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Animals and kids as sleuths, and other new crime fiction worth a read

The Good Boy by Theresa Schwegel

Minotaur, 368 pages, $29.99

Ordinarily, I don't like mysteries that have animals or kids as sleuths. Adventure yarns, though, when they're as good as this one, can have both. Schwegel, who won an Edgar award for her debut novel Officer Down, takes us to the mean streets of Chicago with a boy and a dog on a desperate and dangerous mission. The Murphy family is falling apart. Officer Pete of the Chicago PD has been demoted for his involvement in a nasty public scandal. His wife is angry about the involvement of another woman and the family have lost their home and are in a down-at-heel rental. All of which leads his teenaged progeny McKenna to some low-life friends and a hot party. Joel, her 11-year-old brother, is worried and follows her, along with his father's K9 dog Butch. After a confrontation, boy and dog go on the run in search of a trusted judge who Joel believes can help. How the two survive on the streets and the increasing desperation of his father's search forms the heart of the novel. It's both suspenseful and believable. The psychological interchange between Joel and Butch is terrific and Schwegel doesn't turn the dog into a person. He's a fully formed character and provides some of the best action but he remains – hurrah – a dog. This is one for mystery fans and pet lovers alike.

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The Sayers Swindle by Victoria Abbott

Berkley, 304 pages, $8.99

There's nothing nicer on a cold winter's eve than a cute and cuddly mystery. Settle into your woollies by a fire and read this second Book Collector series by Ottawa mother-daughter writing team Victoria Abbott (that is, Mary Jane and Victoria Maffini), featuring book sleuth Jordan Kelly. Last time out, Jordan was on the trail of a rare Agatha Christie tome. Now she's searching for some first editions of Dorothy L. Sayers books, missing and presumed stolen from her employer's vast and valuable library. The Maffini women are smart and funny and they put it all on the page. They also know their Golden Age British mysteries and how to drop the clues, along with the dead bodies, into the story. This is great fun for all fans of puzzle plots.

Phantoms of Breslau by Marek Krajewski. Translated by Danusia Stok

Melville International Crime, 288 pages, $25.95

Who knew Polish noir could be this good? Thanks to an excellent translation, we get the full flavour of Breslau (now Wroclaw) in 1919. The Great War has just ended and Breslau is still German. Detective Inspector Mock is summoned to a crime scene of pure horror. Four sailors have been murdered and savagely mutilated, their bodies dumped on an island in the River Oder. Mock goes into the bowels of the city in his search for the killer and, as he uncovers clues, he unwittingly provides the murderer with more victims. Krajewski never lets go of the narrative and his vision of mean streets is as dark as it gets. This is the fourth book in the series so far and it's better than the other three.

The Inheritor's Powder by Sandra Hempel

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WW Norton, 352 pages, $27.50

Sandra Hempel combines a brilliant history of arsenic, one of the world's oldest poisons, with a real-life detective tale that has a great twist at the end. In short, it has it all. The subtitle is "A Tale of Arsenic, Murder and the New Forensic Science." We're in the 19th century, which began with a plague of murders by arsenic, a readily available substance that could kill someone without leaving proof of murder. Hempel takes us easily through the historical background and on to the Bodle Case. In November, 1833, wealthy John Bodle and three of his servants were taken seriously ill. Bodle died and his considerable estate was headed for his relatives when a local doctor called it murder. Arsenic – "The Inheritor's Powder" – was the cause of death. The book then turns to a whodunit using the "new" forensics tools of the day. I couldn't put this one down.

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