UNIT? Unraveling the gender mystery There is an old adage to the effect that men write books for men, women write books for women and never the twain shall meet, particularly in mystery fiction. Stereotypes abound, not all of them unfounded. Female authors dish in liberal, nay, copious doses of breathy romance the heroine can ruminate at some length regarding what kind of tea goes best with cranberry scones and she always, but always, has a female (or gay) confidant who just can't seem to make relationships work. Novelist dudes, on the other hand, are overly addicted to horrible jokes and puns, often about rude bodily functions. They endlessly disgorge sports stats and horsepower figures, and they always have a best buddy who would never talk about anything more meaningful than, say, sports stats and horsepower figures, all the while performing rude bodily functions. Which brings us to this month's mystery recommendations: one for the ladies, one for the men and one that rises above the gender line.

Split Second, Alex Kava's eagerly awaited sequel to A Perfect Evil, finds FBI special agent Maggie O'Dell in dire straits. She devoted two years of her professional career, indeed, two years of her life, to putting away Albert Stuckey, the serial killer known as "The Collector." Now Stuckey has escaped from prison, and a trail of bodies leads closer and closer to Maggie's door. Plenty of suspense and a couple of slick plot twists bring Split Second to life, and a believably scary villain will have the nervous reader looking over his/her shoulder. (Guys, just so we're clear on this, Alex Kava is a female author, and there are a few gushy passages like this one: "What had he given her? Where was he taking her? Even the fear felt trapped, a lump caught deep inside her throat, straining to be set free. She couldn't wave or swing her arms. She couldn't kick or run. My God, she couldn't even scream. . . .") On the flipside of the gender coin, we have Joe Gores' latest, Cons, Scams ∧ Grifts. CS&andG chronicles the adventures of a group of repo men as they recover stolen and unpaid-for vehicles (cars like a 1982 Ferrari 400i convertible, gold with black leather and a street value of $34,900). With more than a nod to the Mickey Spillanes and Richard Prathers of the world, Gores crafts a funny and clever story about fast cars, dumb cops, one exceptionally devious and beautiful gypsy fortune teller and oh, did I mention fast cars? (Like a 1995 Acura NSX, black with a black interior.) Ladies, just so you know, Joe Gores is a guy, and as such, is afflicted with all of the writing skills that endear him to male readers, such as truly awful jokes: "What do you call a hundred lawyers falling out of an airplane? Skeet." Forewarned is forearmed.

Tip of the Ice Pick The much-coveted Mystery of the Month award goes to Nicci French, for The Red Room, a psychological thriller set in current-day London. "Nicci French" is actually a pseudonym for a pair of London-based journalists, Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, who collaborate to write some of the most stylish suspense novels in recent memory. When Kit Quin, a consulting psychologist, is savagely attacked in a police interrogation room, the cops begin to believe they are on to something: Michael Doll, the attacker, is a likely candidate to take the fall for several recent unsolved murders. Kit Quin doesn't agree; she can't explain it, but her nightmares of the "red room" seem to draw her to a different set of conclusions entirely, conclusions that lurk just below the surface, summoned up only in dreamtime. Nonetheless, she is in terrible fear for her safety from Michael Doll, who seems obsessed with her in a way her psychological training has not prepared her for. Block out time to read The Red Room in one sitting; it's that good (whatever your gender)! Nashville-based writer Bruce Tierney is a lifelong mystery fan who was weaned on the Hardy Boys.

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