uncover D-Day invasion plans - but few can match his talent for creating realistic scenes and believable characters. As a youngish Washington-based producer for CNN, he would not seem in the best position to capture the look and feel of England in the 1940s, but he has an amazingly full knowledge of all the historical details and never makes us question his sharp sense of time and place.

A remarkable feel for local color is also the great strength of Tony Dunbar, whose most recent murder mystery, "Trick Question" (Putnam, 240 pages, $22.95), brings the mean streets of New Orleans vividly to life. This is Dunbar's third novel about lawyer Tubby Dubonnet, a lovable, wise-cracking eccentric who has an uncanny ability to track down other eccentrics living on the wrong side of the law. Take one cup of Raymond Chandler, one cup of Tennessee Williams, add a quart of salty humor, and you will get something resembling Dunbar's crazy mixture of crime and off-beat comedy.

It is fashionable to say that good novels are hard to find, but the truth is that we have a real embarrassment of riches on the contemporary fiction shelves. The trouble is that, year after year, the publishers, book clubs and book chains keep pushing great mounds of junk fiction our way, obscuring our view of the good stuff. Two examples of junk from this season will suffice. Richard North Patterson's "Silent Witness" (Knopf, 494 pages, $25.95) has a first printing of 400,000, and no doubt its glitzy promotion will snare many readers. But I cannot imagine how anyone can wade through its 500 pages of mechanical prose, sickening sensationalism, and inane pop psychology. If people have a hankering for this sort of thing, why don't they just save time and watch it on television?

But even Patterson's book is not quite as awful as Michael Connelly's much-hyped murder mystery "Trunk Music" (Little, Brown, 400 pages, $23.95). A great deal of it is written in a kind of cop techno-speak that sounds like garbled transmissions from a police scanner. "ETA is 15," one character says, adding: "I checked on SID and ME."

If this is the future of the novel, give me television any day.

Michael Shelden is the author of three biographies and writes for the Daily Telegraph in London, the Times of London, the Washington Post and others.

Pub Date: 12/15/96

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