by Martin Mull

For a certain kind of actor, the kind who likes to express himself in big, bold strokes, painting is a natural sideline. Is it any surprise, for instance, that in his spare time Sylvester Stallone likes to wallop a helpless canvas with heavily loaded brushes? But Martin Mull, who plays Leon Carp, the gay restaurant co-owner on Roseanne, is not a big-strokes kind of guy. Bemused is more like it, a man capable of deadpan comic stunts like "Duelling Tubas," his 1972 recorded parody of "Duelling Banjos," and prone to the inspired weird-ness he brought to Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Fernwood 2-Night, Norman Lear's off-kilter TV comedies of the 1970s, or to his own The History of White People in America on Cinemax.

But as it turns out, Mull is a widely exhibited painter who holds a master's degree in fine arts from the Rhode Island School of Design. In an autobiographical essay that opens his book, Mull tells us that art was his first career path until his performing opportunities accelerated, his first marriage collapsed and he drifted away from his paint box. A diagnosis of cancer (melanoma) brought him back to it with a vengeance in 1980. What followed was work in acrylics in a meticulous photo-realist style, as well as a burgeoning problem with drink, until he swore off alcohol and moved on to the radically simplified paintings that make up most of this book.

Inspired partly by the Outsider Art of the mentally ill and other unschooled painters, Mull's work looks a bit like the cryptic drawings of children. He believes they spring from his subconscious, which we had always pictured as a more interesting place, or at least not one filled mostly with wan figures and crudely brushed scenes. For anybody curious about what's bubbling beneath that placid surface of his, this book has its charms, but "Duelling Tubas" is still funnier. (Journey Editions, Charles E. Tuttle, $45)

by Robert B. Parker

Is Spenser getting sappy? One of detective fiction's best hard-boiled gumshoes, once quick of trigger and fast of lip, is starting to act like a sensitive, '90s kind of guy. This time the wife of a Boston detective has disappeared. Spenser's job: get her back. The hunt leads him into the drug-dusted Hispanic ghettos of a decaying New England mill town where a twist of fate, a fortunate new partnership and a bit of sly planning ensure a satisfying caper. Along the way, though, Spenser spends too much time dining in fancy restaurants and sharing his newly genteel philosophy with his psychotherapist girlfriend at the drop of every linen napkin. He can hardly bring himself to be rude even to the bad guys anymore. Spenser should be commanding mean streets. Here he's treading thin air. (Putnam, $21.95)

by Mary Karr

Focusing on a childhood year in a godforsaken refinery town in east Texas, poet Mary Karr has written an astonishing memoir of her ferociously loving and dysfunctional family.

Karr is the product of a glamorous, bohemian, seven-times-married mother who fled the Texas dust bowl as a teenager to study art in New York City, and a raconteur of a father who swept Mom off her feet the day she blew into town with her husband of the moment.

Karr uses the rich cadence of the region and poetic images to shape her wrenching story, much as her father did as a member of the Liars' Club—a group that gathered regularly to drink and spin tales at the local American Legion bar.

Sometimes truth is best approached indirectly. As an 8-year-old listening to her father, Karr notes, "I've plumb forgot where I am for an instant, which is how a good lie should take you. At the same time, I'm more where I was inside myself than before Daddy started talking, which is how lies can tell you the truth." (Viking, $22.95)

by Richard Ford

When we last saw journalist Frank Bascombe, it was in the early '80s. With his ex-wife, lovers and dead child behind him, he was busy weathering a midlife crisis on a Florida beach. In Independence Day, Ford's rich and ambitious sequel to The Sports-writer (1986), Frank has come home.

It is 1988. He is selling real estate in New Jersey, and while the crises are over, the problems remain. Frank is a stranger to his own heart. He lives carefully, content to ignore things and see them go away, and while he values his independence, he feels the loneliness that such freedom can bring. After unsuccessfully showing a property to an out-of-state couple and spending an evening with his lover, Frank heads to Connecticut to pick up his son for a two-day excursion. Paul, in the throes of adolescence, was recently arrested for shoplifting, and Frank, the absentee dad, is not sure how to reach him. Their wrestling for love gives Independence Day its strength and appeal.

Ford writes with terrific subtlety, deftly capturing unspoken sentiments. Independence Day is a vivid celebration not just of the textures of daily life, but also of the epiphanies that punctuate the most ordinary moments. (Knopf, $24)

by Joy Fielding

Bonnie Wheeler, the hero of Fielding's 11th thriller, is a perfect candidate for the women-in-jeopardy genre Fielding has made her own. A pretty high school teacher married to a TV talk show director—and the mother of an adorable toddler—Bonnie is the classic good girl. Even her husband's ex-wife Joan likes her well enough to phone with the message that Bonnie and her daughter are in danger.

Joan has been known to tipple and behave irresponsibly (her baby daughter drowned in the bathtub unattended), but Bonnie is alarmed enough to agree to meet her. When she arrives at Joan's home and finds her dead, domestic bliss turns to terror, and Bonnie turns to sleuthing after she becomes the prime suspect.

An ineffective but sassy detective who suspects everybody in sight, Bonnie ultimately solves the mystery and discovers herself in the process. Don't Cry Now is sometimes implausible, but for a brisk summer read, it's a winner. (Morrow, $23)

by Carol O'Connell

Beach Book of the Week

Only the Shadow may know what evil lurks in the hearts of men, but, as a street kid grown up to become an NYPD sergeant, Kathy Mallory has a pretty good idea. The enigmatic 25-year-old also has more tricks to break into top-secret computer files than any slacker hacker, marksmanship that would impress Annie Oakley, and a genius admirer named Charles Butler who dabbles in private investigations. It looks like she's going to need all of them to catch the murderer of a young woman initially mistaken for her.

Undercover in a posh co-op on Central Park West, Mallory quickly spots some potential suspects—including a Supreme Court nominee who may be beating his wife and a celebrated blind author who may not be blind. Meanwhile her pal Butler is trying to get to the bottom of an apparent poltergeist that threatens to become deadly.

O'Connell weaves a suspenseful yarn that exploits both her thoroughly original characters and the vivid cityscape. The resulting puzzler is even more satisfying than the writer's 1994 debut, Mallory's Oracle (Jove paperback). And that's high praise indeed. (Putnam, $22.95)

>Martin Mull

A PASSION FOR PAINT

"BY THE TIME I WAS 10 YEARS OLD, I knew in my bones that I wanted to be an artist," says Martin Mull, 51, who grew up in North Ridgefield, Ohio, an agrarian community outside Cleveland, where his earliest influences in the visual arts consisted of comic books and Norman Rockwell's Saturday Evening Post covers. Today, Mull, who lives in L.A. with his wife, Wendy Haas, a musician and composer, and their daughter Maggie, 10, is showing his work at the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art and at Manhattan's David Beitzel Gallery.

You say that art school did not change your life, it created it. How so?

Most of what I do now is influenced by my six years in art school. That's where I learned the world was round, not a flat square in Ohio. It was like The Wizard of Oz when the door of Dorothy's dismal bedroom opens on the emerald-green wonderland.

Why did the painter turn performer?

Ninety percent of it was economic. I didn't have any money, and I was at least able to bluff my way enough as a performer to make some. It sure beats working.

How did cancer affect your work?

I felt an urge to paint as if my life depended upon it. Fortunately, they took a quarter-pounder with cheese out of my back and managed to get it all.

Which medium do you prefer?

Painting is more satisfying. I could ask for nothing better than to work on Roseanne, but that's a team effort. When you're painting, boy, it's just you. It's a little closer to the razor's edge.

  • Contributors:
  • Richard Lacayo,
  • Kristin McMurran,
  • J.D. Reed,
  • Louisa Ermelino,
  • Pam Lambert,
  • Thomas Curwen.