by Colin Harrison

Porter Wren thinks he has seen it all. At least he has made it his business to try: As a celebrated columnist for a New York City tabloid, the 38-year-old combs the city primeval for bits of human flotsam that he can serve up with his special sauce—irony or pathos, take your pick—three times a week. Ignoring barriers of class and race, he fancies himself invulnerable to the suffering that fattens him—and is about to find out how grievously mistaken he is, in this bold, brilliant novel.

His comeuppance takes the form of Caroline Crowley, the stunning widow of a wunderkind filmmaker. Exactly what this cool siren wants from Wren isn't initially clear, though she intimates it has something to do with solving the mystery of her husband's death. Despite his model marriage, Wren is all too eager to go along for the ride—dangers be damned.

With the narrative drive of a hurtling subway express, Harrison, deputy editor of Harper's magazine and author of two previous dark thrillers, plunges readers into a scary subterranean world in which the only comfort comes from the neon flashes of his prose. (Crown, $24)

by Vladimir Arsenijevi? Translated from the Serbo-Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth

Subsisting on the ragged fringes of the former Yugoslavia's generation X, the characters in Arsenijevi?'s engaging, offbeat first novel seem like young people everywhere, only more so. Since this is Belgrade, 1991, the intensifying war in Bosnia and Croatia actually gives Angela and her pals something more pressing to worry about than how to get along with their parents and whether or not to eat red meat.

Lazar, a saffron-robed vegetarian, is drafted to fight on the front lines—from which Dejan, an ambitious punk-rock drummer, has just returned, missing an arm. Angela and her husband (the book's wry narrator) are anxiously expecting their first child, while all around them military recruiters are banging on their neighbors' doors.

The bright humor of this novel belies its basic seriousness. Without moralizing or preaching, In the Hold makes us realize that the combat in the Balkans involved not only the thugs in camouflage and the grandmas in babushkas we see on the nightly news.

Subtly, the author helps us understand how a society and a culture very much like our own were caught up in—and destroyed by—the bloodthirsty passions of war. (Knopf, $20)

by Lynda Obst

If this book's publisher has any sense at all, it will set up tables at all entry points to Hollywood, stack them high with copies of this witty, gnomic guide to making it as a producer in La-La (or is it Lie-Lie?) Land and wait for a scene straight out of The Day of the Locust.

A former editor at The New York Times Magazine, Obst went west in the '90s to work for then-whiz kid Peter Guber (from whom she absorbed the art of the pitch) and later for David Geffen, subsequently producing, among others, The Fisher King, Sleepless in Seattle and the forthcoming One Fine Day.

Obst, who has a reporter's eye and the soul of an anthropologist, explains the difference between a hipster (someone who hangs out at the Viper Club on Thursday nights and knows lots of musicians) and a trendsetter (someone who knew the musicians before they even arrived in L.A.). She outlines the particular problem of women in Hollywood ("The first thing you notice besides their low percentage of body fat is how few are married") and offers tips for keeping your actors happy on a set ("Love the last movie the star made unless the star hated it; then you must hate the movie").

At times, unfortunately, Obst seems to pull her punches, particularly when talking—always in awe and admiration—about superagent-turned-studio-head Mike Ovitz, Steven Spielberg, or megamoguls David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg. This, clearly, is a woman who intends to eat lunch in this town for a long time to come. (Little, Brown, $23.95)

by Jeffrey Toobin

This latest offering from the O.J. Simpson literary pipeline (which has, alas, no Off valve) is distinguished by access to spare without axes to grind—an author tapped into the workings of the Simpson case who, refreshingly, takes a dispassionate approach to dissecting what happened.

Toobin, an ex-assistant U.S. attorney who followed the case for The New Yorker, was the reporter who broke the news that Simpson's lawyers would make race an issue in the case by suggesting that rogue LAPD officer Mark Fuhrman framed Simpson. (Dream Teamer Robert Shapiro, who served up the Fuhrman bombshell in 1994, is one known source for The New Yorker story.) Here Toobin argues that the Dream Team invented "an alternative reality for the events of June 12, 1994," and bolsters his claim with a blitz of fresh, engrossing revelations, the result of well-placed sources who secured for Toobin internal legal memos, secret grand-jury testimony and even depositions from the pending civil case against Simpson. Toobin reports, for instance, that prior to being retained as counsel, Johnnie Cochran admitted to friends that he thought Simpson was guilty. "O.J. is in massive denial," he quotes Cochran as saying. "He obviously did it."

The Run of His Life offers other striking details, such as Marcia Clark ignoring focus groups that suggested black female jurors would be sympathetic to Simpson, and a prison guard telling O.J. he'd been found not guilty the night before he feigned surprise on worldwide TV Toobin's insight into the motives and mind-set of key players sets this Simpson book apart from the pack. (Random House, $25)

by Michael Nava

Page-Turner of the Week

HENRY RIOS IS IN A REALLY STICKY situation. At the start of this haunting mystery, the Los Angeles criminal lawyer learns that one of his oldest friends, Superior Court Judge Christopher Chandler, has just been murdered—and that the prime suspect wants to retain him. Further complicating matters is the fact that the man, a handsome young waiter named Zack Bowen, claims to have been the very married jurist's longtime lover.

Luckily for Zack, Rios can't resist an apparently lost cause (or, given his own sexual orientation, a good-looking guy). But in order to help his new client, he's going to have to do some serious sleuthing. And, in this case, that appears likely to lead him down several dangerous byways into the secret life his late friend kept so carefully closeted.

As the many fans of the four previous Rios mysteries know, Nava—like his hero, a gay Mexican-American attorney—can devise as canny a plot as he can a defense motion. His latest, though, has something special—the scent of memory that lingers as poignantly as a departed lover's cologne. (Putnam, $22.95)

>HARD CHARGER

It raced through 17 hardcover printings, roped $3 million for film rights and snagged Robert Red-ford as star. Now, Nicholas Evans's The Horse Whisperer will make publishing history when Dell rustles up 2.25 million copies this fall—the largest single paperback run for a first novel.

OUTRAGE IS OUT Australia and the U.K. won't issue Outrage, Vincent Bugliosi's indictment of O.J. Simpson. A less demanding standard for libel would allow Simpson to sue Bugliosi and publisher Norton for claiming he's a murderer.

EASY GIVEAWAY Walter Mosley gave a boost to Black Classic Press when he waived his usual six-figure advance and offered the small Baltimore house his first, unpublished Easy Rawlins mystery, Gone Fishin'. "There are black authors who make millions for mainstream presses," he says. "Once in a while, you can give a book [to a small press]. It's not that hard."

MO' BETTER 'BALL Filmmaker and New York Knicks fan Spike Lee scored a six-figure deal to write The Best Seat in the House, about his love of basketball. Approached by a Crown exec at a Knicks-Bulls game this spring, Lee agreed to a June '97 pub date, freeing him just in time for the playoffs.

>Diane Mott Davidson

MURDER ON THE MENU

DIANE MOTT DAVIDSON ADMITS IT: Her culinary mysteries can be hazardous to your waistline. All those scenes in which her sleuthing caterer Goldy Bear Schulz whips up fattening favorites like fettuccine Alfredo—and the recipe follows on the next page—why, it's enough to send anyone to the fridge. "My editor won't even call me unless she has had lunch," says the 47-year-old author.

Davidson has been dishing up delicious bestsellers since publishing Catering to Nobody in 1990, and her sixth, The Main Corpse, has just landed in bookstores.

A native of Washington, Davidson, who roomed opposite Hillary Rodham at Wellesley College in the late '60s, is now settled in Evergreen, Colo., with her husband, Jim, an electrical engineer. Although she had been writing mystery novels for years (with no success at getting them published), it wasn't until her youngest son started preschool that she found direction. "I would go to this cafe after dropping my children off and write," says Davidson, the mother of Jeffrey, now 24, J.Z., 18, and Joey, 12. "It was both a cafe and a catering business, and I became fascinated watching the people and the money they would pay for a catered dinner."

Hoping to spice up her plots, Davidson signed on with the caterer as a volunteer and continues to help set up weddings and parties whenever her schedule allows. "There are so many things that need to be coordinated," she says, "it's like putting on a play." The research helps with her story lines (she's already boning up on barbecues for her next book, The Grilling Season) but not with her recipes. Those, like Chocoholic Cookies, she thinks up on her own, using family, neighbors and even strangers as guinea pigs. "The UPS man loves it," she says with a grin.

Still, the total immersion in her writing can sometimes make Davidson a bit paranoid. While helping cater a wedding, she jumped to an immediate—and fortunately incorrect—conclusion when the minister didn't show up on time. "Right away, I thought, 'Oh, the minister is dead,' " she confesses. "It's the way I think now."

  • Contributors:
  • Pam Lambert,
  • Francine Prose,
  • Joanne Kaufman,
  • Alex Tresniowski,
  • Lan Nguyen,
  • Cynthia Sanz.