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Pretty Girls

By Karin Slaughter, William Morrow, 400 pages, $34.99

Karin Slaughter's novels, set in rural and suburban Georgia, mine the heart of the modern South. Readers have been thrilled by the deftly plotted Sara Linton and Will Trent series, but it's the place and people that make Slaughter one of the top female crime writers in America. That talent is all on display in her stand-alone psychological suspense novel Pretty Girls, one of the top books of this year. Pretty girls are an essential in the South, a land of baby beauty contests and cheerleader competitions. Claire is the classic pretty girl – blond, thin, toned – with a successful marriage to a wealthy architect who adores her and says it often with diamonds. Lydia is the pretty girl gone to seed – overweight, hidden in cheap and comfy sweatpants, hair jerked back in a scrunchie, a history of drugs and booze. The third pretty girl is absent. Dead? Probably. But her devoted father isn't about to give up on her and after 20 years, someone is about to remember how she went out for a drink at the local bar and disappeared on her way back to her dorm. The clues are all there, obsessively recorded and analyzed by her father, who, faced with the end of the case, committed suicide. Reviewers are already comparing this book to Gone Girl, which is a mistake. There is a twist, and a diary, and some other surface resemblances, but Pretty Girls is about sadness and loss and the tragic effects of a disappearance on the remaining family. Gone Girl was fun, Pretty Girls lingers, and it reminds us that death and evil are not pretty. As Slaughter writes: "The details will tear you apart."

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Art and Murder

By Don Easton, Dundurn, 398 pages, $11.99

It's hard to fault a man who writes good pulp and Don Easton, a former Mountie, really knows how to do rock 'em sock 'em action stories. This is the 10th outing for undercover Mountie Jack Taggart (even his name is tough) and it's one of Easton's best, with lashings of action and lots of insider cop tips. The setting, at least in the beginning, is Vancouver, Taggart's home base. There's no shortage of mean streets for Taggart to drift along, but he's in disguise as a pimp to help out a friend. Little does he know that his help is about to morph into a major life-threatening dive into human trafficking and murder. The plot weaves from Vancouver's mainland to the vast network of Interpol, and all the way Taggart is finding himself a step behind the criminal mastermind in charge. The plot here isn't airtight. There are coincidences and quick fixes but that's not really an issue in tough-guy tales. The elements of the story are action, chivalry, personal honour and decency in the face of elemental evil. Jack will face down the villain, save the damsel, and live to fight another day. If you love good pulp, you'll love Art and Murder.

Dictator

By Robert Harris, Hutchinson, 449 pages, $42.95

We are finally about to come to the end. Robert Harris's wonderful trilogy of the life of Cicero (Imperium, Lustrum) picks up immediately after Cicero's banishment for his part in the Catiline conspiracy. Accompanied by his faithful slave Tiro, who is also our narrator, we find the pair on the road from Rome, pursued by assassins and in search of a safe house or a trail to a safe country. Caesar is in control of the army and Cicero's avowed enemies are in charge of Rome. In short, we arrive in the middle of one of the best political-military events in history and Harris takes full advantage of the time, the place and the events. Classical historians may argue that he plays fast and loose with the facts, but the only fact that matters is that this superbly structured and fast-paced novel brings the epoch alive, ties it in to current events and brings the cast of living characters – Caesar, Cleopatra, Mark Antony, et al. – to vivid brawling life. If you haven't read the previous books, do so now. While it's possible to enjoy Dictator on its own, it's far better if you have the historical basis for events, to say nothing of the long and detailed cast of characters. The period covers the last decade of Cicero's life, but this was a time when events took months or years to evolve, not the speed of the Internet, so it is necessary to condense months into a page or two if one isn't to lose the thread, and Harris is intent that we never, ever lose the threads of these immensely powerful and intricately related men and women. We all know the end. Cicero and Caesar lost and Mark Antony, for a short time, was the victor until Octavian finished him, and the Republic, off. Compared with this series of perfectly true events, Watergate really was a fifth-rate burglary and Richard Nixon's henchmen simply a gang of plumbers. You will read every one of its 449 pages with relish.

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