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VISITORS TO A STRANGE LAND

This may be the oddest spy story of the season.

James Sallis, already at home in poetry and science-fantasy fiction, a few years ago assayed the private-eye genre with critical praise for "Moth," "The Long-Legged Fly" and "Black Hornet."

With the enigmatic (starting with the title) and thickly atmospheric "Death Will Have Your Eyes," he enters Graham Greene land, sharing its melancholy but with his unique mordant vision and narrative execution.

The lonely handful of shadow characters in "Death" -- including a pair of onetime operatives for something called "the agency" -- move through a curious milieu of their own, taking orders blindly from equally phantom, off-stage, faceless spymasters.

They're like underwater creatures floating in slow-motion -- knives and guns at the ready -- through gloomy, opaque surroundings, striving ceaselessly to learn their direction, purpose and even fate.

David and Planchat (the operatives' only names) crisscross the land in their murky espionage odyssey.

It's a checkerboard of interstates and back roads, a half-lit world of shabby motels, dirty restaurants, coffee houses and smelly saloons, a hodge-podge of indistinct hallways in which the pair sadly senses the uselessness of their covert calling. It's a journey Sallis calls "a circle within a circle within a circle."

There is death and violence. But readers may ask periodically "who's on which side?" And further inquire, at the end, whether one or all of the characters have been duped. Or even wonder seriously what it really was all about.

Author Sallis, a master of the disquieting, lives in Phoenix, and is a powerful communicator. His slim private-eye novels were well done. But in the murky world of international intrigue, readers may yearn for some unobfuscated storytelling.

DEATH WILL HAVE YOUR EYES
By James Sallis
St. Martin's
183 pages, $21.95

More thrills, briefly
Lul-De-Sac, by David Martin; Villard, 289 pages, $23 -- Sardonic and irreverent, the detective in this one must contend with a 7-year-old murder mystery, a hidden treasure and a madman bent on avenging his wrongful imprisonment for murder.

The Remake: As Time Goes By, by Stephen Humphrey Bogart; Forge, 286 pages, $22.95 -- From the real-life son of movie icon Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall comes this second novel featuring R.J. Brooks, matrimonial private detective and offspring of an actor whose imaginary career mirrors that of the film noir legend. About to begin a sequel to Brooks' father's most famous flick, "As Time Goes By," the director suspects the gumshoe -- trying to protect his dad's legend -- of trying to scotch the project.