A Summer Book Bag

Tanning your back? Open a cool mystery about a woman coroner. Improving your mind? Get the last words from our top man of letters. Hot for gossip? Dip into the skinny on great artists and their mates.

_B_The Night Manager_b_ JOHN LE CARRE 429 pages Knopf $24

The cold war over, John le Carre has seen his way clear to becoming what he's plainly yearned to be for ages: the new Ian Fleming. In "The Night Manager" he checks his "I'm not just writing a spy novel" high-mindedness at the door and settles in to have some fun. The result is the best James Bond novel in 30 years.

The locales are pure postcard stuff. Switzerland, Cairo, rural England and the Caribbean. The women, all ravishing, hurl themselves at the hero, who beds most of them. As for the hero himself, he's quietly charming, ever competent, as comfortable in a dinner jacket as he is in guerrilla garb on night maneuvers. Last of all, there's the villain, a suave, brilliant, fabulously rich arms merchant who spends half his time aboard a yacht the size of Rhode Island and the other half on his own private island.

Le Carre has not entirely given up his old trademarks: his hero, Jonathan Pine, does everything with mixed motives and carries a secret burden of guilt. At the outset, he's buried himself in the job of night manager at a fancy Swiss hotel, on the run from his past. But given how quickly Pine stops pining and swings into action-infiltrating the arms merchant's kingdom, befriending him and betraying him-there's a feeling that le Carre can't wait to shed his old self And a good thing, too. "The Night Manager" is this author's most exciting, exuberant novel since "The Honourable Schoolboy." Full of high-class derring-do, it leaves you shaken, not ethically stirred. Cheers.

MALCOLM JONES Jr.

_B_The Angel Carver_b_ ROSANNE DARYL THOMAS 260 pages Random House $20

What a strange and beautiful VW novel this is. Rosanne Daryl Thomas starts with three brooding New Yorkers, gets them to meet and mingle, and then lets their story rise and expand into allegory. Jack is at the heart of it all. He works as a cobbler but returns home each evening to carve life-size wooden angels. By now he has enough for a whole heaven, all of them crowded into one back room of his apartment, their wings extended and their eyes bright with jewels. Jack is devoted to Lucille, who likes to be called Marilyn because she looks quite a bit like Marilyn Monroe. She would love a career in which she showed up A la Marilyn to open auto showrooms and the like, but her self-styled manager-the third in this trio-has bigger plans. For Buddy, Lucille is going to be the achievement of a lifetime: under his tutelage she will become every inch Marilyn, with plastic surgery to fill in the details nature left out. While Jack adds to his heaven an angel who looks like Lucille, Buddy pores over plans for his Marilyn clone on a computer known as a Hell.

Thomas writes with the gentle precision of a master. Her way with fantasy makes it real; her light touch with realism illuminates the fantasies that swirl through it. Sure, take this to the beach-but the magic holds up even on the train.

LAURA SHAPIRO

_B_The Sixties_b_ EDMUND WILSON 968 pages Farrar Straus Giroux $35

Don't look for what most people remember as the '60s in the final volume of Edmund Wilson's diaries. (He died in 1972.) "The Sixties" gives JFK's assassination a paragraph; the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King are only footnoted. (He does go to see the Beatles"' Yellow Submarine," and finds it "amusing.") What we get instead is Wilson on the road (from Hungary to the Mideast), among literary friends (Robert Lowell, Anais Nin, W. H. Auden), and nonliterary (Mike Nichols and Elaine May) and, increasingly, alone and worrying over his heart condition, his drinking and his dwindling but still intense sex life. In 1966, at 71, he makes love to his wife, Elena, twice in one night: "Looking at her beautiful body ... I told her that making love to her had been the most wonderful thing in my life."

You'd think this would be the most depressing installment of the Wilson diaries, which began with "The Twenties." But it's energetic, almost exuberant. Wilson still savors the literary life, including its surreal moments: at one event, a woman thinks Wilson, the author of "To the Finland Station," is the composer of "Finlandia." His portraits of other writers-including the aged Robert Frost, "full of faking and selfsatisfaction"--are as waspish as ever. And he's equally sharp-eyed up in the country, observing sullen local teenagers and a baby bat that looks like "a little gray demon." As always, Wilson is peerless company.

DAVID GATES

_B_Pleadig Guilty_b_ SCOTT TUROW 386 pages Farrar Straus Giroux $24

Something is missing from the tony law firm of Gage & Griswell: $5.6 million and Bert Kamin, the oddball attorney who had access to it. G&G dispatches Kamin's office pal, Mack Malloy, a crumbling, streetwise, semi-recovering lush, to track him down. He breaks into Kamin's apartment to look for clues and finds a very large, very cold one-a corpse, stuffed into the refrigerator-and the heat is on.

Scott Turow tells his story in the form of tapes that Malloy dictates. The first-person narration is a crime-novel staple, but it trips Turow up. Just as you think he's hitting his stride, he wanders down some side road ruminating on morality (or lack of it). While making "Pleading Guilty" self-consciously bleak, Turow shortchanges his characters: Malloy's quagmire of a life and Kamin's life-threatening gambling problems are tedious. Still, there's plenty to relish, especially Turow's edgy gift for place, the deli with its "second-rate food and Third World hygiene" or the Russian baths where the oven is "jacketed in cement, indomitable and somehow insolent, like a 300-pound mother-in-law."

KATRINE AMES

_B_Picasso and Dora_b_ JAMES LORD 340 pages Farrar Straus Giroux $35

James Lord, a young gay soldier in American military intelligence, shows up in Paris toward the end of World War II to seek out the world's most famous artist. Thinking Lord has come to spy on him, Communist Party member Pablo Picasso wryly welcomes Lord into his circle, which includes Dora Maar, whom he's recently dumped for a younger Francoise Gilot. Lord and Maar strike up a breathless platonic relationship and pretend, for years, that something ineffable prevents their sleeping together. Although this is Lord's memoir, Picasso keeps the title's promise and shows up, every once in a while, to humiliate someone and breathe some life into these rarefied airs.

During his lifelong competition on canvas with Picasso (and that other American contender, Jackson Pollock), Willem de Kooning's primary helpmeet and tormentor was his alternately devoted and promiscuous wife, Elaine. The de Koonings' parallel boozing, painting and sad declines (chain-smoking Elaine died of lung cancer in 1989; Willem, now 89, suffers from Alzheimer's) are chronicled by Lee Hall. De Kooning once remarked of a critic that "some guy came to my studio for 15 minutes and wrote something that took six hours to read." Better bring a backup book to the beach because Ms. Hall has, in effect, accomplished the reverse.

PETER PLAGEN

_B_Rivers in the Desert_b_ MARGARET LESLIE DAVIS 303 pages HarperCollins $24

Los Angeles sits on the edge of a desert. Annual rainfall is light and the local rivers are puny. Droughts are common. Sensibly, the city might support about 250,000 people, roughly its population Rivers in the in 1905, when the city Desert fathers first cast a covetous eye on the waters of the Owens Valley, an Edenic farming region 250 miles to the north. Led by the brilliant civil engineer William Mulholland, who ran the city's department of water and power, Los Angeles proceeded to take Owens Valley's water, a little more each year, until Los Angeles was a megalopolis (current population: 14.5 million) and Owens Valley was a desert.

The story has long been a favorite source for novels and movies, notably Roman Polanski's "Chinatown," but no one has managed to improve on the facts. The aqueduct that Mulholland produced to bring water to Los Angeles was a colossal feat of construction. It earned him a spot in engineering history, as well as the gratitude of his rich friends who got even richer speculating on land irrigated by his aqueduct. Mulholland himself cared little about wealth; he saw himself as a modern Moses striking the rock. As Margaret Leslie Davis observes in this fascinating history, Mulholland never questioned the morality of building a city with purloined water. Ironically, says Davis, even with mandatory water rationing and a possible new aqueduct, "it is unlikely the regio's critical water problems can be solved." As she points out, "There are no more rivers to bring to the desert."

MALCOLM JONES Jr.

_B_Cruel & Unusual_b_ PATRICIA D. CORNWELL 356 pages Scribner's $21

The first 2,500-volt surge gave Ronnie Joe Waddell a nosebleed; the second ensured his death. But did the state of Virginia strap the wrong man into the electric chair? No one doubts that Waddell committed a particularly gruesome murder 10 years ago. But Dr. Kay Scarpetta thinks that the body on which she performed an autopsy was not Waddell at all but someone who took his seat in the chair. For what should turn up at the scene of a new homicide but Waddell's fresh fingerprint?

If this were science fiction, you might suspect a fingertip transplant. But "Cruel & Unusual" the fourth in Patricia D. Cornwell's finely drawn series about chief medical examiner Scarpetta, is taut, high tech and eerily credible. Someone has circumvented computer security to wipe out and switch various fingerprint records. Is Waddell on the loose and responsible for a hideous new string of murders? Scarpetta has been imperiled before, but not like this. For now a trail of corpses-her pregnant, skittish assistant; an obese, flirtatious psychic; a paper-delivery boy; a prison warden--seems to point directly at the M.E.

In the crowded mystery field, Cornwell, a former police-beat reporter and computer analyst for a morgue, has carved out a unique place. Part storyteller, part proceduralist, she writes with a surgical precision and clinical detachment perfectly suited to her brainy, standoffish protagonist. But she can cut to the heart with a small observation, as when the paperboy's body arrives at the morgue, still hooked up to all sorts of tubes: "They seemed sad remnants of what had held him to this world and then disconnected him from it." And she skillfully captures-, and makes captivating-characters from a sullen whiz kid ("her computer brain had formatting errors in the diplomacy sectors") to the enigmatic Scarpetta herself. With each book, Cornwell's scalpel is getting sharper.

KATRINE AMES

_B_Girl, Interrupted_b_ SUSANNA KAYSEN 168 pages Random House $17

In 1967, when she was 18, Susanna Kaysen was committed to McLean Hospital, the upscale mental institution outside Boston whose patients have included Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell and James Taylor. She was diagnosed as suicidally depressed and a "borderline" personality, but she now wonders if she was "just flirting with madness." After a year and a half she was discharged, not because she was considered fully cured, but because she accepted a marriage proposal. Today Kaysen is a respected novelist ("Far Afield") and, she writes, "my misery has been transformed into common unhappiness, so by Freud's definition I have achieved mental health." But she still asks herself if she's crazy.

"Girl, Interrupted," Kaysen's tough-minded memoir of that year and a half, dodges all the obvious pitfalls of such a book: the patients aren't saner than their keepers, madness confers no privileged insights and she peddles no hard-won wisdom. Instead, we get a series of darkly comic (and sometimes just dark) vignettes both of Kaysen's younger self and of her fellow patients-like Daisy, who hoards laxatives and chicken carcasses in her room, and Polly, who had set fire to herself with gasoline. Kaysen has too much skepticism, self-irony and sheer class to argue that writing with such indelible clarity is in itself a form of redemption. But we can say it for her.

DAVID GATES

_B_Bucket Nut_b_ LIZA CODY 236 pages Doubleday $18.50

Eva Wylie is a literary creation destined for greatness. The narrator of Liza Cody's new mystery, "Bucket Nut," Eva is a mountain of muscle who never, but never, gets bossed around. She's got a face like--well, a bucket, and that's why her fans at ringside call her Bucket Nut. Eva's driving ambition is to be a heavy-weight wrestling champion on the women's circuit. She lives in a trailer parked in the London junkyard where she works as a night watchwoman; daytimes, she heads for the gym and trains hard. At her (largely rigged) wrestling matches she's known as the London Lassassin. Eva, who grew up on the streets, doesn't mind doing a few more or less illegal errands for folks when the payment is fair, but she doesn't like being taken advantage of, and that's just what happens when someone uses her as a courier for a bomb. Suddenly, she has enemies all over town. Meanwhile, she has to gear up for a match with her toughest opponent ever: Rockin' Sherry-Lee Lewis, Star of the East. Eva knows she's going to lose-it's in Sherry-Lee's contract-but this will be a great chance to show her stuff.

Cody, a British mystery writer whose work deserves to be better known in this country, certainly shows her stuff here. She so skillfully evokes Eva and her world that a female hulk with a prison record becomes real, sympathetic and ultimately lovable. The end of the novel gives every indication that Eva will be back with more adventures in books to come. Can't wait!

LAURA SHAPIRO