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Tom Kakonis, Marcia Muller serve up some spicy thrillers

Criss Cross, by Tom Kakonis, St. Martin's Press, $18.95. Milo "Meat" Pitts has just concluded an eight-year stretch for robbery. He "earned his ticket," writes Kakonis, "by robbing convenience stores armed only with his menacing bulk and a bag of dog s---. The terrified clerks were given a choice: empty the till or dine on the contents of the bag."

Pitts is the sort of hard guy who believes that violence is the total solution and that the big score he has planned will set him and his partner, Conrad "Ducky" Pickel, up for life. Criss Cross is the furiously paced story of all the action leading up to and converging on a heist where double-crossing is the only sure thing.

The characters who make up Kakonis' bleakly yet wonderfully funny second novel include a windbagging charlatan, "Doc" Kasperson; Pitts' sluttish ex-wife, Starla Hudek; and, most prominently a former college football player turned cop turned private security man, Mitchell Morse, whose meanness nearly matches Pitts'.

The result of the many double-crosses is surprising and cleverly done, but you'd expect that of Kakonis, whose sense of humor is mordant. His characters are a collection of losers lovingly drawn, their endless offenses against humanity are so many comedy skits in the hands of this writer.

Kakonis has been compared with Elmore Leonard, a comparison partly deserved but not quite accurate. Actually, he seems to me more like Carl Hiaassen, a writer who can make even the most horrible death appear hilarious, the sort of writer for whom too much is not quite enough.

The Shape of Dread, by Marcia Muller, Mysterious Press, $16.95.

Marcia Muller ranks among the very best of the many heirs of the Raymond Chandler/Ross McDonald tradition. Her detective, Sharon McCone, is believable and adult. The Shape of Dread is McCone's 10th appearance in print, and the novel reveals a writer in absolute control of her material.

Muller's novel contains quite a bit of pocket-sized cultural criticism ("I reflected on the stinginess and hypocrisy of a society that rewards its aspiring minorities with the ruling class' leavings, then tries to claim the neighborhood is declining because of the "new element' that's moved in"), but there's a sound story, too.

In The Shape of Dread, McCone is hired to find the long-disappeared body of comedienne Tracy Kostakos, thus to free an unjustly convicted young black crack addict. It takes some doing, but she's more than up to it.

She's also up to ploys like this: "Greg Marcus, my former lover, would be at the New Year's Eve party on Saturday _ and my new dress was low cut and red, the color he liked best on me." Some might call this sexist.

James Kaufmann reviews mysteries for the St. Petersburg Times. He lives in Iowa City, Iowa, where he is book editor of Photographer's Forum magazine.

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