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CRIME BOOKS Add to ...

California Girl, by T. Jefferson Parker, Morrow, 370 pages, $34.95

T. Jefferson Parker has written some fine crime novels. Read any list of the top tier of U.S. titles, and you'll find Silent Joe or Cold Pursuit or both. But California Girl is in a class by itself.

In this novel, Parker constructs characters so compelling that we simply have to know more, and as we read, we travel through time, watching the changes in Orange County over 50 years. The story is subtle, nuanced and slowly paced. Readers who like the bodies to drop on page 1 will hate it.

Instead, the book starts with retired sheriff Nick Becker driving through Orange County to meet his brother, Andy, a retired reporter. On the way, he passes an old orange-packing house brand-named California Girl. It raises memories of something that happened years before, turns to memories of Richard Nixon and bits of local lore. When Nick meets Andy, the latter seems worried: "Everything we thought about Janelle Vonn was wrong."

From there, the story spins back to 1954 and a schoolyard brawl between the four Becker brothers and the Vonn brothers. Then everyone grows up, leaves home and finds their callings.

But the Beckers and Vonns continue to cross paths. And at every point, there's the pretty, intelligent face of Janelle Vonn, the very image of the California Girl.

To say more is to give away too much of a stellar plot.

Parker has a lovely, limpid style that contains so much of the California colour and light. His focus moves from voice to voice, character to character, and he captures the essence of a changing culture. As the oranges and growers give way to subdivisions and malls, people change as well, but never in their essential natures. The Beckers and the Vonns have a history, and this is their story, beautifully told.

Hour Game, by David Baldacci, Warner, 437 pages, $39.95

The psychopathic serial killer has just about had his day in crime fiction. There doesn't seem to be any new twist to put on multiple murder, particularly when we can watch the horrible real thing on the Internet.

However, David Baldacci's new novel manages to inject some originality into the serial-murder scene. That's due entirely to Baldacci's considerable talent at constructing an elaborate game out of serial slaughter.

At first, there seem to be different murderers, different clues. The first body was posed in the woods, the second and third were a young couple, the fourth yet again totally different. The only thing that binds them is time, and the fact that each death is a replication of a famous

serial killing.

At the same time, Sean King and Michelle Maxwell are hired to investigate a burglary. Their search leads to some nasty secrets in an old aristocratic Southern family, and that leads, ultimately, to the murders. And as the cases converge, the killings continue.

This is a terrific, nail-biting, page-chewing thriller. Save it for the solitary weekend or the long plane ride.

Metro Girl, by Janet Evanovich, HarperCollins, 296 pages, $37.95

What does a bestselling author do when she gets a wee bit tired of her series character? A few benighted writers have tried death or destruction, but they usually end up having to plot a resurrection. Janet Evanovich is up to No. 10 in her Stephanie Plum novels, and she's taking a break.

Metro Girl introduces Baltimore insurance adjuster Alex Barnaby, mechanic and phobic. Evanovich is way too smart to ditch a formula that works. Instead of The Burg, in New Jersey, we have Miami's South Beach. Alex, also known as Barney, is there looking for her missing brother, Bill, who disappeared in the midst of a cryptic late-night telephone call. "Don't tell Mom," etc.

Alex has bailed out Bill before, so she heads to Miami and discovers his apartment ransacked. Worse, he seems to have stolen the boat belonging to top NASCAR driver Sam Hooker. Hooker is handsome, rich and adored by NASCAR fans. He's a bit less arrogant than Stephanie's Joe-the-cop, but he provides the requisite sexual tension.

Along with NASCAR Guy (repeated on every page it seems), there are other eccentric folks in South Beach, including a sexy cigar-roller and a campy Old School Friend. It's a bit like The Burg with sand and sunshine, but fans of Stephanie Plum will be delighted. Expect this series to have a long run.

Sweep Lotus, by Mark Zuehlke, Dundurn, 272 pages, $11.99

This is the third novel in the Elias McCann series by Zuehlke, and the best. Zuehlke, who lives on Vancouver Island, has really caught the culture and pace of his Tofino setting, and McCann, the local coroner, is a well-developed character with smarts and charm.

The plot is solid. A young woman named Sparrow is murdered, her naked body wrapped in barbed wire on a cold and isolated beach. The crime is brutal and sadistic, and there's no shortage of suspects. Sparrow was part of a group of street youths known as the One Earth Family, and there are many references to the worst days of the Manson family.

But McCann sees more in Sparrow and her association with the barren land she died on, and he must uncover her past to find the answer to her death. Excellent.

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