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Wordplay enlivens 'Bandersnatch'

The Frumious Bandersnatch: A Novel of the 87th Precinct, By Ed McBain Pocket Star, 384 pp., paperback, $7.99

It's hard to resist a title like ''The Frumious Bandersnatch," which Lewis Carroll fans will recognize as words from his poem ''Jabberwocky." In Ed McBain's latest novel of the 87th precinct, he has Carroll's verse set to a hip-hop tune that an unknown but promising singer named Tamar Valparaiso records for Bison Records, complete with a video in which she struggles against the Bandersnatch, portrayed by an African-American dancer wearing a huge mask.

To kick off the CD, Bison owner Barney Loomis has charted a yacht aboard which Tamar and the dancer will reenact the video before assorted guests and a news team from a local TV station. The dance simulates an attempted rape, with Tamar's top garment being rent Jacksonian style before she ultimately slays the beast. But an alternative ending explodes onstage when two men carrying AK-47s and wearing masks of Saddam Hussein and Yasser Arafat appear and kidnap Tamar.

The Coast Guard is called and then the cops and the FBI. Eventually, there's a ransom demand of a paltry $250,000.

This is not strictly speaking a whodunit since we already know ''who done it," having been introduced to the two bad guys and their female accomplice before the deed is done. It's more of a ''what are they gonna do next," and while there is some surprise at the end, alert readers will guess part of the conclusion early on.

Lacking somewhat in suspense, ''The Frumious Bandersnatch" entertains with its characters and their world, and McBain's satire and clever wordplay.

Initially, the police seize as evidence the TV crew's film of the kidnapping, but once it airs after the station threatens to sue, Tamar is no longer an unknown, and an uproar ensues.

For starters, nobody knows what to make of the song and the video, and McBain provides a couple of wry takes on the way such things shake out. Since it begins ''Beware the Jabberwock, my son," and Tamar is obviously, to McBain's characters, ''a girl," the public is befuddled and wonders what's going on here. Since she looks slightly boyish at the beginning, is it some attempt at sexual ambiguity? A Christian-right minister and a gay activist debate the matter on a talk show as it becomes clear that neither has an idea what they are talking about.

That the video depicts a young blonde being stalked by a black man also raises some hackles. Bison Records is picketed by angry African-Americans, and a group of talking heads on television debates the possible racism in the video and in the lyrics themselves. One head staunchly maintains that some of Carroll's made-up words are clearly an attempt to mock ghetto English.

The cops and the FBI do their thing, with the somewhat predictable resentment on the part of Steve Carella, the city detective who caught the case, toward the Squad, a standing task force that includes FBI agents and elite city cops. The book is rich with detail, and McBain clearly does his homework and knows a lot about police techniques and procedures.

However, there are occasional redundancies and glitches where McBain's editors let him down, the most obvious being the use of the word ''Oriental" where ''Asian" would've been a better choice.

Returning in a cameo role is Detective/First Grade Oliver Wendell Weeks, who made it into the title of the previous 87th novel. This time Ollie, a fat man whose description brings Oliver Hardy to mind, is just along for comic relief, a Rosencrantz who eventually has a scene with his Guildenstern, Detective Andy Parker. McBain describes the pair as ''consummate bigots," although Ollie is a somewhat selective bigot because he has fallen for and is dating a Hispanic policewoman.

Ollie has also written a novel, only to have the manuscript stolen from his car, and McBain has some fun with Ollie's efforts.

The dialogue sparkles, and McBain gives even minor characters quirks that make them come alive.

Callooh! Callay!

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