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SUSPENSE: Frantic, violent, humorous killer hunt

Graphic novelist Ellis takes urban noir to new level

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In a city gone mad, a slightly deranged cop is… a pain in the ass. And a target.

Before NYPD Det. John Tallow aces a naked, evicted tenant who has blown away his partner, a stray shotgun blast reveals a locked-down apartment full of guns — all arranged in a meticulous pattern, all used in unsolved homicides over two decades.

Not a good start to the day.

Set up to take the fall in a political firestorm that the revelation of 200-odd errant murders will doubtless bring, the burned-out and unloved Tallow discovers the flat is a memory chip, a bloody paean to old gods, a totemic Gun Machine (Mulholland, 320 pages, $29), created by an unknown assassin-for-hire and the wickedly fertile mind of English graphic novelist Warren Ellis.

What ensues is a frantic, ferociously violent and grotesquely humorous fever-vision of a cop procedural, a CSI-Hell’s Kitchen hunt for the Hunter and his high-powered patrons. As Tallow recovers his detecting mojo with the aid of a seriously warped crime-scene forensics duo, Scarly and Bat, his quarry fends off tree-and-stream visions of pre-European Mannahatta long enough to add Tallow to his prey list.

Overlain with "ghost maps" of memory, history, warp-speed finance, police districts and real-world power and influence, Ellis’s idea-strewn caper takes urban-noir fantasy to a whole new level.
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You might think that physiologically suspect thought-bubbles, attributed to an ex-military German shepherd named Maggie, would confirm Robert Crais’ lapse into irrelevance as a crimewriter.

But it ain’t so. In fact, Suspect (Putnam, 320 pages, $30) is a bit of a renaissance for the bestselling L.A. author after a decade of forgettable books.

It’s not just that Crais’ take on the LAPD’s K-9 Platoon culture is well-researched and fascinating, or that his doggie-view imaginings are restrained and well-timed. It’s that both are appropriate, even critical, to the evolving "pack" relationship between Maggie and her new L.A. police handler, Scott James, upon which the book turns.

Both Maggie and Scott are scarred and PTSD-rattled survivors of attacks that killed their partners — her marine handler in an Afghan IED explosion, his cruiser-mate in a dead-of-night street battle with five masked gunmen. When Scott’s off-the-books investigation of that night links three murders, bent cops and an unsolved diamond heist, it’s a hair-raising but cathartic path to recovery for both.

It’s not quite a return to the visceral emotion and cut-with-a knife atmospheric magic of L.A. Requiem, Voodoo River or even The Last Detective, but Suspect is a welcome resurgence by one of America’s top crime talents.

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The Third Bullet, by Stephen Hunter (Simon & Schuster, 496 pages, $30): The gung-ho Baltimore author’s aging series hero, former marine sharpshooter Bob Lee Swagger, tackles the JFK assassination on the eve of its 50th anniversary. A fast-paced, cat-and-mouse conspiracy whodunit leavened (and sometimes hampered) by a meticulous guns-and-ballistics analysis. Fanciful or plausible? You decide.

Safe House, by Chris Ewan (Minotaur, 448 pages, $30): A top-notch blackmail/conspiracy thriller set on the idiosyncratic Isle of Man, by the author of the well-received Good Thief’s Guide series. A local plumber’s motorcycle crashes, his passenger vanishes, and that’s somehow linked to his sister’s suicide, British security, a Dutch oil magnate and an environmentalist’s murder. Well-drawn characters propel non-stop intrigue.

Proof of Guilt, by Charles Todd (William Morrow, 352 pages, $20): Revenge figures large in the disappearance of the co-owners of a Madeira-importing firm as this odd American mother-and-son writing team scripts their 15th post-Second World War British policier starring intrepid Scotland Yard Inspector Ian Rutledge. But with its predictable course and mannered, vastly derivative and not terribly enlightening "period" execution, the mystery is why anyone still cares.

John Sullivan is editor of the Free Press Autos, Homes and Travel sections and specialty websites.

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