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Race, Sherlockian, Venice, madness

Plots. They're overrated in mysteries (and underrated in literary fiction). Sure, they're the engine that gets you there, but atmosphere and character linger far longer than who-done-it.

You might forget who killed the city councilman in Scott Flander's terrific new book, Four to Midnight (William Morrow, 320 pages, $24.95), but you'll remember Sgt. Eddie North and the two cops under him whose lives get pummeled after they're accused of something they didn't do. Flander writes in a kind of lean, scrappy street poetry honed from years of covering cops for the pugnacious tabloid the Philadelphia Daily News. His cop-shop scenes pop right out with rat-a-tat dialogue and characters you want to spend 320 pages with.

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What George Pelecanos does for D.C., Flander does for Philly. As his Sergeant North takes you through the city's decaying streets, trying to find out who beat up prominent African-American councilman Sonny Knight, you can practically feel the grime under your fingernails. Knight blames his attack on the first two cops who find him collapsed and bloody on a deserted street. The cops happen to be white, and what follows is an exploration into racism - on both sides of the fence.

The book winds through the diverse worlds of black and white Philadelphia, painting a rich, multilayered portrait that doesn't bow to political correctness. This is the second in a series, and Flander is an author to watch.

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Sherlock Holmes bears roughly the same relationship to mysteries as Shakespeare does to the stage. Both are essential; both subject to no end of revivals, updatings, satires and re-imaginings. One of the better recent contributions to Sherlockiana comes from David Pirie.

The Night Calls (St. Martin's Minotaur, 360 pages, $24.95) is the second in his series featuring a young Arthur Conan Doyle and his real-life medical-school teacher, Dr. Joseph Bell. In this latest installment, Bell and Doyle investigate some disturbing assaults on women in the red-light district of Edinburgh, Scotland. The assaults eventually lead to murder and personal tragedy for Doyle.

Holmes fans will enjoy picking out Sherlockian references, but The Night Calls is a fun read for anyone. It's wonderfully atmospheric and filled with the kind of florid action and exotic characters that Doyle loved. (Pirie is also the screenwriter of the British TV shows based on the Doyle-Bell partnership. Some of the action in the books and shows overlaps.)

There's atmosphere aplenty in Uniform Justice (Atlantic Monthly Press, 272 pages, $24), Donna Leon's latest mystery featuring Guido Brunetti, commissario (a kind of chief of detectives) with the Venice police force. The case involves the apparent suicide of a high-school student at the San Martino Military Academy. To get to the truth behind the death of cadet Ernesto Moro, son of a former government minister, Brunetti must steer his way through layers of military and political corruption.

For those who haven't traveled to Venice, Uniform Justice is a bit like being thrown into the deep end of the pool. Leon expects you to understand what palazzos and calles are, where the Giudecca is in relation to the rest of the city, and how the pathologies of Italian society work. Sleuthing is secondary to the sense of place and the relationships between Brunetti and the people he encounters during the investigation. But that's OK. Brunetti is a compelling character, a good man trying to stay on the honest path in a devious and twisted world.

Location is also critical to Lovers Crossing (St. Martin's Minotaur, 304 pages, $23.95), an auspicious debut by James C. Mitchell. In this case, it's the Arizona-Mexico border, where on any given night there's enough heat, dust and violence to fill a dozen crime novels. Appropriately, Mitchell has adopted a noir style for Lovers Crossing, and his sleuth is a tough former border-patrol agent turned private eye named Roscoe Brinker.

Brinker, like many noir detectives, has old bullet wounds and a tender heart. He's been hired by Tucson auto magnate and well-known local TV pitchman Mo Crain to find out who gunned down Crain's wife. The trail leads to the illegal-crossing areas near Nogales and to Brinker's own past.

Lovers Crossing gets the border area right. It's a place where cultures and languages clash and merge, where optimism mixes with desperation, where dreams and drugs collide. It's also a great place for a crime series, and Brinker might just be the man to take us there.

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Liz Rigbey's Summertime (Putnam Publishing Group, 384 pages, $24.95) is a gothic tale of murder and madness. It begins when the body of Lucy Schaffer's father is found washed up on a California beach, and it doesn't end until Lucy has uncovered dark family secrets that stretch back three generations.

Summertime is meant to be a menacing psychological thriller, but it's bogged down by internal monologues and flashbacks. Part of the problem is that Lucy is both an unreliable and an unappealing narrator. Problematic, too, is the dependence of Summertime upon the notion of recovered memory - the mostly discredited idea that traumatic events of childhood can get buried deep in the subconscious only to be recalled later in adulthood.

Rigbey, the author of the acclaimed Total Eclipse, does generate some moments of suspense and surprise in Summertime, but it takes a while to get there.

Like Rigbey, David Czuchlewski published his first novel to rave reviews. Unfortunately, like Rigbey, his second one falls short of expectations. In Empire of Light (Putnam Publishing Group, 240 pages, $23.95), Czuchlewski examines the nature of faith, devotion and religion. Though there's enough plot to pull you through, the main characters are, at best, unmemorable and, at worst, walking caricatures.

Matt Kelly is a working-class boy made good. After graduating from Princeton, he becomes a teacher at a do-good school in Harlem. One night, his ex-girlfriend - poor little rich girl Anna Barrett - shows up at his apartment. She starts drinking (she'd become an alcoholic after her mother was killed in a car crash) and leaves. Kelly, who's always loved her, gets word that she's joined a cult within the Catholic Church and sets off to find her.

The cross and double crosses of the book are interesting. Is the deprogrammer who he says he is? What did Kelly's father (the most riveting character in the book) do in Vietnam to make him give up his dreams? Will Anna's stepfather once again sabotage Kelly's relationship with her? Is the head of the cult, Imperium Luminis, pious or evil? Or are piety and evil sometimes the same? These are all intriguing questions.

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Unfortunately, Czuchlewski intersperses the action with long, boring excerpts from the autobiography of the cult's founder, a Sicilian mobster who'd seen the light. They slow down the best thing about this book - its plot.

Jody Jaffe is the co-author of Thief of Words, recently published by Warner Books under the pen name John Jaffe. Her next novel, Shenandoah Summer, will be published in spring 2004 by Warner Books. She is also the author of three mysteries and has taught writing at the Writer's Center in Bethesda.


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