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crime fiction

Detail from the cover of Sacrilege

By S.J. Parris, Doubleday Canada, 422pages, $22

It's 1584 and Giordano Bruno, philosopher, magician, heretic, soldier of fortune, is loose in London, and someone is following him. That's the opening of this excellent third novel in the Elizabethan series by S.J. Parris.

Death is always close in Bruno's world. Many people would like to see Sir Francis Walsingham's agent dead, but this time the stalker turns out to be a woman, one whom Bruno loved. She's been accused of murder and is on the run. Bruno goes to Canterbury in hopes of saving her, but his investigation of a murder leads him to deviltry in England's holiest shrine, leading in turn to the highest court in the land.

There are a couple of cavils here. Bruno – burned at the stake for heresy in 1600 – was far too brilliant to be as plodding a detective as he seems, and the love affair is a mishmash, but these are minor.

Parris has the flavour of the times and the historical details to hand, and anyone who can turn Giordano Bruno into a fictional character has talent to burn.

The Scottish Banker of Surabaya
By Ian Hamilton, House of Anansi, 472 pages, $19.95

Ava Lee, intrepid money hunter, returns for the fifth time in this smart and stylish novel of financial crime. Fans know Ava as the slick Chinese-Canadian forensic accountant who searches out those who try to finagle debts past her mysterious "Uncle." If you aren't already an Ava Lee devotee, this is a good book to start.

The very word "Surabaya" evokes images of refined jungle grandeur. Reality is a bit less exotic.

Ava is on the trail of what she believes to be an ordinary Ponzi scheme, not really worthy of her interest, but Uncle is ill and money is missing. The trail takes her to Indonesia, where she discovers a very mysterious bank run by a very enterprising Scot.

But the bank is far from what it seems, the Scot is not a nice man, and Ava's simple Ponzi scheme is far deeper and more dangerous than she surmised. This is definitely the darkest Ava Lee novel yet, one with some really strange twists. Hamilton, of Burlington, Ont., knows how to blend exotic places with explosive plots.

A Cold And Lonely Place
By Sara J. Henry, Crown, 290 pages, $28

The second Troy Chance novel is every bit as good as the first, which won an Anthony Award. Henry has a great setting in small-town New York, where winter sports reign and the local Ice Festival is big news. Troy Chance is there when the builders start sawing out the huge blocks of ice on Saranac Lake to built the winter carnival's ice palace. But when the ice reveals the dead body of a man, one whom Chance knows, it's a whole new world for the intrepid local reporter.

Henry has a great eye for the small details of local life, and she keeps her plot clean and her characters moving. She gives a nod to Dame Ngaio Marsh, a deeply under-read Golden Age writer whose detective, Roderick Alleyn, marries artist Agatha Troy, who features in several of Marsh's novels. Troy Chance owes a lot to Agatha Troy Alleyn, and Henry's style owes a lot to Marsh's artful tales of country murder.

By Mark Alpert, St. Martin's, 384 pages, $29.99

Science thrillers are either very good or very bad. The difference lies in the author's ability to explain the science and convince the reader that it's possible. Michael Crichton (The Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park) was a master of the genre. Extinction, by Mark Alpert, is almost as good.

What if the Chinese developed an artificial intelligence capable of taking over a human host, turning men and women into technological zombies. If you're thinking about Dr. Who's Daleks, think again. This is a much more real AI, one that military scientists are working on now – a little something to add to those drones that can be directed against jeeps in the Yemeni desert by technicians in Florida bunkers.

Enter Jim Pierce, ex-soldier, father, specialist in the development of highly functioning prosthetic devices. Pierce's daughter, Layla, has disappeared. Layla is a hacker, and one of her last hacks led her afoul of the Chinese authorities. Pierce goes on the trail, aided by a woman who's technically blind. Great science fiction meets fine plotting. The characters aren't deep, but no one will really care.