Whodunit is a globetrotter's delight this month: for starters, I am writing from Saitama, Japan, in the shadow of Mt. Fuji. OK, that's a bit of poetic license; we are smack in the middle of a taifun whose clouds have blocked the view of Fuji-san for days now. Given the weather, I have plopped down on my new strawberry-milkshake pink sofa (don't ask) to read December's mysteries. The books' varied locales add a dash of the exotic to the monthly dose of suspense.

European readers have been keyed in to Norwegian author Jo Nesbo for quite some time now; indeed, The Redbreast, which makes its debut in English this month, has been on sale overseas long enough to garner several awards. The star of the piece is police detective Harry Hole, a borderline alcoholic who lands the assignment of assisting the U.S. Secret Service during a presidential visit to Oslo. It all goes hopelessly wrong, and Hole winds up shooting a secret service agent. Normally, that would spell the end of a career, but with true Murphy's Law precision, Hole gets a promotion. It will catapult him into the strangest case of his career, a modern-day murder mystery with tendrils reaching back to World War II, when Norway forged an uneasy alliance with the Axis powers. Fans of Henning Mankell and Karin Fossum will have a seriously difficult time putting The Redbreast down.

STARTING OVER
I have been an avid reader of J.A. Jance's mysteries for years, first the J.P. Beaumont series set in Seattle, then the Joanna Brady series set in Arizona. In Hand of Evil, Jance delivers the third book of her third series, featuring former Los Angeles news anchorwoman Ali Reynolds. Back in Arizona after her career came crashing down around her, Ali is trying to start a new life. Events conspire to derail that train, though, when her best friend's precocious teenage daughter witnesses a brutal slaying, then disappears herself. Drawn into the search as a slightly reluctant volunteer, Ali soon finds the investigation turning sordid, with undertones of child abuse, sexual misconduct and, inevitably, murder. Every time Jance puts pen to paper, she crafts a winner; Hand of Evil continues that fine tradition.

MURDER IN BEIJING
Qui Xiaolong's fifth entry in his series featuring Beijing police detective Chen Cao is titled Red Mandarin Dress, a reference to the bourgeois and lovely silken garb outlawed by Chairman Mao in favor of the graceless gray unisex uniform. Chen Cao is an anomaly in the police department; a published poet and English scholar, he is sought after to translate English-language mysteries into Chinese. Beijing is awash in newfound capitalism after years of unrewarding Communism. Still, the picture is not all rosy, as it appears that the city has been exposed to a distinctly Western sort of problem: a serial killer. In each case, the victim is a beautiful young woman in a red mandarin dress, posed erotically in a very public place. When the police sting goes wrong, Chen must summon all his resources to bring the killer to justice. Qiu Xiaolong's characters are first-rate Chen's sidekick, Inspector Yu, and Yu's wife, the irrepressible Pequin, deserve special mention as some of the cleverest and most interesting second bananas in modern detective fiction.

MYSTERY OF THE MONTH
Scottish writer Ian Rankin is a major success he has won virtually every award available to a mystery author: the Edgar Award, a Gold Dagger Award for fiction (and its counterpart, the Diamond Dagger for career excellence) and the Chandler-Fulbright Award. What may come as a surprise, though, is that his latest book was written some 20 years back, and it is nonetheless still good enough to win this month's Tip of the Ice Pick Award. Watchman features British spy Miles Flint, a markedly different sort of agent than, say, James Bond. Flint is a watcher from behind darkened windows, a listener to tapped phone lines. When a lapse in judgment results in the death of a valued source, his shot at redemption comes in the form of a seemingly routine mission to Belfast (the book was written when The Troubles were still in full swing). The mission quickly turns deadly, and Flint realizes that he has been set up by someone in his organization. Watchman keeps the reader on pins and needles from page one.

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