L.A. OUTLAWS -- By T. Jefferson Parker Dutton / 360 pages / $25.95
Nobody in the crime genre writes about relationships like T. Jefferson Parker. Novels like Silent Joe and The Blue Hour and Storm Runners not only capture the impossible incandescence of falling in love but make the reader believe that his protagonists, often strong and guarded in their daily lives, will succumb to turbulent emotions for someone else. So it's a bit of a shame that the interactions between Suzanne Jones, a schoolteacher with a very public secret life as a Robin Hood-like bank robber, and rookie police officer Charlie Hood feel forced and unequal, mostly because Charlie's innocent, somewhat naive manner meshes awkwardly with the almost scenery-chewing personality Jones inhabits as her alter ego, Alison Murrieta. The meeting itself is understandably contrived, born out of a robbery gone wrong leaving several dead and Jones as a seeming witness, and Parker's methodical, almost languid approach in unfurling plot twists is again on sharp display, but L.A. Outlaws suffers too much from protagonist imbalance to recover in time for what should be a thrilling and romantic finish.
THE BETRAYAL GAME
By David L. Robbins Bantam / 367 pages / $25
Robbins advises readers not to read the final appendix until finishing the book, which proves to be a good idea because it spoils one of the thriller's big surprises. Then again, relegating a major plot twist to the author's note may speak to what's missing in The Betrayal Game: an overarching point to what's ultimately a clever parlor game of undiscovered history. Robbins takes a very popular what-if - one of over 600 attempts on Cuban dictator Fidel Castro's life - and launches a screw-tightening story showing how history professor Mikhal Lemmeck (who starred in Robbins' previous book, The Assassins Gallery) moves from mere observer to possible participant when he catches the attention of all manner of intelligence agencies around the world on the eve of the Bay of Pigs debacle. But even though the action is exciting and the pace furious, Lemmeck has aged into a two-dimensional cipher, undone by cliched reactions and supporting players fictional and real inspiring little more than tepid reactions. There's a definitive fictional account of the turmoil of early 1960s Cuba, but this book isn't quite it.
By Adrian Hyland Soho / 326 pages / $24
The genre is at its best when it introduces its readers to worlds they would never have otherwise known about. Adrian Hyland makes his mark with this impressive debut, already the winner of Australia's Ned Kelly Award for Best First Crime Novel, set within Moonlight Downs, an aboriginal community deep in the Australian Outback. Our guide is Emily Tempest, who grew up not quite belonging to either white or aborigine worlds, leaving as soon as she could for university, then to satisfy her travel wanderlust. But eventually that desire dries up and she returns home, only to find that Moonlight Downs has altered considerably thanks to the murder of its leader. Hyland seamlessly furthers the plot enough that Emily's a natural to investigate who killed the leader and why, and in doing so opens doors into the peculiar rhythms of bush community life, protecting its own and wary even of outsiders it's known for years. Emily's caustic, sharply defined voice grows more confident and assured as she brazenly questions potential suspects and lands in believable danger, and future installments should only hone this further as Emily comes to terms with the meaning of home.
THE EYE OF JADE
By Diane Wei Liang Simon & Schuster / 350 pages / $24
Staying with the new worlds theme, Beijing-born, London-based Diane Wei Liang takes what seems to be a clever gimmick - the first female private investigator in Beijing - and infuses it with a poignant meditation on being an outsider who suddenly wants to find her way back in. Mei Wang, the P.I. in question, spent her whole life as a misfit under the written and unwritten rules of Chinese society, looking for order as a government investigator and only beginning to find it once she strikes out on her own. The case she's hired for has a flimsy pretext, as the search for a jade antique quickly takes backstage to the turmoil of Mei's family life. After so many years as the daughter disapproved of by her mother, the older sister thought of as a square peg by the well-married, well-groomed younger one, The Eye of Jade sees Mei reckon with even more unwritten rules: the secrets binding her family's past to that of the development of modern-day China. A follow-up due out in England this spring promises more on the mystery side, but Liang's clear, inviting prose already portends a strong future in the genre.
Sarah Weinman reviews crime fiction monthly for The Sun.