Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

SUSPENSE: German powerhouse fires salvo

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It's a toss-up whether Schneewittchen muss sterben or its English title, Snow White Must Die (Minotaur, 384 pages, $29), is more giggle-inducing. But there's no doubt at all that this vanguard North American salvo by German powerhouse Nele Neuhaus is the best thing to come out of Deutschland since the new gullwing Mercedes SLS.

It's not that the blond and comely Neuhaus -- a doppelganger for her series heroine, Frankfurt violent crimes Det. Insp. Pia Kirchhoff -- hasn't had some practice. Snow is her fourth teaming of Pia and her boss, the aristocratic Det. Supt. Oliver von Bodenstein, and it's sold a million and counting in Europe.

She's since knocked off two more, and has 3.5 million books in print. Despite the German nomenclature and unfamiliar terrain, this superb English version by Steven T. Murray (the translators never get any credit) should get the entire series here and bump that sales figure by a factor of 10.

Tobias Sartorius doesn't expect a homecoming parade when he returns to the hamlet of Altenhain after serving 10 years for killing two former girlfriends while still a teenager. But nor does he expect vicious beatings by masked intruders after the skeleton of one of his alleged victims is discovered and another girl goes missing, or that his mother has barely survived an unknown attacker in Frankfurt.

All that and more beckons Kirchhoff and von Bodenstein to solve a deliciously tangled village whodunit full of stylistic vigour, meaty atmospherics and sheer logistical prowess. Neuhaus juggles cop-life angst, a labyrinth of sub-plots and a gaggle of villagers, all suspects, allotting each just the right amount of blood-and-sinew detail they deserve while making them tangible.

German precision and gut-clenching drama? That Mercedes gullwing has nothing on Fraulein Neuhaus.

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There's nasty, vicious, dog-eat-dog squalour, and then there's Tom Benn's 1996 Manchester, weeks after an IRA bomb ripped apart the city centre. The grim setting of The Doll Princess (Vintage, 256 pages, $17) might as well be Beirut or Belfast back in the day, but small-time thugs like Henry Bane and his knuckle-dragging pal Gordon manage to survive.

Still, Bane is a sentimental lad, of sorts, and he's bothered when a murdered prostitute turns out to be a childhood flame. So begins a bloody mission to separate her killers from the scummy cast of low-life drug dealers, loan sharks, blackmailers, hit men, dodgy coppers and human-traffickers that infest the blighted Wythenshawe slums.

If you can sort the incessant rap-music riffs and thick-as-a-brick Manc dialogue that makes Coronation Street patter sound like the Queen's English, you'll discover that Bane's odyssey is a visceral, honest and riveting urban-noir debut.

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Don't you just hate it when your nag runs the field early on, then fades in the stretch? That's the rip-it-up bet you make with the latest Alex Delaware/Milo Sturgis instalment from bestseller-list regular Jonathan Kellerman.

The 28th pairing of the too-curious child psychologist and rumpled L.A. detective in as many years, Guilt (Ballantine, 400 pages, $30) bolts the gate smartly with an infant's 60-year-old skeleton uncovered by a felled sycamore and the bodies of another baby and a God-fearing nanny found in a nearby L.A. park.

Unrivalled for clean dialogue and logical, escalating suspense, Kellerman populates the suspect list (including a Brangelina super-couple clone) with his usual acumen. But his red herrings, like some puzzling and gratuitously baseless cult speculation, are sadly transparent, and the ending is an aw-shucks no-brainer.

It's as if Kellerman just got tired of the whole thing.

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If you're not familiar with Lawrence Block's work, it's not for want of effort. A Mystery Writers of America grand master, the venerable New Yorker has published more than 100 short stories, 50 novels and five separate series since 1957 -- most memorably the Bernie Rhodenbarr Burglar series and the decades-spanning Matthew Scudder P.I. capers which resumed in 2011 with A Drop of the Hard Stuff after a six-year hiatus.

Hit Me (Mulholland, 352 pages, $30) is the fifth in yet another series starring bloodless, stamp-collecting hit-man John Keller, and it might be hoped that Block has finally run out of scribbled scenarios on his bar napkins.

Keller, now a contractor with a wife and baby daughter, struggles with the housing collapse in post-Katrina New Orleans and takes on kill assignments in Dallas, New York and Denver to buy pricey stamps. Oh, and one on a Caribbean cruise ship with his wife, who gets "hot" over his assassin ways. Nice.

All this casual homicide is intended to be outré shocking, but these short-story extracts are more like cobbled-together scripts for a one-season sitcom (maybe My Dad, the Hitman), its dithery banter reminiscent of that Arnie Schwarzenegger classic-of-realism, True Lies.

Despite its pedigree, Hit Me strikes out. Badly.

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 9, 2013 J9

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