HEROINES, SPIES, AND LIES

Of the wide range of thrillers available this spring, these eight novels of suspense and detection stand out. It is interesting to note that they are all by men, since women writers contribute equally to this field. (The incomparable P. D. James is temporarily on a different course. Her latest book, "The Children of Men," deals with infertility and a childless world.) John Grisham's "The Client" is not included here although it is high on the bestseller lists. Three of Grisham's other titles are paperbac ks with mega-sales. He is such a familiar commodity that it is more fun to look elsewhere. Here, in no special order, are the selections. Happy spine-tingling reading!

DRAGON TEARS, by Dean Koontz (G. P. Putnam's Sons, 377 pp., $22.95). "Sometimes life can be as bitter as dragon tears. But whether dragon tears are bitter or sweet depends entirely on how each man perceives the taste." This Chinese saying, related by private detective Mickey Chan, explains the novel's title. Other characters include perfectionist police detective Harry Lyon and his attractive colleague on the Los Angeles police force Connie Gulliver. Both take life pretty much as it comes until they are stalked by a supernatural Ratman or troll, whose guises are many. He warns that they and all they love will be dead by dawn. Koontz is a master of the macabre and the surreal. "Dragon Tears," his 20th book, is a Literary Guild selection. There is terror here, as visceral as it is vicarious.

TROPIC OF DECEIT, by Christopher Larson (William Morrow & Co., 304 pp., $23). A lighter entry in the thriller sweepstakes, "Tropic of Deceit" is a first novel of considerable promise. The author is a Yale graduate who had a brief tour of duty in the Foreign Service in Bangladesh. In the story, the overseas post becomes Navidad, a fictional Caribbean island. The props are conventional enough - a mysterious reef, sunken treasure, a dusky local big shot called Cort and a bumbling diplomat who is Larson's al ter ego. What makes the story amusing is the heroine, Bobbi Lyons, with shoulder-length red hair and a total inability to tell the truth. Bobbi, a close kin to Truman Capote's Holly Golightly, is wholly delightful.

DEGREE OF GUILT, by Richard North Patterson (Alfred A. Knopf, 548 pp., $23) is the best courtroom drama since Scott Turow's "Presumed Innocent." San Francisco lawyer Patterson draws on the Anita Hill case and William Kennedy Smith's Palm Beach trial, but the story generates its own power. A national bestseller since early '93 publication.

POINT OF IMPACT, by Stephen Hunter (Bantam Books, 451 pp., $21.95). Bob Lee Swagger served as a marine in Vietnam, scoring 87 kills and becoming a world-class sniper. Now, 20 years later, he lives in the Arkansas hill country with a mangy dog and his many rifles for company. A shadowy group of government officials seeks his help for one more kill - to save the president of the United States from assassination. He accepts, but the plan misfires and suddenly Swagger himself is on the run. This Book-of-the- Month Club selection contains real cumulative power - and all you ever need to know about 1,200-yard targets and how humidity can affect a bullet's trajectory.

THE LAST SPY, by Bob Reiss (Simon & Schuster, 300 pp., $20). What happens to Russian spies in America when there is no Soviet Union to spy for? What is the future of three of these "agents in place" when they lose themselves in their American identities? Who controls them from home base? Is there anything left to spy for? Can Ash, David, and beautiful Corinna even trust each other? Washington reporter Bob Reiss, in an impressive first novel, shows a firm grasp of the techniques of international espionage

as his trio gropes for new parts to play.

THE JOURNEYMAN TAILOR, by Gerald Seymour (HarperCollins, 349 pp., $20). "He hugged the shadows. The night was his friend, and had been ever since he could remember." Such is the description of Jon Jo Donnelly, the Irish terrorist in Gerald Seymour's latest novel. It could apply to the story as a whole, for most of the deeds are done in the dark. Seymour's dozen books deal mainly with the Irish Republican Army in conflict with the British secret service - and once again he invites comparison to John le C arre and Graham Greene. After a year in England, Donnelly slips back to the mountains of Tyrone to find that a traitor or "tout" has infiltrated his tightly knit operation. Tough-lovely, legendary Cathy Parker is the tout's link to the British. The plot unravels with the impact of a mattock.

THE VENERABLE BEAD, by Richard Condon (St. Martin's Press, 294 pp., $21.95). The author of "The Manchurian Candidate" and more than a score of other glitzy novels has earned his spurs many times over. He can amuse himself - and us - any way he wants to. His new offering is the picaresque story of durable Leila Aluja, born in Michigan of Iraqi parents. She has "the nerve of eleven Apache Indians," Condon tells us. The second of her four husbands, Hollywood's most powerful agent, makes her a celebrity and gives her as a talisman a star ruby that had been in a Russian ducal family for 900 years. It is indeed a "venerable bead." Who cares if Condon has never quite learned the difference between satire and plain old hyberbole?

CROSSING BY NIGHT, by David Aaron (William Morrow & Co., 363 pp., $22). The late H. Montgomery Hude and others wrote nonfiction books about the fabulous American spy called Elizabeth Pack. Now her exploits are retold in a fast-paced and entertaining novel by David Aaron. Perhaps her greatest triumph was the smuggling of a model of the Enigma machine from Poland across Germany to England on the eve of World War II, enabling the Allies to break the Nazi code with spectacular success. Her off-beat encounter s with Vita Sackville-West and Col. Josep Beck, the Polish foreign minister, add spice to the narrative. By comparison with those earlier factual accounts, however, fiction here is marginally stranger than truth.

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