Mysteries don't come much grittier than Dennis Lehane's latest, Mystic River. In the mid-1970s, three young boys roughhouse in a suburban Boston street. An unmarked car pulls up alongside, and a plainclothes cop breaks up the battle, sending two of the kids home and taking the third one away. It turns out that the "cop" is a pedophile who abuses the child before leaving him to die in an unused bunker. Days pass; hopes erode. Then, as if by a miracle, the child turns up, somewhat the worse for wear, but alive. Fast-forward 25 years: one of the boys has gone on to become a homicide detective, one a career criminal, one a tortured ne'er do well. When the daughter of the career criminal is brutally murdered, it falls to the homicide detective to investigate her death. Almost immediately suspicion falls upon the third member of the childhood trio, and it becomes a race between the detective and the murdered girl's father as to which will be the one to mete out justice first. Lehane's characterizations are superb; each of the three main characters has demons to exorcise, and each must find his own way to reconcile the soft-focus past with the painful present.

Hollywood has to be the definitive setting for a mystery novel. Tinseltown has a history of decadence and debauchery rarely equaled since Roman times, plus an uncanny predisposition toward recording same on celluloid for posterity. Greed and Stuff, the latest from Jay S. Russell, chronicles the adventures of Marty Burns, private eye turned television star on (guess what . . . ) a mystery show. On Fox, yet. It would be nice to say that his sleuthing skills had prepared him for the role, but Marty is no Jim Rockford, onscreen or off. He does have a tendency for sniffing out trouble, however, and he knows the juicy gossip on everyone in Hollywood. Russell peppers his prose with insider anecdotes about real-life Hollywood personalities; there is a hilarious vignette of parking lot road rage featuring Calista Flockhart, TV's Ally McBeal. Greed and Stuff is a tongue-in-cheek, laugh-a-minute voyeuristic peep into America's favorite scandal site.

My top mystery pick for February is Tim Cockey's wildly original Hearse of a Different Color. This sophomore effort in the series featuring hip Baltimore undertaker Hitchcock Sewell is easily the equal of its clever predecessor, The Hearse You Came In On. Or maybe better. Sewell is an unlikely detective at best; after all, most of his cases are quite cold by the time he comes into the picture. So when a beautiful corpse is unceremoniously dumped onto the snowy doorstep of his funeral home, disrupting the somber tone of an evening viewing, Hitch finds himself with a grave undertaking . . . to unearth the perpetrator. With the able assistance of his mercurial television weather-person girlfriend and his colorful artist ex-wife, Hitch goes digging around the seamy underbelly of Baltimore in search of clues. That a detective novel can be witty and clever should come as no surprise; where Cockey shines, however, is with his insights about the human condition, particularly as it relates to death: "I gathered from the way she talked about her that Vickie Wagoner had not had a whole lot to do with her mother for a number of years. But death can leave a hole where a person once stood, and sometimes the ones who have been left behind find the need to pour the details of the person's life back into it."

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