The War That Won't Go Away

After reading Lisa Reardon's The Mercy Killers (Counterpoint, $24), it is easier to understand why Vietnam War veterans' feelings and opinions about the war are still hot and raw and likely to remain so until every last one of that monumental folly's participants is dead. A spellbinding crime novel, The Mercy Killers is also a brilliantly thoughtful saga about the weight and drag of both national and family history on individual behavior, and about a thrilling propensity by some men and women to exercise free will, no matter what.

Set mostly over a four-year period starting in the spring of 1967 in Ypsilanti, Mich., and in Vietnam, The Mercy Killers opens in, and keeps returning to, McGurk's Tap Room, a grim, grimy place "where duct tape keeps the barstools from coughing out their stuffing. The colors had been scrubbed from the tin ashtrays. The smell of wet dog yawns from the corners." Blunt, short-tempered Gil McGurk runs the bar, and among the regulars is Jerry Moody, a depressed old drunk who, too inept or ambivalent to commit suicide, keeps asking Gil and others to put him out of his misery. Most of the McGurk's gang uneasily laugh off Moody's pleas. But when Moody's agreeable, brain-damaged grandson P.T. Simpkins takes the old man at his word one night and smothers him with a pillow, the police become involved and dominoes begin to tumble by the dozens.

P.T.'s younger brother Charlie, a small-time burglar, steps in and takes the rap for P.T. Charlie's car-thief pal Gino goes along with the deception. He knows that P.T. protected Charlie from a violently abusive father when the brothers were children, drawing most of the sadist's wrath toward himself. Now Charlie believes it is his turn to take punishment for P.T., whose mental deficiencies are the result of his childhood beatings. "The assistant DA offers Charlie a choice: eight years for manslaughter or enlistment in the army for three years. 'Like going to jail,' he says, except you get paid.' " Charlie's Vietnam tour, portrayed in flashbacks and in a series of agonizing letters home, is nightmarish beyond belief -- by comparison, prison would have been a breeze -- just as it is for Gino, who is drafted and returns home a mentally wrecked heroin addict. Vietnam is where Gino discovers that "God's a crazy old man" who "doesn't know who to punish for what anymore. . . . He forgot the rules." Besides the horrific war carnage, there are two more violent deaths in the novel, the first another mercy killing, the second meant that way but just insanely wrong. You see it coming and want to weep.

Reardon's men -- Charlie, Gino, Gil, P.T. and Bobby, a stolen-goods dealer and draft-dodger who becomes the McGurk gang's practical and moral anchor -- are depicted with obvious love as well as a lacerating honesty. As are Reardon's women: Katie, good-hearted and loving but unable to grasp what the vets endured; Sheila, the prostitute determined to get the best deal she can for the daughter Charlie fathered but won't help raise (the idea of family both attracts and nauseates him); and Diane, the plucky, unhip VA hospital counselor who adores Charlie and tries to save him from himself and his terrible history.

Reardon, the Chicago author of two other well-regarded novels, Billy Dead and Blameless, has given us a timely novel of terrific suspense that is as socially aware as Dreiser, as astute about working-class American character as Raymond Carver or Joyce Carol Oates, and altogether terrific.

Parents from Hell

Melancholy Baby (Putnam, $24.95) is Robert B. Parker's fourth Sunny Randall, Boston PI, novel, and, like Sunny, it's a peach. In his Spenser novels and elsewhere, Parker has always been good with troubled-family dynamics -- he's a kind of Ross Macdonald with humor and wit -- and especially with lost, bratty kids who seem hopeless but aren't.

Sarah Markham is the snotty kid here, a student at a college near Andover who hires Randall to prove that her mother and father are not her biological parents. She can't stand them and is convinced there is something fishy about her origins. At first, Randall can barely put up with Markham, who is "both vague and impatient. What a lovely combination," Randall fumes. As she digs into the young woman's background, though, Randall realizes what this poor kid has put up with: one parent who's a liar and scammer, another who's a nasty, neurotic mess. And then Markham is beaten and Randall warned off the case -- signs of larger corruption.

Randall initially takes the ugly case mainly to pull herself out of herself. Her ex-husband, Richie Burke, "was getting married to a woman I wanted to kill." Randall is still nuts about Richie, as he plainly is about her, and while he likes marriage, she asks herself again and again, "Why can't I live with anyone but a dog?" To find out, she goes into psychotherapy in Cambridge with Susan Silverman, a visitor to the Randall series from Parker's Spenser books. The psychotherapy sessions slow the narrative down a little, but they are useful in helping Randall understand both the Markham family and her own. Oedipal questions arise, and there are some touching scenes where Randall gently interrogates her retired-police-captain father about the nature of his own imperfect marriage, and, again, understanding is a balm.

The solution to the Markham family mystery is no shocker; it goes back to Sarah's father's earlier career in radio. But Randall herself is full of surprises, as when she guiltlessly sleeps with a hot-number suspect to pry information out of him. We're a long way from Nora Charles here, or even Philip Marlowe. The only serious weakness in Melancholy Baby is Parker's use -- he has pulled this before -- of Richie Burke's mobster uncle to come in at the last minute as a rough-justice deus ex machina. In real life, mobsters stink (Parker should know this), and anyway a gimmick this cheesy is below a writer of Parker's gifts.

Rebel with a Personal Cause

Justly renowned for his Scottish Inspector Rebus novels, Ian Rankin has produced a spy thriller, Witch Hunt (Little, Brown, $19.95), that doesn't quite come off. Superficially it is reminiscent of John le Carre in his glory days, with droll, all-too-human British intelligence personalities intriguing against one another as well as those who would do Britain ill, and a cunning antagonist toying with the most underappreciated and likable of the spies. But Rankin lacks le Carre's literary craft and his cranky, opinionated sense of history. So Witch Hunt seems both padded -- it's way too long -- and factually unconvincing.

The "witch" of the title is the code name for a woman of murky origins who will hire herself out to just about any cause as an assassin. Dominic Elder, a spy forced to retire early after apparently botching one attempt to nab her, comes back semi-officially to get it right the second time when evidence points to a planned assassination at a London gathering of European heads of state. The witch, it is very gradually revealed, loves Tarot cards, hates men and is inclined toward a "pursuit of pure terrorism, untainted by monetary, political or propaganda gain." Perhaps, in this age of ideologically driven terror, Rankin wishes to avoid the obvious. But in the end the witch's motives turn out to be entirely and specifically personal. It feels both lame and perverse.

Breathlessly Good

Anybody who loved the farce/noir sexy sensibility of French New Wave movies like "Band of Outsiders" or "Shoot the Piano Player," as I did and do, will probably be smitten with Natalee Caple's Mackerel Sky (St. Martin's, $24.95) -- as strange, lurid and funny a blood-soaked crime novel as has come along in a while. Although the novel was apparently written in English (no translator is credited), Caple is a French Canadian with distinctly French ideas about sex (it's a fact of life) and violence (ditto).

Guy Vidoq returns after 20 years to the small town in Quebec where an older family friend, free-spirited Martine, seduced him at age 16 -- it was what he had long wanted -- and then bore his child. Now Guy wants to meet his daughter, Isabelle. But he is stunned to discover that the mother and daughter, along with Martine's young lover, Harry, are producing counterfeit U.S. currency and wholesaling it to Montreal mobsters. Still, Guy falls for Martine all over again. This is risky, inasmuch as he soon breaks his foot during sex with her in a tree. Harry, bemused, explains to Guy that "it's not uncommon for men to come home with injuries after having sex with Martine." You know that this amour fou is going to end badly because (a) Martine -- like the irresistible Catherine in Truffaut's "Jules and Jim" -- is a bit . . . borderline; and (b) two violent gangsters, Jules LeGrande and Jim Mann, are rubbed out by two other thugs who are even meaner than Jules and Jim (who are also longtime lovers), and the upstart killers then set their sights on the family of counterfeiters.

Successfully mixing violence, humor and heedless eroticism is a rare knack that few Americans possess -- or should, many would argue. But Caple has the French gift in spades, like some amazing, refreshing throwback to the New Wave era.

A Moveable Plot

Lev Raphael's new Nick Hoffman mystery, Tropic of Murder (Perseverance; paperback, $13.95), is beguiling in spite of a plot that moves around like pigeons on the grass in search of crumbs. It begins promisingly at the Michigan public university where Hoffman is an Edith Wharton scholar. Dark administrative machinations are about to demonstrate once again that "like vampires universities don't do so well in bright sunlight." But by the time Hoffman and his partner, Stefan, land at a Bahamas Club Med for a vacation trip that feels more like an author-research tax write-off than a plausible plot development, we're left pretty much to entertain ourselves with Raphael's acerbic mots on life and literature.

Some of this is just sour -- Stefan should soon win the gays-in-mysteries Pissy Queen award -- but a lot of it is funny. At Club Med, one dimwitted, malapropism-prone young communications major reveres CNN anchors because, she says, "They speak so beautifully! And it doesn't matter what the story is, like a bombing or a lost dog that found its way home, they treat everything equidistant." Well put. *

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