Jenny Siler's novels are well known for their strong female protagonists; in her latest, Shot, there are two determined heroines, alike in their resolve, but otherwise as dissimilar as champagne and shampoo. Protagonist numero uno, Lucy Greene, is a recent widow, her husband Carl having died in a car accident while on a business trip for his biotech firm. The plot thickens as Lucy discovers that Carl had intended to meet a journalist acquaintance to deliver a big story." When her house is burglarized specifically for Carl's company files, she begins to think his death may not really have been accidental after all. Heroine numero dos, oddly enough, is the burglaress, Darcy Williams. Darcy is none too happy about committing the offense. Coerced into it by the corrupt warden of the prison from which she was recently paroled, she is caught between the proverbial rock and hard place. Lucy and Darcy meet initially as antagonists, but quickly discover they have more of a common purpose than one might think at first blush. With the help of the aforementioned journalist, they set off on a mad dash across the West in search of answers, a hired killer hot on their heels. Shot is a novel that will be appreciated by both genders in equal measure. Siler's prose is direct, the pace is relentless and the characters are exceptionally well drawn. Analyze this In 1999, after years of success with the beloved Spenser novels, author Robert B. Parker introduced the female Boston private investigator Sunny Randall. Randall is Nancy Drew to Spenser's Hardy Boys not 100% interchangeable, but bearing more than a passing resemblance to one another. Spenser is in a relationship; Randall is not (although she still carries a torch for her ex). Spenser has the coolest sidekick since Tonto, the inscrutable Hawk; Randall works alone. But, to quote the theme from the Patty Duke Show, they laugh alike, they walk alike, at times they even talk alike," and they both have dogs that take up way too much of their attention. That said, Parker has always been a master storyteller, and the latest Randall novel, Shrink Rap, is no exception (Putnam, $24.95, 320 pages, ISBN 0399149309). A major romance novelist hires Randall to be her bodyguard for her upcoming book tour. The woman is being stalked by her ex-husband, a psychotherapist who will make readers leery of therapy for all time. After several unnerving appearances by the ex in cities along the tour, Randall decides to shift to the offensive: She disguises herself with wig and glasses and seeks therapy from the malicious practitioner. At the same time, she sees a second psychiatrist to determine whether her course of treatment is appropriate. The back-to-back treatments prove disturbing on several levels, and Randall quickly finds herself on the defensive again, this time fighting for her own existence. Shrink Rap is the third of the Sunny Randall novels (the other two are Family Honor and Perish Twice); it is likely the best, as well. Well plotted and fast paced, the Spenser-ette novels are a worthy addition to Parker's oeuvre. Tip of the ice pick The mystery of the month award goes to Carol O'Connell for her brilliant new Mallory novel, Crime School (Putnam, $24.95, 352 pages, ISBN 0399149287). Kathleen Mallory is something of an enigma: a throwaway child of the streets, raised by prostitutes, then adopted by a cop. She's now a New York City policewoman obsessive about her privacy, given to playing fast and loose with the law to satisfy her definition of justice. Picture Andrew Vachss' protagonist, Burke, on the flip-side of the gender equation and the upside of the law, and you would not be far off. Mallory's work group, the Special Crimes Unit, is called on to investigate a particularly grisly murder of a prostitute, a woman Mallory knew well in her childhood. The crime is a virtual reprise of a murder from 20 years ago, a copycat, or perhaps a long-dormant spree killer coming out of retirement. There is much unfinished business here, and Mallory will be forced to pick an arduous path between memory and history to bring a killer to justice. This is the seventh Mallory novel; read it, and you'll go back for the previous six. O'Connell's books have it all: complex characters, edge-of-the-seat pacing, violence, tenderness, insight and redemption. Not to be missed! Nashville-based writer Bruce Tierney is a lifelong mystery reader who was weaned on the Hardy Boys.

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