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Beach-blanket thrillers

Publishers pump out some hot whodunits for the summer

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Australian author Max Barry has penned an inventive, brain-bending beach read.

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Australian author Max Barry has penned an inventive, brain-bending beach read.

Like Hollywood, with its summer movie blockbusters, publishers crank up their mystery-novel output for the cottage season. Here are some new entries vying for a spot on your beach-towel:

Lexicon, by Max Barry (Penguin, 400 pages, $29): By far the most inventive of the new crop is this scary-plausible brain-twister by an Australian marketing guru and futurist.

A shadowy organization of "poets" develops the art of persuasion into a science of coercion, isolating the words that will most compel population segments. But Emily, a recruit of great persuasive talent but rebellious nature, falls in love -- forbidden, because you can be compromised -- and steals a "bareword," a bit of core human programming that can compel anyone to do anything.

The exception is Emily's immune lover Harry, who, when we meet him, doesn't remember any of this and thinks he's someone else. Emily is after the sinister ºber-poet Yeats, his minions are after Emily to recover the bareword, and everybody is after Harry.

Funny, frantic, flashback-studded and fascinating, Lexicon is an intellectual hunt-and-kill thriller, a Bourne episode with brains.

-- -- --

Let It Burn, by Steve Hamilton (Minotaur, 288 pages, $30): This is a tale of two summers, decades apart, and second chances -- for retired, bullet-ridden Detroit cop Alex McKnight, the black kid he helped nail for the murder of a white woman, the families of both victim and perp... and, wistfully, for Motown itself.

Darryl King's prison release and his mother's unfailing belief in his innocence stir a long-buried hunch in McKnight -- something wrong with the confession, the case itself, something. Stirring the ashes brings a conviction the killer is still out there, confirmed when more bodies start falling and similar cases come to light.

Passion for character and a knack for atmospheric delivery have won high praise for the McKnight series, until now set in Michigan's remote Upper Peninsula. Applying these virtues to his battered and bruised hometown, Hamilton has gifted us with one of his best efforts.

-- -- --

Aftershock, by Andrew Vachss (Pantheon, 368 pages, $32): The New York children's lawyer applies his keen sense of outrage to an assassin-in-our-midst scenario that segues into a thoughtful courtroom drama. Ex-French Foreign Legionnaire Dell hunts a rape cult in Oregon in defence of a girls' softball star on trial for gunning down a popular schoolmate. Vigilante, victim or villain, Vachss' take-no-prisoners style cuts to the bone.

-- -- --

Stranglehold, by Robert Rotenberg (Touchstone, 368 pages, $30): Homicide detective Ari Greene's hunt for the killer of Toronto's top Crown attorney has hit a bit of a snag -- she's his secret lover, he's been charged with her murder and he's under house arrest until the trial. Good thing he has friends, high and low, who have his back.

This premise, and its resolution, would seem far-fetched if not for recent city-hall absurdities in Hogtown (and Montreal and Laval and... ). So, suspend disbelief and enjoy this Toronto criminal lawyer's polished whodunit-cum-courtroom drama.

-- -- --

The Kill Room, by Jeffery Deaver (Grand Central, 496 pages, $28): Quadriplegic forensic sleuth Lincoln Rhyme is back with his team, striving to pin the assassination of a rabble-rousing American ex-patriate in the Bahamas on a shadowy government agency that uses killer drones. The bad guys are a tad over-the-top, the plot overly manipulative and the finale over-thought, but the twisty, clue-laden plot is still classic Deaver.

-- -- --

The Doll, by Taylor Stevens (Crown, 352 pages, $28): If Lisbeth Salander had escaped an apocalyptic cult and transcended a Grade 6 education, she'd be Taylor Stevens. And if she'd had special-ops training and a knack for languages, she'd be Vanessa Michael Munroe.

The plot of this globe-trotting PI's body-strewn third outing is pure drivel -- Munroe is kidnapped and forced by a nefarious human-trafficker to deliver a U.S. senator's daughter to a high-end buyer -- but it's still a put-your-mind-on-neutral, guilty-pleasure thrill ride.

Associate Editor John Sullivan runs the Free Press Autos, Homes and Travel sections and specialty websites.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 13, 2013 G7

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