To Hell and Back

In Keeping Watch, by Laurie King (Bantam, $24), protagonist Allen Carmichael is a 53-year-old Vietnam War veteran who lives in a shadow world. He uses his surveillance skills to obtain airtight evidence of domestic or sexual abuse, then helps the victims (primarily children) disappear to build a new life elsewhere. Each of his successes is an atonement for his actions in Vietnam. But after more than 20 years of this career, Carmichael is determined to retire and live a normal life.

Enter a 12-year-old boy named Jamie O'Connell, who breaks through the barrier that has long protected Carmichael's heart. There is something odd about the motherless boy's situation, and even odder about the father who tortures him emotionally and brutalizes him with bursts of physical violence. Carmichael is drawn into the case in an attempt to figure out if the boy's father is a monster -- or if the truth is even more appalling.

The idea of a Vietnam vet as hero has been used often before in crime fiction, but seldom so effectively. A good quarter of King's book details Carmichael's combat experiences in Vietnam. These sections, the most moving in the book, demonstrate King's amazing range as a writer. She builds a finely tuned characterization of a man caught up in a madness that rips his moral center and topples his self-image forever. King has clearly done her homework on the war, and the intensity of her focus bonds the reader with Carmichael.

There is no macho posturing in the wartime episodes, no veneer of gung-ho bravery, no mask of black humor. King makes it plain that Carmichael was surrounded by horror and that every second of it has affected him deeply, shaping him into the man he has become. This connection between past and present allows King to pull off the near-impossible when she comes to the contemporary sections. Rather than appearing shallow or contrived by comparison, they provide even more insight on how war can affect a man forever.

This book does not belong to either one of King's popular series. Freed from the need to reprise characters or familiar situations, she has written a book that will stay with readers for a long time. This is encouraging to lovers of the genre. Ever since Harlan Coben broke out spectacularly onto the bestseller lists with his fine stand-alone novels, there has been a stampede among mystery authors to venture outside their series in hopes of duplicating his success. Departing from her routine, King has pushed herself and taken chances to write a book that has real heart.

Noir Times Three

London noir fans have reason to rejoice this month as Ken Bruen's White Trilogy hits our shores (Justin, Charles; paperback, $15). This collection of three loosely connected novellas is beautifully written in a style that ranges from brutal to darkly funny to downright poetic. Bruen does a masterful job of depicting the bleak streets of modern-day London, then creating characters who gradually reveal themselves to be touchingly human in spite of their surroundings. The greatest testament to his skill is that I began the book hating the characters for being violent, corrupt and cynical, yet reached the final pages desperately hoping they would find some happiness in their stark lives. Factor in London street slang, male prostitution, an ethnically diverse cast, plenty of pub time and the Irish-English political undertones, and you have three compulsively readable tales of British crime and punishment.

As Posh as It Gets

Aunt Dimity Takes a Holiday, by Nancy Atherton (Viking, $23), is a thoroughly modern cozy and the eighth in a series that features protagonist Lori Shepherd and her confidante Aunt Dimity -- the spirit of a deceased and very proper British lady who communicates with Lori through a special blue journal. In this latest installment, Shepherd and her lawyer husband accompany their best friends to the palatial home of the Earl of Harrisford for the weekend.

Classic cozy elements abound: an heir who wants nothing to do with his inheritance, the preparation of a new will, conflicting family loyalties and relatives who aren't who they seem to be. A series of alarming acts spoils the dubious charm of an already strained weekend and pitches Shepherd into the thick of an investigation of why someone might be threatening Harrisford family members.

The setting is delicious: Readers get to spend a weekend at a posh English manor via descriptions of everything from the furnishings to the dresses, meals and even the closet space. But Atherton wastes few words and maintains a rapid pace as she gradually reveals the truth, making for a very enjoyable read.

Past Imperfect

Those of you who fell asleep over Scott Turow's last novel will want to check out Life Sentence, by David Ellis (Putnam, $25), the follow-up to Line of Vision, which won an Edgar for best first novel in 2001. Ellis balances plot, setting, pacing, characterization and surprises in just the right measure to create a compelling high-stakes courtroom drama. He also takes time to explore the psyche of lawyers as Turow does so well, but prefers to set his sights on a different generation, usually young turks still struggling to find that balance between personal success and unimpeachable ethics.

In Line of Vision, political legal adviser Jon Soliday is charged with the murder of a local rainmaker. He can clear his name only if he exposes a decades-old criminal incident that involved both himself and his boss, who is now a popular politician running for governor. The book is set in an unnamed city very much like Chicago, and the ward-level politics of the Windy City are apparent as Soliday picks his way through various alliances and tries to find out who his friends really are.

However, the political elements matter less than the personal ones in this nicely layered story. Not only is Soliday forced to confront his notions of loyalty and friendship; he must also face a truth that has haunted him for decades, impairing his ability to reconcile himself to his involvement in the old crime. This inner battle adds exceptional depth to Life Sentence. *

Katy Munger, the author of nine mysteries, is working on her 10th.