This Dame for Hire, by Sandra Scoppettone, was one of the most original if not the most original private eye novels of 2005. The second installment, Too Darn Hot, is now available. Plucky heroine Faye Quick plies her trade in WWII Manhattan, circa 1943. Her somewhat better-trained boss has been drafted, leaving instructions not to run the business into the ground while he is gone. Still, what Quick lacks in experience she more than makes up for with moxie and grit, and her voice is unique in modern-day crime fiction: Yeah, it was hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk. I never could understand why people said that. Did somebody fry one then eat it? Who'd want to eat a fried egg from the sidewalk? Especially in a city like New York. Maybe I'd try it. Not the eating part, the frying. But then people would think I am more of a screwball than they did already. Screwball or not, Quick is sharp as a tack, vulnerable without being a pushover, romantic but more than a bit skeptical about the motivations of the men in her life. Author Scoppettone has also written another successful series, featuring lesbian P.I. Lauren Laurano, as well as the cult classic children's novel Suzuki Beane.

Vanishing Point. Cold case doesn't even begin to describe the disappearance of San Luis Obispo socialite Laurel Greenwood. Greenwood has been missing (and presumed dead) for some 22 years. Her daughter Jennifer, a fragile soul who has never quite come to terms with the loss, hires McCone to reopen the case. Things get complicated when Jennifer vanishes in a manner chillingly similar to her mother's disappearance. Is she in hot pursuit of some unrevealed clues, or is someone playing a deadly game with her life? McCone's investigation turns up some disturbing facts about the marriages of both Laurel and Jennifer, and she quickly realizes that all is not sweetness and light for her client; in fact, it seems that Jennifer's hold on reality is tenuous at best. Vanishing Point is the 23rd in the venerable Sharon McCone series, one of the longest running in contemporary crime fiction. There is a reason for this, of course: Marcia Muller is the consummate craftsman, developing her characters and their relationships with each new installment, adding interesting new cast members (both protagonists and villains), and offering original, clever and intricate storylines in each novel. Though the series is accessible to new readers, longtime fans will relish the flashbacks and will revel in the nuances of the relationships that have been building for the past two decades.

The term surf noir was invented for, or perhaps coined by, California author Kem Nunn (Tapping the Source, Tijuana Straits). It refers to a genre of crime novels in which surfing is a central theme, or at least a strong sub-theme. Until recently, Nunn has been the genre's sole practitioner, but he faces a strong challenger in Jeff Shelby, who has just released his second novel, Wicked Break. The first in the series, Killer Swell, introduced surfer-turned-P.I. Noah Braddock and his wisecracking sidekick, Carter. (Let it be said that every good suspense novel should feature a wisecracking sidekick: Spenser has Hawk, Doc Ford has Tomlinson, Travis McGee had Meyer. All good wisecracking sidekicks should be loyal to a fault, strong as oxen and magnets to women. They should also have only one name; see above.) As Wicked Break opens, Braddock is much more attuned to surfing than to business, but there is a payment due on his Jeep, so he reluctantly accepts a missing persons case. Linc Pluto has disappeared, and folks on both sides of the law want to find him. Badly. Apparently, Linc was the go-between for two groups of unlikely bedfellows, a black L.A. street gang and a white supremacy organization; one needed guns and had money, vice versa for the other. Thing is, neither realized who they were doing business with until Linc vanished. Now a street war looms, and heaven help anyone who gets in the way of the soldiers. Narrated by a likeably self-deprecating protagonist, Wicked Break could be the prime beach read of summer 2006.

Karin Fossum may not be a household name in the U.S., but in her native Norway, she is Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell and P.D. James all rolled into one. Fossum made her literary debut in 1974, at the tender age of 20, with a volume of poetry. Since then, she has published another volume of poetry, a couple of collections of short stories, a non-crime novel, and (of course) the dark and moody police procedurals set in coastal Norway. Indeed, she has gained quite a bit of popularity in the rest of the world as well: her novels have been published in 16 languages to date. Now she's releasing her third novel in the U.S., When the Devil Holds the Candle. Like the previous two U.S. releases, Don't Look Back and He Who Fears the Wolf, the latest features the introspective Inspector Konrad Sejer. Sejer faces a rival to be reckoned with, an amoral juvenile delinquent named Andreas. Fresh from a mugging in which a young child was killed, Andreas targets an old woman as his next victim. But Andreas does not, indeed cannot, imagine the resourcefulness of this victim, Irma Funder, an elderly woman with a well-developed instinct for survival. Now Andreas lies at the bottom of Funder's cellar stairs, alive but paralyzed, at the mercy of the woman who had so recently been his prey. Early on, Sejer doesn't connect the dots between the murder of the child and the disappearance of Andreas; there would be no reason to. As the investigation proceeds, however, the clues begin to add up in chilling fashion, raising the small hairs on the arms of Inspector Sejer and his colleague, Jacob Skarre. There are overtones of Stephen King's Misery in When the Devil Holds the Candle, and perhaps a bit of John Fowles' The Collector; that said, it is an impossible book to put down, a psychological thriller that will haunt you long after the final page has been turned.

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