The Other Eighties

Amid all the feel-good nostalgia for the Ronald Reagan years, let's not forget that the 1980s were a decade of spectacular blunders that have left contemporary skies thick with chickens coming home to roost. In In the Moon of Red Ponies (Simon & Schuster, $24.95), James Lee Burke is merciless with Americans he believes were instrumental in the development of Saddam Hussein's chemical and biological weapons programs 20 years ago, and in the secret wars in Central America that made no distinctions among Marxists, social democrats and apolitical poor farmers who happened to gather in the wrong villages at the wrong times. Burke's cool yet politically charged diatribe is also one of his best thrillers ever.

Burke's Billy Bob Holland novels, featuring a former Texas Ranger who is now a Montana defense attorney, are necessarily less feverishly Gothic than his Dave Robicheaux mysteries, in part because they are set not in New Orleans but in Missoula. The pale evenings of the Rockies seem to impose a control on Burke's lush style that's missing in his Louisiana of excess and rot.

Montana headline-makers such as Indian rights, ecoterrorism and neo-Nazism are at the center of In the Moon of Red Ponies -- until, that is, Holland finds appalling links to quasi-official American sins of the past. Holland is a marvelous creation, plainspoken, fair-minded and even-keeled, though haunted by some of his own errors, including the accidental shooting death of his former partner, L.Q. Navarro, down in Mexico.

Inside his head, Holland talks to Navarro's ghost, looking for advice on (a) how to defend Johnny American Horse, a chemically brain-addled (from the first Gulf War) Indian radical activist being framed by "the G" -- the government -- for murder; and (b) how to survive Wyatt Dixon, a sociopathic killer who once buried Holland's wife alive and who is out of prison after only one year on account of prosecutorial legal bumbling.

As in the Robicheaux books, the writing in the Holland series is just terrific. A judge tells American Horse, "Come back in here on a firearms charge, I'm going to dig up the jail and drop it on your head." Wyatt Dixon has black-pinpoint eyes that "studied both people and animals with an invasiveness that was like peeling live tissue off bone." With his trademark acute feel for outsiders and their often sad personal histories, Burke humanizes Dixon -- even plausibly redeems him -- as he does a mean, confused, lovesick cop named Darrel McComb, who has a complex history going back to El Salvador in the '80s. That's where McComb came to believe deep in his heart that "the civilian world was a joke, a giant self-delusion that had little connection to the realities of nations in conflict." With a few incisive strokes, Burke can show all-too-recognizable ruinous arrogance in character and in history.

Terror in Sin City

In Loaded Dice (Ballantine, $22.95), James Swain is also fascinated by momentous events and their casts of characters, in this case the historical footnote that several of the Sept. 11 hijackers visited Las Vegas just before the attacks. Using that horrific plot in popular entertainment could feel -- and could be -- exploitive, but Swain handles his what-if scenario intelligently. And, as mystery master Lawrence Block pointed out in a 2003 interview, Sept. 11 is unavoidable because "How can we write books that don't reflect the universe as it keeps revealing itself to us?"

Swain takes his time getting to the terrorism connection in Loaded Dice, entertaining readers along the way with a juicy tale of two Las Vegas casino owners conspiring to ruin a third -- whose building stands in the way of a connecting walkway they want to build -- by bankrupting his operation through massive cheating. Tony Valentine, Swain's ex-cop from Atlantic City, is brought in to nab the scammers, his specialty. In addition to being a good thriller, Loaded Dice is also a consistently amusing encyclopedia of casino grifts and the process by which experts like Valentine spot the card-counters and (lately) computer-wielding cheats and then get them banned or run out of town.

The widower Valentine is another likable, middle-aged, steady-as-she-goes, good-hearted dick with sadness in his life; his son Gerry is a hopeless doofus and occasional petty crook. It's too much of a coincidence that Gerry should end up in cahoots with Pash and Amin, a couple of Middle Eastern card sharps with more than larceny on their minds. But it's easy to forgive Swain this lapse in plausibility, as well as a too-tidy violent big finish, in order to enjoy Valentine's good company and bask in Swain's hilarious Las Vegas without having to set foot in the place and risk being skinned alive.

The grand entrance at the Sin Casino, where Valentine has hired on, is adorned with immense statues of the owner's six ex-wives. Sin's hotel rooms have color schemes "reminiscent of Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In." Another Vegas club is run like a parody of a certain variety of American male dream, with "naked women dancing against a backdrop of sporting events projected on a colossal screen." Talk about a clash of civilizations.

The Shadows of Detention

Yet another embarrassing chapter in American history is revisited in Lisa Scottoline's superb legal thriller, Killer Smile (HarperCollins, $25.95). The internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II is infamous, but who recalls that 600,000 Italian-Americans were obliged to register as enemy aliens, and more than 10,000 were rounded up and put in camps? A bill passed in 2000 acknowledged this civil-rights outrage, two of whose victims were Scottoline's grandparents, Giuseppe and Marie Scottoline, law-abiding citizens in South Philadelphia.

In Killer Smile, one of Scottoline's longtime series protagonists, lawyer Mary DiNunzio, is menaced and nearly killed when the family of long-dead Amadeo Brandolini hires her to look into the man's supposed suicide in 1942 during his imprisonment at Fort Missoula, Mont. Brandolini's family lost his home and fishing boats when the battered and confused widower died, and, as DiNunzio discovers to her amazement, he also lost plenty more. Hence, her present-day danger.

This winning series always has snappy plots and interesting legal lore. But it's the affectionate and witty take on DiNunzio's bumpy love life -- here she's been widowed for two years and just begun dating -- that's consistently appealing, as are her South Philly extended family and neighborhood life.

Scottoline is warm without being sentimental, as in a scene with neighborhood lawyer Frank Cavuto, who is complaining about how cheap his landlord is and how he "hadda redo all the plumbing and the electric. Fresh coat a paint, all three floors. New water heater, new toilet, the old ones use too much water." But, he shrugs, "What are you gonna do? People are people." Scottoline writes: "Mary couldn't help but smile. Everyone in South Philly said things like this, which passed for content. She should have countered with, Ain't it the truth," but instead went on to the point of her visit. It's always reassuring to run into people who, when they revisit their old neighborhoods and listen to the talk, are able to smile instead of scream.

Unruly Appetites

Ethnic neighborhood humor is also the engine that drives -- maniacally -- Janet Evanovich's popular series featuring Trenton bounty hunter Stephanie Plum. In Ten Big Ones (St. Martin's, $25.95), the Italo-Hungarian thirty-something is bored, on the one hand, with all the talk of her sister Valerie's upcoming wedding to Albert Kloughn, Val's boss and the father of her baby, and on the other with Valerie's dinner-table gossip, whose topics rarely range beyond "unwed mothers, horrific painful deaths, and cheating husbands." But Plum stumbles into a convenience-store holdup and, as a surviving witness, becomes the target of a violent gang, which imports from L.A. a notorious psycho named Junkman to torture and kill her. This is the unlikely stuff of comedy, yes, but Evanovich pretty much pulls it off, as she has on nine previous occasions, with chutzpah and sheer comic inventiveness.

When Plum's car goes up in flames, her pal Lula tells Plum, "You got bad car karma, but at least you're lucky at love." Lula is referring to the two men in Plum's life: her boyfriend, Joe Morelli, a police detective; and her "mentor and man of mystery," Ranger, a security specialist of vague origins whose hair gel leaves her weak-kneed. The sexual tension generated by Plum's being tugged this way and that by these two is formidable and deliciously funny.

Those American staples, sex and violence, are crucial in Plum books, and so is junk food. There's a minor character named Carol Cantwell who goes berserk on her low-carb diet and holds up a Frito-Lay truck. She can't understand why the courts might not sympathize and treat her leniently. Plum herself frequently binges on donuts. And just when you begin to think, Shouldn't gorging on donuts have consequences?, Plum gazes in her mirror with horror and discovers her belly inching out over her beltline.

Some of the thrillers racked up in American airport bookshops are serious and substantial -- James Lee Burke's, Lisa Scottoline's -- but most are formulaic, overwrought and not so much serious as merely solemn in tone. The Evanovich/Plum books aren't in the same league with Burke and Scottoline, but in addition to being simple-minded good fun, they serve as a nice antidote to everything in pop fiction today that's pompous and lardy.

Death in the Wrong Place

Mystery writers usually write about the locales they know best and feel deeply about. It is the bad luck of Elise Title, a former prison psychiatrist in eastern Massachusetts, to have set her Natalie Price series in the vibrant and textured land of George V. Higgins, Robert B. Parker and Dennis Lehane. Although prison prerelease-center director Price is a worthy protagonist, hers is a curiously denatured Boston, especially in comparison to the city of her masterful competitors.

In Conviction (St. Martin's, $24.95), a murdered call-girl comes from "a prominent Boston family," a suburb is "exclusive," and a hotel is "upscale." A police detective "wasn't looking like a happy camper," and in the end an amoral pol gets "his just desserts." It's too bad that Title's writing lacks flair, for Price is a knowing and sympathetic sleuth, who maybe should move to Worcester. *

Richard Lipez writes private eye novels under the name Richard Stevenson.