Local Heroes

ROSS THOMAS' new novel, Out on the Rim, opens with the hero being fired from his job as terrorism expert with a local foundation. This organization is described as making its home at 1776 Massachusetts Avenue NW, which is a real address -- an unremarkable brick-and-glass building that looks as if it might contain the foundation in question. Other Washington scenes in the book take place in equally genuine locations, including the Madison Hotel and Dupont Circle.

Such fidelity is a hallmark of Thomas' thrillers, and it's very important to him. "If a reader went looking for the foundation and saw a hole in the ground or a small old house, they'd say, 'He fudged.' I want to get that much accuracy, if for no other reason than occasionally a person will do that. There are still people looking for Marlowe's office building in Los Angeles," he says. "Every real brick you can put in your story helps build the edifice."

Thomas lives in Malibu now, but he was a Washingtonian from 1961 to '75 and still comes back several times a year, checking out the future scenes of his novels. "I take great pleasure in exploring the city . . ., I've used Anacostia in a book {Cast a Yellow Shadow}. Not too many people have done that."

So he's recently gone down Nebraska Avenue and over to Reston, where he "poked around, noticed things . . . Sometimes I make a note of a particular object or place that has some significance. It's all stored someplace." Northeast Washington, he adds, "is largely unexplored territory as far as fiction is concerned. There are some middle-class neighborhoods, upper-middle-class neighborhoods, occupied by GS-12s, GS-13s -- middle-grade bureaucrats. They've never been used."

In fact, he believes the city -- except for a radius of a mile or two around the White House -- has been neglected as a setting for thrillers. Writers from elsewhere seem to ignore the real metropolis. "If I hadn't lived here, then I would write about Georgetown, the White House and the State Department, the CIA -- but not the shadowy figures that have circulated in this town since 1787, the ones who are always on the periphery, who can make a buck off it."

When Thomas was here in the '60s, he found Washington "as sinister a city as I've ever lived in. I'm not talking about physical danger, I'm talking about the exercise of power. In working the fields I did, especially in international labor politics, I sat in the rooms where the deals were cut. It gave me a sense of story, of tales to be told . . . What comes out has been sanitized."

Meanwhile, back at the typewriter, the author concentrates on trying to stay ahead of reality. "I have dreamt up some strange international characters, but I don't think in my wildest days, I'd ever dreamt up dear {Iran-contra financier and negotiator} Albert Hakim. Every time I think I've come up with a humdinger, I lift up the morning newspaper or turn on the TV and I see" -- and he laughs, cutting the thought short.

Yet while life may often dabble in the fantastic, Thomas restricts himself to the plausible. "I always have to have a sense of reality," he says, "and that's why I always endow most of my characters with a modicum of greed."

A Sense of Direction

IF THERE really are readers looking for Philip Marlowe's office building, they'll be able to find it much easier with the Raymond Chandler Mystery Map of Los Angeles, one of a series being issued by Aaron Blake Publishers and distributed by Gibbs M. Smith. The Chandler map starts with Marlowe's home and office addresses, and goes on to pinpoint dozens of other locations used in seven books. The majority of these are in Hollywood, downtown L.A. and Santa Monica (which Chandler called "Bay City"), but also includes Pasadena, Beverly Hills and Mexico.

While an editor's note warns that some places in the novels never existed, some no longer exist or have substantially changed, and some have defied fans' efforts to discover a real-life equivalent, nearly 100 sites remain visitable. A symbol even tells which contains a dead body. The map itself is gaudily attractive, and also specific enough to encourage a Chandler devotee to get in the car and start sleuthing.

Other maps in the series are devoted to Hemingway, Jane Austen, Steinbeck, Sherlock Holmes and Ian Fleming. With some of these literary lights, such as the footloose Hemingway, the scale is too large to trace actual street locations. That could be the reason they're also designed to be used as posters.

Help for Parents

IT'S PROVING hard enough to educate adults about the dangers of AIDS, but with children and adolescents, the task is even more complex. Parents used to shy away from detailing the basic facts of reproduction; now, they must help youngsters understand the realities of a deadly sexual disease without making them excessively paranoid or frightened.

Two recently-published books are trying to make explanations easier. AIDS: You Can't Catch It Holding Hands, from San Francisco's Lapis Press, is a remarkably colorful effort. Presented in the form of a handwritten letter from Swiss artist Niki de Saint Phalle to her son Philip, the book simply but comprehensively lists the dangers, debunks the myths, gives advice and even offers some hope.

It's hard to imagine a teen and pre-teen book depicting condoms and "sex parties" in an inoffensive way, but this one does so quite successfully. The book has been endorsed by such AIDS experts as William Haseltine, chief of cancer pharmacology at Harvard Medical School, and Paul Volberding, chief of the AIDS Activities Division at the University of California Medical Center.

A somewhat more orthodox attempt for teen-agers is Sex, Drugs & AIDS, a Bantam photo-novel adapted from the film of the same title. The book is candid and graphic. Part of the text includes an effective discussion among adolescent girls about the virtues of condoms; one of them decides that the best answer for her at the moment is no sex at all.

An Annotated Tolkien

ALTHOUGH THIS is the golden anniversary of the first appearance of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, relatively little celebrating is going on. While Houghton Mifflin is publishing next month an illustrated edition with a new foreword by the author's son Christopher, they (along with Ballantine, Tolkien's paperback publisher here) are waiting until the 50th anniversary of the American publication, which occurs next year. Then, they promise, there'll be a major annotated edition, various other spin-offs, and much more hoopla, all for the purpose of introducing a new generation of readers to what is already the most popular fantasy novel ever.

But does The Hobbit really need annotation? Douglas A. Anderson, a Tolkien scholar who is doing the work, notes that "some people find annotation will smother anything, but if you love a book enough, it can only be rewarding. You can see new angles and new facets, and know just how extensive the creation was."

In the Margin

BERKE BREATHED'S new book of Bloom County strips, Billy and the Boingers Bootleg, includes a vinyl record. The two songs, "I'm a Boinger" and "U Stink But I

U," are getting substantial amounts of airplay at radio stations around the country, according to publisher Little, Brown. But while the group in the strip is a parody of a heavy metal band, many stations are apparently treating the songs -- which certainly sound as if they were also parodies -- as the real thing.

Lawrence Peter Berra -- better known as "Yogi," and source of such immortal pronouncements as "If people don't want to come out to the ballpark, nobody's going to stop them" and "Toots Shor's restaurant is so crowded nobody goes there anymore" -- is writing his autobiography, which will be published by McGraw-Hill during the 1989 baseball season.

In promoting its new Departures line of travel and adventure trade paperbacks, Vintage Books unintentionally pointed up just how large the sales gap is between literary and commercial fiction. Vintage's prestigious and acclaimed Contemporaries line of paperback fiction has sold "over 1,000,000 copies" since its debut in 1984, the press release proudly states. While you remember it took the combined efforts of more than 30 Contemporaries to achieve that seven-figure mark, consider that each one of Stephen King's last four novels sold that many copies in hardcover alone.