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New in crime fiction: A guide to the latest mysteries and thrillers

ERASING MEMORY By Scott Thornley, Random House Canada, 320 pages, $29.95

Toronto ad man Scott Thornley certainly delivers the odd in this debut introducing Detective Mac MacNeice and his homicide crew based in Dundurn, Ont. (Hamilton in disguise). We have a dead girl whose brain has been liquefied, a body in the lake and a man who "flies 14 feet off a balcony." There are exotic nude photos, a lot of music and a soupçon of Eastern European history.

The novel's opening is Thornley at his best. He's is a photographer and it shows in the perfect details of light and shadow, and the careful positioning of the dead girl. MacNeice's forte as a cop is his ability to look at the scene and let it speak to him as he minutely observes.

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But the promise drifts in the second half. There are glaring clichés: Detective Fira Aziz, a serious and intelligent woman, watches a man plunge to his death literally at her feet and then goes to MacNeice's home and does the boring old panties-and-man's-shirt number. The bad guy actually tells MacNeice, "You have no idea what you're dealing with."

None of this ruins Erasing Memory. Some of the writing is very good, MacNeice has a lot going for him and the rest of the crew is plausible. This is the first of a projected six novels, with the sequel set for next year. If Thornley can keep the plotlines moving, improve the dialogue and build on the characters, this series will be a real winner.

THE QUIET TWIN By Dan Vyleta, HarperCollins Canada, 284 pages, $29.99

Dan Vyleta's auspicious debut novel, Pavel & I, was set in both the Old and New worlds, suitable for a man who's lived in many places and now calls Canada home. The Quiet Twin returns Vyleta to Europe - to Vienna, Nazis and a serial killer. This is the world of small individual crimes set against a backdrop of pure evil. It is territory worked by major writers such as Philip Kerr, but Vyleta holds his own.

Dr. Anton Beer specializes in forensic psychology. He's asked to investigate a series of murders in a Vienna apartment building. The man who asks is a Nazi, and Beer has more than one reason for wanting to be ignored by the occupying forces. When he takes on the care of a paralyzed woman, he has another reason to fear. Vyleta builds an atmosphere of fear and paranoia, but doesn't lose the thread of his story. With The Quiet Twin, he proves he's no one-book wonder.

SLOW RECOIL By C.B. Forrest, RendezVous Crime, 296 pages, $16.95

Toronto Hold-Up Squad Detective Charlie McKelvey returns in this excellent sequel to Forrest's first novel, The Weight of Stones. McKelvey is retired, recovering from investigating his son's death. He's asked to look into the disappearance of a recent immigrant from Bosnia. McKelvey soon finds himself the prime suspect in a murder. There's a solid plot and excellent use of Toronto's famed ethnic diversity, plus a side trip into the fragmented history of the Balkans.

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THE PUMPKIN MURDERS By Judith Alguire, Signature Editions, 205 pages, $16.95

This second novel brings Trevor and Margaret Rudley, proprietors of the Pleasant Inn, and their friend Elizabeth Miller, back for autumn in southern Ontario. The harvest is barely over and murder is afoot in the lovely hills. Two unexpected guests are hiding out from drug dealers in Montreal. Then bad things start to happen and the Rudleys and their gang are on the trail. This series doesn't quite measure up to the standard set by Louise Penny, but this is a good escape novel, with charming characters, a bit of humour and a fine puzzle plot.

MURMURS OF THE DEAD By Al MacLachlan, Ekstasis Editions, 288 pages, $24.99

MacLachlan's first novel, After the Funeral, was a good story, simply told. Murmurs of the Dead, set in coastal B.C. and loosely based on stories MacLachlan wrote as a reporter, has some great moments and a fine premise, the hidden secrets of a small town, but MacLachlan wants to do too much and loses the narrative thread. Still, he has a great eye for the nuances of his beloved landscapes and people.

THE DEATH FAIRY By Laird Stevens, Paris Press, 181 pages, $14.95

I don't, as a rule, care for mystery novels that incorporate the supernatural, but I am addicted to True Blood. So I read this light work by Laird Stevens. It features Asia, who grew up in a strange old house in the country. She is able to move through worlds, speak to the dead and generally do some very strange things. So can her little girl. Then Asia opens the door to a world of nightmares, and everything she's every known is threatened by a being known as The Death Fairy.Good or evil? I didn't find this book anywhere close to Sookie Stackhouse or light Stephen King, but it does have a decent central plot and if you're tired of vampires and werewolves, it's a change.

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Margaret Cannon reviews crime and mystery books for The Globe and Mail.

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