Spring is heavy-hitter season in the U.S. mystery/crime/thriller biz, but there are few home runs this time around.
The best of the new crop is American craftsman Jeffery Deaver's The Skin Collector (Grand Central, 448 pages, $31), a grisly, clue-laden hunt for a killer who tattoos young women with poison, starring wheelchair-bound forensic curmudgeon Lincoln Rhyme in his 11th outing.
Rhyme's familiar gang -- NYPD detectives Amelia Sachs, Lon Sellitto and Mel Cooper, newbie crime scene officer Ron Pulaski and long-suffering aide Thom Reston -- are all front-and-centre for a shamelessly manipulative page-turner full of Deaver's signature moves: frantic pacing, forensic minutiae, blindsides, gotchas and hairpin plot turns.
With a title harkening back to Rhyme's first appearance in 1997's classic The Bone Collector, it's a true return to classic form for Deaver after a disappointing run -- an awful James Bond revival (Carte Blanche, 2011), a hackneyed instalment of his Kathryn Dance series (XO, 2012) and last year's subpar Rhyme yarn, The Kill Room.
Welcome back, Mr. Deaver.
Next up to bat is Harlen Coben with Missing You (Dutton, 400 pages, $33), a shudder-inducing take on Internet dating and identity theft that finds NYPD detective Kat Donovan tripping over a murderous crew that kidnaps, extorts and then executes hopeful lovelorns. That this seamlessly dovetails with Donovan's two-decade-old search for her cop-father's killer is a signature Coben theme of unearthing and reconstructing unsolved crimes and untamed demons.
Despite his mainstay Myron Bolitar and Mickey Bolitar series, the New Jersey thrillmeister has racked up even more popular success with his standalone thrillers. Missing You will not derail that winning streak.
Mississippi author Greg Iles is back with his first novel in five years, Natchez Burning (William Morrow, 800 pages, $35), a Southern secrets-and-lies doorstopper once again set in Iles' hometown and starring a recurring protagonist, former prosecutor Penn Cage.
Intent on clearing his father Tom, an eminent local doctor accused in the mercy-killing of his black former nurse, Cage discovers the case is tied to 40-year-old racial murders by a particularly nasty Ku Klux Klan offshoot secretly run by one of the state's wealthiest businessmen. That sets off divergent, even conflicting, quests by father and son to balance love, honour and justice.
As with many ambitious projects (it's the first of a planned trilogy), the book is vastly overwritten and borderline pretentious in its assumed gravitas. And, stripped of its mostly worthy prose, decent characterizations and nicely atmospheric trappings, the story itself devolves both ineptly and tediously into a thoroughly melodramatic comic-book resolution.
All in all, a frustrating, unsatisfying dose of Southern discomfort for those with a lot of time on their hands.
The Target, by David Baldacci (Grand Central, 432 pages, $31): If there's one A-lister whose standards have fallen almost as low as Donald Sterling's reputation, it's blow-dried former Washington lawyer David Baldacci. And those starring the superhuman CIA hit team of Will Robie and Jessica Reel (The Innocent, The Hit, Bullseye) may be the bottom of the barrel.
In yet another ripped-from-the-headlines ripoff, Robie and Reel try to thwart a zombie-like female assassin bent on taking out the president's family after an abortive White House/CIA bid to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un backfires.
An airport time-waster that's not worth your time.
Associate Editor John Sullivan runs the Free Press Autos, Homes and Travel sections and specialty websites.