(Anthony Russo)
By Kevin Allman
Sunday, July 23, 2006

Unlike many other genre series, mysteries are often better the second, third or 15th time out. The best authors deepen their detectives, turn caricature sketches into character studies and hone familiar rhythms until a P.I. or an amateur sleuth feels like an old friend. Their cities evolve from generic backgrounds into bas-relief; supporting characters evolve from human props to essential sidekicks with their own inner lives.

Five modern masters of mystery are back this month, each with characters whose lives have evolved with every volume but whose core values have remained reassuringly familiar.

She Covers the Waterfront

"Smalltimore" -- the little-town interconnectedness between everyone and everything in big-city Baltimore -- informs Laura Lippman's latest Tess Monaghan mystery, No Good Deeds (Morrow, $24.95). This time out, the reporter-turned-P.I. is picking up some easy money teaching investigative techniques to greenhorn reporters at the daily paper. Meanwhile, her good-hearted but soft-headed musician boyfriend, Crow, is befriending a teenage would-be criminal who tried to run a penny-level scam on him.

With its varied neighborhoods, tangled politics and surfeit of quirky characters, Baltimore is a town prime for mystery, and Lippman has knotted a taut, intricate tale that leads from City Hall to church soup kitchens and from the tony cul de sacs of Guilford and Roland Park to the mean streets of East Baltimore.

Tess (and Lippman) know the politics of the newsroom as well as the politics of city hall, and her insider eye makes No Good Deeds a pleasure. It doesn't take her long to discover that her consultancy at the Beacon-Light is really an end run around journalistic ethics; since a private eye isn't bound by reportorial principles of conduct, the paper is hoping she can steer them toward some scandalous stories while technically keeping its own hands clean. "Newspapers are so besieged right now," she explains to Crow. "On one hand, they're all playing Caesar's wife, suspending and even firing reporters for even the tiniest slip-ups. But they're also trying to compete with the weekly tabloids on the gossip front." Tess has always been a terrific sleuth, even if her earlier adventures were sometimes uneven. Here, Lippman has pulled off the near-impossible: writing a conventional procedural that still feels fresh. It's impossible not to like the complex, all-too-real Monaghan, a strong, wry detective prone to "derailing my own gravy train." How can you resist a tough cookie who is nonetheless sentimental enough to turn down all work around Valentine's Day, which is to private investigators what April 15 is to accountants?

Don't Cry for England

Ruth Rendell's 20th Reginald Wexford mystery, End in Tears (Crown, $25), finds her indomitable inspector faced with two seemingly unrelated crimes: a chunk of concrete thrown over an overpass onto a busy highway and, weeks later, the murder of Amber, a teenage single mother left dead in a lane after a night of clubbing. Thus begins one of Rendell's trademark labyrinthine plots, one that keeps leading back to babies: Amber's orphaned son seems to be oddly neglected by her survivors, while on the homefront Wexford's daughter Sylvia has agreed to be a surrogate mother under particularly unusual circumstances.

End in Tears is not Rendell's best -- the international scope of the plot would suit London better than Wexford's Sussex, and the inspector's personal life parallels the main mystery a bit too patly -- but the pleasure here is seeing the long-in-the-tooth sleuth still outwitting his more callow partners. Much is made of the puzzling ways of modern young adults, and readers will be amused at the seventyish Rendell (and Wexford) trying to understand a subculture that includes casual hookups at a place called the Bling-Bling Club.

Rendell casts a particularly wry eye at Wexford's attempts to adapt to particulars of today's world, from unwed mothers to global warming and quite a bit more. At the top of that list is Wexford's extraordinarily politically correct subordinate, Hannah Goldsmith, ever on guard for displays of racism or sexism, who finds herself attracted to an Indian inspector whose courtship manners are strictly Old World. Goldsmith provides the mystery with humor, a touch of romance and its inevitable hairsbreadth escape.

The Lady Vanishes

Marcia Muller's private eye, Sharon McCone, is a Berkeley baby-boom gumshoe. Once a crusading junior P.I. at a Bay Area legal collective, she now owns her own whiz-bang agency on the San Francisco Embarcadero, complete with a large staff (carefully racially and sexually balanced), three houses and a Cessna.

In her 22nd outing, Vanishing Point (Mysterious, $24.99), McCone has married her longtime partner, Hy Ripinsky, just as she's hired to reopen a cold case. Years before, San Luis Obispo artist Laurel Greenwood disappeared, leaving a husband and two daughters, one of whom hires McCone to solve the mystery once and for all. Soon a second person connected with the case has disappeared under similar circumstances, and McCone's cold case goes hot as she tracks Greenwood up and down California and into Oregon. Before long, she has discovered a mysterious apartment hideaway on Golden Gate Park, someone has taken a shot at her, and she becomes convinced that Laurel Greenwood is still very much alive but out of sight.

Vanishing Point is crammed full of people -- perhaps too full -- from previous McCone mysteries. It's a patchwork quilt of characters, obviously dear to both detective and author; a couple of them could have been eliminated to better effect, but Muller does a good job keeping everyone straight. All these old friends help underscore Muller's point about Laurel Greenwood: To McCone, friendship and love are all, and walking out on family and friends is the ultimate crime.

The Perfectionist

Muller's husband, Bill Pronzini, is even more prolific than his wife. His most famous creation is the Nameless Detective; in some two dozen mysteries, neither the author nor his characters ever mentioned the fellow's name. In The Crimes of Jordan Wise (Walker, $23.95), though, Pronzini's protagonist is named in the title, and his story is laid out on the first page. While sitting in a Caribbean bar, Wise tells a stranger that he has committed three perfect crimes, and the rest is flashback.

Despite the tropical setting, the story is pure noir: Wise pines for Annelise, a tough woman who doesn't love him back but who agrees to run away with him if he can figure out how to keep her in style. Annelise is the juicy apple of Eden -- irresistible, destructive -- and Pronzini paints her in classic femme fatale terms: "She stood on the stringpiece astern, bathed in sunlight in a way that made her seem to glow . . . a tentative, nervous smile on her unpainted mouth that came and went like a blinking sign." In her white shorts and halter, she's Lana Turner in "The Postman Always Rings Twice," and in her presence Wise is hopeless.

But not hapless. One "perfect crime" later, the two have swindled a California company and are now living in paradise, set for life. But, of course, there are more serpents, more apples, in their sun-drenched Eden, and Wise soon finds himself pulling off two more crimes in hopes of saving his skin.

Like an expert fisherman, Pronzini spins out his yarn to its inevitable conclusion; there's only one way to end the old story of a lovesick sap and a dame whose appetites can never be satisfied. The Crimes of Jordan Wise is a neat piece of writing: James M. Cain by way of Jimmy Buffett.

Serial Keller

Lawrence Block has penned several successful detective series, most notably the hard-boiled novels with P.I. Matt Scudder and the lighter capers of bookseller-turned-burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr. With the publication of Hit Parade (Morrow, $24.95), he cements another star on his walk of fame. It's the third installment of the adventures of John Keller, a professional hit man who just wants to be done with the killing and get home to his stamp collection. (His specialty is Martinique.) Less a novel than a succession of loosely connected short stories, Hit Parade shines when Block uses his wicked funny bone. In "Keller's Designated Hitter," he's after a pro ballplayer whose hitting average hasn't kept up with his expensive contract; in "Proactive Keller," he picks up a bit of work via a chance conversation with a seatmate on a flight -- "Strangers on a Train" meets "Snakes on a Plane."

The best of these morbid little bonbons is "Keller the Dog Killer," in which the hit man gets his most unusual target to date: Fluffy, a pit bull that's been terrorizing the other dogs in Central Park. Before long, Fluffy is the least of his worries, as two pet owners each hire him to kill the other.

Block writes in the same terse, laconic style that his antihero employs, with rat-a-tat dialogue and a matter-of-fact attitude toward the business of death. Should Hollywood attempt to revive the sly, dark "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" anthology, Keller's adventures would be a fine blueprint. With two other classic series under his belt, Block has accomplished what few other mystery writers have: a detective trifecta. ยท

Kevin Allman is a novelist and reviewer who lives in Portland, Ore.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company