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Margaret Cannon

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U IS FOR UNDERTOW By Sue Grafton, Putnam, 400 pages, $35

This is book 21 for this series, and despite a few bobbles, Sue Grafton still manages to keep the plots fresh and the characters hopping. U is one of her best, relying on a terrific plot built around four families with secrets. Incidentally, we get some of Kinsey Millhone's own history as the tale takes us back to 1963, when she was a high-school student.

Grafton has kept her characters chronologically correct. That means that book 21 is set in 1988, when Kinsey turns 38. There are no computers, cellphones or BlackBerrys, and the fax is much in use. This can be unnerving, but what's remarkable is that Grafton keeps control of all the tiny descriptive elements that, if confused, would blow the whole scene. That's also true of the events set in 1963.

The "current" event is Kinsey's latest client, a young man named Michael Sutton. Michael remembers a terrible event from his childhood, the disappearance of a six-year-old girl. He also recalls two men he saw digging a hole and one with a large pack slung over a shoulder. Was he witness to a murder? Or a burial?

Kinsey takes the case for a single day, but events compel her to continue, even as Michael's family brings forward very convincing arguments that it is all the delusion of a very mixed-up man who craves attention and will go to extremes to get it.

As Kinsey searches, Grafton takes us back to 1963 and the socially prominent Unruh family, their disappointing son, his girlfriend, Shelley, and another set of events that will change a family forever. As that story unwinds, we meet the members of other families, students at Louisville high school, and how Kinsey Millhone fits into all this.

Grafton's great talent is in keeping the story moving and the reader engaged. Fans know that Kinsey, orphaned young and raised by her emotionally distant aunt, has recently discovered a family she didn't know she had. The revelation hasn't been terribly joyful on either side, but now they want to know Kinsey. This subplot is reflected in the complicated and vexing family circumstances she's investigating.

The action doesn't stop, the wisecracks snap, and Grafton's sure pacing keeps it all moving. After all this time, Kinsey Millhone still has her spark.

THE PRICE OF MALICE By Archer Mayor, St. Martin's/Minotaur, 308 pages, $31.99

The Joe Gunther series, set in Vermont, is one of the best around, so it's always a shock to me to discover how many readers haven't discovered it yet. With its excellent noir touches, terrific plots and really interesting central character, it ought to appear to be at the top of most lists. If you haven't already jumped on the Archer Mayor bandwagon, The Price of Malice is the perfect place to start.

Gunther, head of the Vermont Bureau of Investigation homicide team, is faced with a bloody and merciless murder. The victim, Wayne Castine, was tortured and then stabbed repeatedly. The murderer clearly hated Castine and that leaves a lot of suspects, because he was a child molester, a serial offender, never caught, never convicted. Even the hardened investigators of the VBI admit that whoever killed this one took evil off the streets.

This is not, however, Joe Gunther's concern. Regardless of cause, murder is murder and the perpetrator must be caught. As he begins the search for clues, Joe is faced with a serious crisis in his own life. His lover, Lyn Silva, is in search of the resolution to a mystery of her own, one that Joe unwittingly created. It appears that her adored father and brother, presumed lost at sea years ago, were murdered, possibly because they were involved in drug smuggling.

As the VBI team hunts for a killer, Joe races back and forth between his duties to the current case and his need to maintain his relationship with Lyn. Mayor doesn't let this clash between duty and love become too gooey. This is a grown-up series with grown-up conflicts.

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