Just in time for summer and that all-important decision on vacation reading come new offerings from five well-established crime novelists. Whether you prefer "lighthearted and witty" or "gruesome and gritty," you'll find something here to help wile away those lazy hazy crazy days.

Janet Evanovich is the crown princess of detective fiction, rapidly gaining on the reigning queen bee, Sue Grafton. Seven Up, the latest in the popular series featuring bounty hunter Stephanie Plum, finds the affable sleuth in a battle of wits (and other more lethal weapons) with a wily geriatric perp. Plum's two suitors, Ranger and Marino, come to her aid, and once again she finds herself on the horns of a dilemma regarding her convoluted love life. Avid readers have followed Plum's romantic interludes with glee and anticipation; pre-publication review copies of the previous book, Hot Six, commanded several hundred dollars on the internet auction site, eBay, from eager readers who couldn't wait to get the latest dish on Plum's affairs of the heart (and more southern regions). As is true of the six Plum mysteries that preceded it, Seven Up is brassy, comical and light-hearted; the characters are composites of folks who are family and friends of the author, and they are each drawn lovingly and humorously.

Sue Henry has won wide acclaim, not to mention a brace of awards, for her Alaska novels featuring dogsled driver Jessie Arnold. Dead North  finds Arnold stalled in the process of rebuilding her burned-out cabin in the Alaska backwoods. As a favor to her contractor, she agrees to pay a visit to the "lower 48" to pick up his new motor home and drive it back up the desolate Alaska Highway. Accompanying Arnold is her good friend and confidant, Tank, a furry and companionable sled dog. In the remote reaches of northwestern Canada, Arnold and Tank happen upon two fellow pilgrims: a personable gray-haired widow in an upscale motor home, and a redheaded teenage hitchhiker, reserved yet somehow appealing. In the space of a few days, one will become a valued friend, the other a magnet for murder. More and more these days, mystery fiction is centered on characters who fall outside the private eye/police detective/investigative reporter mold; that said, Sue Henry's dogsled musher heroine is about as far afield as anyone has dared venture to date. Still, when a mystery is as engaging and cleverly crafted as Dead North, the reader is quickly drawn in, despite (or perhaps because of) the central character's unusual occupation.

Echo Burning, number five in Lee Child's gritty Jack Reacher series, finds the ex-MP (as in Military Policeman, as opposed to, say, Member of Parliament) hitching in the stifling west Texas heat. A barroom brawl the night before has resulted in some official interest in Reacher's whereabouts, and he is eager to put some distance between himself and the local authorities. Enter Carmen Greer, a comely and classy Hispanic beauty in a Cadillac. Carmen, it turns out, has married into the wrong family. Her husband has physically abused her for years, and the extended family has turned away in disbelief or disgust. For the past several months, she has had a reprieve, as her husband has been in jail for tax fraud, but he is due to be released in a few days, and Carmen is at her wits' end. She needs a way out, even if it means murder. Reacher accompanies her to the family spread, where he settles in as a paid ranch hand, soon promoted to persona non grata. When Carmen's husband turns up dead, Reacher and Carmen share the limelight as prime suspects, and the plot, as they say, thickens. Jack Reacher is in many ways the spiritual descendant of the unnamed Clint Eastwood character in Sergio Leone's classic spaghetti westerns: he has no car, no suitcase, no friends; just the clothes on his back, some slick moves and a "don't tread on me" 'tude. Fans of Andrew Vachss and Louis L'Amour will find common ground in the rough and tumble Reacher novels.

Marcia Muller's Sharon McCone series has been well received by readers and critics alike for eons, or so it seems. The popular San Francisco investigator is on brief hiatus, however, as author Muller strikes off in a new direction, a tale of small town murder on the California coast, Point Deception. A series of accidents recalls a grisly multiple homicide from a dozen years before. The local law enforcement officer (female) teams up with a true crime writer from New York (male) to resolve some issues with the current crop of incidents, and to determine whether there might be some connection to the unsolved murders. Muller's tone is a bit tougher and more serious than some of her contemporaries, Janet Evanovich and Sue Grafton, for instance; there is little of the snappy repartee that characterizes many of the current crop of mystery novelists. That said, she has few peers when it comes to crafting a believable and compelling crime novel.

Writ of Execution is the seventh legal thriller by Perri O'Shaughnessy, the pen name for two sisters, Pamela and Mary O'Shaughnessy. Their backgrounds are well-suited for turning out credible mysteries: Pamela was a trial lawyer for 16 years, and Mary was an editor and writer for multimedia projects.

As Writ of Execution begins, Jessie Potter takes a seat at a Lake Tahoe slot machine, feeds in a quarter and pulls the handle. The tumblers spin, then settle: bank, bank, bank, perfectly aligned across the pay line. Bells ring, sirens wail, cameras flash and a chant wells up in the casino: "Jackpot, jackpot, jackpot." An overhead monitor displays the winning amount: $7,767,339.64. What would be a dream come true for most folks has nightmarish aspects for Jessie, though. For months she has been hiding from her wealthy and powerful father-in-law, a man who holds her responsible for the death of his son, and her newfound fame and fortune threaten to blow her cover big time. Still, it is seven million bucks, enough to buy a comfortable hiding place just about anywhere in the world. Jessie hires attorney Nina Reilly to protect her interests, and together they hatch a scheme to collect the money while keeping Jessie's identity a secret. It almost works. . . . The sisters O'Shaughnessy have crafted yet another crackling courtroom drama featuring a strong yet believably human female lead. Move over, John Grisham.

Bruce Tierney, a Nashville-based writer, is a lifelong mystery reader who was weaned on the Hardy Boys.

 

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