BOOK IN BRIEF

If you need to strengthen your arm muscles, these hefty thrillers will help you exercise as well as fill your leisure time. Despite their length, they read as quickly as movie scripts, and one or two will probably end up on the big screen.

THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, by Allan Folsom (Little, Brown & Co., 596 pp., $24.95). Do you like action, suspense, romance, and mystery? It's all here, in bold presentation. The author aimed wide for his target audience, and the book's scope matches it.

Our athletic, charming hero Paul Osborn spots right on Page 1 his father's murderer, who disappeared 30 years ago and was never brought to trial.

From there the plot accelerates: In seeking to resolve the nightmare that has haunted him since childhood, Paul hunts down the killer, only to discover a frightful net of conspiracy. Here is nothing less than a plot to conquer the world, the likes of which no one has seen before.

Well, except once, about 50 years ago. Like Peter Benchley in his latest book ``White Shark,'' Folsom has grown so enamored with the specter of Nazism that he uses it to anchor his story, though this only makes it more predictable. But even so, if it's Saturday afternoon and you're in a hammock, Folsom doesn't let you fall asleep.

WHITE SHARK, by Peter Benchley (Random House, 324 pp., $23). Don't read this one on the beach. It's graphic enough to help you save money on your summer vacation and make you hide out in a safe office building.

Unfortunately, though, the thrills are cheap. Unlike Peter Benchley's ``Jaws,'' the enemy here isn't a shark but a bloodthirsty animal/robot, programmed to function underwater and to slash to pieces every living thing in sensor range. That point early established, the intrigue then wanes, especially since Benchley looks no further for appropriate villains than the Nazis. They are indeed an obvious choice.

The author, like many others, makes a cartoon of national socialism as a crutch on which to lean an otherwise thin story line.

This does a disservice both to those struggling against present-day reincarnations of real Nazism, and to the reader, who can predict from the first chapters exactly how the nasty robot will perish.

THE ALIENIST, by Caleb Carr (Random House, 496 pp., $22). There is a lot of gore to wade through before the end of this book, but if you can steel your stomach, it's worth it.

A serial murderer in New York during the late 1890s is mutilating his victims so horribly that the newspapers shy from reporting the story. His victims are young immigrant boys, chained to tragic lives in the city's illegal, but tolerated brothels.

At first, this appears to be a 1990s plot with a contrived time shift. But the author sets his stage so accurately that he succeeds in carrying the reader back into a past that few knew New York had.

The cast of very complex characters is the book's triumph.

Laszlo Kreizler, a brilliant, misunderstood alienist (as psychiatrists were once called), blazes the trail of investigation. His loyal but few allies include genial reporter John Moore, and Sara Howard, who bravely vows to earn a badge as New York's first female police officer. Serving as linchpin is the ebullient Theodore Roosevelt, who as police commissioner gives full rein to Kreizler's efforts - even though trusting the avant-garde scientist could give his enemies ammunition to squelch Roosevelt's efforts to reform the New York police department.

Kreizler's theories on criminal behavior, aided by such experimental techniques as fingerprinting and handwriting analysis, send him and his small band of assistants working backwards: Roughly put, the sleuths define the exact kind of individual capable of committing such acts until they have narrowed their search to just one person, the criminal. The astronomical chances of failure are lessened somewhat by the criminal's own clues, which he leaves in the desperate hope that Kreizler will save him from his evil ways.

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