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Undercard, by David Albertyn

House of Anansi, 320 pages, $19.95 (paper)

If I were to rank my favourite sports from one to 100, boxing would come in at about 512. The two men or women beating each other to a pulp is so far from my idea of entertainment that I managed to skip seeing Rocky for decades. So when I say that a mystery about boxing and boxers kept me reading intently, you know it has to be better than good. Undercard, a debut novel by Toronto author David Albertyn, is that book.

The setting is Las Vegas, and the centrepiece is a championship match at a glittering casino. The match will be broadcast live, attended by the rich and beautiful, and make fortunes for promoters and cable companies. Three local men are loosely involved: Tyron Shaw is a decorated Marine just returned after 11 years in assorted wars; Keenan Quinn is a Las Vegas cop who has just been acquitted in the death of a local black teenager; and Antoine Deco, a boxer and an ex-con.

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At a family gathering to welcome him home, Tyron gets updates on his two childhood friends and old friends of his parents urge him to to lend his stature as a decorated war veteran to bolster the protests in support of his old pal. His other friend, Antoine, is on the undercard for the championship bout. Pals can get ringside seats. Tyron is urged to ask although he and Antoine haven’t been in contact. The entire story covers just 24 hours, including the the bout and the protest, and more than one murder. The action is fast, the dialogue crisp, and, while the end is a bit contrived, there’s a good tight plotline to follow. Albertyn is a writer to watch.

Missing Daughter, by Rick Mofina

Mira, 512 pages, $11.99 (paper)

Ottawa author Rick Mofina started his career as a police reporter, watching cops and actually seeing dead bodies. That background has enabled him to become one of Canada’s most successful direct-to-paperback crime writers. His books are consistently well-written and carefully plotted, and Missing Daughter is one of his best because it deals with the one fear all parents have: the child who disappears in the night and isn’t found. Dead or alive or worse? Months and years go by and the imagination continues to generate images of horror inflicted on a growing child.

Maddie Lane is 12 years old on the night she’s snatched from her bed in the nice house in the upscale suburb where she lives with her parents. Attention goes briefly to the halfway house for ex-convicts that recently moved into the neighbourhood but all too soon the police focus their attention on Maddie’s parents and her 13-year-old brother, Tyler. Weeks pass, then years, and the case stays open. No one is accused but no one is proved innocent, either. Then one day the case breaks open again and the Lane family’s old buried fears and secrets come into the light. Mofina is at his best building suspense on real fears, and he knows the bedrock of police investigation and the way cold cases are revived. That scaffolding make Missing Daughter impossible to put down.

The Night Agent, by Matthew Quirk

William Morrow, 432 pages, $33.50

Winter is the perfect time for a fat espionage novel and The Night Agent, by Matthew Quirk, author of The 500, is this year’s perfect weekend binge. There is a lady in distress, a damaged young man and a world to save. In short, we have the classic plot with several modern twists, all well done with plenty of action.

Peter Sutherland is an FBI surveillance agent with no future. Despite his carefully attention to rules and details, he can’t escape the fact that his father, a high-level FBI operative was branded a spy, a traitor and took his own life without clearing his name. Then Sutherland gets a small break; he’s seconded to the White House security detail and given a very unusual task. He spends his nights underground in a small exceptionally secure room with a single telephone. If the telephone rings, he is to answer and contact his immediate superiors.

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Months pass and then, one night, the phone rings. A girl named Rose is on the line. A man has just murdered her aunt and uncle. He is still in the house. Before they sent her into the night, they gave her this phone number and a message: “ Tell them OSPREY was right. It’s happening…”

That call and its consequences throw Peter Sutherland into a world where his best motives and most careful attention are at odds with the necessity to save a woman’s life and then risk his own to expose a plot that has been years, even decades, in the making.

The Wolf And The Watchman, by Niklas Natt och Dag

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Atria, 373 pages, $35

Niklas Natt och Dag hails from one of the oldest families in Sweden and he has chosen as his first novel a murder in 18th-century Stockholm with a brilliant dying detective whose methods depend on the reason of the Enlightenment but who requires a drunken and brutish ex-soldier to uncover a devious and devilish murderer.

It is 1793 in Stockholm and winter is at hand. Mickel Cardel, is drunk as usual, when two children come for him. There is a body in the bay, a stinking cesspit. Mickel follows, convinced they’ve spotted an animal carcass but when he wades into the filth, he finds a true body, horrible mutilated, cast into the sea.

The corpse is unidentifiable and there are political events afoot. In a city full of superstition and religious zeal, the police chief summons his friend, lawyer Cecil Winge. Politics will end the police chief’s career very soon. He needs someone to investigate the case of the corpse with no name and Cecil is his man. Although Cecil is suffering from advanced consumption, he agrees to investigate and he needs Mickel’s brawn for the job.

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A police investigation that relies on the most basic of devices is always a delight to read, so long as the author doesn’t screw up the details and no one can accuse Natt och Dag of that. In fact, he delights in taking us through the filth, slime and dirt of old Stockholm. There is a lot of blood and muck and, as the story unfolds, a brutalized woman, a trip to the local workhouse, brothels and a man dying of a dreadful disease. Natt och Dag spares us nothing and, with a very literary organization and style, to say nothing of a truly nightmarish crime, The Wold And The Watchman is not for the faint of heart. It is, however, a haunting novel, that comes to a fascinating conclusion, and proves once again that Scandinavian fiction continues to be some of the best in the world.

The Hiding Place, by C.J. Tudor

Doubleday Canada, 278 pages. $24.95 (paper)

C.J. Tudor’s debut novel, The Chalk Man, introduced a major new talent in British crime writing. The Hiding Place, her second novel, is even better. It has suspense, a complex plot with marvellous characters and a classic setting; the English village with secrets to hide.

The village is Arnhill a failed bit of Britain in the shadow of the long-closed coal mines. Poverty and failure live here and those with luck or money get out. Joe, our narrator and guide, was one who did escape but times have changed and he’s back in Arnhill. He’s taken up a teaching position at his old school. He’s still got old mates in Arnhill, those who didn’t or wouldn’t leave. They aren’t happy to see him and it’s mutual. There is history: a murder, a suicide, unfinished business. There’s the story of Joe’s sister Annie who disappeared one day and tore his family apart. Then she came back, and it was even worse. But Joe has plans for Arnhill. He has plans for those friends because he knows what happened all those years ago in the house where the murder happened and he’s moving into that house.

Tudor has a tight fast-paced writing style that keeps you riveted to the page. This is not a book you can scan. Every line leads the reader along the plot and there isn’t a single extra word. Joe is a great character and, in classic style, he tells us just what he wants, what he knows and when he wants to tell it. With two books, Tudor is already on a par with Mo Hayder or early Minette Walters. Don’t miss this one.

The Perfect Alibi, by Phillip Margolin

Minotaur, 320 pages, $36.50

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This isn’t Phillip Margolin’s best book. There are too many plots, too many irrelevant and undeveloped characters, and at least two too many murders but even mediocre Margolin has its charms and Robin Lockwood, the mixed martial arts champ-turned-defence lawyer is reason enough to read this book.

Fans know that Robin starred in The Third Victim, one of Margolin’s best. Now, a year later (in fictional time) she’s a full partner in her firm and she’s got an interesting case at hand. Randi Sharp, a local nursing student, says she was raped by Blaine Hastings, a star athlete at U of Oregon. He says no, she says yes but the DNA doesn’t lie. It says he did it. Randi wants justice. Her mother wants a guilty verdict and a fat payout in a civil suit. It’s a case made to order for Robin. In short order, Blaine is in jail, no bail. Then, another girl comes forth. Same story, same DNA, but this time there’s no possibility of Blaine being the perp. But DNA doesn’t lie, or does it?

This story alone is fine but Margolin also has Robin up against a venal and cartoonish DA. And there is a professional hit man chasing a local couple and two dead lawyers in Portland and New York City. There’s a point where you stop caring who did it, but I didn’t stop reading because I wanted to find out just what happens to Robin and Randi. Those are the kinds of characters that made Margolin a bestseller and they carry the story when the rest sags. Robin seems destined for a return and Margolin owes her a good one.

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