Thriller fans find world of suspense

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Heart of the Hunter

By Deon Meyer, translated by K.L. Seegers. Little, Brown. 384 pages. $23.95.

Like all good fiction, a well-written mystery or thriller can quickly transport us beyond the headlines or travel brochures and into the social fabric of another country. Deon Meyer -- a writer whose first two crime novels appeared only in his native Afrikaans -- gives us an exciting and oddly hopeful look into what feels, smells and sounds very much like life in today's South Africa.

"Heart of the Hunter" is the dark, explosive side of Alexander McCall Smith's Botswana books (The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, et al.), as full of love for the vast beauty of the country but also riddled by the anger of South Africa's recent racial and political struggles. It shows vividly and often the price paid by people on all sides of those struggles.

We first meet Thobela Mpayipheli, a very large member of the Xhosa tribe, in 1984 in Paris -- where he quickly and expertly kills a CIA assassin. When next we see this man, nicknamed "Tiny," it is today, and he is riding a ridiculously small Honda motorbike from Cape Town, where he is employed as a handyman for a motorcycle dealer, toward the township of Guguletu, where he lives with a gentle, sadly wary widow named Miriam and her 7-year-old son, Pakamile. After years of serving as an agent and an assassin for various government agencies (some of them in the Eastern Bloc) and as an enforcer for a drug lord, all Tiny Mpayipheli wants to do is live quietly with Miriam and Pakamile on some farmland he has purchased.

But loyalties from the past ensnare him in one last adventure: helping to rescue a former colleague who appears to be caught up in some Byzantine struggle between top South African intelligence operatives and the CIA. Tiny's story, as written by Meyer and translated by K.L. Seegers, is made up of compelling, lucid scenes of high drama and low comedy, including an epic journey on a huge borrowed BMW motorcycle up the length of South Africa toward Zambia.

Desert Shadows

By Betty Webb. Poisoned Pen. 243 pages. $24.95.

Another thing that good mystery fiction can do is to remind us that communities much closer to our own than South Africa -- like the lively book-publishing scene in and around Scottsdale, Ariz. -- have just as many weird secrets to be hidden and / or revealed. Betty Webb's third book about Lena Jones, who became a private detective mostly to solve the mystery of her own origins, is full of inside jokes that are no doubt delightful for denizens of that scene but that also don't slow down Webb's more serious story.

The poisoning death (by the addition of water hemlock to her salad) of the racist, elitist and generally nasty 75-year-old woman who runs Patriot's Blood Press is the crime that starts Lena's latest investigation. Owen Sisiwan, a Pima Indian who won a Bronze Star in the Afghan war, has been charged with the murder; he is the cousin of Lena's detecting partner, worked for the old lady and was guiding a plant-study group where water hemlock was spotted just that morning.

But Jones knows that Owen could never kill an old woman, especially in such an underhanded way, no matter the provocations of anti-Indian insults. So she uses up points at the local police station, where she once worked, trying to find out which of the many other suspects had the motive and opportunity to pull off the crime.

The local publishing scene gets a healthy skewering, and the theme of child abuse, the crime that shaped Lena's childhood in various foster homes and that she hoped she had put behind her, also looms large.

Darkly Dreaming Dexter

By Jeff Lindsay. Doubleday. 416 pages. $22.95.

Just when you think (hope?) that the tired and rarely credible device of the serial killer next door has hit a wall, along comes a writer like Jeff Lindsay to prove you wrong.

Dexter Morgan, a handsome and outwardly normal young man who works as a forensic scientist -- blood spatters are his specialty -- for the Miami police, is good at almost everything. But he does have a problem understanding and relating to living people. When a would-be girlfriend encourages him, he thinks: "I knew I was supposed to understand that Rita was actually saying something very specific, that her pauses and stutters added up to some great and marvelous thing that a human male would intuitively grasp. But I had not a single clue as to what it might be, nor how to figure it out."

The sort of people Dexter understands are murderers like himself, serial killers who prey on weak victims such as children and prostitutes. He carries out diabolic revenges tailored to suit their crimes. His foster sister, Deborah, also a Miami cop, is beginning to wonder about his usually reliable "hunches" concerning missing bodies. "She doesn't know what, but she knows there is something wrong there and it bothers the hell out of her every now and then, because she does, after all, love me. The last living thing on the earth that does love me."

It's these human touches, including the self-pity, that make Dexter come to life and Lindsay's book so enjoyable, much more than the details of the crimes, or the plot that threatens to explode into serious strangeness at any moment.

Staying Power

By Judith Cutler. St. Martin's Minotaur. 304 pages. $23.95

There's always room for a shrewdly understated British police procedural, especially one that maintains the delicate balance between a copper's professional life and her personal problems. Judith Cutler's second book about Detective Sgt. Kate Power of the Birmingham police does that very well indeed, never bogging us down in the details of everyday crime fighting but also not floating our main focus away in a flood of home, family and love life provided just to prove her heroine is human.

Recovering from the death of her partner / lover and a wounded knee, both incurred in her first outing, Power takes a short holiday in Florence, Italy.

Sitting next to her on the return flight is a jaunty entrepreneur, soon to be found hanging from a bridge, apparently a suicide. But Kate doesn't believe it: The man she talked with seemed too frivolous and full of himself for such a drastic turnabout.

To Cutler's credit, she takes one of the most overused cliches in the crime genre and gives it several believable shakes. She also finds new ways to show us how the pressures of police life can bend and shape even the most dedicated and ambitious of its practitioners.

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