by Elmore Leonard

Harry Arno, a Miami Beach bookie with 20 years in the business, has a serious problem. The feds are broadcasting that Arno skims money from his boss, a gangster named Jimmy Cap. Guys who skim from Cap usually end up skinned, so Arno is ready to do anything to escape from federal custody. In his corrupt mind there is really only one place to go—Rapallo, Italy, a town he knows from his World War II days, a place where he shot a deserter and met poet Ezra Pound, a place where he can hide.

Within days of his arrival, Arno finds enemies everywhere. U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens wants him in jail. Mob leg breakers Tommy "The Zip" Bucks and Nicky Testa want him buried. So what's a poor (make that rich) bookie running for his life to do? Get out of Rapallo, and Pronto.

This is Leonard's finest novel since Glitz. The writing is crisp. The dialogue is vintage Elmore, and the plot is every bit as good as a bowl of linguini with clam sauce on a chilly night. (Delacorte, $21.95)

by Stephanie Cowell

Anglophiles, particularly those with a passion for the Elizabethan era, will relish this detail-rich, fictional account of Nicholas Cooke, a poor, orphaned boy who runs away from Canterbury to seek his fortune in London. There he falls in love with iconoclastic playwright Kit Morley (aka Christopher Marlowe), who gets him involved in the theater and introduces him to struggling fellow playwright Will Shagspere (yes, that's right). Always restless, Cooke eventually moves on to become a soldier, then a doctor, and finally, though already married and the father of two, he fulfills his true lifelong ambition of becoming a priest.

Cowell does an excellent job of portraying Elizabethan life without being overly academic. She is less successful, however, in making readers care about Cooke or his odyssey. Still, for a first novel, Cowell has chosen a refreshingly unusual subject that invites readers into a world they might otherwise think is too removed to enter. (Norton, $24)

by William Gibson

Although considered the master of "cyberpunk" science-fiction, William Gibson is also one fine suspense writer. It's California in the year 2005. A disaffected bike messenger who lives in a shantytown on the Oakland Bay Bridge steals a pair of sunglasses and finds herself on the lam. Meanwhile an ex-cop with a penchant for getting into trouble is looking for work. Starling with these vectors. Gibson gradually fills in a latticework involving electronic surveillance, computer hackers, molecular engineering, a TV cop show and the cure for AIDS.

The cinematic intensity and narrative inventiveness of the story combined with his technological focus make this Gibson's most accessible work to date. Beyond the thrill of figuring out why so many people are so upset about a missing pair of glasses, the deeper suspense in Gibson's writing lies in his deft extrapolations from current pop culture onto an ironic postindustrial collage that is both exhilarating and terrifying. (Bantam, $21.95)

by Skeeter Davis

Fans—and even more so foes—of Nashville radio-TV personality Ralph Emery will be interested in this autobiography by one of his ex-wives, who has hardly a decent word to say about him. But Davis, once a minor star in country music, has also turned out a poignant autobiography that stands on its own.

Especially touching is Davis's account of her friendship with Betty Jack Davis, her high school friend and first professional singing partner, who died in an auto crash in 1953, shortly after the duo hit the country music charts. Skeeter also writes movingly of her parents, her seven siblings and personalities like Chet Atkins, Minnie Pearl, June Carter and her sometime touring partner, Elvis Presley.

She describes her four-year marriage to Emery, her second husband, as unrelenting torment. She accuses him of being indifferent, unfaithful, wildly jealous, selfish and hurtful. Following their divorce in 1964, she writes, he continued to harass her. She also claims that Emery doesn't really like country music and that he derides its stars as "sequins and snuff queens."

(While there is a vindictive tone toward Emery—who in his own book Memories accused Davis of marrying him mainly to further her career—she applauds his sincere interest in his children from previous marriages.)

Davis, who has survived breast cancer and turned into a globe-trotting evangelical proselytizer, remains likable. If her story breaks the heart more often than it warms it, her willingness to acknowledge her own mistakes humanizes her often grim tale of the vagaries of human strength and weakness. (Birch Lane, $19.95)

by Ralph Emery with Tom Carter

Like the second batch of soup made from a chicken carcass, this follow-up to Emery's 1991 best-selling autobiography, Memories, is thin and unsatisfying. In his first book, the avuncular host of Nashville Now, the Nashville Network's talk variety show, revealed the depressing details of his own addiction to amphetamines, his extensive plastic surgery and his unhappy marriage to Skeeter Davis, along with fresh stories of the travails of such performers as Merle Haggard, Barbara Mandrell and Johnny Cash. In this book, Emery relies on picked-over anecdotes and even repeats a not-that-funny-the-first-time story from Memories about Cash releasing a flock of chickens in a Manhattan hotel.

Emery does, at least, acknowledge, if understatedly, ex-wife Davis's bitterness toward him: "She was unhappy with the picture I painted of our relationship." (He in fact wrote that he had contemplated including a few blank pages in a chapter headed "Things I Enjoyed About My Marriage to Skeeter Davis.")

With no more exes to trash, Emery may be hard put to stir up any feelings with this obvious ego trip. Throw another turnip in that soup, and gel back to Shotgun Red, Ralph. (Putnam, $21.95)

by Bharati Mukherjee

Beigh Masters is a modern New England woman, a professional asset hunter who researches the past to recover valuable objects. On a quest for an ancient diamond, the Emperor's Tear, she gets embroiled in the adventures of a Puritan ancestor, Hannah Easton.

Crossing centuries and oceans, Masters tracks Easton from 17th-century Salem, Mass., to Mughal, India, recalling the events of her life, her transformation from pioneer child to the consort of an Indian raja.

The Holder of the World has brilliant moments, vivid images of the harshness of colonial life and the decadence of India's Coromandel Coast, but the novel's blessings are also its downfall. Mukherjee has written a provocative novel contrasting the cultures of East and West, but the threads of the story unravel amid the lushness of her prose and the intensity of events. (Knopf, $22)

>Elmore Leonard

THE ART OF WRITING PRONTO

ELMORE LEONARD WAS ON A BOOK tour in England in 1991 and wondering where to set his next novel when his wife, Joan, suggested a quick trip to Italy. "Seemed like a good idea," says Leonard, 68. "We'd never been there."

He phoned a friend in Detroit, cartoonist Richard Guindon, who asked Leonard to bring him back an espresso pot. "Where do you go for that?" Leonard asked.

"Rapallo," said Guindon.

"Soon as I heard the name, I knew I'd found a place for my next book," says Leonard of the resort town outside Pisa. "All I knew about Rapallo was that Ezra Pound spent time there. I researched the town, figured out what Army divisions were there in World War II," says the writer. "That way I could place my main guy there during the war. Once I read up on Pound, there weren't any problems."

Seven months after the trip to Italy, Leonard had finished his 31st novel. His pace has been that steady since 1951, when as a 26-year-old copywriter at a Detroit ad agency, he sold his first short story. "Worked that fast every year but this one," says Leonard, who was set back by his wife's death earlier this year, shortly after she was diagnosed with lung cancer. Pronto is dedicated to her memory.

Leonard is now three drafts into a screenplay for director William Fried-kin and has finished 50 pages of a new novel, though he's still not sure what it's about. "It'll come to me," he says. "I'll hear a word, a phrase, something that sounds right. Then I'll get down to business."

  • Contributors:
  • Lorenzo Carcaterra,
  • Jill Rachlin,
  • Anthony Kosner,
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Louisa Ermelino.