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MIDNIGHT FUGUE By Reginald Hill, Harper, 368 pages, $27.75

Reginald Hill is one of the most inventive of the current crop of top British crime writers. He has tackled politics ( Underworld) and race (the Joe Sixsmith series). He has tinkered with the form ( Deadheads) and he has paid homage to Dickens ( Recalled To Life) and Austen ( The Price of Butcher's Meat).

In the process, he has kept his very long-running series with Andy Dalziel and Peter Pascoe from drifting into the slough of repetition that dogs so many other fine series. Hill has always been a perfectionist when it comes to style - no shoddy sex or dull meals to fill out the paragraphs - but Midnight Fugue, the 24th Pascoe and Dalziel novel, is a triumph.

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Hill takes his theme not from literature but from music. This novel is structured as a fugue - a set of variations of contrapuntal voices arranged around a specific theme - and all set in a single day. Bach, composer of The Art of the Fugue (he gets a credit), couldn't have done it better.

The theme of Fugue is the fugue, a state of amnesia related to a trauma. Andy Dalziel, still recovering from his near-death in an explosion, awakes and rushes to work, muddled and having lost a day. En route to the Mid-Yorkshire office, he stops, encounters a beautiful woman who asks for his assistance with a peculiar puzzle. Her husband, a long-missing DI, may or may not be alive and living in Yorkshire. Andy agrees to assist and that leads to, among other events, a murder and a brutal attack on Shirley Novello. The story builds, just as a fugue in music builds, as the different characters each enter and add their bit to the plot. There are climaxes, crescendos and a very delicate diminuendo - and to say more is to give away a very beautifully constructed plot.

Hill's achievement here should be savoured. I've read some of his works more than a dozen times. This one is going onto my permanent shelf and I've already consumed it twice. Save it for a time when you can read it straight through, taking time to read each passage and follow each variation and, above all, don't push to the end. It's a tiny perfect trill of perfection. This is one of Hill's best novels, one of the best this year or any year.

13½ By Nevada Barr, Vanguard Press, 320 pages, $32.95

This is not an Anna Pigeon novel, but Barr's legions of fans shouldn't pass it by. This stand-alone thriller is one of Barr's best books ever and, once begun, it's hard to stop reading her harrowing story of bloody murder.

In a note at the beginning, Barr says she has had the idea of a story about a child who murders his family for several years. Her killer is 11-year-old Dylan Raines, "the Butcher Boy" who, in 1968, killed his parents, baby sister and family cat with an axe. The only survivor of the carnage was his older brother, Rich, who, seriously injured, managed to call for help. Rich stands by his little brother through a decade in a juvenile facility and then a new life in New Orleans.

But Dylan hasn't changed, not really. And as love, in the form of a gallant and lovely woman, herself brutally abused as a child, comes into his life, it appears that the old secrets and fears of the past are about to emerge and explode in her present.

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Barr builds this story with her usual intelligence and knack for chilling suspense. You will figure out the "who" on this one pretty fast. It's the "why" that intrigues, and she saves that one for the very final pages.

SHERLOCK HOLMES HANDBOOK By Christopher Redmond, Dundurn, 336 pages, $32

This is the second edition of a book that is an essential item for any serious Sherlockian. The 1993 version, assembled by Redmond, one of Canada's most renowned experts on Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle and what is known to the cognoscenti as "The Canon," is 14 years out of date. The new edition fills in the gaps of films, DVDs and the dozens of new books on, by, starring, about and featuring all things Holmes.

Lest you scoff at the idea of a handbook for a fictional character whose first appearance in print was in 1887, it's worth pointing out (as Redmond does) that the Holmes books have never gone out of print. He has been filmed (well and badly) dozens of times, and the television series featuring the late Jeremy Brett is still a staple of Buffalo PBS, watched eagerly by avid fans including me.

The ordinary Holmes fan may not be interested in the intricacies of the plots of each story, but the chapter on Fans and Followers is wonderful reading for just how the Sherlockian societies (there are hundreds) began and the rules they set. There is a section dealing with serious academic studies of Holmes, as well as Conan Doyle, and plenty useful information and fun trivia on the Victorian setting.

Redmond, as befits a serious Sherlockian, puts this all down in fine scholarly style - but, as befits a man who also wrote In Bed With Sherlock Holmes, there are plenty of funny bits.

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THE BOHEMIAN GIRL By Kenneth Cameron, McArthur & Company, 310 pages, $24.95

What does an author do if he wants to write a Sherlock Holmes pastiche and not feature Holmes? He simply transforms Holmes into an American, an ex-Civil War officer with a stretch as a Wild West marshal (think Wyatt Earp in London) and renames him Denton. Denton (one name only) is a famous author who lives and works in London aided only by his able servant Atkins, a former batman in the British army, their cook and a couple of able Scotland Yard men. Move the dates from Victorian (mid-19th century) to Edwardian (early 20th century), and you have a completely different but extremely familiar set of characters.

This could all be terrible, of course, but it's not. Cameron, a former U.S. Navy intelligence officer, has been very careful to keep a divide between his work and his inspiration. Denton is much more of a James Bond character, racing about Europe, than a Holmes, and his deductive powers are slighter. What's fun is Cameron's use of language and style and, of course, the Edwardian setting. This is must reading for Holmes fans, but those who like lively historical mysteries will enjoy it too.

DEATH SPIRAL By James W. Nichol, McArthur & Company, 360 pages, $24.95

This excellent third novel by Nichol, winner of the Arthur Ellis Award in 2002 for Midnight Cab, is perfect for the Second World War buff on your list, as well as fans of good Canadian crime fiction.

Wilf McLauchlin is a bona-fide hero, a Spitfire pilot who survived being shot down in the final days of the Second World War. He arrives home in Southern Ontario (Brantford, Galt, it's not clear where) to bands playing and speeches given. There are parties and visits and time to kill before he goes back to law school and resumes his life before the war. Of course, resuming is a bit dicey when you've got a chunk out of your leg, a wrecked hip and the use of only one arm. And there are the nightmares.

Nichol makes good use of all the background of war and return, as he also makes use of the backdrop of war and remembrance. McLauchlin's father is reading the transcripts of the Nuremberg Trials as they are released. Then there's the mysterious death of an old man who's a client of McLauchlin's father. Eventually, Wilf will find himself heading back to Germany to the place where his life and his war ended so abruptly, to uncover an even darker mystery buried by the rush of war.

This is a dense plot that doesn't always work, but the characters are solid and the story is really intriguing once we get into it.

LAW AND DISORDER By Mary Jane Maffini, RendezVous, 298 pages, $16.95

Just in time for the holidays, we have a clever little Camilla MacPhee mystery from Ottawa's own Mary Jane Maffini. This sixth book in the series has Camilla, an advocate for the victims of crime, faced with a nasty local crime lord on trial. When the defence lawyer is murdered, the trial is blocked and Camilla goes on the hunt. There are plenty of things in her way, including relatives and the local police, and the whole thing ends up at the Ottawa Dragon Boat Race. Great fun.

ON THE HEAD OF A PIN By Janet Kellough, Dundurn, 348 pages, $11.99

This is a very atmospheric debut from author Kellough, of Prince Edward County, Ontario. It is set in the aftermath of the 1837 Upper Canada Rebellion, and her investigator is Thaddeus Lewis, an itinerant "saddlebag" minister.

Lewis's new post is Prince Edward County, and that allows Kellough to make good use of the local landmarks and the area's rich and varied history.

Lewis is mourning the death of his daughter and, when another girl is killed, he is faced with the idea of a serial killer loose in the county. The Rebellion has the whole countryside in an uproar, and no one wants to hear about a possible murderer, so Lewis, armed only with intelligence and a tiny clue, begins the hunt.

Kellough has some bobbles and squeaks, and the dialogue is clunky, but there are a lot of good ideas and good writing.

BLOOD AND GROOM By Jill Edmondson, Dundurn, 254 pages, $11.99

Blood and Groom introduces Toronto PI Sasha Jackson, in what Edmondson clearly intends to be a series. The book is fast-paced, almost too much so, and the tone is obviously intended to be the quick and funny style that appeals to fans of Janet Evanovich.

Sasha, broke and living at home in Riverdale, gets a break with a rich and bitchy client. Christine Arvisais's fiancé broke off the engagement weeks before the fancy wedding (dress by Vera Wang) was to happen. Four months later, he was murdered. Everyone suspects Christine, but there's no proof. She wants Sasha to clear her name.

The start is auspicious, but Edmondson moves the action at such breakneck speed that the story breaks apart and some of the various characters (all pretty loathsome except for Sasha) don't work too well. There's a lot of promise here and we'll look forward to Sasha Jackson's next adventure.

THE LINEUP Edited by Otto Penzler, Little, Brown, 402 pages, $31.99

The most often asked question to or about authors is "where do the characters come from?" Otto Penzler has done fans a great service by getting some of the finest authors around to pen little essays on their greatest creations. How did Michael Connelly come up with Harry Bosch? Just how much of herself did Faye Kellerman put into Rina Lazarus? Jonathan Kellerman really is a child psychologist, but he's nothing at all like Alex Delaware - or is he?

Penzler has really run the gamut, with authors as diverse as Ian Rankin and Ken Bruen. One of the most interesting essays is Lee Child's revelations on Jack Reacher, surely one of the most unusual central characters around. I also enjoyed Alexander McCall Smith's lovely story behind Precious Ramotswe.

I never wondered, but Penzler includes the background of David Morrell's Rambo. Just in case you care.

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