Six histoires perfides (the original title), treacherous tales, supposedly told to the story-hungry author by a 100-year-old ""Old Man"" from Shandong--the vaguely futuristic kingdom where all these smooth, ironic, half-familiar stories take place. In the title tale, Shandong's bustling, creative bureaucracy plans to deal with the increasing murder rate by streamlining and glamorizing their administration of the death penalty--""The Marvelous Palace of the Petite Ville,"" with conveyor belt transport to a ""Hall of Last Desires."" And two other stories center on the death penalty: the Queen of Shandong refuses to pardon a condemned man--because she needs his heart to save her ailing son; a dancer sentenced to die for the crime of abortion can only avoid execution by becoming pregnant again. The sardonic end-twists that Boulle tacks onto each of these three smartly paced contes neither enhance nor detract, but ""Compassion Service,"" in which the Old Man describes his involvement (as client, then staff member) with an anxiety/suicide phone-counseling firm, is cheapened by its pseudo-O. Henry tag. Least effective of all are a reworking of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, wherein it's the unleashing of total goodness that destroys--and ""The Limits of Endurance,"" about the husband of a painfully, terminally ill woman who wants to be put out of her misery. Boulle's mild pretensions to social philosophy are misplaced, but his storytelling finesse--especially the engaging gimmick of having the cynical author constantly interrupt the Old Man's mystical narratives--is in perfect working order. As the author says at one point, ""Old Man your story is tragic, even loathsome in certain respects, but I can't resist being amused at moments. . . .