BOOKS FOUND IN THE STREET

By Patricia Highsmith

Atlantic Monthly Press.

288 pp. $16.95.

Once you've crossed 14th Street in New York you're in Greenwich Village, the city's Bohemia: jazz clubs, quaint bookstores and sidewalk cafe's abound. The center of New York's gay community is found here, as is the city's largest university and some of its most handsome brownstones. But you'll notice that something else happens to the city below 14th Street: Cross streets, now more frequently named than numbered, no longer run strictly east-west but cut across to the Hudson River at angles, or like an arm bent at the elbow; or they run serpentine, like Bleecker Street, through lower Manhattan; or they begin, in their narrow cobblestone way, and then end, as if in midthought, two blocks later. The Village is a place of high spirit and of often Daliesque geography.

This latter vision of the Village is the one that Patricia Highsmith sees in her 19th novel, "Found in the Street"; it is down these dark, cobbled, abbreviated streets that her characters first and accidentally meet, and then try to avoid, and then again meet, one another. The novel opens with a harmless enough incident: Ralph Linderman, a night security guard, spots a wallet in the gutter. Ralph finds some ID, calls up a Jack Sutherland and returns the wallet to him with every dollar in place. Jack thanks him. Ralph treats Jack to a lecture on the evils of the world in general, and of New York in particular.

Next, Jack, a book illustrator, goes out for late-night coffee, where he is served by Elsie, an innocent, alluring and ambitious young woman who wants to be a model and actress. While Elsie is friendly to Jack, he notices that she avoids another man in the restaurant who is harassing her -- Ralph Linderman. Jack befriends and becomes infatuated with Elsie, who in turn develops a close friendship with Jack's wife Natalia.

Ralph is not playing with a full deck. There was that bad fall he'd had down the elevator shaft: "Nothing broken, amazingly ... but everything in him had been shaken up ... as if his heart had come a little loose from its moorings, his brain too, headaches for a while and all that ... They couldn't find anything wrong. But Ralph had felt changed ever since." And his wife had left him years ago, turning him bitter toward women. He believes that Jack and Elsie, whom he passes on the street, are carrying on an affair and that Natalia and Elsie, whom he sees walking arm in arm, are commiserating in some sisterly fashion. Some of what Ralph imagines to be happening is nowhere near the truth; other liaisons he imagines are real, in spirit if not in practice, even as those saner people he observes are afraid to acknowledge the truth to themselves. Ralph proceeds to do what he can to let the Sutherlands and Elsie know how he feels about their behavior.

Events in the book are punctuated by Ralph's encounters or sightings of Jack and Natalia and Elsie and her friends. Although Ralph's initial meeting with Jack is a serendipity for the artist, their acquaintanceship soon becomes annoying, then scary to Jack as Ralph continues to insinuate his philosophy. This evolution of a stranger's seeming good nature turned into threatening and moral obsession is reminiscent of Highsmith's famous 1950 novel, "Strangers on a Train," the story of two strangers who find that they have more in common than one would suppose and consequently swap murder plans; it was the basis for the Hitchcock film.

Yet "Found in the Street" ultimately disappoints. True, Highsmith paints a dark, frightening picture of the Village and SoHo and its smoky clubs and ominously lit streets, and she weaves well the stories of several characters, as we see Elsie become the object of desire of almost everyone, man and woman alike. And in Jack and Natalia's conversations about mundane happenings, the author shows her mastery at creating tension more through what isn't said than what is. But after the book's climactic murder, the story peters out with an uninspired resolution to the crime and with too many threads that Highsmith had seemed so carefully to be pulling through the story left hanging. So are we.

The reviewer is a writer living in New York