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A Star for Mrs. Blake, by April Smith

A Star For Mrs. Blake By April Smith, Knopf, 352 pages, $27.95

Books from April Smith are a rare event. Her Ana Grey series, which began with North of Montana, is a cult favourite with fans who love her graceful style and fascinating characters. So A Star for Mrs. Blake comes with a fine provenance. But it's not an Ana Grey book or even much of a mystery, although there are some secrets, a scandal, and a death. What we do have is a beautifully composed, elegantly written tale of a very strong, very vivid and utterly unforgettable woman on a terrible journey. We first meet Cora Blake on a Maine farm in the midst of the Great Depression. She is a widow caring for a pair of orphaned children and she's lucky to have work packing tins in a sardine factory. She's also a Gold Star mother, a title given because her son died in the trenches of World War I. Then comes a letter from the government. A grateful nation is organizing a trip to France so she can see the battlefields where her son fought and the cemetery where he's buried. Her companions will be other Gold Star mothers. It is a pilgrimage. In less capable hands, this could turn into a 10-tissue weepie but Smith has all her characters under control, and while we know from the outset that war is the villain, this is a terrific story about a little-known event, celebrating this summer's centenary of the War to End War. Save it for the weekend so you don't have to stop reading.

Dead Water By Ann Cleeves, PAN Macmillan, 400 pages, $34.99

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This superb series set in Britain's remote Shetland Islands continues to add new twists to the riveting saga of what's to become of Inspector Jimmy Perez now that his beloved Fran is dead. This new chapter in Perez's story begins with a journalist taking photos. Rhona Laing stumbles on a corpse, and bright new investigator Detective Inspector Willow Reeves is brought in from "outside" to handle a very high profile case. As always, Cleeves's characters carry the story brilliantly and her sense of place is perfection. The plot is terrific and the Shetland lore feels as exotic as a trip to Nepal.

The Land Of Dreams By Vidar Sundstol. Translated by Tiina Nunnally. University of Minnesota press, 344 pages, $27.30

Lance Hansen is a U.S. Forest Service policeman who's also his community's historian and genealogist. That's an important part of his history and it's an essential bit of information in this first of three mysteries set in the Norwegian-American community in Minnesota, north of Lake Superior. Award-winning author Sundstol spent two years in Minnesota and he brings the land and its history vividly to life with a case that begins when Hansen comes upon a naked man covered in blood sitting in front of a cross. The man is in deep shock and can only mutter one word, "kjærlighet," Norwegian for "love." Who's dead, how and why? And there is a deeper mystery to come. Books two and three are scheduled for forthcoming seasons and we should all thank University of Minnesota press for bringing this terrific Norwegian series to North America.

The Purity Of Vengeance By Jussi Adler-Olsen. Translated by Martin Aitkin. Dutton, 400 pages, $28.50

Jussi Adler-Olsen's clever Department Q series just gets better with each book. This time out, we have Copenhagen copper Carl Morck faced with cold cases and a police headquarters full of the flu bug. Be warned: there are a lot of references to Danish bowel habits in this book. Morck's cold cases emerge from the disappearance of a brothel owner named Rita in the mid-eighties. No one much cared at the time but Morck and his little band – Assad and Rose – ferret out other missing people and it all leads to a historical crime and a current political party. There's no question of who did it, just how and why?

The Way Of All Fish By Martha Grimes, Scribner, 352 pages, $29.99

Like a lot of readers, I lost touch with Martha Grimes. Her Richard Jury series lost its steam and there were other fretful novels, including her mystery told in rhyme and, finally, a memoir of her battle with alcohol. After all that, along comes The Way of All Fish, a sequel to the comic novel Foul Matter with a couple of hit men and a batty author with writer's block who needs help to escape from a grasping agent. All this makes for a lot of slapstick bits that really kept me laughing. This is a great escape on a cold night.

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Devil With a Gun By M.C. Grant, Midnight Ink, 312 pages, $17.50

Victoria, B.C., author Grant McKenzie, writing under a pen name, sets us in San Francisco for this fast-paced sequel to his clever Angel With a Bullet. Intrepid gal reporter Dixie Flynn is on her usual crime beat when she's intrigued by a classified ad. It appears to be the perfect Father's Day story, but stories about missing daddies and fluffy pets aren't Dixie's forte and before she can say "What happens next?" she's facing a Russian mobster and wondering if she can trade her pen for a sword.

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