Chacko (Price, 1973; Gage, 1974) is a gifted writer who can generate dark energy with his nearly obsessive, insistent unfoldings of evil-upon-evil. But this new book finds most of that evil in such clichÃ‰d, excessive plottings (small-town corruption, secret paternity, psychotic murders) that Chacko's fervid prose usually seems too good--or, in its lamely pretentious moments, simply too much--for the narrative. The 1960 setting is a small milltown near Pittsburgh where lawyer Ben Caulder, ""functionally an innocent"" but hardened by tragedy (the death of his Japanese wife and child), is caught in a knot of crimes connected to Brick Alley, the vice strip on the black side of town: Ben's client Leon Blue, the Alley's chief entrepreneur and undertaker, has been viciously beaten up and, later, charged with assault (provoked) on a deputy sheriff; Blue's top hooker Camille is revealed to have taken blackmail-worthy photos of her clients in action (including town VIPs and Ben himself); and then Camille is horribly murdered--by a crazed, half-wit black boy who confesses to a white priest. . . who in turn goes to, of all people, Ben Caulder. Is Leon the victim of white gangsters who want his territory--or is someone else out to get him? Where is the young black psycho--who (believing he's been betrayed) has now decapitated the priest? Has Ben's partner Sam sold out to the power-brokers who are behind most of this evil? Those are among the questions that Ben ponders as he sleuths around, gets beaten up, falls for classy Priscilla (whose uncle is a chief villain), wrangles with the cops, or philosophizes (""Will all this shit never stop?""). And the answer involves Camille's real parentage--one of several instances here of white/black exploitation. But neither this theme nor commentary on the Nixon/JFK election really manages to lift Chacko's story above its hardboiled-thriller routines. And though some individual scenes are delivered with grittily poetic vividness (thanks largely to splendid dialogue), the writing just as often falls flat--in overbearing metaphors (""The girl pouts: her mouth is cunt""), arch wordiness (""Irony and redundance: the first time this woman has really disappointed and/or lied to him""), or artsy sex scenes. Too mannered, then, for most suspense readers; and those who look to Chacko for a kind of contemporary Faulkner novel--a poem-tale from the nightmare side of life--will find this only half-successful at best.