When you think of the Texas Rangers, what comes to mind? For me, it is the consummate rugged outdoorsman: leathery skin, taciturn demeanor, the signature cowboy hat, and of course, the pervasive manliness. Like Sam Elliot or Clint Eastwood, for instance. Save for the cowboy hat, fifth-generation Ranger Caitlin Strong bears exactly no resemblance to my carefully crafted mental image. She is youngish, feisty and attractive--and decidedly female. As Jon Land's Strong Enough to Die opens in 2004, Strong lies pinned in a crossfire that she should have been savvy enough to avoid, helplessly watching her partner bleed out. The partner dies; Strong survives, but the ordeal effectively ends her career in the Rangers. Five years later, further woes have marked her life: her husband, a computer consultant in Iraq, has been killed on the job--and there's Cort Wesley Masters, a man with a plan to pay back Strong with interest for stealing five years of his life after her erroneous testimony put him in jail. Then the unthinkable happens: her "dead" husband turns up quite alive in a rehab hospital, unable to remember his name or anything about his past, but his disfigurements clearly indicate protracted and inventive torture. With the support of her old boss and mentor, Strong dons her Rangers uniform once more, and sets off in search of answers. A fast-paced page-turner of the first order, Strong Enough to Die leaves readers with a good possibility for a sequel.

Across the border to solve a crime
Adrian McKinty is back with an unusual and innovative new thriller, Fifty Grand. Detective Mercado has entered the country illegally, in the same manner as thousands of Mexicans before her: in the company of a "coyote" and his SUV-load of human contraband. Between the illegals and freedom stand Ray and Bob, two armed men with a pickup truck and seriously bad attitudes. Drawing on her police training, Mercado neutralizes the threat swiftly and lethally, an abnormally violent welcome to a new country. She has no choice, since she carries a secret she cannot afford to have exposed: Mercado is in fact not Mexican, but Cuban, on a clandestine mission to investigate, and perhaps avenge, the death of her father in tony Fairview, Colorado, six months before. So now she will pose as a maid, working for a housekeeping service to the rich and famous, in order to gain access to the homes of the people she believes to be responsible for her father's death. Mercado is supposed to be in Mexico City looking into college courses; if she doesn't return within a week to her authoritarian homeland, her relatives will be arrested, likely charged with complicity in getting her out of the country. As with McKinty's previous books, Fifty Grand crackles with tension, surprising the reader again and again until its riveting conclusion (which, as a matter of possible interest, happens at the beginning of the book).

Man on the run
Fans of spy novels will be familiar with the subgenre of the disenfranchised spook--the guy disavowed by his handlers, his government and everyone he ever thought of as a friend, as he races against time to bring to a halt the evil machinations of the nefarious Dr. Whoever. This vein has been mined endlessly (Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Identity jumps to mind), although rarely as well as in Andrew Grant's debut novel, Even. When David Trevellyan sees a body in a New York alley, he knows better than to become involved. Still, the guy may be alive, so Trevellyan steps into the alley to get a closer look. Moments later, the cops arrive, guns drawn--Trevellyan has been set up. It should be an easy fix, though; all he has to do is get in touch with British Royal Navy Intelligence, for whom Trevellyan works as an undercover operative, and they will vouch for him. But that is not to be. They hang him out to dry, and it is up to him to clear his name before he's put away for good. It will be noted in every review of this book that author Andrew Grant is the younger brother of Lee Child, creator of the iconic loner hero, Jack Reacher. There are comparisons to be drawn, but David Trevellyan is very much his own man. Perhaps a more apt comparison would be to James Bond, although Trevellyan doesn't have access to nearly as many good toys. From a personality perspective, though, he is both as violent and as humor-driven as his "double-O" predecessor, and never more than a page or two away from the next action sequence.

Mystery of the month

I have said repeatedly that Europeans are coming on strong in the mystery genre, and readers should watch out for major talents such as Karin Fossum, Jo Nesbo and Arnaldur Indridason, to name a few. Oddly, the smallish country of Sweden has produced an inordinate number of fine suspense novelists in recent years: Henning Mankell, Asa Larsson, Ake Edwardson and the winner of this month's coveted Tip of the Ice Pick award, Hakan Nesser. His taut new suspense novel, Woman with Birthmark, has a premise unlike any in recent memory. A young woman, transfixed by her mother's deathbed confession--a lurid tale of rape and blackmail--finds herself plotting a holy mission to right a series of heinous wrongs that dates back a generation. Using her small inheritance, she alters her appearance and for all intents and purposes disappears from the face of the planet. When she resurfaces, it is as the angel of death, a grim reaper who precedes each murder with a series of phone calls, each with the same unsettling music playing in the background. Music from another era, a happier time, but unsettling nonetheless. Police inspector Van Veeteren is charged with bringing the young woman to justice, but the evidence is at best contradictory, and at worst, downright baffling. In a country famous for its fish, red herrings abound, and Van Veeteren goes off on one fool's errand after another, seemingly never any closer to his prey. Meanwhile, one after another falls victim to the executioner: two bullets to the heart, two to the groin. The only common link seems to be the phone calls that presage each murder. As is always the case with the Van Veeteren novels, which now number four (translated into English), the plot development is spot-on, the characters sympathetic and well drawn (even the villainess), and the denouement richly satisfying.


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