In the category of impressive debuts, allow me to introduce you to Brent Ghelfi, who has created a dark and violent portrayal of a Russian mobster double agent in Volk's Game. Alexei Volkovoy is nothing if not a product of his time, a wealthy mob figure who supplies the decadent tastes of Western entrepreneurs in Moscow. Drugs, prostitutes, even children Volk offers a one-stop shopping cornucopia. Unbeknownst to his criminal associates, he also serves a second master, a covert military figure known only as The General. Volk's right-hand man is actually a girl, the assassin Valya, diminutive in size, but lethal and fiercely protective of Volk. Together they will attempt an epic heist: the theft of a long-forgotten masterpiece of Leonardo da Vinci, Leda and the Swan, from a hidden chamber of St. Petersburg's fabled Hermitage Museum. Betrayal is the name of the game, and Volk must decide who is most likely to betray him, and indeed, whom he is willing to betray, to possess (even briefly) the ethereal work of the master. A word of warning: Volk's Game is exceptionally violent, not gratuitously so, but not for the weak of stomach either. It would be nigh-on impossible not to draw comparisons to Martin Cruz Smith's thrillers, and his hero, Moscow cop Arkady Renko; think of Volk as Renko's pragmatic dark side (make that very dark side), a man working within the terms of what modern Russia is, rather than what it once was or might someday be.

MURDER DOWN UNDER
Fancy a sunnier clime than the wintry Steppes? Set your sights on the Antipodes with Australian author Peter Temple's latest mystery, The Broken Shore. Temple is widely hailed in his home country, the winner of five Ned Kelly Awards for Crime Fiction (out of eight books written thus far), and a shoe-in for a sixth with The Broken Shore. Melbourne cop Joe Cashin has been temporarily reassigned to his tiny hometown of Port Monro on the south Australian coast. He is recovering, somewhat slowly, from a brutal attack in which a criminal in a large four-wheel drive deliberately struck (and crushed) Cashin's car, killing his passenger and leaving Cashin dependent upon alcohol and drugs to deal with the unrelenting pain. Even tiny Port Monro is not exempt from big-city crime, though; shortly into Cashin's tenure, wealthy industrialist Charles Bourgoyne is viciously beaten and left for dead. If he survives, he will be a cabbage, according to Cashin's senior officer. Three Aboriginal lads look good for the crime one was reported trying to sell a rare and expensive Breitling watch similar to Bourgoyne's, which had gone missing in the wake of the attack. But, as in any good mystery, not all is as it seems. Cashin will have to mine layers upon layers of secrecy and deception dating back some 40 years. Forget your stereotypes of Australia: shrimp on the barbie, peeling-nose surfers, Crocodile Dundee. Think instead of Ian Rankin, Ruth Rendell or John Harvey on holiday. Peter Temple is that good.

SPY VS. SPY
New Year's Eve, 1939, Danzig. Europe is poised on the brink of war. This, then, is the setting for David Downing's new thriller of espionage and political intrigue, Zoo Station. John Russell, a journalist of English-American parentage, roots around the back streets of Danzig in search of a story. He should probably leave Germany while the getting is good, but he has two compelling reasons for staying: his German-born son, Paul, who lives in Berlin with Russell's ex-wife, and his actress girlfriend, Effi. Effi has repeatedly said that if he were to leave for England, she would accompany him, but privately Russell has his doubts. Like many freelance journalists, Russell often finds himself eking out the barest of existences, so when a Soviet operative offers him a large chunk of money for a series of articles about the positive aspects of the Nazi regime, it is a deal too good to pass up. Not that Russell is any fan of the Nazis, mind you; he has lived in Germany for 15 years, and has witnessed firsthand the brutality of the Fuhrer and his minions. Still, the new assignment will afford him the opportunity to stay in Germany a bit longer in the ever more likely event of war, so he reluctantly accepts. Quickly he is drawn into a deadly game of spy vs. spy, a game at which he has little experience, but some measure of skill, as it turns out. The clever denouement will have readers clamoring for a sequel.

MYSTERY OF THE MONTH
Our Tip of the Ice Pick Award goes yet again to veteran crime novelist Michael Connelly for his 13th Harry Bosch novel, The Overlook. After an unsuccessful attempt at retirement, Harry came back to the LAPD as their cold case guru, a position that went, as we say in Canada, all pear-shaped in Connelly's 2006 thriller, Echo Park. Now Bosch is back in Homicide Special, an elite group of detectives who handle cases with overtones of celebrity or media attachment. He is summoned in the middle of the night to a remote overlook above the Mulholland Dam. A silver Porsche Carrera sits in a cul-de-sac surrounded by yellow police tape. Close by lies a dead man, shot execution-style, two bullets to the back of the head. Moments after arriving on the scene, Bosch is surprised by the intrusion of an FBI agent; there is no obvious reason why the feds should be in on this, especially this soon, and Bosch takes the immediate tack of aggressively defending his turf (longtime readers of crime novels will instantly recognize the ongoing enmity between local cops and the FBI). What they discover during the investigation is chilling: The dead man had access to the radioactive element Cesium, a medicinal isotope that also happens to be the substance that poisoned Chernobyl for the next several hundred years. On top of that, he had the most compelling reason in the world to secure an illegal supply of it. To say more would be to give away vital plot points. Let me just say that this is perhaps the sparest, most riveting and most plot-driven Bosch novel to date. Adapted from a 16-part serial in the New York Times magazine, The Overlook has been considerably reworked for book publication now richer and more complex, it is well worth reading even if you read it in the original form.

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