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As mysteries deepen, a detective grows

Bruce Medway has never been afraid to get his hands dirty. Working as a private investigator in Cotonou, a coastal city in Benin, West Africa, he has little choice. Before long on any given day in the hot, rank, and polluted city, he's filthy, covered in dust and garbage, sweating "not . . . in streams, but in fat, ripe figs."

Blood Is Dirt
By Robert Wilson
Harcourt, Harvest, 320 pp, $14

A Darkening Stain
By Robert Wilson
Harcourt, Harvest, 304 pp, $14

Medway, a British expatriate who drinks as much as he works, has begun to realize that some kinds of filth can begrime him emotionally, too. In his first two outings ("Instruments of Darkness" and "The Big Killing"), penned with delicious noir wit by British author Robert Wilson, the PI was marked by the casual violence of the region, where diamonds and smuggling contribute to the unstable politics of surrounding countries such as Nigeria. It's an area where machetes are used to send messages and bloated bodies frequently pop up in the lagoon that reaches across the Nigerian border, and the casualties of his cases have left Medway feeling disgusted and disturbed.

But in the third and fourth volumes of this series (previously released in England and now published simultaneously in paperback here), things are about to get worse. For Medway, who has labored long enough to trade in some of his antihero status for real moral authority, the dirt is about to get personal.

How ugly can it get? As "Blood Is Dirt," the third work in the series, opens, Medway is watching a street butcher dispatch a sheep in the alley outside his office window. There's no reason not to look: There's no work to distract him, or to support the agency he's opened with his partner Bagado, the former Beninois detective who repeatedly pulled Medway out of the fire in the earlier volumes. And when that entertainment is done, the hard-drinking PI finds himself pursuing a possible client who is just as marked as the ill-fated beast. "I thought I might go and hustle him some more this evening," says Medway, for lack of anything else to do. "Even if he's a dead man and he hasn't got any money?" asks Bagado. "Nobody's got less money than us," Medway responds.

The pressure isn't purely financial: Medway's on-again, off-again girlfriend, the German-English aid worker Heike, is acting strangely; she seems to be considering trading Medway in for her stable and adoring boss, Gerhard. Moses, Medway's formerly carefree driver, has found out he's HIV-positive but insists on trying his village's traditional medicine before Western pharmaceuticals. And before long, Bagado is moved out of the picture as well, in a bit of political maneuvering that doesn't bode well for anyone. In addition to these personal complications, it soon becomes obvious that the crimes in these outings are going to be even uglier than in the previous books -- toxic waste and the forced prostitution of children both come into play -- and that Medway has no choice but to wade in, far over his head.

As their simultaneous release indicates, these short, sharp books are linked. Each centers on a separate case and stands alone as a rollicking adventure, full of the kind of smart-funny writing that has won Wilson a Golden Dagger Award. But several new characters (particularly a fearsome Mafioso named Roberto Franconelli) carry over from "Blood Is Dirt" to "A Darkening Stain," as do the domestic dramas of Medway and Bagado. In a way, the volumes function as a two-part coming-of-age for Medway, who must come to terms with Heike and his feelings about domesticity as well as with crime, violence, malaria, racism, and the kind of people who show you the grave they've dug for you.

It's a smart move for author Wilson, still best known for his Nazi-era "A Small Death in Lisbon." A continuing series about a character as hard-edged as Medway can go two ways: He must either get harder and shed all emotional ties, or soften and grow. Wilson maneuvers his man so it's not all about love: Medway's gout is compelling him to lessen his drinking anyway, and Bagado's positive influence helps. But the sodden PI does not go into the good life easily, and Wilson conveys his confusion and emotional inarticulateness with grace. "I could sense the levels changing," says Medway, following a puzzling encounter with Heike, "could feel myself being brought to the edge of something."

Despite Medway's lurching moves toward adulthood, his voice, which narrates these tales, remains hilariously dark and self-deprecating. "Spill your guts or bow out," he tells a potential client. "We've got some paper clip chains to make." When contemplating matters of the heart, he retains that edge, as long as he doesn't have to spell out his feelings too clearly. As Medway, who can "examine a wood knot through the bottom of a whiskey glass," thinks about infidelity, he notes: "Wasn't there a president of the United States who said: `I've committed adultery many times in my mind but never in my body'? This must have cheered the first lady no end."

Wilson's great skill lies not only in this kind of bemused first-person narrative but in his ability to wrap action and violence in humor. For every broken body, there's an absurd bit of detail, and Medway has enough awareness to know that he's often the straight man of fate's (or the author's) jokes. Luckily, he has surrounded himself with reliable cohorts, who love him despite himself. When his own penchant for violence is invoked, Medway can be touchy. "Irony, Bruce," Bagado reassures him. "I was being ironical."

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