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The Lock Artist By Steve Hamilton, St. Martin's, 340 pages, $29.99

Readers know Steve Hamilton for his excellent Alex McKnight series, set in rural Michigan, but his standalone work is some of the best around. The Lock Artist is superior in every way: intriguing, carefully crafted characters and a devious plot, all told in a the haunting voice of a young man who has no voice. Just for spice, there's a really good love story, too.

We meet the boy known as Mike when he's serving a very long prison sentence for a crime he says he doesn't regret. He takes us back to his life in bits, skipping from place to place and time to time. He is an "elective mute." He hasn't spoken since he was 9, when something terrible happened. He isn't ready to tell us about that yet, so we keep expecting something to happen and for him to speak.

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Mike is an artist. He has always been able to draw well, but in adolescence, his artistry takes a different form. He develops a talent for locks, learning about them and opening them. He nurtures this gift, using it first to make "friends" with the local kids. Eventually, it will take him to his guide and mentor, a man known as The Ghost, the king of the boxmen.

Hamilton slowly builds this story in layers, using time as a device of suspense and never losing the threads. How and why Mike ends up in jail is only a small part of this incredibly clever novel. As a sideline, you can learn all you ever want to know about safe-cracking and lock-picking. Above all, don't skip to the end.



The Godfather of Kathmandu By John Burdett, Knopf, 298 pages, $32

Can you build a crime novel around the search for Buddhist enlightenment? You can if you're John Burdett and your detective is Sonchai Jitpleecheep of the Royal Thai Police. This latest episode in the terrific series that began with Bangkok 8 is smart and funny and, in a pinch, a great substitute for an afternoon of Zen.

Sonchai is, as always, in a vexed place. His erratic boss, Police Colonel Vikorn, has made him consigliore (too much Godfather on DVD) in his endless battle with his boss, Army General Zinna. Then there's a case that could put Sonchai right into line for promotion and power, but it's not in line with his studies under his guru, a lama exiled from Kathmandu. Then there's Tara, the Tantric yoga lady, who really puts Sonchai to the test.

Inventive, comic and original - I could add the adjectives forever. The Godfather of Kathmandu is the best book yet in one of our cleverest crime series. Don't miss it.



I, Sniper By Stephen Hunter, Simon & Schuster, 418 pages, $29.99

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The latest chapter in what is becoming the Swagger family saga. Daddy Earl, the Arkansas ace in Hot Springs and Havana, has given way to son Bob Lee, ex-Marine and tough, tough, tough. These guys make Jack Reacher seem fairly tame. But the hot action belies a first-rate story and great characters.

A sniper kills a movie star (Jane Fonda barely fictionalized), a couple of ex-Weathermen and a comic. The only thing they have in common is opposition to the Vietnam War. After 40 years, does anyone still care? When a much-admired Marine sergeant becomes a suspect, and then commits suicide, it would appear the case is closed. But the FBI and Bob Lee Swagger spot some loose ends, and that takes the story in a whole new direction.



Silencer By James W. Hall, St. Martin's, 276 pages, $29.99

James W. Hall writes in the grand Florida tradition of John D. MacDonald. His settings are spectacular, his men smart and the women smarter.

Silencer finds his ongoing hero, Thorn, about to close a deal to give the state of Florida hundreds of acres of land that will become parkland for eternity. His partner in the deal is a rancher whose family dates back to the Spanish settlement.

Then the rancher is killed, shot dead in front of his family, and Thorn is kidnapped and tossed into a sinkhole. The question here isn't who but why? Fans know that Thorn will manage, although Hall has tossed some really serious obstacles in his way this time.

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The Sting of Justice By Cora Harrison, St. Martin's, 355 pages, U.S. $25.99

Fans of the late Ellis Peters, take note. Cora Harrison's series, set in 16th-century Ireland, is as good as the Brother Cadfael books, and laden with the same kind of local lore that made Shrewsbury Abbey come alive.

I have no idea if Mara, the lady judge and central character, is historically valid or not. The setting is the Burren in Ireland's west, a land with its own codes, keeps and laws. Mara is called to solve crimes and bring criminals to a very unique form of justice.

This book has a murder by bee sting, and it's as clever as ever you'll find. As with Peters, there's also a nice romantic twist and that adds a whole new dimension to the plot.



Evidence By Jonathan Kellerman, Ballantine, 356 pages, $35

After 25 years and 24 books, the Alex Delaware/Milo Sturgis series is just about written out. While Milo still has his investigative smarts, Delaware, in this novel, is used as a profiler rather than a therapist (does everyone remember that he's a psychologist who used to specialize in children?) and the good old days of killers with strange psychological quirks are past.

This time out, it's a garden-variety murder of an architect who has a fetish for taking his girlfriend for sexy romps in unfinished buildings. The detectives take lots of time-outs for large, well-described meals - a definite sign of plot decay.

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