WHO KILLED PALOMINO MOLERO?

By Mario Vargas Llosa

Translated from the Spanish

By Alfred Mac Adam

Farrar Straus Giroux. 151 pp. $14.95

A YOUNG airman is found murdered, his body impaled on a Carob tree outside Talara, a small fishing village on the coast of Peru. He has been tortured and the body mutilated. The only "police" in the area is the local Guardia Civil consisting of Lieutenant Silva and Officer Lituma, and it is their job to find the killers. So begins Who Killed Palomino Molero?, a mystery by the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa.

Officer Lituma in particular is shocked by the brutality of the crime. He is young, poor, uneducated and still tormented by the wickedness of the world. The story is told from his point of view, and the reader moves with him as his astonishment increases through surprise after surprise.The airman's name is Palomino Molero, a poor boy from Piura, the nearest big town, who had enlisted in the air force a few months earlier. He had told his mother it was a matter of life and death that he go to Talara. From someone else we hear that he had had an impossible love at the airbase in Piura. Perhaps he joined the air force to get away from a jealous husband, thinks Lituma.

But Molero was also an artist, a gentle young man with a wonderful singing voice who played the guitar. The more that is learned about him, the more unlikely it seems that he should have been murdered, especially so brutally.

Set against Officer Lituma's naivete' is the cynical awareness of his superior officer Lieutenant Silva, who knows almost from the start the whole business will turn out badly. Young and blond, Silva is one of those incorruptible police officers who will pursue a trail even though the whole world is set against them. As for the villagers, they assume there will be some kind of cover-up, that the people in power, the big shots, will protect the murderers.

Up the coast is the Talara Air Force base under the command of Colonel Mindreau, who seems intent on insulting Lieutenant Silva and giving him no help whatsoever. In the other direction is the International Petroleum Company, full of wealthy gringos. Between the gringos and the air force, the fishing village seems perched on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, stuck in a bare rocky landscape with oil derricks instead of trees. It is insufferably hot, and the buildings are either small adobe houses or shanties made out of straw mats, bamboo poles and corrugated sheet metal.

For the most part Who Killed Palomino Molero? is a mystery somewhat in the manner of Georges Simenon -- a mystery in which the psychological revelations keep pace with the revelation of factual details. Bit by bit the information concerning the crime is released through a series of surprises, confessions, deductions.

But on a larger level the book is about race and economic inequality. Officer Lituma and Palomino Molero are dark-skinned. They have Indian blood. Colonel Mindreau and the other air force officers are European. The year is 1954. Once it becomes clear that the answer to the murder lies somewhere on the air force base, then it becomes equally clear that the killers will never be brought to trial, even that Silva and Lituma will be punished for their successes.

MARIO VARGAS LLOSA is one of South America's greatest novelists, whose most recent book in English, The Perpetual Orgy, is a study of Flaubert and Madame Bovary. His other novels include The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, The War of the End of the World, and The Green House. Although the translation of Who Killed Palomino Molero? is often stiff and cliche'-ridden, the writing in general is simple and the style unembellished except for a number of striking details: "On the way {Lituma} spotted the poet Joaquin Ramos on the corner, wearing a monocle and pulling along the goat he called his gazelle."

For the most part, Who Killed Palomino Molero? is a traditional mystery, but gradually its central theme of inequality becomes the book's true subject. Officer Lituma has complete faith that Lieutenant Silva will solve the crime, the truth will be revealed and the guilty will be punished. What he learns is that in a corrupt and racist society such a process is impossible. ::

Stephen Dobyns is a mystery novelist and poet whose most recent book of poems is "Cemetery Nights."