From Hollywood to Africa to the ocean, true-life adventure awaits in these new books.

By Lee Server, St. Martin’s Press, $29.95

Before Robert Downey Jr. and Sean Penn, before Steve McQueen and James Dean and Marlon Brando, there was brawling, boozing, pot-smoking Robert Mitchum, bad-boy Hollywood star. Not only was he first; he did it with style.

He is at his Robert Mitchumest in The Night of the Hunter, as a psychopathic preacher with love and hate tattooed on his fingers and a smile that slides into a snarl. Behind those dark, frigid eyes, this book tells us, was a personality every bit as enigmatic, and downright scary, as any of his roles.

Writing in a style somewhere between tough-guy prose and Entertainment Tonight gush, film historian Lee Server, who has written about film noir — Mitchum’s home territory — tells all the stories: the drug bust, prison, bar brawls. Marilyn Monroe makes a cameo appearance; Howard Hughes hovers backstage.

But Mitchum more than fills the spotlight. Hopping freights during the Depression, cultivating marijuana in his Bel Air backyard, bedding almost every actress who crosses his path, yet remaining married to his childhood sweetheart for more than 50 years, he is perverse, tender, cruel, cool, deeply intelligent, and rabidly anti-Semitic, seemingly all at once. If Server misses the heart of the Mitchum mystery, it’s no surprise: The late actor often admitted he did not understand himself. 

By Thomas B. Allen, The Lyons Press, $24.95

Nobody likes the idea of being devoured, which is why sharks still inspire a primitive fear in many people. Wolves, we have learned, do not attack humans and are, in many ways, admirable creatures: They mate for life, are loyal to the pack, and serve an essential ecological purpose.

Sharks, on the other hand, are still feared, though simply by the numbers, they have more to fear from humans than the other way around. We kill a lot more of them — for food, for sport, to make the beaches safe — than they do of us. The fear of sharks may be exaggerated, but it is not irrational: Of 58 unprovoked shark attacks in 1999, four were fatal.

A history of every documented case worldwide, Shark Attacks makes for surprisingly fascinating reading. One survivor’s account reads like something from Jaws: “I looked up and he was coming straight at me. … It was like … having a station wagon drive over you.”

This remarkable, high-end predator has wide tastes. Tiger sharks’ stomachs have contained “dogs, boots, sacks of coal, a bag of potatoes, beer bottles, a pair of old trousers … the horns of a deer … other sharks … cans of green peas.”

At least, you realize, if a shark comes after you, it isn’t anything personal. — G.N.

By Edmund White, Bloomsbury, $16.95

The trouble with many travel books is that they are written by, well, travelers. Such folks can tell you about a charming little pension in the south of France or where to buy a custom-tailored suit, but otherwise they are just passing through. And how much can you expect of people who spend their time fretting about hotel rates and restaurant hours?

The better way to visit a city is with some lively, engaging, intelligent mind, preferably a native or longtime resident. Someone who not only knows his or her way around, but is enlarging, witty, a shrewd observer of human affairs — a great writer, for example.

In this promising debut of The Writer and the City series, Edmund White, the biographer of Jean Genet, gives us the grand tour, not only of literary Paris, but of royal Paris, Arab Paris, Jewish Paris, the Paris of fashion and fads, and Gay (in several senses of the word) Paree. His is not the tourist’s mad dash, but the flâneur’s amble, looking at the interesting little shop here, the odd bit of architecture and network of old streets there, and everywhere the human comedy. 

By Robert M. Sapolsky, Scribner, $25

“I had never planned to become a savanna baboon when I grew up,” the author writes. “I had always assumed I would become a mountain gorilla.”

But Robert Sapolsky does become an honorary member of an East African baboon troop during two decades of studying links between their behavior and stress-related hormones. Like Jane Goodall and the late Dian Fossey, he goes off to Africa to study primates and falls under the spell of his subjects. He befriends them, grooms them, occasionally gets entangled in baboon politics, celebrates their triumphs, and mourns their losses.

Meanwhile, the humans Sapolsky encounters — politicians, game officials, hunters, tourists, and missionaries — seem increasingly bizarre. His work draws him into Africa’s racial tensions: Masai versus Bantu, Arab versus black versus European.

Fortunately, he maintains a sense of the absurd and impressive storytelling skills. Among writers on African wild-life, he is the 500-pound gorilla.