John Lescroart's latest novel, Betrayal, could scarcely be more timely. Set against the war in Iraq, Betrayal tells the story of a young soldier and his difficulties readjusting upon his return home. Evan Scholler never planned to go to Iraq, but when called, the National Guard reservist honored his commitment to his country. While he was in command of a three-pack of Humvees patrolling a Baghdad neighborhood, a breach of protocol cost the lives of an innocent Iraqi family and seven of Scholler's men. But the reservist's troubles were only beginning, as he would soon find himself charged in the murder of an acquaintance, private contractor (read: mercenary) Ron Nolan. Few tears would be shed for Nolan; a consummate liar and a cold-blooded repeat killer, he had also managed to make off with Scholler's girl. Enter defense attorney Dismas Hardy, long a protagonist in Lescroart's novels, and his cop buddy, Abe Glitsky. Hardy has inherited the unenviable task of cleaning up some unresolved cases, one of them being Scholler's. As he delves into the reams of paperwork surrounding the crime and the subsequent trial, Hardy becomes increasingly incensed about the nearly unlimited power wielded by private-sector contractors in Iraq. Even more disturbingly, it appears that their transgressions may have worked their way stateside. Whatever your position on the Iraq conflict, Lescroart offers a thought-provoking look at the larger issues, never losing sight of the drama playing out on the smaller stages.

OLD FRIENDS, OLDER ENEMIES
Jack Swyteck and Theo Knight go way back. Back to when Theo was an up-and-coming gangbanger. Back to when Theo was on death row for a murder he did not commit. Jack, even then an accomplished defense attorney, got him off. They have been somewhat unlikely friends ever since, Jack a respected lawyer, and Theo a tavern keeper, owner of the last watering hole between the mainland and the Florida Keys. When Isaac Reems, the leader of Theo's old gang, escapes from jail, he extends an intriguing offer to the reformed banger: In return for some running money and perhaps some transportation, Isaac will reveal the man who murdered Theo's momma a couple of decades back. Theo wants no part of it, but Isaac allows, It ain't exactly a choice. Thus begins James Grippando's latest mystery, Last Call. From there, the plot thickens, as plots are wont to do. Soon, Theo's past (and Jack's) will come back to haunt them, or perhaps to bite them, as Jack's quest for justice and Theo's thirst for revenge threaten to undermine their 20-year friendship. One final note: I thought perhaps I might be the first to make some heinous pun using the adjectival chestnut gripping to describe Grippando's work. I'll pass: Not only would I not be the first, but some others were so awful as to not bear repeating. Wordplay fans can Google Gripping Grippando to get their fill, and then some.

THE GHOSTS OF WORLD WAR I
It would be unusual enough to find a body in the ruins of an ancient abbey, but when the body is wrapped in a thick cloak and the face covered with a World War I gas mask, that pushes the limits. On the ground nearby lies a book on alchemy, of all things; can this be some druidic ritual gone horribly wrong? These are but a few of the conundrums facing Scotland Yard Inspector Ian Rutledge at the opening of A Pale Horse. The pale horse in question is actually a Berkshire landmark, an outline of a horse cut into the chalk cliffs above the village. The village is home to a ragtag bunch of misfits: a strange amateur ornithologist with a collection of stuffed birds from all over the world; a secretive middle-aged woman seemingly always on the verge of tears; a huge craftsman reputed to be prone to violence; and a voyeuristic lurker, whose presence is rarely seen but often felt. Todd's Rutledge novels are among the most atmospheric historical mysteries in recent memory, and A Pale Horse does nothing to let the side down. Interestingly, Charles Todd is the pen name of a mother-and-son writing team, Caroline and Charles Todd, who live at some remove from the foggy isle they bring to life so well in print; one is in Delaware, the other in North Carolina.

MYSTERY OF THE MONTH
This Tip of the Ice Pick goes to Swiss writer Pascal Mercier for his darkly dreamlike Night Train to Lisbon. First published in German in 2004, Night Train to Lisbon has already been translated into 15 languages and appears in English courtesy of translator Barbara Harshav. The story begins with one of my favorite premises: A normal guy faces a thoroughly abnormal (not to mention uninvited) experience, from which he must decide whether to resume his workaday life or take off into uncharted waters to find answers to his newly discovered burning questions. For philology professor Raimund Mundus Gregorius, the abnormal experience transpires as he crosses a bridge on his way to work: A young woman appears poised to leap to her death. When he rushes to stop her, she appears a bit confused, then excitedly writes a telephone number on Mundus' forehead with a felt-tipped marking pen. Forgive me, she says in French, breathless and with a foreign accent. But I mustn't forget this phone number and I don't have any paper with me. I was hooked I read the book in no more than two sittings. Two long sittings, I might add, for I was forever putting the book down to ruminate on something a character said, or on more than one occasion, to look up a word in the dictionary. More than any mystery I can remember since, say, Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, Night Train to Lisbon challenges the reader, both intellectually and philosophically (Mercier is also a well-known philosopher under his real name, Peter Bieri); it is not just a question of thinking outside the box, but rather a question of words defining the box (or the lack thereof), in shapes and textures that expand and contract with one's ability to communicate and understand different languages. By the way, there are two other books available by Mercier: Der Klavierstimmer and Perlmanns Schweigen. Neither has been published in English yet, but hope springs eternal, nein?

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