by John Grisham

It was a measure of Grisham's achievement with his previous blockbuster novel, The Firm, that it was impossible to read without speculating about the cinematic possibilities. "Harrison Ford or Kevin Costner for the main character," you'd think to yourself. "And how about Mary Elizabeth Mastroantonio for his wife and maybe Gene Hackman for...." Readers will be similarly tempted with The Pelican Brief, which is stronger on character than The Firm but a bit shakier and less compelling on plot.

When two Supreme Court Justices—the ultraliberal, aging Abraham Rosenberg and sometimes ultraconservative, homosexual Glenn Jensen—are murdered within hours of each other, the nation is in a swivet and the FBI in a panic. Meanwhile, the President, a golf-playing boob, is concerned about his putting, his popularity—and the swift confirmation of his choice of new justices. The brains around the Beltway are clueless about the assassinations, which have been quick, tidy and trace-less, clearly the work of professionals.

But Darby Shaw, a lissome second-year law student at Tulane, thinks she has got the killings figured out. As an exercise, she has written a carefully researched though admittedly speculative brief, pinpointing a very obscure oil baron bent on destroying Louisiana's fragile marshlands. When the brief falls into the wrong hands, Shaw, aided by a Washington Post reporter, has to run for her life.

Grisham is not particularly deft with dialogue, and he should not bother with romantic scenes; he couldn't handle them convincingly in The Firm and he hasn't honed his skills in The Pelican Brief. But he has created a tough-minded, memorable character in Darby Shaw, and there is a propulsiveness to Grisham's narrative that keeps the pages turning briskly. Which, of course, is precisely the point of books like The Pelican Brief. (Doubleday, $22)

by Edna Buchanan

There are many who believe The Miami Herald's Edna Buchanan to be the best police reporter in the country. A 1986 Pulitzer Prize and a best-selling 1987 collection of her articles, The Corpse Had a Familiar Face, add weight to that claim. Further proof now comes with this sequel of sorts.

In Never Let Them See You Cry, Buchanan pounds the tough turf of her beat as if on a mission. Between offering lively reminiscences about her life and the crime scenes she has witnessed, she writes about love ("The person most likely to murder you sits across the breakfast table"), dreams ("Dreams do come true. Unfortunately, many of them are terrifying") and Miami politics.

Most and best of all, Buchanan writes about cops: "Three days after Harrison Crenshaw's death, Officer Simmons Arrington, in uniform, on patrol, was dispatched to a routine neighborhood dispute. A resident complained that a man named Sam Smith had threatened him. Smith was seated in a car when Officer Arrington arrived.

" 'I'm the man you're looking for,' he called out. As the officer walked toward him, Smith fired a shotgun at point-blank range. Seventy-two hours earlier, Arrington had cradled a fellow policeman who died in his arms. Now he, too, was dead."

Never Let Them See You Cry is a primer about how a first-rate journalist approaches her work. It also shows, in explicit detail, how living and dying are often separated by microseconds for those who carry guns and wear badges.

Most important, Never Let Them See You Cry is about fine writing, the kind of work too seldom seen in the pages of today's homogenized newspapers. Just for that, a ride with Edna Buchanan down the streets of the nice and the vice of Miami is worth the fare. (Random House, $20.00)

by Jeff Giles

Jeff Giles, 26, writes the "Night Life" column for The New Yorker, but that hardly qualifies him as a celebrity achiever; he holds no controversial views and recounts no earthshaking events in the small New York and Massachusetts towns of his childhood. Nevertheless, Giles has dared to publish this novel based on his life history. For so limited a memoir to succeed, its characters must engage us deeply; above all, it must entertain. Back in the Blue House satisfies on both counts.

His family's story, Giles has said, is "about recovery. We all try to deal with being a divorced family in a gossipy, conservative suburb.... As for how much is factual: I like to think that this book is one of those commercials in which a car swerves off the road while the screen flashes with the reassuring words: A RE-CREATION."

Re-creation or not, the senior Gileses and their chaotic on-again, off-again marriage are hard to forget. Mom, the former Susan Ceci, born in Rhode Island to Italian immigrants, would be a perfect role for Cher: nervy, fast-talking, full of anxious love. Father Glen is an airline pilot, an incorrigible womanizer addicted to stewardesses. The Gileses divorce; Susan remarries, is courted anew by Glen, divorces the second husband and moves with Glen and the children—Jeff and an older sister, Susan Karen—to Cohasset, on Boston's south shore, where she breaks with Glen again. Susan Karen becomes a teenage boozer, makes life hell for everyone, and finds herself at last in a hairdressing career.

All the family voices rise clearly from these pages—bawdy, wistful—recalling the passions that shaped their lives. But it is the son's sly, perceptive writing that marks this book. "If we are the generation that will never be able to afford a house, what will happen to all the houses?" he writes. At Brown University, Jeff's innocent request for sleeping pills is turned down, possibly because "my fellow students had recently requested that Health Services stockpile 'suicide pills' in the event of nuclear war." And there is this account of a beau-seeking Mom's appeal for help with a personal ad: "Jeffrey, I can't do it myself. I read these things and it's like 'DWF seeks.... 'I don't even know what these initials stand for...they sound like airports. Listen to this: GWM seeks discreet—" "I don't think you want to answer that one, Mom."

This is Jeff Giles's first book. It's an impressive debut. (Ticknor & Fields, $19.95)

by Stanley Bing

The recession seems to have increased the number of corner-office nut cases, and the author, who uses the pseudonym Stanley Bing, has the book on all of them. Citing names and categories, the Esquire journalist ranges from the heat-seeking Bully (New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner) to the obsessive Paranoid (reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes), to the preening Narcissist (convicted junk-bond king Michael Milken), to the fascist-wimp Bureaucrazy (Secretary of State James Baker).

Of course, spotting wackos and dealing with them are two different matters. But unlike the Disaster Hunter (the example offered is former National Security Affairs assistant Robert McFarlane), Bing meets his responsibilities. Jumping ship, he counsels, is not a good solution. It can lead to "an extended period of self-examination, always a bad idea for those past the age of 24." The most effective strategies include silence, bogus friendship, calmness in the face of hysteria and, on occasion, good old-fashioned hate like mother used to make. As Bing points out in this witty survival kit, "The greatest power you have is your sanity. Rational thought and action, pursued with boldness, and when necessary, ruthlessness, is a mighty hammer." (Morrow, $20)

>VERSE FOR YOUR VCR

STREET POETS, BETTER KNOWN AS rappers, long ago discovered the power of video. Now their more literary cousins, riding a renaissance of readings at coffee houses and even Laundromats, are joining the video age with Off the Page, the first poetry magazine you can play in your VCR.

Created and edited by Norman Rose, a New York City actor and poetry buff, Off the Page presents a stellar group of contemporary poets, including three Pulitzer prizewinners—Richard Howard, Louis Simpson and Richard Wilbur—and several gifted younger writers, including Carolyn Forehé, Cornelius Eady and Molly Peacock.

The 72-minute premiere issue begins with Rose addressing the poets and a roomful of listeners. Explaining the project, he observes, "There seems to be a kind of return to poetry as performance art.... [That] was, in a sense, the origin of poetry." The camera then focuses in turn (and too tightly at times) on six writers, each of whom reads one of his or her works. The poems are diverse and distinctive, forming a beguiling introduction to the rich rhythms and varied forms of verse today. Video's potential becomes clearer when the camera visits the masterful Wilbur at his round house in western Massachusetts. His study provides a grave and rich setting for a reading. Manuscript pages tacked up on the window molding behind him, he smokes his pipe in the glow of a desk lamp. "Poets," he tells us, "are just people who have a certain anxiety about being verbally adequate to the world."

Those spotlighted here needn't worry. Watching a poet recite is no substitute for reading the poem oneself, but it can add to pleasure and understanding, much as watching a fine cook in the kitchen enriches enjoyment and appreciation of the meal. And while the fare here is meaty, often abstruse, it's not indigestible. The tape ends with a flourish as seasoned culture buff Tony Randall mugs shamefully but well through selections of humorous verse by Ogden Nash on food and animals ("Some primal termite knocked on wood/ And tasted it and found it good/ And that is why your cousin Mae/ Fell through the parlor floor today").

The second issue, featuring Maxine Kumin, Howard Nemerov and Jason Robard's reading of Robert Frost's poems, is due out in early summer. (Volume I, $29.95 plus $4.50 shipping from Off the Page, POB 40003, Fairfield, N.J. 07004, or call 201-808-8933)

>FRIED GREEN TOMATOES AT THE WHISTLE STOP CAFE Fannie Flagg writes for the ear and is an accomplished raconteur. This makes her reading of vignettes from her novel about people whose lives are touched for 50 years by the Whistle Stop Cafe in northern Alabama always diverting and often spellbinding. (Random House, $16)

BITTER MEDICINE Sara Paretsky's Chicagoland thriller has gumshoe V.I. (Victoria) Warshawski mixing it up with the partners in a swank obstetrics clinic and some low-life hitmen. Though Christine Lahti's lucid rendition manages to animate the characters, the novel sometimes sounds like a Sam Spade parody. (Bantam, $15.99)

WILDERNESS TIPS These four short stories from Margaret Atwood's latest collection confirm the insight with which she writes about women and the wry, sly brilliance with which she writes about men. They are read exuberantly by Helen Shaver, whose vowel sounds leave us in no doubt that we are north of the 49th parallel. (Bantam, $15.99)

ONE LIFETIME IS NOT ENOUGH She says she lost her virginity at 15 (to Ataturk), dated JFK (platonically), managed quickies with Burton, Sinatra and Connery between spouses and can't remember slapping a cop. She dishes melodramatically with a coquettish disdain for grammar. Who is she, dahlinks? Who but Zsa Zsa Gabor? (Simon & Schuster, $16)

UNTO THE SONS Gay Talese's chronicle of the life his grandparents left in Italy and remade in the U.S. is lovingly served by Daniel J. Travanti. His fluency and range of understated accents compensate for the author's occasionally rambling sentences. (Random House, $16)

A RETURN TO LOVE "At their peak, religion and psychotherapy become one," says Marianne Williamson, self-help guru of the Course in Miracles, who officiated at Liz Taylor's latest splicing. Her mind-numbing psychojargon may comfort the converted but will induce claustrophobia in the skeptical. (HarperCollins, $16)

  • Contributors:
  • Joanne Kaufman,
  • Lorenzo Carcaterra,
  • Jeff Brown,
  • Stefan Kanfer,
  • David Kirkpatrick,
  • Ben Harte.