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New in crime fiction: A guide to the latest releases

Field Grey By Philip Kerr, Putnam, 434 pages, $33.50

How and when does a brilliant author end a great series? Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes and then had to resurrect him. Agatha Christie gave Hercule Poirot a final case and a quiet demise. Recently, Henning Mankell finished his marvellous Kurt Wallander run with one devastating sentence. That brings us to Field Grey, Philip Kerr's seventh novel starring Berlin cop Bernie Gunther. For the past three novels, all set in the postwar world, Bernie has been on the run, in hiding, scratching by. He's 58, a survivor of two world wars and countless conspiracies. In Field Grey, Kerr's darkest and most complex Gunther book, we find him alone, lonely and forced, in the most graphic way, to face his personal and political pasts.

The plot, even for Kerr, is extraordinarily complicated. It's now 1954, and Bernie, living in Havana and working for gangster Meyer Lansky, heads for a hideout in Haiti, accompanied by a gorgeous revolutionary who's wanted for murder. He's arrested at sea, taken to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo, transferred to New York, taken back to Europe, and then passed from Russian to French and back to American covert operators.

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The target is Erich Mielke,a German Communist Party stalwart who, after service in Spain and Russia, is about to take over the East German secret police, the dreaded Stasi. Bernie, for complicated reasons, has saved Mielke's life twice. The hunt for Mielke, and his continued imprisonment by the various secret services, require Gunther to relive the past 25 years of his life, from the beginnings of the Nazi era (evoked in Kerr's first Gunther novel, March Violets, the first of the so-called Berlin Noir Trilogy) down to the late 1950s and Berlin before the Wall.

In the process of taking us back through his meetings with Mielke, Bernie also fills in gaps left by previous novels. We know he jumped from Berlin policeman to working for Reinhard Heydrich, that he endured the Russian front and ended the war in a prison camp. Field Grey, the name of the day-to-day uniform of the SS, fills in all the blanks, with some graphic tales of the final days of the Reich as well as life in a Russian PoW camp. It's all dark and strong and full of details that will haunt readers into the night. We can feel Bernie's strength and intelligence leading him on once more. This may or may not be the final Gunther novel, but the end is definitely near. Kerr has tidied up the plotlines and set the course. Field Grey is the best of a brilliant and beautifully written series but don't read it first. Start at the beginning of the Berlin Noir trilogy and stay for the full course.

Drawing Conclusions By Donna Leon, Atlantic Monthly, 272 pages, $26.95

Drawing Conclusions is Donna Leon's 20th novel set in Venice and featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti of the Venice Questura. Remarkably, for a long-running series, Leon's characters are more interesting now than they were 18 years ago. Even more remarkably, Leon's own skills, honed over so many books, have grown and matured, and that makes this most recent novel her best book so far.

As usual, we find Brunetti engaged in murder. Or, at least, a death. Costanza Altavilla was a widow, elderly, living alone. Her doctor says she died of a heart attack. It's all routine stuff, but something about it vexes Brunetti and he can't let it go. As he searches for clues in Signora Altavilla's blameless life, he's drawn further into the mystery of this very fascinating woman's secret. Why does she have women's lingerie in several different sizes in her guest room? What did she hear from the elderly men she regularly visited in a local home for the aged?

Leon's fans know to expect more than the usual puzzle plots, and her depictions of Venice provide a lot more than tourist tat. Brunetti's world is far from the gilded gondolas gliding along the Grand Canal, and it's pure pleasure to join him for a fine meal, a good coffee, an afternoon drink. Ultimately, we no longer care about plots or puzzles. Leon's characters are so delightful that we just want to spend time with them in one of the most beautiful cities on Earth.

The Guilty Plea By Robert Rotenberg, Simon & Schuster, 321 pages, $19.99

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Toronto criminal lawyer Robert Rotenberg hit a home run with Old City Hall, his first legal mystery set in his home town. Now, Rotenberg's characters, Detective Ari Greene, Officer Daniel Kennicott, and prosecutor Jennifer Raglan return, along with ace defence lawyer Ted DiPaulo, in a smart and well-executed sequel.

Terrance Wyler is the youngest son of a Toronto grocery dynasty, and he's embroiled in a nasty divorce from his wife, Samantha. While Wyler has "moved on" to a very public relationship with a Hollywood movie star, Samantha has become progressively more erratic, leaving threatening messages, staging confrontations. When Wyler turns up dead, stabbed in his kitchen with the couple's four-year-old son still asleep upstairs, Samantha is the logical suspect. And when Samantha turns up at her lawyer's office with the knife wrapped in a tea towel, she becomes the only suspect. Ari Greene isn't completely convinced, and even Jennifer Raglan, in charge of the Crown's case, is worried that she may be working to convict an innocent woman.

There's plenty of behind-the-scenes courtroom finagling in this book, all of it very realistic. There's also a lot of local Toronto lore and some interesting characters. This is a great book for summer pool reading.

One was a Soldier By Julia Spencer-Fleming, St. Martin's, 336 pages, $28.99

When last seen, at the end of I Shall Not Want, Reverend Clare Fergusson had exchanged her pastor's robe for a major's uniform and was off to fly a helicopter in Iraq. Her soulmate, Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne, was left behind in the small New York town of Miller's Kill. One was a Soldier, the latest chapter in their relationship, takes place 18 months later. Clare has returned to once again take up her position as pastor of the local Episcopalian church, and also resume her relationship with Russ. But no one comes back from war untouched. That's the subtext of this terrific novel.

Spencer-Fleming's series has always taken on social issues, and this episode takes on several. There's post-traumatic stress, America's hidden army of wounded veterans, re-entry back to civilian life and, just to keep it all moving, a murder that takes place amid the members of a veteran's support group. This is a tough, taut, story about very real problems in today's war-weary United States.

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Tampered By Ross Pennie, ECW , 300 pages, $24.95

This slick little medical thriller is the sequel to Tainted, the first Pennie novel that introduced public-health physician Dr. Zol Szabo. Tampered, set in Hamilton, Ont., proves Pennie - McMaster professor and practising physician - is no one-book wonder. This time out, the redoubtable Dr. Szabo is faced with a spate of food poisonings at Camelot Lodge, an upmarket residence for monied and well-connected senior citizens. It should be easy to identify the source, but Zol can't find it. Neither can his colleague, Hamish Wakefield, a specialist in microbes. But there's more to the deaths at Camelot than bad food. This one is a good weekend book.

Dead Light District By Jill Edmondson, Iguana, 264 pages, $11.99

This sequel to the amusing Blood and Groom finds Toronto private investigator Sasha Jackson on the trail of a missing Mexican hooker. Her client, a very up-market madam, wants her girl back. The girl has her own tale going, and it's interspersed with Sasha's investigation. Dead Light District isn't quite as good as Blood and Groom. Partly that's because commercial sex doesn't lend itself to the kind of broad comic lines Edmondson is reaching for, and partly it's because that kind of comic mystery, so beloved of fans of Janet Evanovich, winds down into parody and yoks all too quickly. But despite the dead pimps and ho jokes, there's a decent story here trying to get out.

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