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BOOKS IN BRIEF -- CRIME

The Baltimore Sun

DIRTY MONEY -- By Richard Stark Grand Central Publishing / 293 pages / $24

I've long imagined that Dortmunder, the character created by Donald Westlake, and Parker, created by his alter ego Richard Stark, were conjoined twins whose forced separation caused them to develop into skewed tragicomic mirror images of each other. Which is to say that the Parker novels, especially lately, have come perilously close to Dortmunder's comedic misfortunes, but they stay on the side of darkness because they move fast, do not possess any ounce of literary fat, and most of all, Parker is simply not allowed to express a single iota of humor. Then again, a bank heist gone wrong is not funny, and repeated attempts to reclaim money carefully hidden from the cops' view are definitely not funny, especially when Parker is being chased by other cops, would-be looters with an inkling of where the money's at and a "Holy Redeemer Choir"-emblazoned car, which adds a big red flag to the whole proceedings. But then, that car is an apt metaphor for Dirty Money: It may not be in the best condition and a second glance reveals additional problems, but there's no question it's ultimately vintage Stark.

CHEATING AT SOLITAIRE By Jane Haddam St. Martin's Minotaur / 390 pages / $25

Authors looking to keep their series fresh ought to look to Haddam for inspiration. Cheating at Solitaire may be the 22nd installment featuring retired FBI profiler Gregor Demarkian, but his own contributions grow only a microfraction with each book and the atmosphere on Cavanaugh Street remains much the same. The freshness factor lies in the way Haddam coats series familiarity over biting social satire in the form of several juicy, three-dimensional suspects. Success varies depending on how passionate Haddam appears to be about her chosen subject, but this time she's found gold in celebrity culture and the spoiled, rich princesses elevated to paparazzi bait and then torn down in flames. No wonder the Paris/Lindsay/Britney clones are enmeshed in murder on an exclusive, Martha's Vineyard-esque island. Without anyone to mind them but themselves, with their closest confidantes and business partners out for all they can get, disaster is all but inevitable. Cheating at Solitaire ought to establish Haddam as America's P.D. James once and for all, if only people would pay attention to her satirical bent.

MURDER BAY By David R. Horwitz Top Five Books / 274 pages /$13

David R. Horwitz died at age 40 in 2004, leaving several manuscripts behind. Murder Bay is not only the first, but also launches a brand-new publishing house. At first glance, this backstory is irresistible to a reviewer, and after finishing the novel the only verdict is pleasant surprise. Murder Bay introduces Ben Carey, a Korean War veteran freshly promoted to police sergeant, quietly lamenting the impending end of his marriage and befuddled about the ghosts who seem to be haunting the run-down building housing his new office. Are they a figment of Carey's normally rational imagination, or an echo of the previous century and a long-buried mystery with roots in the Civil War and doomed love? The answers are easy enough to guess, but Horwitz distracts from the obvious by setting the plot up nicely with dual narratives, palpable emotions and believable (if library-centric) investigative habits. It's a true shame that this series has a definite, if involuntary, end.

EASY INNOCENCE By Libby Fischer Hellmann Bleak House Books / 396 pages / $15

As a cop, Georgia Davis was a supporting player in Hellmann's four-book series featuring video editor-sleuth Ellie Foreman. As a private detective, Davis now stars in her own book, hired to look into the bludgeoning death of teenager Sara Long, a denizen of Chicago's tony, expensive North Shore neighborhood. Long's murder appears to be solved with a suspect apprehended, but her sister has other ideas that focus on recent hazing incidents and the uncommunicative natures of the victim's friends. Davis, wearing a chip on her holster and proud of her tough-talking blue-collar background, feels most out of her element amid the higher social strata, which gives Hellmann an excellent opportunity to explore the shifting tensions between different classes. Easy Innocence is more a leisurely drawn-out mystery than a tense thriller, but the pacing allows Hellmann ample time to broadcast the dark side of adolescence.

A FOREIGN AFFAIR By Caro Peacock Avon / 331 pages / $14

Peacock is the pen name of British mystery writer Gillian Linscott, a name change owed to time travel into the realm of the ever-popular historical mystery series. This one introduces Liberty Lane, plunged into the depths of intrigue in 1830s England when she is informed by letter that her father has been killed in a duel. She knows that cannot be the case, but some serious derring-do, in the form of disguising herself as a governess for a family who may be linked to her father's death, is required to prove that murder took place. The setup is contrived, but Peacock's brisk and lively pacing puts thoughts of plot holes aside, as does Liberty herself. At 22, she's very much a woman of her own mind, unafraid to stand up to potential danger and the possibility of an anti-royalist conspiracy even as she doesn't dismiss whatever fears strike her. Readers with a penchant for English mysteries and the dawn of the Victorian age are well-advised to seek out A Foreign Affair.

Sarah Weinman reviews crime fiction every month for The Sun. Visit her at www.sarahweinman.com.

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