Let me say at the outset that I read more than my fair share of mysteries perhaps more than your share and my share put together. I may have gotten a bit jaded. You could even accuse me of being a little cranky, I suppose, for I have compiled a roll call of truly heinous mystery genres. In no particular order, here are the culprits du jour: 1) mysteries in which the central character is an elderly busybody, a clergyman, a precocious child or a cat, to whom the authorities turn when their investigations prove fruitless; 2) mysteries with a food item in the title, particularly if used in conjunction with a dreadful pun (e.g., Dying Over Spilt Milk or Burned at the Steak); 3) mysteries set in castles, convents or the Middle Ages; and 4) Sherlock Holmes novels written by anyone other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I am pleased to say that none of the books reviewed in this month's column falls into any of the above categories.

Los Angeles police detective Hieronymous (Harry) Bosch is back for a stellar encore performance in Michael Connelly's City of Bones (Little, Brown, $25.95, 464 pages, ISBN 0316154059). On New Year's Day, Bosch is summoned to a grisly scene: a Laurel Canyon doctor's pooch has brought a bone home for his master, and the bone appears to have come from a human child. The shallow grave yields more than bones, however, as a 20-year-old case of molestation, abuse and murder unfolds before Bosch's eyes. An orphan himself, he is no stranger to the netherworld of runaways and street kids. With a passion that borders on obsession, he sifts through the meager clues, with unexpected insights both for Bosch and the reader. Connelly fans are about evenly split as to whether they prefer his Bosch or non-Bosch books; City of Bones will make a strong argument for the pro-Bosch faction.

On the heels of his best-selling Broken Machines, author Michael I. Leahey brings back his unlikely heroes, J.J. Donovan and Boris Koulomzin, in a gritty novel about a brilliant murder-for-profit scheme. These two aren't cops, or even licensed PIs for that matter; they are "consultants," experts to turn to when the more conventional approaches have been exhausted. The Pale Green Horse (Minotaur, $23.95, 240 pages, ISBN 0312278136) finds Donovan sharing a Caribbean beach with his animated and attractive girlfriend. An urgent phone call from the States summons them to the hospital bed of partner Boris, somewhat the worse for wear after having been deliberately struck by a car. It's a simple case of mistaken identity gone woefully awry, and the pair find themselves at loggerheads with a cold and unforgiving sociopath. Leahey's protagonists play well off one another; the dialogue is fast-paced and clever without being too cute, and the author's feel for New York and its many voices is uncanny. Leahey has avoided the dreaded sophomore slump with a second book every bit as compelling as the first.

Tip of the ice pick  At the risk of sounding like a broken record, our award for mystery of the month goes to (drum roll) T. Jefferson Parker (again) for his gripping Black Water. The novel marks the return of Orange County detective Merci Rayborn, protagonist of The Blue Hour and Red Light. The case that falls to her the murder of Gwen Wildcraft, a lovely young Newport Beach socialite is tragically perplexing. Her husband Archie, an up-and-coming policeman, was shot in the head at the same time and left with no recollection of the events. On the surface, it looks like a botched murder/suicide, but for Merci Rayborn, something doesn't quite ring true. Still, Archie is the chief suspect, so things don't look good for him when he vanishes from his hospital bed. It seems he may have recovered a crucial piece of his lost memory, but is he using it to chase down the killer or to cover his own guilty tracks? Deftly cutting back and forth between Archie's tormented progress and Merci Rayborn's dogged pursuit, Parker weaves a superb narrative of love and murder, and of the spectrum of emotions that bind and separate them.

 

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