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New in crime fiction: The latest thrillers and mysteries

Before the Poison By Peter Robinson, McClelland & Stewart, 434 pages, $29.99

For a reminder of why Peter Robinson is one of Canada's best storytellers, look no further than the opening of this brilliant stand-alone novel. We are in Britain at Execution House, April 23, 1953, the day Grace Elizabeth Fox is to die for the murder of her husband. Robinson describes this barbaric event, once considered just and humane.

"Once at the gallows, she was placed in position over the chalked 'T' on the trapdoor, and the assistant pinioned her ankles with a leather strap. Mr. Pierrepoint took from his pocket a white cotton hood, which he placed over Grace's head, then he carefully and gently adjusted the leather-sheathed noose around her neck. When all was to his satisfaction, he stepped back, removed the safety pin and pushed the lever away from him in one sharp, swift motion. The trapdoor opened and Grace fell to her death. The whole business, from the cell to the eternal hereafter, took no longer than fifteen seconds."

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Sixty years later, Christopher Lowndes is making his way to an isolated manor house in the Yorkshire Dales, returning home after 35 years in California. He is an award-winning composer, specializing in background music for films. He and his adored wife, Laura, dreamed of retirement to this place. But Laura is dead and nothing is as it was supposed to be.

From the first, Lowndes is transfixed by isolated Kilnsgate House. He's also curious about its history and the strange sounds he hears at night. When he learns of the murder 60 years earlier, he's drawn to Grace Fox and begins to unearth the story of what happened.

That plot is nothing new in crime fiction, but Robinson paces the tale, centring it in the spectacular Yorkshire setting and offering a twist or three. Devotees of DI Alan Banks will be disappointed, but Chris Lowndes, unlikely sleuth, and Grace Fox, fascinating ghost and possible murderer, kept me reading.

Trick of the Dark By Val McDermid, HarperCollins, 397 pages, $22.99Charlie Flint is a psychiatrist in disgrace. As a criminal profiler, she was called to examine an accused murderer. She was convinced that the man was a potential killer, possibly even a killer, but that he hadn't committed the murder he was on trial for. Charlie's testimony freed him, and four young women died as a result.

Now the press, the victims' families and the British Medical Association all want Charlie as their pound of flesh. She is suspended. She's also in the throes of a thrilling new romance that threatens her marriage to Maria. Then comes a mysterious request from her old Oxford professor and mentor, who is convinced that her daughter's new lover is a serial killer, and wants Charlie to investigate.

This isn't one of Val McDermid's best books; the characterization is excellent, but the plot breaks down too soon. Most readers will guess the outcome, but that doesn't detract from the sheer fun of following Flint to the final confrontation.

The Burning Soul By John Connolly, Atria, 406 pages, $29.99

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John Connolly's Charlie Parker series continues to be one of the best of the second rank of American PI novels. This book, set in a strange and unforgiving Maine village called Pastor's Bay, is as good as Parker gets, as the detective searches for clues to murders old and new. Long ago and far from Pastor's Bay, Randall Haight killed a girl. He went to prison and, when released, was given a new identity. Now, a young girl has gone missing in Pastor's Bay, and Haight is receiving ominous notes indicating that someone is going to set him up for the crime. He wants Parker to find out who's taunting him. But as Parker digs, he finds many more secrets in Pastor's Bay, all of them are about to converge in a young girl's death.

The Bidding By Bill Haugland, Véhicule, 253 pages, $18.95

There was a time, not long ago, when newsrooms smelled strongly of cigarette smoke and burned coffee. Editors kept a bottle of rye in the drawer for emergencies, and crime reporters chased ambulances and police cars with cameras ready and notebooks in hand. That's the world Bill Haugland, former news anchor for a Montreal TV station, recreates in his Ty Davis novels. The first, Mobile 9, was a hot action thriller. The Bidding, which mixes murder with some nice arcane symbols, is just as good. Haugland does a great job of reconstructing news in Montreal in 1972.

The Red Floor By Sheila Kindellan-Sheehan, Véhicule, 303 pages, $18.95

This well-crafted puzzler by Sheila Kindellen-Sheehan, of Pointe-Claire, Que., is filled with the kinds of plot twists readers love. There is a dead child, drowned in the family pool under the very nose of his father. The boy's mother doesn't just accuse daddy of carelessness; she is convinced that it's cold, intentional, murder. That gets her rich and powerful father to hire the best detective money can buy to investigate.

The River Killers By Bruce Burrows, Touchwood Editions, 258 pages, $14.95

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Bruce Burrows, ex-fisherman and commercial diver, knows his oceanography, and that gives this debut novel, featuring Danny Swanson of the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans, considerable credibility. Add a terrific Vancouver location and a plot with a solid ecological-disaster scare, and you have a very good first book. Danny seems destined to return, which makes Burrows a writer to watch.

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