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Holiday Reading 2003 : Mysteries
By David Pitt

Welcome! Thanks for stopping by. Here's a rather tall stack of mysteries that should make ideal gifts for the booklover on your list.

Big Bad WolfThe Big Bad Wolf (Little, Brown) is James Patterson's latest Alex Cross thriller. Just as he's starting his new job with the FBI, Cross, the psychologist/sleuth, gets handed a whopper of a case. Kidnappers, quite organized kidnappers, are abducting men and women -- not children -- often right from under their families' noses. Can Cross solve the mystery? And can he persuade his new set-in-their-ways FBI colleagues to trust him and his rather unorthodox investigative methods? I like Patterson's novels, especially the Cross series, but he seems to be publishing an awful lot of material lately, both on his own and with a couple of co-authors. It's entirely none of my business, but, if you're listening, Mr. Patterson: slow down a little, okay? Your prose is starting to suffer.

Fans of Anne Perry fall into two broad categories: those who can't wait for the latest William Monk mystery, and those salivating for a new adventure featuring Thomas and Charlotte Pitt (no relation, though thanks, Ms. Perry, for making my surname famous). Both sets of fans -- and, let's be realistic, the sets overlap to some extent, since both series are set in Victorian England -- might be disappointed to hear that Perry's latest novel, No Graves As Yet (Ballantine), takes place at the beginning of the First World War, and does not feature any of her regular characters. Set in 1914, and featuring a Cambridge University professor and an exciting story involving international intrigue and murder, it's the first instalment of a five-volume series. Subsequent volumes will be set in 1915, '16, '17, and '18, and, if this first one is any indication, it'll prove to be quite the series indeed. Perry's current fans will be delighted, and she might snare herself a whole lot of new ones, too.

Conspiracy ClubHere's another change of pace: Jonathan Kellerman's The Conspiracy Club (Ballantine). Kellerman's the author of a series of mysteries starring child psychologist turned sleuth Alex Delaware, but this one introduces a new hero, Dr. Jeremy Carter. He, like Delaware, is a psychologist, but he's younger, less world-wise, and utterly unprepared for the villain he's about to encounter: a serial killer who preys on women. It's a solid story, scary and suspenseful, and Kellerman was smart not to make it a Delaware novel: those have a strict format that would just not work here. Dr. Carter might not be a series anchor, but he makes for a pretty compelling lead here.

Patricia Cornwell is, of course, the author of a series of mysteries featuring Virginia medical examiner Dr. Kay Scarpetta. The Scarpetta Collection Volume II (Scribner) puts the third and fourth Scarpetta novels, All That Remains and Cruel & Unusual, under one set of covers. The novels, originally published in 1992 and '93, are among the best in the series, written when the characters and settings were still fresh, and fans who've worn out their paperback copies will be happy to have them in hardcover.

Final Verdict (Putnam), by Sheldon Siegel, is the fourth legal thriller featuring Mike Daley and his partner (and ex-wife) Rosie Fernandez. A prominent businessman has been murdered, and the prime suspect is a man Daley once defended in court. He asks Mike to help him out again, and Mike agrees, although this doesn't sit well with Rosie, who blames Mike's client for wrecking their marriage. And here's another thing: it looks like the guy might actually have done it, this time. I like Siegel's novels very much: they're well written, intelligent, and (unlike in many novels) their present-tense narrative is essential to the story.

HavanaStephen Hunter's Havana (Little, Brown) is a new Earl Swagger novel, and, if you're a fan, that's all you need to know. The thing is, when you give your hero a name like Swagger, you pretty much have to make him larger than life, a big, rowdy, well, swaggering guy. And your stories have to match, like this one, in which Earl is hustled by the CIA and now finds himself in Havana, Cuba, gunning for a young, lawyer named Castro. If this isn't bad enough, he's also up against a Russian hitter sent to Cuba with a similar mission. The thing about Earl is, he's all the things his name leads you to expect, but he's a lot more, too: his sharp intellect and immense gentleness, for example, which sometime sneak up and take you by surprise. He's a genuinely original creation in a genre filled with imitations, and his latest adventure is a must-read.

David Baldacci has written some best-selling thrillers: Absolute Power, for example, and Total Control. Unlike some writers, though, he likes to try new things, such as The Christmas Train, or Wish You Well. His latest, Split Second (Warner), is another thriller, but it's a little different from his earlier smash hits. It's better, is what it is. I didn't much like Absolute Power or Total Control, or his other roller coaster rides: too slick, too thinly written. But this one's smarter, more elegantly written, and altogether more satisfying. It's about a Secret Service agent who makes a mistake, and winds up neck deep in trouble, but that's not important right now. What's important is this: if you liked Baldacci's earlier thrillers, you'll really like this new one.

Avenger (St. Martin's Press) is a new thriller from Frederick Forsyth, some of whose earlier books, like The Day of the Jackal and The Odessa File, are classics of the genre. This one isn't quite up to their level, but its story of a mild-mannered attorney with a very unusual secret is well told. Forsyth's prose harkens back to the days when thrillers were written to be thrilling, not stylish or trailblazing or earth-shatteringly unique. I'd trade one good thriller for a handful of dull-but-flashy new-fangled cross-genre escapades, and this is one good thriller.

Finally, some lighter fare from a household name. Flynn's World (Pantheon) is a new Inspector Flynn novel by Gregory McDonald. Francis Xavier Flynn, the annoyingly erudite copper, first appeared in one of McDonald's Fletch novels, then spun off to his own three-volume series, but all that was quite a while ago. Now he's back, trying to work out who's been threatening a university professor, among other things. As usual, we're more interested in the characters than in the plot. Flynn, whose intelligence is matched only by his ability to exasperate, is one of those guy who, once you meet them, you can never quite forget them. Grover, his incompetent sidekick, who isn't really named Grover and who isn't really all that incompetent, is a joy to behold, and the supporting cast is uniformly delightful. So's the whole novel, as a matter of fact.

Follow the links for more fiction ... Holiday Reading 2003 : Funny Fiction

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