ERY: WHODUNIT? Choosing a mystery is murder New mysteries arrive from old friends this month: Hope to Die, the latest in a long line of Matt Scudder novels from Lawrence Block; Strawman's Hammock, the new installment in the excellent Barrett Raines series from Darryl Wimberley; and The Falls, a moody, atmospheric Inspector Rebus novel from Scottish author Ian Rankin.

The new millennium finds aging sleuth Matt Scudder in a state of semi-retirement, his investigator's license suspended, and no effort on his part to change that. He still takes on the occasional case, under the table, but he has basically settled into a satisfyingly unexciting routine: ball games on TV, an opera from time to time, periodic AA meetings. When a wealthy socialite couple is brutally murdered in their posh Manhattan brownstone, their distraught daughter recruits Scudder to help make some sense of the matter. The police are of little assistance; it's an open-and-shut case as far as they're concerned. The two killers have been found quite dead, a gun in the hand of one, an apparent murder-suicide. Somehow it all seems just a bit too pat, and Scudder agrees to take on the case. It will pit him against the most brilliant and unconventional criminal he has ever come up against. In Hope to Die (audio), author Lawrence Block has crafted perhaps the most gripping Scudder novel to date, a multi-faceted psychological thriller that will appease and excite his legions of eager readers.

A vote for Wimberley Darryl Wimberley may not be the first name that jumps to mind when you head to your local bookstore to buy a mystery, but he should soon be moving toward the top of the list. Wimberley's latest, Strawman's Hammock, might be the one that gets him there. Florida Detective Barrett Raines, a workingman's hero if ever there was one, has a decent, if unexceptional life. His wife of many years is still his best friend, his twin sons are polar opposites but exceptionally good kids, and he is well respected on the job. When an offer to run for Lafayette County sheriff comes his way, Raines is nonplussed. He would be the first black sheriff in a predominantly white county, and even if he won the election, he could easily be out of a job four years down the road. Further complicating the issue is the fact that the ne'er-do-well son of his sponsor becomes the chief suspect in the most brutal murder the county has known. The violence is graphic, and the villains are among the most twisted and tortured batch in recent memory. The suspense is palpable, and the conclusion (not to give anything away) is a major surprise.

Tip of the Ice Pick Our award for mystery of the month goes to Scottish author Ian Rankin for his latest Inspector Rebus novel, The Falls. Already a bestseller in the rest of the English-speaking world, The Falls is just now hitting bookstores here in the Colonies. Inspector John Rebus is the quintessential policeman: thorough, painstaking, dark . . . and a major pain in the butt to his superiors. When wealthy young Philippa Balfour disappears from her flat, the only clues are a tiny wooden model of a coffin and evidence of her involvement in a strange Internet role-playing game. As it becomes apparent that the other players are unaware she has disappeared, policewoman Siobhan Clarke takes on Philippa's role in the game, hoping against hope not to tip her hand as Rebus tracks down a variety of enigmatic leads. If you are partial to blistering police procedurals, read Rankin. If you seek the darkly atmospheric, read Rankin. If you fancy some history and literature mixed in with your suspense, read Rankin. And if you are looking for something grittier than Rankin, well, eat a spoonful of sand.

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

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