Neal Rafferty of New Orleans, 35-year-old ex-cop and fledgling private eye, is easily the best new American shamus of the year--a moderately hard-boiled, laconic-humored narrator. . . but one who avoids most of the clichÃ‰s and has life-sized, un-literary groundings. Rafferty's New Orleans ""Irish Channel"" neighborhood is grittily vivid; his tensions with his retired-cop father (who wants him to re-join the force) are palpable. And, except for a formula windup, his first case is consistently intriguing. Hired by tycoon Carter Fleming to recover his set of rare William Blake editions from book-restorer Stanley Garber (who seems to have disappeared), Rafferty discovers Garber's long-dead body in the shop. Among the missing: the Blake books. . .and Garber's assistant--an overage, suspiciously well-paid vamp. But other suspects abound: there's the impoverished aristocrat who wanted to buy the Blake books; there's Fleming's rebel-artist son (whom Rafferty tracks down in a funny sidetrip to N.Y.'s Soho); and there's Garber's terminally ill wife. . . and his beautiful, strange daughter, with whom Rafferty rather predictably (but believably) falls in love. Hammett and Chandler.hang far too heavily over the last pages here. And inklings of sentimentality or pretentiousness pop up throughout. For the most part, however, this is a lean, smart, warm-centered mystery debut--rich in unromanticized New Orleans backgrounds, shrewd character sketches, and steady, non-corny action.