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Detail from cover of "Trick of the Dark"

Trick of the Dark By Val McDermid, Bywater Books, 397 pages, $24.95

Twenty-five books into a career, and Val McDermid seems to be just reaching her stride. Trick of the Dark is so smart, so witty and so devious, it's difficult to find adequate praise. Just say that its the best of her already excellent run of novels.

Charlie Flint is in a funk. Her career as a forensic psychiatrist is dust. She's been suspended from practice. But that's not what's got her absorbed. It's love. A big, smarmy, all-encompassing romantic mash. Too bad the object of her passion isn't her long-time partner, Maria. Can you really be in love with two people at once?

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Just in time to save herself, Charlie is summoned by her early mentor to her old college. Yes, we're off to Oxford, city of dreaming spires, dandies on every corner and dead bodies in every begonia bed. Since this is Val McDermid, not Dorothy L Sayers, we can expect a totally new peek under the old college façade and, as expected, the unexpected arrives. This one is not to be missed.

Trackers By Deon Meyer, translated by K.L. Seegers, Random House Canada, 488 pages, $24.95

Deon Meyer kept readers page-bound with the thrills and suspense in his previous novel, Thirteen Hours. Unlikely as it seems, he's outdone himself in Trackers, which is certain to top any mystery reader's best-of-2011 list. This riveting tale has everything from a pair of rhinos to a coven of spies, and to give it all a touch of spice there's a thread from the oldest type of African adventure tale, the hunt. Those of us old enough to remember the wonders of H. Rider Haggard will recognize it, and it's marvellous. There are many hunters here, and all of them are tracking animals, including human animals.

There are several plotlines going, and to give them heft, Meyer brings back two of his finest hunters, the bodyguard Lemmer from Blood Safari and Mat Joubert, now retired from the police force and facing his first case as a private investigator. Add to this mix an attractive woman escaping from an abusive marriage, a couple of rare rhinos escaping from Zimbabwe, and a missing person, along with an international terrorist on the prowl. The cases seem unrelated, but any Meyer fan knows they'll come together, and this time they literally collide. You will not stop reading this book from the opening line: "Some days leave no tracks …" to the final word.

The Hangman's Daughter By Oliver Pötzsch, translated by Lee Chadeayne, Houghton, Mifflin, 435 pages, $21.95

"October 12 was a good day for a killing."

So begins this terrific debut from German screenwriter Oliver Pötzsch. The setting is Germany, 1659, and the central character is Jakob Kuisl, hereditary hangman of the village of Shongau, Bavaria.

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Pötzsch, a descendent of the real Kuisl family, takes us into the heart of a community decimated by war, plague and fear. When a boy is found drowning in the river with a mark on his shoulder, the villagers are quick to claim witchcraft, and the local midwife is the target. Jakob the hangman's job is to torture her to confession and then execute her, but he's convinced she's innocent. When another boy is killed and people claim to have seen the devil walking, it's up to the hangman to restore order. This is a brilliant book full of historical lore, with a wonderfully visual setting that Pötzsch builds into the suspense and the search.

The End of the Line By Stephen Legault, Touchwood, 312 pages, $18.95

This is Calgarian Stephen Legault's fourth mystery, and after three modern environmental plots, in this excellent story he takes us back to the winter of 1884 and the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

It's cold in Holt City, and it's isolated, and 500 CP workers are marooned with nothing to do except await the next meagre meal. Then a CPR section boss is murdered, his body found frozen on the banks of the Bow River. The investigator is Durrant Wallace, a veteran Mountie who lost a leg fighting whisky traders. There are plenty of suspects, including a meddling MPP, and Wallace has to solve the case so the railway can push on west.

Legault knows his history, and that's what makes this novel shine. Let's hope this isn't the last we see of Durrant Wallace.

Malabarista By Garry Ryan, NeWest, 208 pages, $18.95

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Lambda Award-winning author Garry Ryan's detective Lane returns for the fifth time. Lane is under investigation by the Calgary Police Department, his partner Arthur is diagnosed with cancer, and an Eastern European war criminal is loose in the city. While Lane fights for his career and fears losing Arthur, he's got to face a host of dangers to the city he loves. Definitely Ryan's best book so far.

Nairobi Heat By Mukoma Wa Ngugi, Melville House, 224 pages, $16.95

This debut novel by Ngugi, a Kenyan-American poet, son of a renowned African author, is a clever peek at life on both sides of the divide. The detective is Ishmael, an African-American cop from Madison, Wis. When a dead blonde turns up on the doorstep of Professor Joshua Hakizimana, a hero of the Rwandan genocide, the case goes to Ishmael. No one really believes Hakizimana could be the killer, and Ishmael suspects a plot by local white supremacists. Then a mysterious phone call tells him that the truth lies in Kenya, and Ishmael is off on a journey of great personal and professional discovery. Ngugi, a professor at Case Western University in Cleveland, is truly a child of both worlds, and he makes great use of his considerable talents for description and plot.

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