The season for beaches and hammocks has inspired a sizzling quartet of new mysteries. Set from Massachusetts to New York to California's central valley, these tales offer memorable characters, genuine surprises, and fine writing.

In Dennis Lehane's Prayers For Rain, private investigator Patrick Kenzie must outsmart a brilliant, brutal psychopath. Angela Gennaro, half of the Boston-based Kenzie/Gennaro team in Lehane's four previous novels, has opted at the outset for professional retirement and personal distance. Patrick toughs it alone, except for Bubba, his large felony-bent friend without fear. After a young woman requests that Kenzie stop a stalker before his obsession escalates, Patrick and Bubba begin to unravel a pattern of ruined lives and suicides. When Patrick decides that the deaths are murders, he must put himself in the spotlight and call in every favor he can muster. Lehane is expert at peeling back layers, blending plot elements of bizarre complexity and frightening simplicity. The sleuthing is dogged, the pressure constant, especially when acts of admirable intent produce awful results.

Soft Money, by K. J. A. Wishnia, finds Filomena Buscarsela, native of rural Ecuador, street-smart ex-New York policewoman, single mother of a two-year-old, trying to solve the murder of a Bronx bodega owner. The crime is typically urban unsolved, quickly forgotten. But Filomena knew the man, and the victim's family wants justice. Filomena, on food stamps, just starting a new job, accepts the family's offer to pay for a behind-the-scenes investigation. The story draws on elements of Dominican immigrant culture a neighborhood's dealings with macho tradition, good and evil voodoo, and mob intimidation. It explores the plight of rookie cops, the frustrations of poverty, the hidden side of politics. Wishnia's self-published first novel, 23 Shades of Black, nominated for the Edgar and Anthony awards, took the mystery world by storm. Soft Money keeps the winds in full swirl.

Richard Barre's fourth mystery, Blackheart Highway, puts California private eye Wil Hardesty in dark territory. A weekend escape to Bakersfield turns into a search for Doc Whitney, a singer/songwriter from the era before country music went slick. Years ago, consumed by success, strung-out, Doc murdered his wife and children. Now he's been paroled and Wil is hired to keep him away from old associates. There's more to it than a simple fend-off. Why are these people so worried about an ex-con with only himself to blame? Why has Doc returned to the scene of his life's greatest tragedy? Blackheart Highway sneaks out of suburbia, past fields of oil wells, then climbs to wilderness where rules of humanity change. Barre's tight narrative and concise descriptions carry a pace guaranteed to wear out the edge of your chair.

The Final Detail, by Harlan Coben, asks if a man with a high-stress job can just disappear for a few days. Can't he run off to paradise, a palm tree on the sand, a cool drink with a lovely companion? Not when sports agent Myron Bolitar is dragged back to the real world to find his business in a shambles, his partner, Esperanza Diaz, under arrest for the murder of a top client, and himself in need of an alibi. Enter a secretary with the hots for Esperanza; add a TV lawyer suddenly failing at what she's done best; toss in an educated thug and wannabe competitor in the agency business. Nothing could get worse. But it does. Coben's humor in this cluster of eccentricities shows a fine touch. His credible story embraces the cynicism intelligent folks adopt for sanity's sake. And his credentials are hot: the Myron Bolitar novels have won Edgar, Anthony, and Shamus Awards.

Tom Corcoran is the Florida-based author of The Mango Opera and Gumbo Limbo.

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