When it comes to your basic private eye novel, the U.S. has the market sewed up tighter than Christina Aguilera's jeans. With a few notable exceptions, though, the Brits have cornered the market on the police procedural: Ian Rankin, P. D. James, Ruth Rendell, Colin Dexter, the list goes on (and on, and on). No such registry would be complete without the inclusion of prolific yarn-spinner Gwendoline Butler, now on her 24th John Coffin novel, Coffin's Ghost. Coffin first made his appearance in 1960(!), in Death Lives Next Door, as a callow young police inspector; over the years he has moved up through the ranks to his current position as Chief Commissioner of Police of London's mythical Second City.

Coffin's latest appearance finds him in the throes of middle age, recovering from a gunshot wound, perhaps winding down a bit. There are, however, a few ghosts in Coffin's closet, not as safely tucked away as he had hoped. During the absence of his actress wife some time back, Coffin engaged in a brief "misdemeanor" fling with a cheeky and sexy reporter. When it turned out that her appetites took a rather more violent bent, he quickly ended the affair. Now, a neat package inscribed with the initials "J. C." shows up on the doorstep of his previous abode; inside the package: a dismembered torso which bears more than a passing resemblance to the body of Coffin's onetime paramour.

Author Gwendoline Butler has been compared to the "Fearsome Foursome," the founding mothers of the genre: Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham and Dorothy L. Sayers. It is an apt assessment. She offers her readers atmospheric settings, vivid characterizations and a command of the English language that most contemporary writers can only dream of. And, if you like Coffin's Ghost, there are 23 more Coffin novels out there!


On the bench

Indiana defense attorney Don Robak has given up his lucrative law practice, for the time being at least, to serve on the other side of the bench as Mojeff County circuit judge. It has not done much for his popularity. Following a recent high profile murder case, Robak has received numerous death threats; his house has been riddled with bullets, and his wife poisoned. Armed police escorts track his every move. Something's got to give, or Robak's head will grace someone's trophy wall.

In Robak in Black, author Joe L. Hensley has imbued his recurring main character with integrity, humor and intelligence. The plot lines are taut, the characters down-to-earth and believable, the pacing superb. No wonder Hensley has become a popular author in such distant locales as France and Sweden.


The tip of the ice pick

Ten years back, psychologist Alex Delaware briefly treated teenager Lauren Teague. It was not a particularly successful treatment; the girl only showed up for a couple of truncated sessions, by turns blase and defiant. Several years later, she caused a second blip on Delaware's radar screen by appearing as an exotic dancer at a friend's bachelor party. Their third encounter is somewhat more final: Delaware is called to identify the girl's body, discarded in a West Los Angeles Dumpster. Delaware has largely given up his practice; he consults from time to time with the LAPD. His friend, Detective Milo Sturgis, makes ample use of Delaware's insights, and in turn offers Delaware entree to the world of law enforcement. Their investigation will lead them into the super wealthy "3-B" enclaves: Brentwood, Bel Air and Beverly Hills. Fast-paced and intense, Flesh and Blood is the edgiest Jonathan Kellerman thriller yet and our selection as mystery of the month. You'll find it difficult (make that impossible) to put down.

Nashville-based writer Bruce Tierney is a life-long mystery reader.


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