June 01, 1992 12:00 PM

by Alice Hoffman

Not content to be merely the next Anne Tyler, Hoffman, with this splendidly literate and absorbing reconstruction-of-the-crime novel, would appear to be moving in on Susan Isaacs and Sara Paretsky as well.

The quiet sensibilities of Seventh Heaven (1990), Hoffman’s last book, lie galaxies away from the bitter and bloody premises of this novel. Set in a Florida town peopled largely by retirees and divorcees, Turtle Moon relies on a character who might be on the lam from an Elmore Leonard novel. He’s Julian Cash, a rugged cop still agonizing over the night, nearly 20 years or so ago, when his teenage reckless driving caused the death of his best friend and cousin, Bobby Cash.

When Julian starts investigating the death of a divorcée and the disappearance of her infant daughter, he gets involved with a neighbor of the deceased, Lucy Rosen. She has a surly 12-year-old son, Keith, an aspiring delinquent in a mouse-studying-to-be-a-weasel kind of way. The boy arouses fraternal if not paternal feelings in Julian and also allows Hoffman to explore—as she does so well—the complexity of the relationships between parents and children. Lucy’s abiding devotion to her unlikable and seemingly irredeemable son is mirrored in Julian’s mostly warm memories of the woman who raised him after he was orphaned.

Hoffman’s prose loses nothing in the genre crossing either, as she shows in this evocation of a Florida morning: “Before there is any light there is the sound of birds. Their song spirals slowly upward: green heron, mockingbird, indigo bunting, kingbird. If you wake to this song beneath the open sky, your heart may beat too fast. You may not be certain whether or not you’re still dreaming until you see the stars are already disappearing into the morning sky, flickering as they fade.” Mystical sections in which Bobby’s ghost appears are on the embarrassing side. As a mystery, the novel is oddly shaped, with a skinny opening (the murder of Lucy’s neighbor takes place offstage), a ponderous midsection and a slight, devoid-of-drama ending.

Hoffman describes what sex there is with discreet indirection. Yet Lucy and Julian remain alluring characters. Their apparent decency and ability to love fill the spots usually occupied in crime novels by sweaty sex and/or bravado displays. If this book does represent a career move, it is one that, for the most part, shows how well subtlety and thoughtful, precise writing travel. (Putnam’s, $21.95)

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