Stella Rimington brings a unique set of credentials to the thriller genre: she was, for four long years, the first woman director of Britain's fabled military intelligence agency, MI5. MI5's mandate includes counter-intelligence and security, i.e., the prevention of secrets leaking to other individuals or governments, as opposed to the clandestine gathering of other governments' secrets (that would be the province of MI6, James Bond's organization). Oddly, nowadays there are more Russian spies plying their trade in London than there were at the height of the Cold War, although for the most part their activities center on the financial rather than the government sector. When MI5 officer Liz Carlyle uncovers a plot to assassinate a wealthy Russian expat living in England, she goes undercover to unearth the perpetrators, who have been remarkably tenacious in their efforts not to leave anything that could remotely be construed as a clue. Illegal Action is the third in the Liz Carlyle series (the other two being Secret Asset and At Risk); all three are self-contained and provide the necessary backstory to be read as stand-alone novels. Rimington has also written a memoir of her MI5 years, Open Secret, for those who still hunger for more after consuming the Liz Carlyle series.

MISSING PERSONS
One of the finest foreign mystery writers to hit these shores in recent years is Norway's Karin Fossum. Her latest, Black Seconds, features longtime Fossum leading man Inspector Konrad Sejer in his sixth appearance, ably assisted by his young (and, it must be said, somewhat star-struck) sidekick Jacob Skarre. Sejer and Skarre are called in to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. As the days drag on, however, it seems less and less likely that the girl will turn up alive. A local character, Emil Mork, immediately becomes the focus of suspicion, as he is something of a hermit, and apparently hasn't spoken since childhood. The only word anyone has ever heard him say is "no," which tends to make any interrogation problematic. There is evidence galore, to be sure; problem is, some of it is conflicting, and in ways that raise Sejer's antennae in a most disturbing fashion. Just when you think you have it figured out, Fossum tosses you another bone, leading you off on a different course than you would have thought possible just a few pages earlier. To date, Fossum has sailed largely under the radar in North America, a situation that is long overdue for adjustment. Black Seconds was actually released to wide critical acclaim more than six years ago in Europe!

BACK TO RUSSIA
The sequel to Brent Ghelfi's searing 2007 debut Volk's Game, entitled Volk's Shadow, has arrived, and I am happy to report that it speeds along at the same breakneck pace as its predecessor. Once again Alexei "Volk" Volkovoy haunts the streets of post-Soviet Moscow, this time in search of a priceless Faberg&and#233; egg. The egg may be the proverbial red herring, though, as the murdered courier was also in possession of irrefutable evidence of wartime atrocities, and of course said evidence is nowhere to be found. All of the major players from the first book are back in force: Volk's nemesis Dubinin, who was repeatedly willing to play Volk as a sacrificial pawn in Volk's Game; Volk's boss, the enigmatic General, a dwarf who has risen to power in the new Russia against all odds; and the lissome Valya, Volk's onetime lover, for whom he still carries an Olympic-sized torch. Add to this mix a ruthless Chechen terrorist by the name of Abreg, who once held Volk prisoner in "a vindan, a mud pit, where time was measured by the shivering intervals between torture sessions." Abreg wants Volk back in the worst way, and if terrorism will lure Volk into his snare, well, terrorism is, after all, what Abreg does best. There is intrigue galore at every level: personal, political and economic. The tension is palpable from the first paragraph of page one. Volk's Shadow will be a must-read for anyone who has read Volk's Game. Although it is a fine stand-alone novel, newcomers to the series might want to pick up a copy of the first book, just to get acquainted with the backstory.

MYSTERY OF THE MONTH
OK, call me a sucker for thrillers set in exotic foreign locations, particularly ones with rampant corruption, triple-digit humidity and lazily seductive ex-bargirl protagonists. Guilty as charged; please let me serve out my sentence in the Thailand depicted by author Timothy Hallinan in his wickedly atmospheric new work, The Fourth Watcher, this month's Tip of the Ice Pick Award winner.

Travel writer Poke Rafferty has a clever and popular series going for him: Looking for Trouble In . . . (fill in the blank with the exotic Asian locale of your choice). His latest installment about Bangkok is in the works, after which he is thinking seriously about settling down into a line of work a bit less edgy and dangerous, to allow him to spend more time with his girlfriend and their recently adopted daughter (a precocious 10-going-on-30-year-old named Miaow). However, although Poke may no longer be "looking for trouble," trouble is definitely looking for him when his long-estranged father shows up unannounced, with a box full of rubies and a very large favor to ask. Poke initially wants nothing to do with his old man, but that decision is quickly taken out of his hands: his girlfriend and daughter are kidnapped, along with the wife of his best friend. If Poke ever wants to see them again, he will have to come up with the rubies (and a whack of cash) and turn his father over to a sworn enemy who has been tracking Rafferty Senior without success for a number of years. Well, that's the setup, but it doesn't begin to describe the action, the intensity, the pacing, the humor, the dialogue, etc. What words are sufficient to describe a book with chapters titled "Ugliest Mole in China," "Asterisks Would Take Too Long," or my personal fave, "The Leading Sphincter on the Planet"? Is it enough to call someone a clever wordsmith when they can craft a sentence like "He was unevolved; he had one foot in the Mesozoic and the other in his mouth."? So I ask you, after reading this review, can you think of one good reason not to read this book? I can't.

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