Collection of Clues For Mystery Lovers

CITY SLEUTHS AND TOUGH GUYS: CRIME STORIES FROM POE TO THE PRESENT Edited by David Willis McCullough, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 586 pp., $19.95

THERE are always mean streets, big guns, and murders done by people who loved too much or not enough. No matter how well they clean their tracks, they always leave some clue. And there's always a quiet, lonely, proud man (or woman, occasionally) waiting to figure it out. And a passel of readers who want to help.

Out of the eight-million stories in the naked city, a splendid collection has come out in time for Christmas. ``City Sleuths and Tough Guys'' skips the murder-in-the-vicarage tradition of polite sleuthing and goes right for the hard-boiled variety.

According to the introduction by editor David Willis McCullough, the crime story was born in the city and grew up there. He traces the genre from 18th century French criminal-turned-police-chief Francois Eugene Vidocq's ``The Clue of the Yellow Curtains,'' to Sara Paretsky's 1987 ``Skin Deep,'' about death in a beauty parlor by pesticide facial.

``City Sleuths'' could be an anthology for a college course on crime fiction: Included in an all-star lineup are Mickey Spillane, Edgar Allen Poe, Georges Simenon, John D. MacDonald, and Ross MacDonald. You even get the Raymond Chandler/Billy Wilder screenplay of James M. Cain's ``Double Indemnity'' - for my bucks, the most gripping of the lot. There's also Dashiell Hammett's famous essay that crystalizes what the private eye does and why he does it, ``The Simple Art of Murder.'' The collection is comprehensive, but the editor does mystery lovers a favor by not putting in the expected: No ``Maltese Falcon.''

McCullough realizes that problem solving is an international pastime, and he includes sleuths of various kinds in Japan, the Netherlands, France, Hong Kong, and Malaysia. In Janwillem van de Wetering's ``Sure, Blue and Dead, Too,'' the cop, Grijpstra, has a most whimsical way of assessing the clues as he and a younger sergent wait for a drug bust. In Yoh Sano's ``No Proof,'' a group of Japanese police inspectors puzzle over whether the owner of a monkey mask is liable for murder after it scares someone to death.

The collection of city crime stories might become too weighty if all were written in the kind of terse style found in John D. MacDonald's, ``I Always Get the Cuties'': ``It's the same with the cuties, Doc - the amateurs who think they can bring off one nice clean safe murder. Give me a cutie every time. I eat 'em alive. The pros are trouble. The cuties leave holes you can drive diesels through.''

But elsewhere the writing is humorous, witty, and, in the case of William Campbell Gault's ``Dead End for Delia,'' sometimes as close to lyrical as a tough guy will get: ``The only light in the alley came from the high, open windows of the faded dancehall ... From these same windows the clean melody of a tenor sax cut through the murky air of the alley. There was nothing else around that was clean.''

There are some clinkers in the mix. ``The Mystery of Marie Rog^et,'' a true New York murder story adapted and reset in Paris by Poe, is a rather boring ``trial'' by two dueling newspapers, laden with forensic information.

But with 29 stories by such masters the temptation is to roar through the book like an express train. That's dangerous: The kind of alertness required to keep pace with these guys spinning out clues is hard to maintain at a stretch. Better to treat this book like a cruise and gently glide from port to port. -30-{et

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