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No Good Guys; Patriotism and Ethics

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No Good Guys

Welcome to the world of Art Hardin, P.I., where everyone is a hardass — women, men and kids alike. Bullets and snappy banter zip back and forth between the gruff Hardin, his bitchy secretary, slick Russian villains and sneering cops. And all the while, the hero, armed with his trusty Detonics .45, stares down legions of bad guys as he figures out who's behind a mounting toll of murders and the theft of $11 million.

Local author Robert Bailey's first mystery, "Private Heat" (M. Evans and Company Inc., $21.95), hardly redefines the crime thriller but it's still a novel worth exploring. Bailey's 20 years of experience as a real P.I. allow him to write expertly of a world other authors create entirely from imaginative vapors.

Bailey's prose contains a wealth of detail that lends authenticity to "Private Heat," often in unexpected — and educational — ways. For instance, Hardin explains that if you need to stick a sidearm in your waistband, wrap a rubber band around the grip to keep it from falling into your pants. Remember that. It could come in handy someday.

The ever-present jargon in the narration seems a little heavy-handed at first. But after a few pages of Hardin saying things like "Sleaze ya later" and "I stashed my heat," the dialogue begins to sound natural. Bailey does, however, often go overboard with the similes. "Her hand looked like a shrimp trying to strangle a boat anchor," he says of an FBI agent holding a big gun.

Hardin, the hero, holds few surprises. The reader quickly learns that he never loses his cool and never fails to see through the bad guys' plans. Still, the fast-paced plot includes several twists that demand the reader pay attention. Otherwise, you're liable to lose track of which cops are crooked and who's working for whom.

This won't be the last Art Hardin novel — Bailey, who divides his time between Michigan and Midlothian, is currently working on a second, titled "Dying Embers." It seems a good bet he'll keep the action and the detail-rich stories coming. But hey, Robert, how about setting the next one in Richmond? — Melissa Scott Sinclair

Patriotism and Ethics

Take those high-testosterone, digital age, rock-'em-sock-'em techno-thrillers and strip out all the literary phoniness and melodrama. Lace it all with a cynicism-coated patriotism and the kind of bad-boy humor that makes reality bearable to real-life people, and that's Ward Carroll's "Punk's War" (Naval Institute Press, $24.95). It's an edge-of-your-seat, fun read that's all the more intriguing because it's written by somebody who's actually strapped himself into a 32-ton jet fighter and done battle.

"Punk's War" is reminiscent of some of the best fictionalized memoirs that came out of World War II, simultaneously poignant, gritty and droll novels like "Don't Go Near the Water" or the more serious "Mr. Roberts" and "Catch 22." Except "Punk's War" doesn't take itself very seriously at all. Carroll leaves it up to the readers to find the sober gravity — if they're of a mind to.

Punk is an F-14 Tomcat Navy fighter pilot stationed on a carrier in the Persian Gulf. The time is after the Gulf War and before 9/11. His job is to patrol the no-fly zone. His problem is that it's hard to tell who's the bigger enemy, the Iraqi MiGs or the insanely by-the-book careerists who wear the same uniform he does. His dilemma is understandable: It's a tossup. But the bigger conflict is whether he can do right when everybody around him seems to think that right's wrong and wrong's right.

Carroll writes with wicked humor and a deep appreciation of the inner conflicts that come with wearing his country's uniform. A Naval Academy graduate, he served as a radar intercept officer in Tomcats for 15 years. Although "Punk's War" is his first novel, he's an old hand at satisfying audiences while hewing to the truth: He served as technical consultant to the films "The Hunt for Red October" and "Flight of the Intruder." He's now teaching English and ethics at Annapolis, and, one can but hope, working on his next novel. — Don Dale

Heads-Up

Those who are fans of Edna Buchanan's books about crime ("Act of Betrayal," "Contents Under Pressure," "Corpse Had a Familiar Face") will be pleased that she won a George W. Polk award for her career covering race riots and the drug trade for the Miami Herald. The award is given in memory of Polk, a CBS reporter who was killed during the civil war in Greece.

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