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The Homecoming
By Carsten Stroud (Knopf, 432 pages, $25)

Who knew that a writer from Toronto could really spin some authentic Southern Fried Gothic? Carsten Stroud's trilogy set in among the moss-draped live oaks of Niceville has everything it takes to build suspense: great characters, lots of atmosphere, good plot. Rainey, foster son of lawyer Kate Cavanaugh and her cop husband Nick, has a number of unusual talents that make him very, very difficult to handle. When people start to disappear in Niceville, including someone at Rainey's elite private school, Kate and Nick start to dig into the local lore and find out that there's not much nice in Niceville and that someone or something called "Nothing" is sharing time with their son. Let's not be fooled; Stroud isn't trying to out-fang Bon Temps with its vamps, faes, and weres. The Homecoming is classic southern noir crossed with a bit of Dean Koontz, and Stroud doesn't let the supernatural overpower the plot. Simply terrific.

Red Sparrow
By Jason Matthews (Scribner, 448 pages, $29.99)

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There's nothing better than a spy novel that seems ripped from the evening news, and Red Sparrow is it. The setting is Putin's Russia and the agent is Dominika, the "Red Sparrow" whose job is to entice foreign agents and pick up the crumbs of info. Her target is Nate, a young CIA agent running what he believes to be a major mole in the Russian spy network, but the real spy isn't in Moscow but Langley, Va., right in CIA central. All that's needed is for someone to get trapped stateless in an airport waiting room. This is a great debut by a 30-year veteran of the CIA and the kind of red-blooded espionage novel that Charles Cumming fans love.

City of Blood
By M.D. Villiers (Harvill Secker, 304 pages, $22)

Some of the best crime writing is now coming from Africa, and South Africa in particular, and that includes this stellar debut from M.D. Villiers. The setting is Johannesburg and the unlikely protagonist is Siphiwe, 16 years old, orphaned, alone and very scared. But when he sees a ruthless thug murder a helpless woman, he doesn't hesitate to step up. This brings him into the sights of the head of a criminal gang of Nigerians, a brutal criminal boss and a pair of detectives who hark back to the fine characters of Tromp Kramer and Mickey Zondi in the old apartheid-era novels by James McClure. This is one not to miss.

A Treacherous Paradise
By Henning Mankell (Knopf, 384 pages, $29.99)

Where does a major novelist turn when he has ended the series of his long-running character? He turns to a completely different place, time and person. That's what Henning Mankell has done in this engrossing tale of a woman cast adrift in an alien world. Hanna Renstrom's youth is spent in the frozen poverty of northern Sweden. At 19, she embarks for Australia and a new life. How she ends up twice widowed and the owner of a bordello in Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique) is just part of her tale. How she confronts the loneliness and racism of her unique place spins out in Mankell's masterful prose. As always with Mankell, the characters are brilliantly conceived.

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