Summer reading

Our critics spotlight the season's cheap (and not so cheap) thrills and single out a few bestselling stinkers (paging Jackie Collins!).

Published July 16, 2001 7:54PM (EDT)

Here at Salon, where we abide by the apparently heretical policy of only recommending books we actually enjoy, we believe that if you're not reading for pleasure, then you better be getting paid for it. But since we get paid to read anyway, things can get a little mixed up, and just to be on the safe side, once a year -- in the summer, naturally -- we check in with the books that everyone else is buying in stacks. Hence, our Summer Reading special.

It's a mixed bag, from outright stinkers like "Hollywood Wives" (what gives, America?) to middlingly tasty snacks such as Rae Lawrence's resuscitation of Jacqueline Susann's classic trash goddesses to the unalloyed delights of the new Janet Evanovich romp. Plus, we've added an assortment of lightweight gems that might otherwise be overlooked in the crush of new books designed to make your hours in the airplane seat zip by like minutes or to distract you from the sensation of UVA radiation roasting the backs of your thighs. We've got everything: sassy female FBI agents, voodoo priestesses, crooked unions, Sicilian vendettas, a smelly elephant brain -- Hey! How'd that get in here? Anyway, we present the following in hope that our reading pleasure will soon become yours.

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Hollywood Wives: The New Generation
By Jackie Collins
Simon & Schuster, 528 pages

It should come as no great shock that Jackie Collins' "Hollywood Wives: The New Generation" lacks in prose style what it fails to make up for in plot and character. Harder to figure is the near-absence of elaborate sex scenes featuring ice cubes and horsewhips, and the dearth of the scheming spouses promised in the title. Aside from two dim tertiary characters, there is exactly one wife here, and she's too busy trying to get her own career off the ground to hang around the central plot. If summer camp memories serve, Jackie Collins is no Sidney Sheldon.

What "Hollywood Wives: The New Generation" does offer is plenty of encouragement to writers who dream of writing a bestselling Hollywood roman ` clef, but worry about lacking the insider status to pull it off. With a love of italics and a subscription to People magazine, anyone can do it. This story centers around a single-named star who falls for her private detective-cum-bodyguard as smelly men plot to kidnap her full-lipped daughter, who is vacillating between her mama's-boy boyfriend and his evil twin (who turns out to be the good guy) on the eve of her marriage. You can't use this plot of course, but any other episode of "All My Children" will do.

Then just nestle a few love notes to real-life celebrities in random passages, making it appear as though you know them. Name a character "Ramone Lopez," for example, and write: "Ramone Lopez -- no relation to the exquisite Jennifer." Aspiring authors should also learn from Collins' mistakes. One character's power marriage is undone by her habit of fellating her director-husband's protigi, a young screenwriter named "Oliver Rock." This, of course, is ridiculous: In Hollywood no one ever sleeps with the writer.

Finally, liberal use of rhetorical questions should make writing a Collinsesque novel as simple as solving a crime in a Collins novel. Note how Fanny, a detective "of great repute" achieves her goals.

Eric ... the name stuck in Fanny's mind. She had a strong suspicion that he might be the man she was looking for. Now all she had to do was find out where he lived, and she'd bring him in for questioning. That shouldn't be too hard, should it?


-- Carina Chocano

Jacqueline Susann's Shadow of the Dolls
By Rae Lawrence
Crown Publishers, 320 pages

What made Jacqueline Susann's "Valley of the Dolls" so overwhelming was not just the trashy, soap-opera-on-acid spectacle she created, but the fast, crude language she used to tell her story of three young women starting out in the entertainment industry, their successes and their humiliating, at times tragic, failures. Susann wrote without grace, all tell and no show: no establishing scenes, no artful foreshadowing, no complex psychological portraits. She was too busy debauching her characters to develop them.

And it still makes for visceral, wildly entertaining reading that relies as much on her natural sense of dramatic pacing as it does her artless, and utterly realistic, voice, the crude, frank jargon that sounds nothing if not believable. The "Valley" women -- the archetypal "good girl," Anne Welles, the archetypal "bad girl," Neely O'Hara, the archetypal "sweet, dumb girl," Jennifer North -- have held up well; contemporary cautionary tales in the movies or on TV still rarely make their young heroines descend to the depths Susann sent her girls to back in the mid-1960s. And so it's only natural for anyone who suffered along with and/or delighted in their own youthful debasement to want to find out whatever actually happened to Neely and Anne (as opposed to poor Jennifer, of course, who died so very tragically).

Rae Lawrence's "Jacqueline Susann's Shadow of the Dolls" will offer "Valley" fans a quick fix, picking up with the girls in 1987, in their early 30s, and we follow them as they struggle through blasi midlife crises -- Anne finally leaves that rascally Lyon Burke (that's right, she ended up marrying him!); Neely tries a career revival in the kitsch backwater of Las Vegas; Anne goes from poorhouse to successful party-planner to big-name TV news star in the time it must take Katie Couric to wear out a pair of Jimmy Choos; Neely goes off drugs, picks up with Lyon, goes back on drugs, gets dropped by Lyon, stages a major theatrical comeback, and on, and on.

It's delivered, though, without Susann's vicious bite, and falls to the trash novel conventions "Valley" employed but didn't seem tied to (an engagement is canceled at the last minute; a character you forgot about returns unrecognized due to massive facial surgery). But it's also hindered by the jaded tastes of a post-"Dallas," post-"Melrose Place," "Sex and the City" culture that takes a lot to titillate. When aging lothario Lyon (roar!) echoes one of the famous passages from the first book and orders a 40-something Neely, "Tonight it's going to be my way ... Turn over," it seems less deliciously sordid than just sort of pathetic.

Still, it can be an amusing trip down memory lane, with the occasional funny tidbit -- Xanax, for example, has largely replaced Valium as the "doll" of choice -- though the image of these women, replaying the same mistakes they made in their 20s, inevitably tarnishes the memory of them as the defiled but undaunted heroines they once seemed to be.

-- Kerry Lauerman

Seven Up
By Janet Evanovich
St. Martin's Press, 309 pages

Stephanie Plum, the bond enforcement agent heroine of Janet Evanovich's series of bestselling novels, bears little resemblance to the hardboiled female detectives created by Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton and other contemporary crime fiction writers. Steph's not particularly brave, has no expertise in the martial arts and she sure doesn't jog. Dragged out on the sidewalk by her boyfriend, Joe Morelli, for a morning run, she observes, "I can walk three miles in four-inch heels and I can shop Morelli into the ground, but I don't do running. Now if I was running to a sale on handbags, maybe." Most of all, Steph couldn't be a brooding loner if she tried; she's too deeply, if grouchily, entwined with the neighborhood she grew up in, a Trenton, N.J., neighborhood called the Burg.

Even if Steph were cut out to be an action heroine, the Burg keeps getting in her way. In the latest Plum adventure, "Seven-Up," Steph spots Eddie DeChooch, the bail-skipper she's after -- an 80-ish, semiretired mob hit man caught trafficking contraband cigarettes -- at a funeral and she contemplates slapping her cuffs on him. In the end, though, she chickens out: She doesn't want to "create a scene and upset people who were grieving. More to the point, Mrs. Varga would call my mother and relay the whole gruesome incident." Like the protagonists in most detective yarns, Steph gets beat up in the course of her investigation, but it's by a purse-wielding little old lady in a fight over a parking place.

DeChooch manages to elude Steph at least a half-dozen times in the course of "Seven-Up," partly because she's distracted by a worry-wart mom, a thrill-seeking grandmother, a prim sister who's just arrived back home after the breakup of her "perfect" marriage and a stoner pal who likes to dress up as a superhero. Then there's her sexy police detective boyfriend/fianci (the idea of marriage is freaking Steph out) and an even sexier bounty-hunter colleague who promises to help land her aged quarry if she'll agree to a little trade. Like I said, this girl is no loner.

The mystery in "Seven-Up" is pretty incidental, if pleasantly silly. What makes Evanovich irresistible are charms of a different order: her snappy Jersey dialogue, the daffy supporting characters and all the hilarious scrapes Steph gets into in her quest not to end up moving back in with her parents.

-- Laura Miller

Terrible Lizard: The First Dinosaur Hunters and the Birth of a New Science
By Deborah Cadbury
Henry Holt, 374 pages

A book about the blossoming of paleontology in the early 19th century might not strike you as light summer reading, but this wonderfully written account filled with eccentric characters, gigantic reptiles and a war between science and religion makes Michael Crichton's dopey, dull "Jurassic Park" seem like cereal box copy. Better yet, the story begins at the beach.

It's 1812 in Dorset, England, and Mary Anning, "scarcely more than twelve or thirteen," is wandering along the seashore at the town of Lyme Regis. Anning, who often helped her recently deceased father collect giant bones of "Crocodiles, Angels Wings, Cupid's Wings, Verteberries and Cornemonius" from the beach cliffs to sell to tourists, discovers several large fossilized vertebrae -- retrieved after "around the clock" work with her little hammer and some help from the locals -- which turns out to be a "fantastic creature ... seventeen feet long."

Anning had just found the first entire connected skeleton of what would later be named "Ichthyosaurus," a prehistoric, seagoing fish-lizard -- sort of a google-eyed crocodile with flippers. In so doing she launched the science of modern paleontology (she continued to find fossils for decades) and a battle royal between those committed to a literal interpretation of the Bible's creation story and those who saw the chain of life -- from primordial ooze to primate -- as one unbroken progression.

Cadbury has crafted a spirited, compelling story, and the cast of strange and exotic creatures matched by strange and exotic people makes this the kind of book that keeps Coppertone in business. There's Reverend William Buckland, the "undergroundology" enthusiast whose fossil-crammed quarters are also home to five free-roaming guinea pigs and a jackal -- until one evening when Buckland is entertaining friends and the jackal is heard "munching up something under the sofa," reducing the guinea pig population to one. Buckland also keeps a "tame and caressing" bear named Tiglath Pileser who enjoys wine parties. There's the brilliant, devious anatomist Richard Owen, who dissects a rhinoceros in his living room, brings a stinky elephant brain into the house and coins the word "dinosaur." There's the great and hapless Gideon Mantell, an overworked village doctor who, in his nearly nonexistent spare time, creates an extraordinary fossil museum and makes breakthrough discoveries against all odds. And those are just three of the players -- in addition to the monumental stars of the Age of Reptiles -- who make this true tale of fascination fascinating and entertaining.

-- Douglas Cruickshank

Ghost Soldiers: The Forgotten Epic Story of World War II's Most Dramatic Mission
By Hampton Sides
Doubleday, 336 pages

This story of a daring U.S. raid on a nightmarish Japanese POW camp in the waning days of the Pacific War is the kind of narrative writers dream about -- a tale so powerful, dramatic, perfectly shaped and heartwarming that it's almost ridiculous. No screenwriter is needed -- the damn thing is a blockbuster script as written. (And yes, Hollywood has optioned it.)

In January 1945, a series of defeats across the Pacific had pushed Japan's back to the wall. The American invasion of the Philippines was another decisive blow, but it triggered hideous deeds: Japanese troops (acting with the tacit approval of the War Ministry in Tokyo) massacred helpless American prisoners. As the U.S. Army prepared to take Manila, its top brass knew about these atrocities. They also knew that another POW camp, at a place called Cabanatuan, held 500 American troops who were likely to be killed by the Japanese. These prisoners were the survivors of the infamous "Death March," the ordeal that followed the fall of Bataan and Corregidor, the largest surrender in U.S. military history.

The Army decided to try to rescue these emaciated prisoners, the "ghosts of Bataan." The problem was, they'd have to go deep behind Japanese lines to do it. The troops chosen for the task were 120 strapping soldiers, mostly farm boys who had originally enlisted as mule skinners, who made up a new, elite Army unit called Rangers. They were supported by Filipino guerrillas. Their orders: sneak through 30 miles of enemy territory, kill the Japanese guards, bring out every prisoner alive and make their way back to the American lines.

I will not reveal the story that Sides eloquently tells -- a story celebrated in Life Magazine just weeks after it took place, but that had long since been forgotten. Suffice it to say that it is one of the great stories of World War II.

Sides researched "Ghost Soldiers" deeply, including interviewing many of the men involved: He brings the personalities of the ravaged prisoners and their rescuers to life in a way that's as low-key, decent and unpretentious as the men themselves. Skillfully weaving together vivid narratives about the Death March and life in the POW camps with a taut account of the raid itself, "Ghost Soldiers" is destined to become a classic of its genre. The "heartwarming World War II book" is becoming a tiresome cliché, but you'd have to have a heart of stone not to be moved -- and inspired -- by this book.

-- Gary Kamiya

Beebo Brinker
By Ann Bannon
Cleis Press, 211 pages

Greenwich Village in the 1950s offers a backdrop for this classic lesbian pulp-fiction novel, first published in 1962, newly reissued in paperback and endorsed by Dorothy Allison and Joan Nestle. Forty years on, readers can look back at a plot trajectory -- boy meets girl; girl meets bad girl; girl meets good girl; girl meets closeted-superstar girl; girl finds true love -- that melds mistaken identities and molten love scenes, via melodramatic prose, into a satisfying whole.

Things begin with Jack Mann, a fairy godfather and war veteran comfortable with his love of "volatile, charming, will-o-the-wisp boys." Jack spots Beebo Brinker, 4 inches taller than he and freshly fallen off a Greyhound bus. Offering a meal, shelter, peppermint schnapps and sympathy, he learns her story as we do: a misunderstood Wisconsin farm girl, tall, tanned and strong, but unable to shoulder the burden of not fitting into the small-town feminine roles expected of her.

Soon enough, our heroine (who couldn't pronounce "Betty Lou," her name, as a child) takes center stage. Her job driving a pizza delivery truck brings her into the orbits of local siren Mona Petry, femme not-so-fatale Paula Ash and high-profile Hollywood actress Venus Bogardus. The trio's soft shoulders and dangerous curves provide high entertainment value, no matter where you fall on the Kinsey scale.

Watching our heroine's choices, you see plainly the uncertainty, the tentative quality of youth when it's new to the adult world's unspoken codes of behavior and desires, changing from inchoate to incarnate, ice to water to steam and back again. You wind up with a stake in the book's hard-earned happy ending, so different from the doomed love and downfall common in the lesbian pulp novel plots of its time. From moment to moment, Beebo's willingness to battle propriety, lovers, husbands and her own fears for the sake of her lady loves earns her readers' respect. This is pulp fiction any reader would be proud to peruse.

-- George Kelly

By James Lee Burke
Simon & Schuster, 336 pages

Nobody does cathartic male rage like James Lee Burke. While his villains are always the planet's most loathsome filth -- rapists, child molesters, dirty cops, white supremacists -- and his heroes the moral avengers who bring them down, the lure of Burke's fiction is that his good guys understand they need the bad guys, and shudder at what they know they have in common.

Burke's latest novel, "Bitterroot," can't quite match the New Orleans noir of his bestselling "Purple Cane Road." The landscape is Montana -- stunning, but less seductive and malevolent -- and his hero is no Dave Robicheaux, though they have a lot in common. Billy Bob Holland is an exiled Texas Ranger turned Montana lawyer, trying to help his old friend Doc -- a preacher turned Navy SEAL turned radical environmentalist -- when Doc's daughter's rapists start turning up dead, and Doc becomes a murder suspect. Both stories are populated by an underworld of vicious bikers, fallen cops and other lowlifes, sensitive young men turned into killers by prison rape, tough but vulnerable teenage girls and middle-aged women -- all set against a backdrop of alcoholism, Catholicism, race-mixing and semisteamy romance, with a brawl every few dozen pages.

The emotional power of both books comes from their heroes' lonely self-knowledge and their struggles with self-control. Holland, like Robicheaux, is an angry loner who is all too aware of his own love affair with rage and violence. Unlike the Cajun cop, he's not a recovering alcoholic, but the seduction of alcohol and dissolution is strong in both books. Burke understands the grandiosity, the black-and-white worldview and the addiction to drama that's at the heart of being an alcoholic or an avenging hero. And his heroes recognize that they need to knock somebody's teeth out the same way they need to go on an occasional bender -- because losing control just feels so good. They're always grappling with the unsettling question just at the edge of consciousness: Where would all this fury go if they couldn't beat the shit out of bad guys?

The world of women in Burke's fiction occasionally edges toward the creepy. There's a sex crime at the heart of both books: Doc's daughter's rape in "Bitterroot," years of molestation endured by the Labiche twins in "Road." And the heroes' love objects almost always have disturbing sexual secrets -- Robicheaux's wife Bootsie had an affair with dirty cop Jim Gable; in "Bitterroot" Holland's first love interest, Cleo Lonigan, also slept with the bad guys. Yet he also pairs his heroes with strong female cops, and their partnerships have real chemistry, which in "Bitterroot" turns into an oddly sweet, simple love affair that is the book's lone haven from darkness.

The flaw of "Bitterroot" is Burke's failure to pick a villain. There are just too many of them here, all the evil of Americana on display -- Holland is up against the Mafia, mining interests, corrupt and drug-addled Hollywood celebrities, inept federal agents, prison gangs, and oh yeah, white supremacists. And even with all those bad guys, the hunt for Doc's enemies -- why was his daughter raped, and who killed her rapists? -- never gains the emotional intensity of Robicheaux's search for his mother's killers, which is really his attempt to solve the mystery of whether she died a prostitute or a lovelorn barmaid, and why she left him. Still, Burke fans will enjoy the mix of testosterone, spirituality, lust and longing in "Bitterroot" while waiting for Robicheaux's return.

-- Joan Walsh

White Darkness
By Steven D. Salinger
Crown Publishers, 416 pages

Moses Rosen, a single, 40-ish jewelry store owner who can't seem to push baubles and trinkets as well as his father did before him, frets about the steadily growing West Indian population and the new smells and sounds they've brought to his once-Jewish Brooklyn neighborhood. But when Moses saves Miz Ark, the Haitian woman who runs the popular restaurant next door, from a mugger, his lonely world bursts wide open -- with good and bad results.

Suddenly, his store is flooded with local customers who believe anything that Moses touches will bring them good luck; he becomes a beloved member of the community and meets a beautiful young waitress from Miz Ark's restaurant. Yet Miz Ark brings with her a dark history and a shady connection to a lusty and sinister West Indian colonel who's slowly making his way to Brooklyn.

Steven T. Salinger's "White Darkness" is a thriller seasoned with mismatched lovers, desperate immigrants, CIA plots and stolen jewels, set amid the voodoo and corruption of Haitian politics and the vibrant street life of Brooklyn. Salinger has some witty and serious things to say about immigrant life in America, and he's at his best (and seems to have the most fun) when he meshes different worlds together unexpectedly. For example, when a Cuban boat ends up in American waters after a terrible storm, Salinger serves up five pages of hilarious dialogue between the elderly, polite Cuban captain and the swaggering, pea-brained American sailor who can't meet him halfway on the language barrier.

Salinger often ventures into the thicket of racial, national and class resentments, but he's way too crafty a writer to let such meditations slow down the good vs. bad, "Who's gonna get it?" pace of his plot. Instead, those realities serve as a balance to the more fantastical notions in the book -- the strangely influential presence of l'wahs or voodoo spirits, say, who always seem to tip off the bad guy just in the nick of time. Salinger has created a truly shadowy and menacing villain, as well as a spunky, resilient community that keeps you rooting for them until the end.

-- Suzy Hansen

P Is for Peril
By Sue Grafton
Putnam, 304 pages

In Sue Grafton's mystery novels, private investigator Kinsey Millhone is perpetually stuck in the suburban Los Angeles of the 1980s -- a land of shoulder pads, big hair and Big Macs. In "P Is for Peril," the 16th installment in her alphabetic series, you can't help but feel sorry for the persistent but beleaguered Millhone: If only she had access to a cellphone and the Internet, her job would be a hell of a lot easier.

But part of the charm of Grafton's mysteries is this somewhat sadistic setting, and the novelty of watching classic noir tales unfold in a time that's not quite antique but not entirely modern either. Grafton's other talent is spinning a well-crafted mystery: In "P Is for Peril," Millhone is hired to locate a missing Dr. Purcell, who has disappeared without a trace. His former wife thinks he's hiding from his current wife, an ex-stripper who was rumored to be cheating on him. Millhone thinks his vanishing might have something to do with a Medicare scandal at the retirement home that Purcell ran.

Although Grafton mistakenly meanders into a strained side-plot that involves a pair of patricidal brothers, the book's overarching story delivers exactly what it promises: a compelling mystery that manages to pull off a surprise at the end. And as a humanized female version of Dashiell Hammett's loner hard-boiled detective, Millhone is still an oddly compelling presence in the world of mystery novels.

Grafton has been laboriously working her way through the alphabet for 18 years now; by the time she gets to Z (is for Zen? for Zealous? for Zebra?), it will be 2012, we'll all be zipping around in jet cars and Millhone -- firmly lodged in 1987 -- will truly feel like an anachronism. For now, however, Grafton's novels are timeless reading for those moments when all you want is a good puzzle.

-- Janelle Brown

Blood Washes Blood
By Frank Viviano
Pocket Books, 270 pages

Come for the blood-and-vengeance motif, stay for the sunny, breezy, lemon tree-scented Sicilian setting. This enjoyable, surprisingly brainy and deep book manages to live up to its shamelessly base-covering subtitle ("A True Story of Love, Murder and Redemption Under the Sicilian Sun"). Viviano, a foreign correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle who has covered major world events ranging from Tiananmen Square to the conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo, puts so many balls into the air that "Blood Washes Blood" takes a couple of chapters to settle into itself. When it does, you can sit back and enjoy its fast-moving parade of themes and stories.

There's historical suspense: Viviano sets out to solve an old family mystery, the identity of the man who killed his great-grandfather, his namesake, in 1860s Sicily. There's an absorbing multigenerational saga: the history of Viviano's immigrant family as it travels from Sicily to New York to Detroit. "Blood Washes Blood" is blissfully short on sentimentality and long on sharp considerations of the meaning of family bonds. Along with the more personal material, Viviano offers a fascinating account of the ruthless, bloody Mafia wars that took place in Sicily in the early '90s. The trial of notoriously brutal Mafia boss Antonio "Toto" Riina, who had ordered the car-bomb murder of Judge Giovanni Falcone, an anti-Mafia crusader who had split open the Sicilian underworld, took place as Viviano was in Sicily researching his family history, and he was transfixed by the trial along with his Sicilian neighbors.

And finally, there's a satisfying dose of Sicily itself, which comes alive in Viviano's descriptions of its twisty, always partly hidden history and equally portentous present. In clear reporter's prose that occasionally approaches a sort of brusque poetry, he gets to the paradoxical heart of the patient yet explosive Sicilian character: "Extraordinary events transpired there -- the phenomenal mayhem of Riina's struggle with Badalamenti, the consolidation of a global underworld empire -- while it seemed that nothing happened at all."

-- Maria Russo

Special Agent: My Life on the Front Lines as a Woman in the FBI
By Candice DeLong
Hyperion, 303 pages

If you judge by TV shows like "The X-Files" and movies like "Silence of the Lambs," women FBI agents are solitary types who rarely smile. And as for profilers -- those agents who construct psychological descriptions of perpetrators by analyzing aspects of their crimes -- well, you know they actually get inside the heads of serial killers and other sick maniacs. That, of course, makes them even more haunted than your run-of-the-mill crime fighter who's seen things, terrible things, that keep her lying awake at night in her lonely room.

Candice DeLong, a pint-size, wisecracking single mom who was among the first generation of women to graduate from the agency's Quantico academy, knocks over that stereotype with one kick of her well-trained foot. A former psychiatric nurse who decided she "wanted to be out on the front lines, battling evil with the troops," DeLong not only became one of the agency's first profilers, but also worked undercover (posing as a gangster's date, among other choice roles), followed terrorists, saved children from pedophiliac kidnappers, investigated the Tylenol Murderer and staked out the Unabomber. During her off hours, she served hot dog lunches to her son's elementary school class and wallpapered the Victorian house she bought in an "idyllic" Chicago suburb. (Her two worlds did sometimes collide: DeLong's jacket slipped open in the lunchroom, prompting one of the kids to shout "Seth's mommy has a gun!") Oh, and she helped track down a serial rapist who was terrorizing her neighborhood.

Although it's short on suspenseful crime-detection yarns, DeLong's memoir is still a page-turner, a surprisingly buoyant account by a woman who just loved her job (she's now retired). "Special Agent" is packed with the fascinating lore of law enforcement -- that white people commit most mass murders, that the local cops' dislike for a federal agent will be significantly ameliorated once they learn she's a nurse (cops love nurses, she explains) and so on. DeLong had a reputation for dishing out sassy comebacks to cursing suspects ("That's Miss Federal Pig to you" is my favorite, but "Well, I'm not the one wearing handcuffs" is pretty good, too), but she was also the consummate diplomat. "Special Agent" offers a model account of how to behave when you're a woman pioneer in what's long been a male preserve. Though she recognizes the prejudice and injustice of the sexism she meets, DeLong works hard, stands up for herself without scolding, picks her battles shrewdly, forms warm alliances with the good guys and heartily supports the other talented women agents she meets. After the past few years of embarrassing debacles at the FBI, that DeLong managed to thrive there is the best press the agency has had in a long time.

-- Laura Miller

The Rackets
By Thomas Kelly
Farrar Straus & Giroux, 368 pages

Set in the Giuliani era, "The Rackets" takes you behind the scenes of New York politics to reveal a city rich in simmering cultural conflicts. It's got everything you could want in a quick urban crime read: engaging characters from both sides of the tracks running classic scams and struggling not to get taken down by an endemic corruption. Kelly invokes dozens of classic portrayals of the same turf -- everything from "The Godfather" through "Donnie Brasco" -- in this story of people chasing their lost immigrant roots.

Set during mayoral and union elections, "The Rackets" begins as the mayor's advance man, Jimmy Dolan, gets in a dust-up with Frank Keefe, the head of the local Teamsters. Jimmy's given his walking papers and is forced to return to Inwood, his old neighborhood on the northern tip of Manhattan. Since Jimmy pisses off Keefe and Jimmy's dad, Mike, is running against Keefe to lead the union, there's plenty of tension between the two men, and it only gets worse when a local mafioso, Franky Magic, enters the scene. He's afraid that Keefe will lose the Teamsters election and figures a return to the old code of violence would be a necessary -- and exciting -- way to get everyone back in line. From there on out, it's two trains screaming toward a collision.

The plot line is clear within the first 20 pages, but Kelly makes the book an engaging read by developing a varied cast of characters who transcend the typical crime novel figures. The pages he devotes to each major player's passing thoughts and emotional quirks gives you glimpses into every corner of a New York constantly preoccupied with power, class and personal legitimacy. The only thing that all of Kelly's people can agree on is the importance of reclaiming the simpler traditions of their Irish heritage and their distaste for the cultural changes that have swallowed their old neighborhoods and upended the familiar social order. Kelly uses the peculiar slang of their milieu -- guys are "skels," you "take" a heart attack instead of having one -- to reinforce the sense of a cohesive neighborhood culture. Hell, even Jimmy Breslin makes a guest appearance and the blessing is well deserved.

-- Max Garrone

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