Carol O'Connell's sixth New York-based Kathleen Mallory mystery Shell Game is not the simple illusion its title suggests. Its convolution and deciphering transform penny-ante poker into high-stakes investigation, loyalties into levers to gain clues, dementia into a shield fordecades-old guilt.

Just prior to Thanksgiving, on national television, an old-school magician's attempt at an ambitious, dangerous trick results in his death. His failings are blamed: He was out of his league; his timing was off. Unlike everyone else, detective Kathleen Mallory believes that the death was planned. When her initial attempts to gather information on a magicians' float at the Macy's Parade are twisted to her professional embarrassment, Mallory digs in deeper.

O'Connell's protagonist is the veteran of a childhood on urban streets a focused, tough detective, a source of bafflement to her colleagues. But self-knowledge, stubbornness, and cyber-skills give her an edge in confronting clever, violent opponents. Be warned: Shell Game may result in lost sleep, not for its subject matter but for its relentless puzzle. You do not get what you see. Tom Corcoran is the Florida-based author of The Mango Opera and the forthcoming Gumbo Limbo.

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