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The Snowman By Jo Nesbo, Random House Canada, 454 pages, $24.95

There are no serial killers in Norway. At least, there are none anyone knows about. That's one of the many snippets in the complex plot of this mesmerizing novel by Jo Nesbo, the fifth Harry Hole book in English translation.

There are so many good crime novels coming out of Scandinavia these days that it's almost become a cliché. But Harry Hole is different. Yes, he's a policeman, just like Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander and Karin Fossum's Inspector Sejer. But he's also difficult, isolated and a natural loner, more akin to Philip Marlowe than Wallander. There is a sense of loss in Hole, and this novel plays it up. He's an alcoholic who's stopped drinking, subject to the desperate needs of addiction and the ruthless physical symptoms of the "dry drunk." His girlfriend, Rakel, has found love and meaning with a new man. She's planning to marry to move to Africa. His closest friend and mentor is gone, shot dead. What keeps Harry moving from one day to the next is the job. In this case, one missing woman who may be dead.

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Nesbo begins this story with a small boy's terror. The cause? A snowman, turned round, staring into his room, not out toward the world. And that's the brilliance of Nesbo: He takes the simple and cozy, and transforms it into the terrorizing. The snowman is what binds the deaths of several women, all young, all mothers. Harry, the only policeman in Norway with "experience" dealing with a serial killer (in Australia), uncovers the case and then begins tracking the clues, which lead him in some very strange directions.

I guessed the identity of the killer early, but that didn't detract from the story at all. I wanted to see just why and how, and what happens to the other people in this story. The characters are marvellous, the plot is tight and the setting perfect - just at the edge of a Norwegian winter - and the concept original. Serial killers may have become ubiquitous in North America, but in Norway, they're still a novelty.

Heresy By S.J. Parris, Penguin Canada, 435 pages, $25

Move over C.J Sansom, S.J. Parris has arrived. This brilliant historical thriller is set in England at the time of the Elizabethan accession and the religious turmoil of the Tudor era. Instead of lawyer Matthew Shardlake, we have no less a luminary than poet/scientist/priest Giordano Bruno. In that character alone, journalist Parris (the pseudonym for Stephanie Merritt of the Observer) gives the depth of science, theology, and vision to her story. We all know how Bruno is going to end up but this peek at his beginnings is better than a host of dry histories.

The best historical mysteries have to take us right into the centre of the period, provide enough background to make the story plausible and enough realism to make the characters and story satisfying. Parris delivers all three, adding generous dollops of intrigue and charming bits like the entourage of a ridiculous Polish prince who hopes to become Queen Elizabeth's consort. It's those little details that make Heresy special.

Arcadia Falls By Carol Goodman, Ballantine, 363 pages, $29.95

After reading The Lake of Dead Languages, I decided never to visit a picturesque rural village again. Now, in Arcadia Falls, Carol Goodman has returned to another lovely scene in upstate New York for a haunting novel of psychological suspense.

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Once again, we have a woman in search of a place of safety. Meg Rosenthal's husband is dead. Her daughter Sally is angry and spiteful, and fearful. Meg gets a job at a private school, where she hopes that good teaching and a pastoral environment will heal her sadness and her relationship with her daughter. But there are hidden secrets in Arcadia Falls, and Sally, in particular, is about to uncover one.

Goodman's forte is building suspense and keeping the story moving. This novel delivers all of that plus engaging characters and a really lovely, spooky setting.

Once a Spy By Keith Thomson, Doubleday, 320 pages, $29.95

It takes a lot to engage me in a spy novel. I want smarts, thrills and some realism in the spycraft. My icons are writers like John le Carré and Len Deighton, and not too many spymasters can hit those peaks. Once a Spy, a debut novel by Keith Thomson, gets close. This tale of a doddering old spy and his slightly addled son has plenty of twists and turns, and you'll find it very difficult to put aside.

City of Dragons By Kelli Stanley, St. Martin's, 335 pages, $31.99

This is a terrific debut for a new series. The setting is San Francisco in 1940, the victim is Eddie Takahashi and the detective is PI Miranda Corbie. The murder takes place during Chinese New Year in the midst of a mobbed "Rice Bowl Party" to raise funds for Chinese refugees. That ambiance is carried through the book as Corbie hunts for a killer. There are a few first-novel bobbles, but this is a great start for what appears to be a fine series that will take us through the Second World War and onward.

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Dimiter By William Peter Blatty, Forge, 299 pages, $31.99

Dimiter is the United States' most feared "Agent from Hell." We know he is because he's able to change shape, size and languages. Yep, the CIA has a genuine Otherworldly Being on its staff. In Albania, in 1970, he's arrested, tortured and escapes, and seizes something from an isolated monastery. Is he an angel? A demon? Don't know, don't care. We know that things are going to heat up and that whatever Dimiter took out of Albania is going to be a Threat to Civilization As We Know It. This one is Blatty (best known as the author of The Exorcist) channelling Robert Ludlum and Dan Brown.

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