Take a look at Declan Hughes' dark thriller, The Price of Blood. Ed Loy has been given one of the stranger assignments of his career: a missing persons case in which the only piece of information he has to work with is the name of the missing person; no dates, no workplace, no family, simply a name - Patrick Hutton. And finding one particular Patrick Hutton in Ireland is akin to finding, say, one particular Jim Anderson in the U.S. Still, the payday is welcome, and the client impeccable: a dying Catholic priest. Nonetheless, Loy begins to question his assignment (and perhaps his sanity with regard to staying on the job) as the bodies pile up in unlikely places. Loy is an exceptionally well-drawn character, strong but not unnecessarily violent, introspective without being angst-ridden. The dialogue is spare and edgy, the pacing crisp; Hughes' sense of local color, and particularly his ability to impart it to his readers, is absolutely spot on.

This time last year, the richly atmospheric Christine Falls from Benjamin Black (aka literary novelist John Banville) was Whodunit's mystery of the month. Set in 1950s Ireland, Christine Falls told the story of a young woman who ran fatally afoul of a secret organization within the Catholic Church. The hero of Christine Falls, the inimitable forensic pathologist Quirke, returns for an encore engagement in Black's latest thriller, The Silver Swan. You would think that Quirke might have learned a lesson or two from his previous case: perhaps not to dig quite so deeply, as the consequences last time around struck both profoundly and very close to home. But no, for Quirke is driven by some inner demon that will not allow him to leave the proverbial single stone unturned. As The Silver Swan opens, Quirke is enlisted by an old school chum to have a look into the accidental death, or perhaps suicide, of his lovely young wife. Things quickly turn out to be markedly different from how they seemed at first blush, though, and a simple drowning death becomes the jumping-off point for a case littered with pornography, blackmail and murder.

Danny Murtz is a rock-and-roll legend, a producer with hit records in each of the past five decades, and seemingly no end in sight. His big orchestral rock sound debuted in the 1960s; despite huge leaps in multi-tracking technology in the intervening years, nobody has been able to duplicate his unique sound. On the downside, he has a reputation as quite a nasty customer, a loose cannon bent on having his own way, even if it should cost the life of one (or more) of his countless groupie hangers-on (does this stir up the specter of a real-life situation in your mind, or is it just me?).

Enter rock journalist Mick Sever, under contract with the Chicago Tribune to do an interview with Danny Murtz, on the scenic Caribbean isle of St. Bart (I want his job!). Before he can even leave Chicago, though, he is nearly run over by a speeding car, and shortly into his time in St. Bart, he barely escapes being killed by yet another demonic driver (perhaps I will stick with the job I have. . .). Clearly somebody does not want this interview to happen, perhaps Danny Murtz himself. St. Barts Breakdown marks Sever's fourth adventure from the pen of veteran music industry hand Don Bruns. The Sever books are peppered with insider information to whet the appetites of music junkies and National Enquirer readers alike, along with fine action and plot development as well.

This month we're giving kudos - and the Tip of the Ice Pick Award - to Ken Bruen (whose every published word I have read since his landmark 2004 novel, The Guards) for number five in the Jack Taylor series, Cross. Any book that opens with the line "It took them a time to crucify the kid . . . the problem was getting the nails into his palms - they kept hitting bones" is not for the weak of stomach. That said, in a world where zealots employ mentally challenged women to perform unwitting suicide bombings, you cannot call his graphic representations of violence gratuitous. Ex-Guard (i.e., Garda Siochana, Ireland's national police force) Jack Taylor, who stumbled through several novels in a drunken haze, is apparently on the wagon nowadays. It has not seemed to help much in his personal life; as the book opens, his surrogate son lies dying in the hospital, having taken a bullet likely intended for Taylor. Approached by an old friend from the Garda, Taylor agrees to look into the ritual crucifixion of a young lad. He doesn't have to wait long for things to escalate; shortly thereafter, the dead boy's sister is found burned to death in her car. Having just met the girl, Taylor finds to his surprise that her death has made this case very personal for him. Bruen's writing style borders on the bleak, even at the sunniest of times: confronted by a group of born-again kids playing Christian rock tunes on the street, Taylor listens as a young girl says earnestly to him, "Through music, we are making Christianity better." He growls back a line cribbed from TVs "King of the Hill": "You people aren't making Christianity better; you're making rock and roll worse." Cross is perfectly fine, better than fine, as a stand-alone novel, but if this review intrigues you, I strongly recommend buying all the Jack Taylor books and reading them in order. Mystery writing doesn't get any better than this.

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