Of Presidents and Priests

Spawned in a cornfield in a mud-walled shack high in the Andes, the unique New York City P.I. and Queens single mother Filomena Buscarsela goes home to Ecuador for the first time in 20 years. In K.j.a. Wishnia's dark, lively political thriller Blood Lake (St. Martin's Minotaur, $24.95), Buscarsela is forcefully reminded that "going home to a poor country is like going back in time. A time when people still get yellow fever and typhoid and cholera, when one bad harvest means prices soar and two bad harvests means people die, and anyone who can steal something back from the government is a local hero."

Although she is as politically attuned as any P.I. in present-day crime fiction, Buscarsela is no longer the teenage revolutionary who once escaped Ecuador just ahead of the militias; she is settled and raising a 13-year-old daughter, Antonia, and has a boyfriend. But with the plausible combination of a sinking heart and a racing pulse, Buscarsela is drawn into events surrounding a presidential election to which she had not planned on paying much attention during her and her daughter's family visit. (More fatalistic than she used to be, Buscarsela notes that "Ecuadorians are among the most patient people on earth. They have to be. They've been waiting for a decent government since 1533.")

The apparent political murder of a priest who signed a human-rights report critical of the national government is what sets Buscarsela off. It's personal: Padre Samuel Campos, who heads a decrepit school next to "a sewage-clogged estuary that smells like a gastrointestinal disease," is the man who once saved her life and spirited her out of Ecuador. When she visits Campos, he has already been smeared in a flyer someone sent around to the padre's parishioners, who are "docile people with no natural defenses against the printed form of lying." Then he is stabbed to death, and Buscarsela marshals her outer-borough P.I. skills to solve the crime.

Considering her mere-tourist status in Ecuadorian society, Buscarsela's quest is quixotic -- although she never kids herself that she isn't in over her head. And since this is a second book in a P.I. series (the first, Red House, was set back in Queens), the suspense is diluted by the awareness that Buscarsela can't die -- Wishnia, a Long Island professor and translator, will want to keep the franchise alive. Also, readers want P.I. novels to impose order on a chaotic universe, if only for a few hours, and Wishnia himself makes it plain that Ecuador will resist a tidy finish to his story. His resolution is, in fact, pulpy and none too believable.

Still, Blood Lake is enormously engaging, primarily because of Buscarsela herself. Wishnia has created a touchingly real woman, both humble and formidable, who is torn by inner conflicts over cultural values and personal loyalties -- though she is never so conflicted that she fails to act. While there's something a little off-kilter about dispatching a P.I. heroine and the usually modest conventions of the P.I. genre into the larger world of thrillerdom, there's something satisfying about it, too. It's as if Wishnia were attempting to rescue the thriller from the bloat and preposterousness of Ludlumization in order to return it to its more Graham Greene-like roots in a recognizably mean real world -- just as Chandler and Hammett rescued detective fiction from drawing-room gentility and yanked it down to the mean streets that had always been its natural habitat.

The Mob Squad

The deromanticizing of mobsters that "The Sopranos" has accomplished so smartly has been taking place on the printed page for some time, most notably in Bill James's Harpur and Iles British police procedurals. Several of these scabrously funny takes on seaside England's upwardly mobile criminal element feature Ralph Ember, who is now back and in stomach-churningly fine form in James's Naked at the Window (Norton, $23.95).

Ember is as sentimental about his wife, Margaret, and his two teenage daughters -- one of whom he has gotten into some kind of French finishing school -- as he is casually ruthless in his dealings with a big-time drug gang that tries to muscle its way into his pub, the Monty. In this installment of the Embers family saga, Ralph is torn between his repeatedly broken promises to Margaret to go legit and the impulses generated by his discovery of the "strewn about" corpses of his bulk suppliers. The bodies "were a kind of sadness. But didn't they also represent grand career chances?"

Detective Chief Superintendent Colin Harpur and his bordering-on-barmy superior, Assistant Chief Constable Desmond Iles, are as weird as ever. Some of the acid repartee between the two men concerns an affair Harpur once had with Iles's wife. Now Iles has his eye on one of the widower Harpur's teen daughters. Part of what makes this decidedly creepy stuff fascinating is the brilliant prose. James has also written a nonfiction book on the novelist Anthony Powell, and the influence shows.

Meanest of the Mean

It's even harder to be soft-hearted about the gangsters in Charlie Stella's blood-curdling, convincing Jimmy Bench-Press (Carroll & Graf, $24). Several years ago, when "The Sopranos" became a hit, the Boston Globe asked a retired wise guy if the show's producers had gotten it right. He said, yes, for the most part, although real-life mobsters were even dumber and meaner than the ones in the HBO version. It's the very dumbest and absolute meanest goons who turn up in Stella's second cops-and-thugs novel, a follow-up to Eddie's World.

The title character is Jimmy Mangino, who bench-presses 400 pounds and is just out of prison, which did not make him a nicer person. He's a sadistic sociopath determined to be made by a Brooklyn mob family whose idea of respectability is to get out of the pornography business and stick to loan-sharking, extortion and murder. Mangino isn't too squeamish for porn, however, and he embarks on a revolting scam involving videotape, drugs, rape and blackmail.

It's too bad that virtually none of Stella's best dialogue is repeatable in this newspaper. Like "The Sopranos" writers, Stella is a kind of obscene Ring Lardner, finding a lean, rancid poetry in his characters' vernacular, and rendering it with flawless precision and humor.

Unfortunately, Jimmy Bench-Press doesn't sustain the tension it builds in its first half; Stella has trouble shaping scenes, and toward the end his narrative skills seem to desert him altogether. These weaknesses are especially apparent in the later sections on Alex Pavlik and John DeNafria, the two troubled but likable detectives in the NYPD organized crime unit trying to stop Mangino and assorted other no-goods. Both cops come to life -- Pavlik, the divorce{acute} with anger-management problems; DeNafria, the devoted father whose career hit a wall when he shot a kid in what he was sure was self-defense -- and if in future work Stella can combine structural coherence with his honesty and George V. Higgins-like gift for rude talk, he'll be a mob-fiction contender.

Pols Beneath the Palms

Roderick Jeffries, in his Inspector Enrique Alvarez mysteries set on Mallorca, is as blithely funny about the English ex-pats who have overrun the place as he is about the Spanish island where few of the natives are in a hurry to tidy up after the Brits' boozy brunches or their homicides. The middle-aged widower Alvarez, a man with a taste for good food and a maybe too abiding enthusiasm for good cognac, does not argue with an Englishman who remarks in An Artful Death (St. Martin's Minotaur, $22.95) that "in the late nineteenth century, a traveler to this island wrote in a largely unreadable guidebook that of all the island's charms, the lack of rational reason was the greatest."

The wry, beset Alvarez has his own sound reasons, however, for his extra-legal solution to the murder of a British swindler and philanderer whose peculiarly gored corpse washes ashore not far from his yacht. Suspended, instated once more, suspended again and reinstated once more by his politically panic-prone superior, Alvarez goes after a pompous British cabinet minister who, in the words of the pol's cousin, was "recently seen trying out nimbuses for size." A knowledgeable Brit -- who lives, like Jeffries, on Mallorca -- points out that "the Spanish are a very practical race and so don't award their politicians beatific characters."

The Alvarez books are a good wintertime escape series, both knowing and diverting, about mild cultural collisions on a mostly-but-not-always-sunny vacation island.

Death in Sicily

Another fine Mediterranean island series, popular for years in Europe, is now available in flavorful English translations in the United States. Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano books, set in a small town in Sicily, feature a witty, philosophically minded police inspector with cultivated tastes for good food and wine.

Viking published the second novel in the series, The Terra-Cotta Dog, in hardcover in November, although a better place to start is the first one, The Shape of Water, now out in paperback (Penguin, $5.99). In his debut, Inspector Montalbano must solve the murder of a well-off local pol whose body has been discovered by two garbage collectors in a car near an abandoned factory with the dead man's pants down around his knees. Local television news is careful not to describe the circumstances of Silvio Lupanello's death, and Montalbano must negotiate a thicket of delicate political and family connections and sensibilities to find the killer.

Camilleri is as crafty and charming a writer as his protagonist is an investigator, and neither is likely to be mistaken for, say, a Scot or an Inuit. Even the garbage collectors' story adds to the airy, tangy picture of Sicily today. Both men have PhDs in environmental studies, and they try to exploit their grisly discovery and reel in a career-boosting patron. "You know as well as I do, Inspector, you can't sail without a favorable wind," one of the young men tells Montalbano. He understands this as well as anybody, as his own influential protectors look at where the facts might lead, and flee.

In this political atmosphere -- as on the Mallorca of Inspector Alvarez -- the path to justice can be convoluted. It is sometimes personal, too, in a way most Americans purport to mistrust. Even Montalbano's girlfriend doesn't like extra-legal law enforcement. "So you gave yourself a promotion, eh?" she says to him near the end. "From inspector to god -- a fourth-rate god, but still a god." Camilleri does not record the inspector's reply, so readers can formulate their own. *

Richard Lipez writes private-eye novels under the name Richard Stevenson. His new novel, "Tongue Tied," will be published in February.