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    © St. Petersburg Times, published September 17, 2000

    THE BIG THAW, by Donald Harstad (Doubleday, $23.95)

    Real-life Deputy Sheriff Donald Harstad pushes fictional Deputy Sheriff Carl Houseman into his third adventure in The Big Thaw, a story with as many twists as a country road. It opens with a car chase through a frigid Iowa night and the arrest of a poor soul named Fred Gothler, who had been sitting along a lonely road honking his car horn. When deputies approached him, he fled.

    Seems he was worried about two cousins, whom he dropped off at a rural home they wanted to burgle while the owner was in Florida. Fred was to pick them up later, but they never showed up. Houseman checks the farm and finds evidence of a break-in and of blood, expertly cleaned up. Then, with the unshakable feeling he is being watched, he finds the cousins' bodies, shot and frozen.

    While there is some push to charge Fred in the killings, Houseman holds out for another resolution, though he has no idea what it is. The owner of the farm is an anti-government, right-wing fanatic, though not on the order of some we've seen, and he is somehow linked with a mysterious character from Houseman's past and with the FBI agent who arrives to take over the case. The climax is fascinating to watch through an Iowa fog prompted by a big thaw.

    Harstad, as usual, creates an incredible sense of place where even the dead of an Iowa winter seems inviting.

    * * *

    DIAMOND DOGS,by Alan Watt (Little, Brown, $23.95)

    In the summer wave of debut novels from young male authors fascinated by coming-of-age stories, Alan Watt's Diamond Dogs is neither the best nor the worst. Neil Garvin, star football quarterback for a Nevada high school, attends a drunken party at the home of a team member during which he verbally and physically abuses two younger teenagers, who run away, terrorized. Though his friends beg him not to drive, Neil leaves in his father's Eldorado and starts playing games on the road home. He hits and kills Ian, one of the freshmen he tormented, as the boy walks home. Crazed with fear, Neil stashes the body in the trunk, thinking he will dispose of it later.

    Before that can happen, Neil's abusive father, the local sheriff, is called to Ian's home by parents who fear the boy has disappeared. Neil rides along and can't believe it when his father goes into the trunk of the car, where the body still lies, and comes away as if he saw nothing.

    The father never mentions the body to his son, and Neil dares not ask. By the next morning, it has disappeared from the car. Both father and son must struggle to hold themselves together when one of Ian's relatives, an FBI agent, gets involved. As hard as it is for Neil, he learns late that his father is carrying a second dark secret that will blow up in both their faces.

    Diamond Dogs is a quick read, but it is too flat. For all the emotion the characters feel, little of it seeps to the reader, leaving little sense of urgency.

    * * *

    SHIRKER,by Chad Taylor (Walker, $23.95)

    If you are just looking for something different and a bit challenging at the end of summer, I recommend Shirker, the first novel published in the United States by New Zealander Chad Taylor. It is a haunting and hallucinatory story in which the protagonist appears to die in the opening chapter but returns to narrate the story of the last days of his life. Weird? You bet. Compelling? Maddeningly so.

    Ellerslie Penrose, an Aukland futures broker, is drawn to a police crime scene where a man's unidentified body has been found cut to shreds from an apparent fall into a municipal glass recycling bin. For a reason even he can't explain, Penrose picks up and pockets the dead man's wallet, mysteriously acquiring, as well, responsibility for learning the truth about his death.

    He learns the man was Tad Ash, an antiques dealer and junkie who has been at odds with his twin brother, Dede. When Dede shows Penrose a diary written 100 years before by a man named Palmer, a diary Tad Ash had wanted to sell for drug money, Penrose is swept away by an obsession to learn about Palmer, even to know him. It is a fixation that threatens Penrose's life.

    I found the story profoundly compelling, one that will take me a while to shake.

    Jean Heller is the author of the mystery-thrillers, Handyman and Maximum Impact.

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