BREAK AND ENTER

By Colin Harrison

Crown. 311 pp. $17.95

WHEN FACED with the prospect of pronouncing upon this splendidly serious, utterly entertaining crime novel debut, one is tempted to say the words, "Move over, Scott Turow," and stop there. Certainly, the possible comparisons to Presumed Innocent are many, from the yuppieish prosecutor-hero (here the setting is Philadelphia, not Chicago) down to the pre-publication ballyhoo and the fact that a nifty film deal precedes the book's release.

But what really cements the line of succession from the 1988 mega-best seller to Break and Enter is the wide-ranging, contemplative intelligence that informs both of them. In each, the narrator takes sordid crime for granted but not his relationship to it; in each, personal and urban civic pain mingle to create wounds greater than one man can easily bear alone. However, of the two, the newer book seems the better to me, for Break and Enter relies on no farfetched gimmick the way Presumed Innocent did; instead, slowly accumulating credibility as the major plot thread unfolds, it keeps our belief intact along with that goodwill that pleasurable fiction generates.

The crimes here, all described to us in the steady, intermittently self-aware (and only occasionally self-conscious) voice of narrator Peter Scattergood, are both major and minor. Two are murders tainted by a political involvement (the mayor's nephew is one of the corpses, a beautiful young woman is the other). At the outset, though, this new assignment looks straightfoward enough, even if it's handed to Peter at a bad moment -- when he's concentrating his energy on getting a jury to give him the satisfaction of bringing a rich, Main Line psychopath to justice.

Also, it's still early days for Peter's failed marriage, and the collapse of the tidy world he'd built around his belief in the departed Janice's love for him, his need for her, their future together, keeps him off-balance. He wants her back but knows, deep down, she's not coming. That, of course, is no crime, but it doesn't keep Peter from feeling like a victim, and his jealousy, resentment and frustration start to skew his judgment.

Simultaneously, then, because it's all he knows how to do, Peter tries to investigate the truth behind the death of a relationship -- the demise of his and Janice's love -- even as his career depends upon a more literal unraveling. Harrison's reluctance to rely on anything but solid chunks of credible action as his fictional building blocks is truly commendable as the story progresses. Janice, for example, has her own agenda, regardless of its effect on Peter, which is how real-life romance usually works. And the careful probing into how Darryl Whitlock and Johnetta Henry met their deaths, with the occasional misstep but no gratuitous (read audience-pandering) retaliatory violence against the men doing their jobs, is how real-life homicide cases are carried on, as well.

Break and Enter succeeds, however, on a level that touches us more deeply than the ordinary thriller, even as we can admire the orderly working-out of its plot mechanisms. An illustration of this empathic appeal, which comes in the form of a seasoned divorce lawyer's collection of homilies, is handily labeled for us "The Eternal Truths." Perhaps I'm too easily amused by lists, but the one given out by Phil Mastrude ("Counselor at law, Practicing Primarily in Family Law and Domestic Relations, No Charge Initial Consultation, Fees Available on Request, Compassionate Advice Humbly Offered") is a honey:

1. This is it!

2. There are no hidden meanings.

3. You can't get there from here, and besides, there's no place else to go.

4. We are all already dying, and we will be dead for a long time.

5. Nothing lasts.

6. There is no way of getting all you want.

7. You can't have anything unless you let go of it.

8. You only get to keep what you give away.

9. There is no particular reason why you lost out on some things.

10. The world is not necessarily just. Being good often does not pay off, and there is no compensation for misfortune.

There's quite a bit more in this vein, yet none of it makes much impression on Peter, who tosses the Xeroxed page in the wastebasket and continues to feel sorry for himself. The reader, however, is free to enjoy the incongruity of Mastrude, an unprepossessing legal hack (overweight, balding, with bloodshot eyes, crumbs on his tie and dandruff dusting his suit), as playful Zen master. One also is reminded that more than one set of principles is at work in any human situation, for Harrison, it seems, is ambitious enough to be offering enlightenment along with entertainment.

Break and Enter is dense with detail and memorable scenes. From the green NOW sticker and broken rocking chair in the back of Janice's yellow '88 Subaru (Peter's plunge from grace begins when he can't resist using his connections to put out an illicit tracer on this car) to the "strategizing by attorneys on adjacent toilets" in the men's room of the D.A.'s office, the book offers up immediacy, a palpable there-ness of character and setting, action and reaction.

Behind the sharp surface details, however, it is Peter's imperfect relationships that are the book's texture. Aside from Janice, these include ones with the perhaps too-unlikeable Cassandra, who briefly becomes his lover and then his nemesis; with Berger, Peter's barely holding-it-together, coke-snorting office mate; with his parents, dignified by their upper-middle class assumptions and kindly Quaker respectability; and with Hoskins, his irascible boss, whom Peter never trusts but manages to obey -- up to a point.

How Break's and Enter's public story -- the murder and municipal scandal -- unfolds has everything to do with its characters' private lives, but this, of course, is not surprising. What is startling, though, is the sureness with which Harrison keeps after his themes and brings ideas, real ideas about love and loss, loyalty and betrayal and the acceptance of change, to bear upon a tale so clever and so commercial. Michele Slung has edited two mystery anthologies and written widely on crime fiction.