Fiction: "The Third Rail," by Michael Harvey; "The First Rule," by Robert Crais

Two new crime novels live and die by cliches

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"THE THIRD RAIL" by Michael Harvey (Knopf, $24.95)

Michael Harvey brings out all the crime-novel cliches in his latest book, starting with a serial sniper, possibly two, shooting people on Chicago's elevated rail system and making mayhem in other parts of the city as well.

Then there's the tough-but-sensitive hero, Michael Kelly, an Irish ex-cop turned private investigator who harbors a secret from his childhood and is schooled in the classics. There's the kidnapping of Kelly's girlfriend, a sexy judge. And there's the Catholic Church, a hotbed of abuse and corruption. Is there a stereotype this author has not tapped?

Added to this is Mr. Harvey's alternating use of third-person descriptions from the criminal's point of view, first-person narrative by Kelly and third-person storytelling by the omniscient author. Handled with the right craftsmanship, that kind of device can work but here it is mostly annoying and confusing.

Still, there's enough action and violence to support rumors that the book may be made into a mainstream movie.

After the bad guys have been picked off, there comes a rather brilliant plot twist that changes the balance among the remaining characters. Yet it comes too late in the book to matter, to this reader, at least.

Although, to his credit, Mr. Harvey avoids a neat ending in which the good guys prevail, the conclusion seems as much an expedient as a moral comment on the society and system in which this tedious tale takes place.

"THE FIRST RULE" by Robert Crais (Putnam, $26.95)

Organized criminal gangs from Eastern Europe are an enemy that not even macho man Joe Pike has encountered before.

Pike, a recurring character in Robert Crais' mystery novels, is the muscle for this author's brainy Los Angeles investigator Elvis Cole. Here, Cole is secondary to the invincible former professional military contractor, otherwise known as a mercenary.

But Pike is a tough guy with high morals and a heart of gold. He is even in touch with what some would call today his feminine side, and he becomes absolutely maudlin when circumstances make him the protector of a kidnapped 6-month-old baby.

What made Pike this way is unclear on the basis of this novel by itself, though his early life has been described elsewhere. He emerges at times like Robert B. Parker's Spenser on steroids.

The first rule of Mr. Crais' title refers to family, as described in the code of former Soviet gangs:

"A thief must forsake his mother, father, brothers, and sisters. He must not have a family. ... We are his family."

He takes that rule and probes its every aspect and ramification in fascinating ways.

Crime hits home for Pike in a personally painful way when four thugs make a violent break-in to the Westwood home of Frank Meyer, a fellow ex-mercenary who is shot to death in his living room while defending his wife and two children. Their Serbian nanny is also shot, apparently collateral damage.

It turns out that there had been several previous break-ins and murders, but by a gang of three African-American men. Meyer's assassins included an additional white man, an unidentified Serbian. Pike refuses to believe that his pal could have been gun-running for the Serbs.

It may be argued that the mystery and suspense elements are thin in this tale, or that Mr. Crais may seem to repeat himself after 15 novels. No matter. He is a totally engaging writer who can make us feel, if fleetingly, for the most hardened, vicious villain.

His descriptions, filled with subtle glances of color and hue in everything his characters encounter, bring the reader directly into the scene. At the end we want to go back to the treacherous-but-never-tiresome neighborhoods of Mr. Crais and Pike. The sooner the better.



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