by Maureen Howard

The centerpiece of this impressive, if at times overdone, novel is a scandalous murder. In the 1940s a young, married socialite of questionable background lures a soldier back to her elegant Bridgeport, Conn., home—and shoots him four times in the chest. County detective Billy Bray is called to investigate; what he finds changes not only his life but his daughter Catherine's life forever. Years later his unwitting son, James, a somewhat unhappy, somewhat successful actor, feels compelled to make a film about the case, the biggest in his father's career. But Catherine, dutiful daughter, is determined to stop him—even if she has to reveal the painful truth she has hidden for so long.

Howard's writing is stunning. She shifts easily from voice to voice, never losing control and never losing empathy with her remarkably diverse characters. (They range from the middle-class Brays to a ghetto child to a former rodeo queen to an ex-nun.) Howard is less successful, though, when she plays with the very shape and definition of the novel. One section, titled "Double Entry," contains the story on right-hand pages set against an amalgam of arcane information about Bridgeport's history (including drawings, and anecdotes about such Bridgeporters as P.T. Barnum and Robert Mitchum) on left-hand pages. The artifice is amusing but unnecessary. You're left wanting more of Howard's compelling narrative and less of her self-conscious literary experiment. (Norton, $22.95)

by Walter Kirn

It's a twisted, election-year version of "meeting cute." The scene is a Midwestern abortion clinic. He, Weaver Walquist, is a 26-year-old member of the fanatical pro-life group the Conscience Squad. She, Kim (née Agnes) Lindgren, is a 23-year-old, cigarette-smoking, pregnant junior-college dropout trying to enter the clinic. The Conscience Squad's protest turns into a miniriot. Kim is hurt in the scuffle. Weaver goes to her aid. Naturally they will fall in love.

Kirn's followers will recognize in his first novel the same deadpan voice and dead-on vision that characterized his 1990 story collection, My Hard Bargain. But this time Kirn manages to skewer—or maybe barbecue—even larger chunks of the modern American dream. Is Weaver a true believer or has he—as his widowed mother, a liquor store owner, suspects—simply been brainwashed? Are he and Kim really in love, or do they just need each other to complete their respective morality plays?

Kirn addresses these and other questions without cynicism—and occasionally manages a beautifully turned phrase ("Swaying and tipping on the high-heel shoes like a suicide on a windy ledge..."). And while the narrative sometimes loses momentum, Kirn and his sympathetic portrait of contemporary confusion deserve a warm welcome. We need them. (Pocket, $20)

by Jack Valenti

High-stakes presidential politics is the timely subject of this intriguing—but ultimately unsatisfying—suspense novel. Set in the mid-1990s, it tells the story of President Donald Kells, a well-meaning Democrat who hopes to get re-elected despite a flat economy and a falling approval rating. Kells soon discovers that the situation is worse than he thought. In an almost unprecedented move, the Vice President declares that he will challenge his boss for the party's nomination. The power-hungry Vice President claims he's doing it for the public good, but he's really in it for private gain—and for the benefit of his nefarious partners, the newly reconfigured Russian states.

Valenti, who served as a special assistant to President Lyndon Johnson and since 1966 has been president of the Motion Picture Association of America (the group that puts ratings on movies) effectively shows the lengths men are willing to go for power. He renders behind-the-scenes White House machinations with eerie believability, peppering his narrative with appearances by real-life journalists such as Sam Donaldson and George Will. The fictional characters, however, come off as dull as a political fund-raiser. The plot merely recycles the Evil Empire. In the end, Valenti can't Protect and Defend his readers from cliché. (Doubleday, $20)

by Jane Stanton Hitchcock

When London critics trounced Hitchcock's last play, Vanilla, directed in the West End last year by Harold Pinter, the American playwright promised herself that "the next time I fell on my face, it would be without benefit of actors or directors."

In her first novel, an elegant psychological thriller, Hitchcock hasn't so much as stubbed her toe. The book, which explores the creation and shattering of illusions on many levels, is told in the first-person voice of its heroine, Faith Crowell. Faith is a trompe l'oeil artist, someone who paints decorative optical illusions for a living—fake windows opening onto lush gardens, faux marble, etc. She's recruited by grande dame Frances Griffin to overhaul the walls and ceiling of a ballroom. Once she steps into Mrs. Griffin's silk-upholstered world, Faith finds that her own tricks of the eye are piffle compared with the lady's. She becomes obsessed with secrets Mrs. Griffin's fabulously wealthy family has been hiding for years, including the mystery surrounding the brutal murder of Mrs. Griffin's daughter.

Richly nuanced, Trick is piercing in its depictions of the rich—it's obvious Hitchcock, whose friends include Jacqueline Onassis and her circle, knows whereof she writes. While her book is set in contemporary America, it is reminiscent of those murky Daphne du Maurier tales in which money and privilege are used as weapons to shield the wealthy from the consequences of their deeds. Whether Hitchcock goes back to plays or continues to write novels, this one will be a hard act to follow. (Dutton, $19)

by Judy Kessler

Bryant Gumbel's snub of a female Today show producer reduced her to tears; he would tease other women staffers by dangling dead mice in front of them; and he privately referred to then cohost Jane Pauley as "the c—." Wait, there's more: Pauley was also sniped at by Deborah Norville, her successor, who would cattily critique Jane's hairstyle and clothes to other staffers in 1989, when both briefly—and uneasily—shared the sofa with Bryant. But it was Norville who wound up crying in her office after critics ripped her on-air performance and viewers, outraged at Pauley's ouster, began zapping the show.

Juicy stuff? You bet. But anyone expecting more succulent tidbits may be disappointed. Kessler, a former PEOPLE reporter, signed aboard Today in 1980 as its talent coordinator, the person in charge of booking the guests who appear in between the hosts' "familial" gabfests. In that role Kessler was chummy with Pauley and with Tom Brokaw, Gumbel's predecessor as Today host. But she left the show in 1984 to work as a segment producer with Entertainment Tonight and had few dealings with Gumbel (whom she admits was no fan of hers) or with top NBC brass. With the help of former colleagues (many unnamed), her "insider" account continues through February 1991, when Katie Couric replaced Norville. It the result is less than definitive, it is also more than you ever wanted to know about leaked interoffice memos. An entire chapter is devoted to Gumbel's infamous "confidential" trashing of loquacious weatherman Willard Scott and other Today regulars—a scandal not quite on a par with Watergate, despite Kessler's low-blow-by-low-blow rehash.

To her credit, she writes with self-effacing candor about one of the grubbiest jobs in TV journalism. The battle for morning-show guests is a guerrilla war usually waged in the wee, desperate hours before airtime. Its chief combatants were Kessler and Ellin Sanger, her formidable counterpart at ratings rival Good Morning America. Each would rely on her cherished Rolodex of celebrities' private phone numbers, brazenly wake them up, then resort to pleading, wheedling, even bursting into tears to get them to appear. The absurd low point may have been reached in 1985, when Jimmy Dell Palmer, a TWA hijack hostage freed by his captors because of a serious heart condition, was "nearly trampled," says Kessler, by reporters for Today, GMA and CBS Morning News, all scrambling to hook him up, via earphone, to their shows. Such behavior, Kessler admits, was "the despicable part" of her job. "We needed bodies to fill the airtime, and...the more famous, the better." As this year's late-night talk show wars prove, the game goes on unchanged. (Villard, $20)

>Maureen Howard

PART P.T. BARNUM, PART IRISH LACE

IN AMERICA WE USE OUR CITIES UP and discard them. We glory in them, we make them grand for a while, and then commerce and technology move us on," says Maureen Howard, 62, defining, in her usual eloquent rush, her passion for the history of her native city, Bridgeport, Conn., which provides the backdrop for Natural History. "In a sense, the city made me, and now I try to make the city in words, to save it by words."

Howard, the author of five previous novels (her memoir, Facts of Life, won the 1980 National Book Critics Circle Award) lives in Manhattan with her husband, Mark Probst. But Bridgeport is to Howard what Dublin was to Joyce, and she says she returns "from exile" frequently "to that rich and generous place."

"Bridgeport," she notes, "was the city of P.T. Barnum. He was the mayor, a father figure. I grew up with a sense of our town as a three-ring circus, with a sense that nothing mattered more than to entertain and delight." Howard adds that she is a hybrid of both the lace-curtain Irish work ethic of Bridgeport in the '40s and that circus sensibility, saying, "Writing is a performing art. It's full of risks. On one side is the trap of Barnum's fakery and fraud and on the other side the dangers of telling the truth. I'm out there on the high wire every time I write."

  • Contributors:
  • Jill Rachlin,
  • Sara Nelson,
  • Jean Reynolds,
  • Michael A. Lipton.