A Sea Cruise Of Romance And Intrigue

Posted: August 25, 1989

Sometimes a title is so good that you're almost afraid to open the book for fear of its not flying. Not to worry with Dance on a Sinking Ship by Michael Kilian (Bantam, $4.95).

This adventure of romantic and political intrigue occurs aboard a hard-luck Dutch luxury liner in 1935. The novel features a number of flamboyant fictional characters (reporter, actress, Stalinist assassin) and even more flamboyant historical characters (Charles Lindbergh, mad Nancy Cunard, the Duchess of Windsor and the ever-attendant Prince of Wales).

If just a tad windy in the descriptive passages, Dance offers plot-making so ingenious that it will leave you wondering what happened and just what should have happened. This is especially the book for those who always thought that the Duchess' jewelry was Tack City.

Those who are Silly Putty in the hands of this material will not be able to resist The Duchess of Windsor: The Secret Life by Charles Higham (Charter Books, $5.50). Higham writes poorly, but there's a mess of data here of the unwashed kind. Consider this ring-around-the-collar info: The number of the Duchess' affairs was greater than one suspected, Higham writes, and there's the possibility that she - at different times, of course - spied for the Communists and the Nazis. Talk about your strange bedfellows. As for her sexual relationship with the hapless king (before, during and after his reign) - well, all is implication. I think you can "read" their relationship just

from their photographs.

There are some readers for whom I need say no more than "Ruth Rendell" and they're hooked. Hers is possibly the most exciting name in the genre of dark psychological mystery. For the rest of you, take a look at a deliciously fat trade paperback, Collected Stories, by the Mistress of DPM (Ballantine, $10.95). As critics have been saying for years, Rendell is an amazingly versatile writer, one of those brave workaholics who may not seem to your taste the first time but who is good enough to alter your taste, possibly

because she never offers the same experience twice.

As fascinated with plot, poisons and "means of crime" as Agatha Christie - and obviously determined to rival her - she is far better than Christie at getting into the character of the criminal and perceiving him or her as a card-carrying member of the human zoo in which we all pursue an escape from our vulnerable existences.

Rendell also is more working-class-oriented than Christie. She can create a retarded farm-laborer or a retiree in reduced circumstances as well as a nouveau riche businessman in fake Tudor digs. And Rendell is knowledgeable in all the genres; her prodigal energy connects with our popular fiction-at- large. For example, her curtain-closer, "The Green Road to Quephanda," is a gentle meditation on the otherworldly fantasy the English specialized in long before J. R. R. Tolkien. Like all good ghost stories, it chills the blood. And like the best literature, it touches the heart.

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