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New in crime fiction: A guide to the latest thrillers and mysteries

A LILY OF THE FIELD By John Lawton, Atlantic Monthly Press, 304 pages, $29.50

John Lawton is one of crime fiction's most accomplished authors, and A Lily of the Field is his best to date. If you missed the likes of Riptide or A Little White Death, by all means pick them up too, but A Lily of the Field is where you should begin.

We begin in a London park in 1948. The hot war is over. The cold one is beginning, on a cold day at the end of a cold winter. In two pages, Lawton takes us back in time to another world.

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The story then cuts to Vienna, 1934. Cello prodigy Meret Voytek is accepted as a student by the master Viktor Rosen. Meret lives for music, in a world devoid of politics. But Hitler is coming. Four years later, Viktor is gone, escaped to England. Meret is a cellist for the National Youth Orchestra, a member of Hitler Youth. In England, Hungarian physicist Karel Szabo is interned on the Isle of Man. Soon, he'll be sent to Canada and then to the United States, to join the team at Los Alamos in charge of creating the atomic bomb.

These people's lives are entwined in a fascinating story that incorporates accident, murder, mass murder and espionage, which evokes the best of John le Carré. This is Lawton's ninth novel, and it's the work of a writer at the peak of his powers.

DOG TAGS By David Rosenfelt, Grand Central, 360 pages, $29.99

I ordinarily avoid animal mysteries. Not that I don't believe that dogs and some cats are smarter than the people who cherish them, it's just that too often when they turn up in crime novels, it's as cuddly clue machines not as clever cadaver hunters. So I very nearly passed up this terrific legal thriller because of the hound on the cover, and thus nearly missed meeting lawyer (and dog lover) Andy Carpenter, one of the most engaging legal minds in mystery.

Carpenter hangs his hat in Edgewater, N.J., and environs. He's lazy, independently wealthy, uncommitted to work and prefers to hang out in the dog-rescue centre. When an old friend asks him to help out a thief accused of murder, he's not too keen. When he finds out that the man's dog is being held in the local pound, he's on the case, demanding the dog be released. Can you arrest a dog for theft?

There's obviously a lot more to this clever story than I want to reveal. It's enough to say that I was captivated by Carpenter and his oddball friends, as well as his unusual client, from the first page. You will be too.

A DEAD MAN IN MALTA By Michael Pearce, Soho Press, 240 pages, $25

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I have always loved Michael Pearce's historical mysteries set in Egypt and featuring the clever British investigator the Mamur Zapt. Pearce, raised in the Sudan and with a background in Russian, knows how to construct the grand Edwardian past, and if you want a weekend away, he can take you to exotic places.

This series, set just before the First World War, stars a much more conventional detective, Sandor Seymour of the Foreign Office. But the places are just as wonderful. This story, set in Malta in 1913, is a perfect example. There are sinister deaths and a spectacular hot-air balloon crash, and plenty of embassy la-di-dah as background. I read this in one delicious afternoon and then treated myself to tea and scones in memory of Seymour and his adventures.

SHE FELT NO PAIN By Lou Allin, RendezVous Crime, 272 pages, $16.95

RCMP Corporal Holly Martin returns in this excellent sequel to Allin's And on the Surface Die. We're back in picturesque Fossil Bay on Vancouver Island, where the beaches are clear and the living is easier - at least until the bodies fall.

Martin is faced here with what appears to be a drug overdose, but fans of Allin's Belle Palmer series know that the case is never that simple. Through a series of clues, Holly discovers that the dead man had a hidden secret, one valuable enough to provoke a murder. It takes a lot of brainpower and a taste for geocaching (I'd never heard of it, either) for Holly to uncover the crime and motive. Definitely one of Allin's best.

RED ROVER By Liz Bugg, Insomniac Press, 354 pages, $19.95

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Red Rover is a slick debut by Bugg, a Toronto teacher, and it introduces PI Calli Barrow, a very solid addition to Canada's growing group of lady detectives. There's a strong plot, with a missing girl and a dead man, and all of Toronto for Barrow to search for clues.

Thalia Spencer is the missing girl. She's from Old T.O. money, and her conservative father wants her found, quietly. Calli treats the case like an ordinary runaway until she discovers that Thalia's lover, Zoe, has no idea where she is. And when a former boyfriend turns up dead, it's possible that Thalia isn't just missing, but murdered.

Bugg has a nice ear for dialogue and a good eye for Toronto haunts. She's smart enough not to let the lesbian subtext overwhelm a good plot and, at the same time, to take advantage of Toronto's vibrant gay culture. It appears that Barrow will be returning. This is a series to watch.

REVENGE OF THE LOBSTER LOVER By Hilary MacLeod, Acorn Press, 319 pages, $22.95

Is there possibly such a thing as a Lobster Liberation Legion, out to save crustaceans from the pot? Hilary MacLeod, of Ameliasburg, Ont., posits that possibility in this amusing comic mystery set in a small, isolated port of Prince Edward Island.

The Shores is a village on an island just off the Island. Parker, collector and charmer, is a come-from-away with his partner, Guillaume, the chef. Hyacinth McAlister is a website writer in search of perfect lobster recipes, and who also needs a speaker for the local Women's Institute meeting. Enter Camilla of the LLL to introduce everyone to lobster liberation lore and the lost art of lobster "tickling."

That's all just the opening of this light and lively tale, with a batch of eccentrics in a pretty place. It's a formula that has been tried for a century and, in the right hands, it still works.

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