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New cars, drugs and confusion are featured in stories of crime


So what's a guy to do?

Christmas Eve and divorced Florida orange grower Michael Barnes is in a snowy New York to launch an advertising campaign for his oranges. After the meetings, he is going to fly to Boston and spend Christmas with his mother. It is all innocent enough.

First he goes to a downtown bar for a couple of drinks and begins speaking to a gorgeous blonde. It is still innocent enough. But she starts screaming that he swiped her ring. An off-duty cop intervenes. And then the off-duty cop and gorgeous blonde disappear along with Michael's credit cards and cash.

A New York film producer befriends Michael and drives Michael's rental car to a precinct house to report the crime. But the producer drives off with the car. Michael then gets mugged. When the stolen car is found with the movie producer in it murdered, Michael's identifications are next to the victim. Without cash and freezing, Michael is now wanted for murder.

Noted for his hard-boiled "87th Precinct" police procedurals, Ed McBain changes speed with "Downtown" (Morrow, 302 pages, $20) -- a screwball mystery/comedy. Reminiscent of the work of Donald E. Westlake, "Downtown" is a nonstop romp for everyone but Michael as New York declares war on the hapless orange grower.

"Motown" (Bantam, 292 pages, $19) is the second installment of an ambitious trilogy by Loren Estleman. His crime novels take place in Detroit during various eras of the 20th century. The first, "Whiskey River," concerned bootleggers and takes place in the late 1930s. It was named Best Crime Novel of 1990, and "Motown" may win Mr. Estleman more awards.

It's set in the summer of 1966, when Detroit was at the pinnacle of its power. Big Auto ruled the city, but the authority was held together by spit and baling wire. Imported automobiles had not begun to challenge Detroit's supremacy. Gas was cheap. Safety regulations were sought by only a few. And racial turmoil was simmering.

Ex-Detroit policeman Rick Amery has a lifelong affair with fast cars. His passion led him to take a bribe that got him booted off the police force. Unemployed, Rick is approached by a fellow ex-cop who is working for General Motors. He is offered a tempting proposition: If Rick infiltrates a Ralph Nader-like organization and discredits it, he will be rewarded with the prototype sportscar Camaro Z-28.

Rick's situation is complicated after he infiltrates the group and sees the cavalier disregard for the public safety that General Motors shows in the design of its cars.

In the other major plot device, Quincy Springfield and Lydell Lafayette are the major black numbers operators in Detroit. It is a lucrative market. Crime boss Patsy Orr, son of a major character in "Whiskey River," decides that it is time to muscle into the territory. Police Inspector Lew Canada sees a looming gangland and racial war. He tries to stem the tide before Detroit explodes.

Tom Kakonis' third suspense novel, "Double Down" (306 pages, $19.95, Dutton), is an entertaining wheels-within-wheels novel that features ex-professor, ex-con, professional gambler Timothy Waverly. Waverly was in Mr. Kakonis' first novel, "Michigan Roll."

After Waverly and partner Bennie Epstein destroy $500,000 of heroin, they hide in Palm Beach to escape the wrath of Gunter Dietz, a Chicago gangster who is hunting them. After being located, Epstein surfaces to meet with Dietz to determine how to stop the hunt. Dietz's demands are simple: $500,000 and a $300,000 "penalty." The total is due in two weeks.

Dietz also has decided that no matter what, Waverly and Epstein should be executed. In that regard, he hired a top Florida hit man to carry out the assignment.

Waverly latches on to a high- stakes poker game. While the cards may make up the debt's money aspect, Waverly and Epstein are keenly aware that they still are marked for death. If things are not desperate enough, Waverly meets and rekindles a romance with a childhood friend who is married to a shady Texas developer.

The hit man's stake-out is complicated when he learns that a PTC prior assignment's target has taken out a contract on him. The result of all these machinations and melodramatics is a riveting thriller.

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