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Too close to truth to be comfortable

CHINA WHITE, by Peter Maas, Simon & Schuster, $23.

Peter Maas, whose compelling works of non-fiction have overshadowed his novels, has finally achieved parity. Hong Kong is about to revert from British to Chinese control, and the Chinese drug lords who have operated from the colony for decades aren't willing to gamble that Beijing will keep its promise to allow business as usual there. With one unprecedented shipment of heroin, they plan to transfer their billions in assets to the United States.

The leader of the drug lords is Y.K. Deng, a long-time informant for the CIA, which rewarded his loyalty by helping him set up his drug trade in the 60s. Now, Deng is looking for an American law firm to handle his affairs. To attract him, Needham & Lewis hires Tom MacLean, the son of the CIA agent most responsible for Deng's successful career in drug trafficking. MacLean is aware Deng and his father had a past association, but his father won't speak of it, and Tom doesn't suspect what it was, although his girlfriend, FBI agent Shannon O'Shea, does.

Maas develops characters nicely; even Deng has redeeming qualities, although they don't often get in the way of business. China White is a fast read that leaves a residue of unease. It's too close to the truth to be comforting.

TRINITIES, By Nick Tosches, Doubleday, $23.95.

The growth of the Asian drug trade is big business in novels this fall, and this is the most compelling of the lot. As much as Trinities is a tale of Asian incursion into what had always been Mafia domain, it is a more fascinating story of aging mafiosi trying to recapture what they lost when accountants and venture capitalists took charge of their businesses. One of them laments: "Our bellies were full, and we were getting old. We wanted to wash the blood from our hands. We wanted a new kind of respect. And we did what fools do: we trusted."

Giuseppe Di Pietro orders a bloody drug war against their Eastern rivals on the streets of New York City as a prelude to making a deal with the Asians, although it isn't a deal at all; they plan to regain control of the world heroin market. The Asians, meanwhile, scheme to eliminate Di Pietro's competition forever. It's a story high in body counts and double-crosses, but it's at its best when it focuses on Giuseppe and Tonio and Giuseppe's nephew, Johnny, the most unlikely protagonist you'll meet this year.

The writing is hypnotic, almost lyrical. The storytelling is riveting. The texture, Italian and Asian, is brutal, stunning and totally authentic.

GREEN RIVER RISING, by Tim Willocks, Morrow, $23.

Given the outstanding notices for The Shawshank Redemption, we're probably entering a period of prison films, good and bad. One of them likely will be Green River Rising, based on a superb new novel about a ghastly maximum-security prison in Texas, written by a British doctor who's never been inside a maximum-security prison. Never been to Texas, either, for that matter. So much for research.

The plot is simple and filled with violent action. An orthopedic surgeon, Ray Klein, is serving a term for rape, the charges trumped up by a spurned girlfriend who later killed herself over what she'd done. While waiting for parole, Klein minds his own business and suppresses all feelings while tending the sick and dying in the Green River prison infirmary. Over an AIDs research project, he meets forensic psychiatrist Juliette Devlin, and the first emotion he's acknowledged in years overwhelms him.

Unfortunately, on the same day he learns he's to be freed, white prisoners begin a bloody uprising against black prisoners, a war of unbearable ferocity that threatens Devlin's life and the lives of others for whom Klein is finally forced to admit he cares deeply.

The best character in Green River Rising is the prison itself, an ancient, evil mountain of steel and granite with a way of staining men's souls. It will certainly leave a deep imprint on readers' memories. One caution. Don't read this book over lunch.

Jean Heller's mystery column appears monthly.