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ON CRIME

Through a camera lens, darkly

Generation Loss
By Elizabeth Hand
Small Beer, 265 pp., $24

The Big Girls
By Susanna Moore
Knopf, 240 pp., $24

What’s So Funny?
By Donald E. Westlake
Warner, 359 pp., $24.99

As the bestseller lists become increasingly saturated with crime fiction, it seems that more writers are putting a crime spin on their literary fiction.

Case in point: "Generation Loss," by Elizabeth Hand. In this literary novel with a thriller ending, Cass Neary lives in a prison of her own making, in a haze of drugs and alcohol.

Six feet tall, androgynous, and emotionally detached, Cass says of herself: "I had from earliest childhood a sense that there was no skin between me and the world. I saw things that other people didn't see." Obsessed with "things that didn't move . . . dead things," she dropped out of college, became a photographer of the early punk scene, and published "Dead Girls," a book of photographs of herself posed as dead women from famous paintings. She had what Andy Warhol would have called her 15 minutes of fame. After barely surviving a rape and assault, she shut down and withdrew.

Twenty years later, Cass has a mind-numbing job as a clerk at the Strand bookstore and lives like a virtual zombie after her ex-lover is killed in the twin towers on 9/11 . A friend offers her a "mercy" magazine gig, interviewing elderly, reclusive Aphrodite Kamestos , the once-brilliant photographer whose work inspired Cass to take pictures.

Disbelieving and truculent, Cass journeys to coastal Maine. In a general store, trying to find someone to ferry her to the isolated island where Aphrodite lives, she barely notices the fliers about lost cats and missing people among the ads for bean suppers. She feels nothing when the young girl who checked her into the town's seedy motel disappears. The awareness of evil grows, and the reader, like Cass, can almost smell the festering secrets that she will have to care enough about to uncover.

This is no pat whodunit. The point-of-view character is barely likable and will experience no miracle cure. Highly recommended for the reader who yearns for something more complex and literary with a touch of goth.

Another case in point: "The Big Girls," by Susanna Moore. Set on the banks of the Hudson River behind the grim stone walls of New York's Sloatsburg Correctional Institution for women, the novel interweaves four first-person narratives -- those of chief psychologist Louise Forrester, a divorced mother raising her son alone in Manhattan; gentle, delusional inmate Helen Nash, sentenced to life for killing her children; corrections officer Henry Bradshaw, a good guy who's in the middle of a messy divorce; and Hollywood actress Angie Mills, who is married to Louise 's ex-husband and may be Helen's sister.

The story focuses primarily on Helen and Louise, and glides along in short, kaleidoscopic scenes, building momentum through the accretion of exquisite and surprising detail. Louise has been working at Sloatsburg for six months, and colleagues tell her no one has lasted in her job for more than a year. She understands why: "I feel strained and peculiar -- foul odors, the slow black river, the bells, the yellow light, all swirling around me, make me dizzy. It is only a matter of time." She develops a close relationship with Helen, who gradually emerges from suicide watch in solitary confinement, and who will not admit that she's still plagued by the voices that ordered her to kill.

The bond between patient and inmate grows as Helen slowly regains her sanity and, with it, her memory. She can't look away, and neither can the reader. How Helen deals with the horror of what she's done provides a devastating climax.

Crime-fiction readers are back on familiar turf with Donald Westlake's latest John Dortmunder caper, "What's So Funny?" The story revolves around a gold chess set, the pieces inlaid with "pearls for the white gang, rubies for the red" (think 32 Maltese falcons). Once owned by a Russian czar, the set was plundered by a group of World War I soldier buddies who split it up and brought it back to the States, intending to share the proceeds. One of them absconded with the entire set and started his family's fortune.

Self-made multimillionaire Mr. Hemlow, an elderly curmudgeon who twitches and wheezes and is shaped "more or less like a medicine ball," is the son of one of the cheated soldiers. Before he dies, he wants to find the chess set and steal it back. Turns out the set , which weighs nearly 700 pounds, is in a virtually inaccessible vault in the bowels of a bank under a 60-story building.

Enter Dortmunder, the perfect man for the job. "He's a thief when he wakes up in the morning, and he's a thief when he goes to sleep at night. An honest thought has never crossed his brain," says Johnny Eppick, a retired cop who blackmails Dortmunder into doing the job.

Westlake is in fine form with Dortmunder and his cronies facing the usual impossible scenario. The dialogue crackles, and the story meanders happily along with seemingly random plot strands that are expertly pulled together in the end. In a twisted way, justice is served up in tasty morsels.

Hallie Ephron is author of "Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: How to Knock 'Em Dead With Style" and co-author of the Dr. Peter Zak mysteries. Contact her through www.hallieephron.com.

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