Picks and Pans Review: Devils Hole

updated 05/08/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/08/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

By Bill Branon

Bill Branon gives great crazy. In his first novel, Let Us Prey, he concocted a group of delusionals who attacked the IRS with pyrotechnic fervor. Branon's follow-up thriller focuses on hit man Arthur Arthur, a traumatized (or just sociopathic, depending on your viewpoint) Vietnam War sniper with a twisted agenda.

Arthur is one of the best wackos in contemporary crime fiction, a kind of Death Wish hero turned pro. He takes contracts, usually from frustrated lawmen who can't prove their cases in court, to eliminate murderers and sexual criminals. And he's an artist who strives to make his method fit the crime. He dispatches a necrophilic pornographer (apparently there are such folks), for instance, by wiring a generous charge of explosives into the man's camera. Arthur has even formulated a philosophy of sorts. "Killing," he says flatly, "is just tinkering with time."

During his last caper in Las Vegas, time tinkers with Arthur: he's hit by Cupid's arrow. With a deft hand and a sly smile, Branon concocts an improbable love triangle. Melody Poppins, a plucky blackjack dealer at a casino on the Strip, is in love with both Arthur and his mark, dope-dealing high roller Michael Henry, whom the casino owners want hit because of his irritating habit of winning.

In a gritty finale, all three, armed with high-powered weapons, duel it out in the desert near Death Valley with unexpected results. Aided by his fine eye for accurate detail—Vegas dealers' schools, small-arms ammo and barren moral landscapes—Branon scores another bull's-eye. (HarperCollins, $23)

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