June 19, 1978 12:00 PM

Mysteries are like modern folklore,” says British author P.D. James. “So many of our problems don’t seem to be solvable despite our knowledge and technology. It’s reassuring to have a genre in which problems are solved not by luck but by reason, deduction and logic.”

James’ own problem solver is detective Adam Dalgliesh. In his sixth caper, Death of an Expert Witness (Scribner’s, $8.95), Dalgliesh is dispatched by Scotland Yard to sort out suspects galore in the ugly mallet murder of a scientist.

Almost as mysterious to Dalgliesh fans is the identity of P. D. James, the literary signature of Phyllis James White, a poised 57-year-old widow and grandmother (of five). When not engaged in her duties as an administrator in the criminal law department of the British Home Office, she turns out her carefully crafted whodunits in the best tradition of Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie.

Though a self-confessed bookworm since childhood, James didn’t publish until she was past 40. Ideas come to her in a variety of ways. “Sometimes it’s a place—I’m sensitive to atmosphere and houses—and sometimes it’s an original way of killing someone,” she says with a twinkle.

She quickly adds that mysteries reinforce the idea of a moral order. “Murder is wrong no matter how unpleasant or weak the victim is, and the whole resources of the law will be brought to bear on the crime. Mysteries say that human life is important, it does count.”

An ex-traveling salesman turned millionaire, political mover and enthusiastic lecher named A. L. Levine is Michael Halberstam’s candidate for the first Jewish President of the U.S. In the bad new days of 1988, when an energy-starved America is plagued at home by firewood rustlers and challenged by Mexico, Halberstam reckons that what the country really needs is a mensch in the White House.

Appropriately enough, The Wanting of Levine (Lippincott, $10) was four years, or one presidential term, in the making. That’s pretty fast work considering that Dr. Halberstam, 45, a Washington cardiologist and teacher, medical editor and syndicated columnist, wrote the novel in his spare time. Bronx-born and 20 months older than his Pulitzer Prize-winning brother, David, Mike Halberstam is divorced (two sons) and remarried to a freelance journalist. His previous books were The Pills in Your Life and A Coronary Event (as co-author).

Levine, his first try at fiction, is “more an American novel than a Jewish novel,” but Halberstam concedes that a main theme is racism. He disclaims any grandiose scheme. “I’m not preaching,” he says. “It isn’t high art.”

At the simplest level, John Irving’s The World According to Garp (Dutton, $10.95) can be described as a story about an unconventional mother and her genius son. But that’s about as enlightening as calling Moby Dick a book about a whale. Garp is pure black comedy so deftly handled that an assortment of mishaps, killings (both mom and son are victims), maimings and other bizarre happenings emerge as an affirmation of life.

While T. S. Garp and Irving, 36, have similar backgrounds (New England preppie, wrestling team), the author takes umbrage at any suggestion that his book is autobiographical. “It bothers me that people think writers write about themselves. It’s an insult to imagination.” What Garp has done is to give Irving (1) his first full whiff of popular acclaim after three books, (2) entry into best-sellerdom and (3) the freedom to write full-time in his converted Vermont barn, which he shares with his painter-photographer wife and their two sons. For the past six years Irving has taught college literature. “I’m enough of an ex-jock,” Irving allows, “to like the applause—and even more, the butterflies, knowing people are now waiting for my next novel.”

For the past seven years Ernest J. Gaines, 45, has been supported by a brave—if fictitious—lady named Jane Pittman. Miss Jane’s Autobiography, a saga spanning a century in the rural South, marked Gaines as a novelist to watch—all the more so after it appeared as a blockbuster TV movie in 1974.

His latest—and first since Jane Pittman—is In My Father’s House (Knopf, $8.95). “I hope the two won’t be compared,” says Gaines. “They’re very different works.”

The new book is about a mysterious young black’s search for his father. The setting is contemporary rural Louisiana, reminiscent of the sugar plantation where Gaines grew up in a one-room shack with 11 sisters and brothers. While his mother worked in the field, young Ernest was cared for by a crippled aunt. “She was a great lady—a real storyteller,” he fondly recalls.

Though he moved from the South to California in his teens, Gaines’ ear for rural speech remains precise. “I cannot hurry the process,” he says of his writing. “Every word, every line of dialogue must be the best I can do. I write to be read aloud.”

A bachelor, Gaines lives and works in a nine-room Victorian flat in San Francisco’s predominantly black Fillmore district. But he goes home frequently. “The body left Louisiana,” he observes, “but the soul did not.”

In 1956 journalist William Brinkley made a fortune on his novel Don’t Go Near the Water, and he hasn’t had to work since. But he does anyway, putting in as many as 50 hours a week at his typewriter when the juices are flowing.

His new offering, Breakpoint (Morrow, $9.95), is a tale of humiliation and revenge on center court. “I used the background of tennis as a device to show a young player trying to cross over the line from boyhood to manhood,” drawls Brinkley, who now lives in McAllen, Texas, 10 miles from the Mexican border.

Divorced in 1964 (he claims he is neither a “natural bachelor” nor opposed to remarriage), Brinkley has hit tennis balls for 52 of his 60 years, playing mostly against “priests and women because they can control their hours.” He has also had the advantage of some coaching by old friend Jimmy Evert, Chris’s dad. None of it seems to have lifted his game above the “average club-player” level. “In a pickup game or a set of doubles,” he shrugs, “I’m okay.”

If Paul Theroux can’t be found in Massachusetts (his birthplace and still family headquarters) or in London (where he lives with his English wife and their two children), he’s probably on a train somewhere. Theroux’s odyssey through Europe and Asia as told in The Great Railway Bazaar made him famous. He will follow that next year with an account of a train ride from Boston to southern Argentina. Its working title is The Old Patagonian Express.

Paul, 37, is only part of a family literary explosion. His four brothers are all authors, published or aspiring. But with eight previous novels, a volume of criticism, a travel book and two collections of short stories, Paul has a clear lead on the Theroux pack.

His ninth novel is Picture Palace (Houghton Mifflin, $9.95), inspired by a portrait session with photographer Jill Krementz. Theroux is quick to say, however, that his fictional heroine—71-year-old, foul-mouthed Maude Coffin Pratt—is not based on Krementz or any of her colleagues. Maude spends a lot of time recalling camera confrontations with Graham Greene, a nasty Robert Frost, Picasso and a hundred other celebrities—while bearing an incestuous love for her brother. It’s quite a trip—even without a train this time.

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