Summer: corpses, sleaze, mobsters

August 08, 1999|By James H. Bready | James H. Bready,Sun Staff

It's summer, it's hot and noisy and nettle-and-insect-ridden, it's Knapp's Point, on the Magothy hard by Chesapeake Bay. It's a new Barbara Lee crime novel, "Dead Man's Fingers" (St. Martin's, 276 pages, $22.95). Blistering days, beer-soaked nights; alike in the city visitors and the year-rounders, there's enough irritability to keep the police very busy.

Then during the Glorious Fourth fireworks, Lauren DeWitt is found dead on a pier. She's a young outsider making an environmental movie about the damage that bottom-line developers are causing to waterside habitat.

As in two previous Barbara Lee novels, a young real estate agent from New York, Eve Elliott, begins looking for clues. And malign forces begin watching Eve, who lives alone.

Someone in, say, the real Mago Vista or Cape St. Claire may aver that the neighbors aren't as narrow-minded and corrupt as those in "Dead Man's Fingers" (a crab-eater's term). Hang on -- the setting shifts briefly to a city with the ugliest darkness yet: Baltimore.

Thanks to its searching look at realty tricks and scams, the atmosphere is as convincing as are sensible Eve and her ladylike aunt, a local. In crime fiction Barbara Lee, of Columbia, has national standing. This time she brings readers far and near a set-piece -- Eve's clumsy first-time go at hard-shell crabs, the perfect starter for an amatory evening.

Elvis Presley and the Eastern Shore? Possible, if you can imagine a lookalike contest, and line up three local personages to judge it. One is an actual judge, another is a police detective and the third is Hollis Ball, reporter for the Watertown Gazette, in Santimoke -- a lookalike Shore county. Whereupon somebody garrottes the contest's lowlife promoter. We are off to the usual fast start, in "Giving Up the Ghost," by Helen Chappell (Dell, 246 pages, $5.99 softbound); this being the fourth time that Chappell, from Easton, has littered Santimoke with corpses and sleaze.

Hollis and the detective always might get something going but she is preoccupied with Sam Wescott, a ghost. Once, Sam was her husband; now he asserts visiting rights, especially at moments of menace.

"Ghost" offers a great oyster stew recipe. Yet for many readers the best part of a Chappell novel is dessert -- a plateful of zingers. This time, a minor figure is "somewhere between 30 and death"; a crossroads store, late at night, is "closed up tighter than Jesse Helms' mind"; the bird that forages behind a crummy motel is Edgar Allan Crow, and do count on the Shore for "characters we haven't used yet."

The ghost even brings word of a sort on Elvis, nowadays.

In Gregory Yawman's "Dead Luck" (American Literary Press, 280 pages, $12.95 softbound), on the other hand, there's no uncertainty as to who did it. The bad guys, who have extracted a late-medieval manuscript Bible from Walters Art Gallery, are all identified, from Philadelphia mobsters to local punks to a police department leak.

When the thugs, too, are then robbed of their worth-several-millions book, a frantic chase is on. The villains think the good souls -- a local business owner and a Block stripper -- know where it is. Bible? What Bible?

At one point, this very downtown novel takes a summer breather at a cabin hideaway on South Mountain.

Yawman omits the general uproar that white-gangland killings would set off; but his slightly dopey hero and his slightly greedy heroine (with young son) are an attractive pairing.

For Ed Okonowicz, it's not just back to the Shore for his crime scene, but forward to 2009. By then, DelMarVa is buzzing along -- it's a new, 14-county state. (Futurism recedes a bit when the author has Elkton resuming quickie marriages and judicial agencies reverting to the whipping post. Just as cheerfully, DelMarVa has not only slots but half a dozen casinos.)

In Okonowicz's latest fiction, "Halloween House" (Myst and Lace, 305 pages, $9.95 softbound), the villainy is plain to behold -- a fellow named Craig Dire V rules over an inherited waterfront domain southwest of Easton. The challenge for Darryll Potters, formerly a police detective in Maine, is to bring Dire down. The Halloween allusion is to an annual blast put on at Dire's Mill Mansion, the ancestral seat.

Okonowicz would seem to have read a lot of Tom Clancy. What his novels lack in depth, they make up for in exuberance.

John Maclay writes gothics; in today's phrase, "tales of fantasy and horror." Young man and young woman, late at night, walk down a Philadelphia street, are accosted by knife-wielders, drop their baggage, run, hide in an abandoned house, make love, are found by the pursuing druggies.

"Herb was a vampire, and we all knew it." He is night manager for the herd of sheep supplying a company's blood agar culture plates. Herb is found out (anemic sheep), but the management is understanding. Herb's cheating takes another form.

Nineteen of these smooth, spare but often chilling exercises comprise "Night Tales" (Maclay, P.O. Box 16253, Baltimore 2l2l0, 142 pages, $9.95).

Always, there are nonfiction's terrible moments. Fantasy and horror come alive in the family of someone whose mind is going, or has gone. To the growing number of books in this field, add Ellen P. Young's "Between Two Worlds: Special Moments of Alzheimer's and Dementia" (Prometheus, 207 pages, $24.95). Young, formerly a clinical social worker at Union Memorial Hospital, has all too often watched these unpredictable days march toward their predictable close.

Her series of case histories is notable for flashes of humor. Nurse (this is from another context) to chair-bound patient: "Mr. J., do you need to go to the bathroom?"

Patient, replying: "No. Do you?"

James H. Bready writes a monthly column on regional books. Previously he worked as a reporter, editorial writer and book editor for The Evening Sun.

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