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Between soft covers: a nuclear warning, Tom Wolfe, private eyes

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America in the Twenties (Touchstone, $9.95) is the subject of Geoffrey Perrett's very readable and mildly revisionist history of the decade we like to think of as ''roaring.''

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Perrett demonstrates that the 1920s do not conform to our stereotype and that the decade marked the beginning of 20th-century culture as we know it. This portrait of a decade resembles Doctorow's ''Ragtime'' writ large.

Tom Wolfe gave us ''The New Journalism'' in anthology form 10 years ago, and since then he has provided ''The Right Stuff,'' shown us ''The Painted Word,'' and led us on a tour ''From Bauhaus to our House.''

The Purple Decades: A Reader (Berkley, $7.95) contains selections from all of Wolfe's books. In the words of Joe David Bellamy, who wrote the book's introduction, ''future historians, curiosity seekers, and literate citizens will be able to turn to Tom Wolfe for the definitive, comprehensive, tuned-in portrait of our age.'' I'm not so sure, but it is fun reading.

Written in a clipped and quite witty manner, E. M. Delafield's The Provincial Lady in London (Academy Chicago, $7.95) is the second of four ''Provincial Lady'' books to be reprinted. Here, the ''Provincial Lady '' tries to deal with newfound literary success, and readers are presented with many satirical vignettes of 1930s London literary life.

Delafield is a chatty writer, and her humor is much like that of a good, light comic ''Masterpiece Theatre'' series. Academy Chicago is to be commended, too, for the exceptionally nice wraps and overall design of this volume.

Fine entertainment with a rougher edge comes from three reprinted suspense novels by Oliver Bleeck (a.k.a. Ross Thomas) which feature a newspaper columnist-turned-professional go-between, Philip St. Ives.

The Procane Chronicle, The Brass Go-Between, and Protocol for a Kidnapping (Perennial Library, $2.95 each) deal, respectively, with the retrieval of an egocentric master thief's journals, the recovery of a valuable work of art that has political import, and the ransoming of the American ambassador to an East European country. These books are well written, fast-paced, and completely entertaining.

Jacob Asch is a Caliornia private eye, and his creator, Arthur Lyons, is one of the most impressive heirs to the Hammett/Chandler/Ross McDonald tradition. Asch's first six cases - The Dead are Discreet, All God's Children, The Killing Floor, Dead Ringer, Castles Burning, and Hard Trade (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, $ 3.95 each) - are now available in a uniform edition. The streets down which Asch travels are mean, and sometimes kinky, and the writing is first-rate.

The date usually assigned to the invention of photography is 1839. The person generally credited with that invention is Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, even though his one-time partner, Nicephore Niepce, made a photograph in 1826, and William Henry Fox Talbot made ''sun pictures'' the same year as Daguerre.

Those exciting early days of photography are the subejct of Beaumont Newhall's Latent Image (University of New Mexico Press, $6.95). This small book, out of print for 15 years, fleshes out accounts of the discovery of photography found in more general histories.

A regular column in the Book Review.