New sleuths on the crime beat In recent years, mystery novels have made a marked departure from the hard-boiled detective stories of the Raymond Chandler/Ross MacDonald era. No longer is the protagonist necessarily a down-at-the-heels, smart-mouthed, trenchcoated private eye; these days he (or she) can be a retiree, a reporter, a dying policewoman or even a 17th century bookseller.

Seattle author J.A. Jance is the proud mama of two well-received series, one featuring incumbent Arizona sheriff Joanna Brady and the other featuring retired Seattle homicide detective J.P. (Beau) Beaumont. In Jance's latest, Birds of Prey, Beau Beaumont finds himself aboard a cruise ship bound for Alaska, serving as the reluctant chaperone of his aged grandmother and her newly acquired husband (whose age can be measured most accurately by carbon dating). When an obnoxious dinner companion goes missing, tuxedo-clad Beau is conscripted into a wild corpse chase. Like previous Beaumont novels, Birds of Prey is written in the first person, a trans-gender leap that Jance does better than anyone else in the genre.

Jan Burke's Irene Kelly novels have garnered quite a following among mystery aficionados. Irene Kelly works the crime beat for a small town California newspaper, with insider assistance from her police investigator husband, Frank Harriman. In the seventh Kelly novel, Flight, the seasoned journalist noses around the edges of a very cold case. Several years ago, a Las Piernas detective disappeared under suspicious circumstances. Now, years later, the wreckage of his getaway airplane has been found on the side of a California mountain, clearly sabotaged, and rumors, secrets and hostilities have floated to the surface. When Kelly's husband is assigned to the case, he finds evidence of his wife's relationship with the deceased at every turn, and sparks fly. Flight breaks convention from Burke's usual formula of first person narration; instead, it is told in the third person, largely through the experiences of Frank Harriman, a challenging and surprisingly successful device.

James Patterson launches a new crime series with 1st to Die (audio), which features homicide inspector Lindsay Boxer. She awaits the results of a blood test, hoping it will yield some clues as to why she has been feeling poorly of late. The news is not good; she is diagnosed with aplastic anemia and warned by her doctor that the condition is potentially fatal. As she is processing this information, a call comes in summoning her to the scene of the brutal murder of a newlywed couple. It's the first of a series of murders by one of the most creative and sadistic killers since Hannibal Lecter. Four resourceful women the central characters in the new series join forces to bring the murderer to justice. It will prove a grueling photo-finish race between Lindsay's determination and her failing health. Author Patterson (Kiss the Girls, Cradle and All) is no stranger to plot twists, and 1st to Die is no exception; there are surprises in store right up to (and including) the last page.

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