Phenix City, Alabama, 1954 - according to Look Magazine, this small town just west of the Georgia state line was "The Wickedest City in America." It came by that reputation fairly. In the space of a few short years after World War II, the Phenix City "machine" had crafted an empire of corruption unequalled in the South: prostitution, gambling, extortion, murder . . . you name it, and it was on offer. Newly elected Alabama Attorney General Albert Patterson decided to bring that machine down. By all accounts a stand-up guy, he intended to slay the dragon on its home turf. It was a huge shock, if no surprise, when Patterson was gunned down in the street in the spring of 1954. No witnesses, of course, and even if there were, they would know better than to testify against anyone in the "Redneck Mafia." How, then, to bring the killers to justice? Ace Atkins grew up in nearby Lee County, albeit a number of years later. In Wicked City, his sixth mystery, Atkins fictionalizes this tale, populating his book with a cast of multifaceted characters - some real, some products of his imagination, some composites. The storyline is compelling, all the richer for having happened in real life. An absolute must-read for anyone who welcomes a new take on the old South.

VENGEANCE IS MINE
I first met South African author Deon Meyer and his ex-mercenary antihero Thobela Mpayipheli in Meyer's first novel, 2004's Heart of the Hunter. Mpayipheli, codenamed The Hunter, is a retired KGB-trained assassin--lately working in a motorcycle repair shop and trying to live a quiet life. It was not to be, as many operatives--in the intelligence community were not willing to let him off quite so easily. Heart of the Hunter had it all: the inevitable tensions of an apartheid government, a complicated hero, violence, breakneck pacing. The events of Devil's Peak take place a few years later. Mpayipheli has seemingly settled completely into a mundane workaday life. His son, Pakamile, is the light of his life; that light is summarily extinguished by a pair of robbers, who shoot the boy dead at the end of a botched gas station robbery. Mpayipheli goes on a one-man rampage, seeking out and destroying those who would prey upon children, particularly those who are for one reason or another untouchable by the law. His deeds take on mythic proportions as he kills his prey with an assegai, a Xhosa sword of vengeance. Detective Benny Greissel gets the task of bringing the avenger to justice, although Greissel will prove to have some mixed feelings about that when his own daughter is brought into the mix. Easily the best thing from Meyer to date, Devil's Peak is relentless in pace and disturbing on every level you care to mention.

LYING EYES
If you are in the mood for an original, clever and fast-paced read, try Peter Abrahams' latest, Delusion. Some 20 years back, young Nell Jarreau witnessed the murder of her boyfriend. She identified drifter Alvin DuPree as the killer. It was his cold blue eyes that sealed her identification from the police lineup; she could never forget them. Fast-forward to the present: Nell picks up the phone, only to be blindsided by the worst news possible - Alvin DuPree is to be released. It seems that there is incontrovertible proof that he was somewhere else at the time of the murder, and that Nell's identification of him was, to put the best face on it, mistaken. Said proof is in the form of a time-stamped videotape, rescued from the desk of a recently-deceased cop. So, did the cops know all along that DuPree was innocent, and conspire to frame him for the murder? Or is this so-called evidence simply an elaborate fake? Nell is consumed with guilt at the possibility that her testimony sent an innocent man to prison, so she launches a surreptitious investigation. With the help of a childhood friend, Lee Ann Bonner, now an investigative reporter, Nell sifts through old evidence, trying to stir up any memories that might shed some light on the events of 20 years ago. Someone is not too happy about that, and shortly thereafter, Lee Ann is savagely beaten. Nell saw Alvin DuPree leaving Lee Ann's apartment just moments beforehand; will she have to finger DuPree for yet another crime? And if so, will anyone believe her? A clever premise, indeed.

MYSTERY OF THE MONTH

When I first ran across Alexander McCall Smith's The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, I was charmed, like everyone else, by the author's unique style and by the overwhelming presence of his main character, Precious Ramotswe. My second thought? Well, it's a safe bet that there won't be any other Botswana mysteries anytime soon. Wrong-o, amigos! The writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip (collectively known as Michael Stanley) have just released their first Botswana mystery, A Carrion Death, starring rotund detective David "Kubu" Bengu, whose nickname means "hippopotamus" and who could give the ample Mma Ramotswe a run for her money in terms of girth. When the first body shows up in the desert, ravaged by hyenas, evidence suggests foul play. Kubu starts picking at threads, each one drawing him closer toward a clever scam with international and deadly implications.

Kubu is a well-drawn character, clever and impish, but with a core of honesty and a determination that has earned him his nickname (hippos are notoriously single-minded, despite their chubbily docile appearance). Both authors know the country well; in the bio blurb, it is noted that they "have had many adventures together, including tracking lions at night, fighting brush fires on the Savuti plains in northern Botswana, surviving a charging elephant, and losing their navigation maps while flying over the Kalahari." Tlast would make a good cocktail-hour tale! By the way, do you know why buzzards never check their baggage when flying? Because they prefer carrion. Thank you, thank you very much!

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