James Lee Burke's "Purple Cane Road," Tom Clancy's "The Bear and the Dragon" and Tim Green's "Letter of the Law" supply enough excitement and violence to keep readers turning the pages. 

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Violence ...
New Orleans seems to be fair game for stories about corruption and violence, and James Lee Burke takes full advantage of this. Like his other stories, "Purple Cane Road" (Bantam Books, $24.95 ) gives us a glimpse of the toughest strata of society: disgraced police, hookers, pimps and outrageously dishonest politicians.

Burke's "hero," Dave Robicheaux, is earnest about following the 12-step program for alcoholics, and he seems to be the only character in Burke's array who stays sober. He spends a lot of time trying to determine how his mother died and who killed. her. Along the way, he meets a psychotic killer who stalks Robicheaux's daughter; a worn-out film star; her chauffeur with a deformed face; her husband who wants only her money; and other assorted characters, none of whom you would want to run into even at high noon.

Burke has his fans; he has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and he won the Edgar Prize for best mystery novel in 1998. But this new book seems more like a manual for violence than a logical story. It is hard to find a problem that arises that the characters don't try to solve by brutal force. If you can stand this, there are moments — principally descriptions of the Louisiana countryside — that reward.

— Rozanne Epps

Sermons ...
Writer Tom Clancy hates people who criticize his books. I heard him say so on the "Today" show a few weeks back. Perhaps he forgets that book critics like to read, just as ordinary readers — those without a forum for their opinions — like to read. And when readers find a good book, they tell their friends. In other words, they offer up a critique.

So, to bring this syllogism full circle, Clancy must hate his readers.

Perhaps that's why he's inflicted on us about 300 more pages than necessary in his latest, "The Bear and the Dragon," (Putnam, $28.95) which finally peters out at page 1,028.

Clancy's early books, written before he became insufferably opinionated about everything from the "intrusiveness" of the media to a "fairyfied" culture and the essential correctness of all things rigidly conservative — offered us a good read, full of action, suspense, intrigue and good old-fashioned flag-waving Americanism. Some of his best work was seen in "The Hunt for Red October" and "Red Storm Rising."

Now, however, his books read as much like sermons as novels — and they drag on forever and, worse, repetitiously.

"The Bear and the Dragon" proves the point. The essential plot involves the discovery of a massive gold deposit and a humongous oil field, both in Siberia. The twin discoveries offer the promise of true world power once again for Russia. They also provoke intense jealousy in China. Jack Ryan is back again as president of the United States, and he finds himself trying unsuccessfully to prevent the Chinese Dragon from attacking the Russian Bear. Throw in a Chinese plot to assassinate Russia's leader and a Japanese-American C.I.A agent who manages to tap into a computer belonging to the secretary of a highly placed Chinese politico, and you've got a good handle on the book's narrative.

But that's not enough for Clancy. Instead of focusing on what he does, or used to do, best — telling a swift and engaging story — he rants and he raves, he polemicizes and harangues.

Before he commits his next book, Clancy needs to have a long talk with a good editor and rediscover his original style.

— Don Dale

... and the Law
Retired Atlanta Falcons player Tim Green takes the thriller field for a fourth time with his courtroom suspense drama "Letter of the Law" (Warner Books, $24.95). In the John Grisham/Scott Turow style, he makes the legal system the playing field for a group of interesting and somewhat unpredictable personalities as they attempt to solve the bizarre murder of a Texas coed.

Enter Casey Jordan, Greene's newest heroine and possibly "the next F. Lee Bailey." Casey, beautiful, witty and a perfectionist, never loses her court cases, but trips herself up routinely in her personal life. Enter Casey's old charismatic law professor. He is accused of killing and dismembering a University of Texas student and wants Casey to represent him in court. Eager to comply, Casey agrees and allows the professor to write his own court agenda. Yes, he was having an affair with the girl; no, he didn't kill her. Where is the evidence, the motive?

The trial concludes with a strange twist, unusual enough to take the reader by surprise and to set the stage for the second half of the novel. Donald Sales, the coed's father, a character with the attributes of Paul Bunyan, decides to create his own justice system and sets out on his quest trailed by a police detective and a funky F.B.I agent. Casey, of course, becomes a member of the chase scene and it is through her eyes the reader plays the whodunit game. Another red herring or two would help the bumpy outcome.

A step above a movie-of-the-week, "Letter of the Law" does ask the right legal questions. The fault lies in the answers.

— Beth Morelli


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