IN the spirit of the season, here's a spring clear-out of the inspired and the insipid.
Cue the applause
Hanging Hill, by Mo Hayder, (HarperCollins, 432 pages, $23): This Brit rising star pens character-driven anti-thrillers, where tension is subtly ratcheted into a lingering pall of menace. No hanging here, but the ritual-like murder of a popular teen in the West Country city of Bath sparks a tale of two sisters -- outré and factious Det. Insp. Zoe Benedict and her struggling, divorced sister Sally. To call the ending a cliffhanger is to denigrate the cliff. Prepare to be pushed off -- and pole-axed. Top-notch.
Victims, by Jonathan Kellerman, (Ballantine, 352 pages, $34): In recent years, new Alex Delaware/ Milo Sturgis yarns, once as reliable as mom's chicken soup, had faded to thin gruel. But this slick parsing of a series of ghoulish but seemingly unrelated murders is a righteous reboot of the 27th pairing of the too-curious shrink and the lumbering, out-of-sync L.A. cop. Sure, it's safe territory for Kellerman, but it's a formula that works.
A Room Full of Bones, by Elly Griffiths (McClelland & Stewart, 352 pages, $23): The appeal of dumpy, anti-social forensic archeologist Ruth Galloway, now in her fourth iteration, is as mystifying as her affection for the windswept marshlands of Norfolk. Which is to say, not surprising at all, in Griffiths' capable hands. This one throws drug-running, Australian aboriginal remains, horse-racing and the death of a museum curator at the opening of a medieval bishop's coffin into the soup. Why does it satisfy? Because Ruth is real people.
Children of Wrath, by Paul Grossman (St. Martin's, 336 pages, $30): In the last days of the Weimar Republic, Berliners endure Nazi-Communist clashes and Depression. But panic ensues with a tainted-sausage scandal and then the discovery of the gnawed bones of young boys in a sack. Jewish detective Willy Kraus wrestles with both cases -- and rising anti-Semitism -- as more boys disappear. Then one of his own sons vanishes. A fascinating, metaphor-laden thriller that's chock-full of villains, authentic historical atmosphere and full-blooded characters.
The Girl Next Door, by Brad Parks (Minotaur, 336 pages, $29): Authors who set their books in newsrooms, with reporters as protagonists, knowingly mount the gallows: Newspaper reviewers are not known for their charity to colleagues who actually write such books rather than just talk about writing them. But Parks, a former Washington and New Jersey reporter, slips the noose with Carter Ross, an irreverent and troublesome Newark scribe who, in his third outing, tracks the murder of a newspaper delivery woman. Cynically witty, fairly authentic and not excessively over-the-top, it's a breezy, entertaining read.
Get the hook
The Expats, by Chris Pavone (Crown, 336 pages, $31): It's sad when an intriguing premise, decent writing chops and a keen dramatic flair are torpedoed by a single component that just doesn't ring true. But that's what happens with this New Yorker's debut novel in the person of Kate Morris, an ex-CIA agent who retires to join the ladies-who-lunch expat circuit in Luxembourg. While her computer-nerd husband's secret involvement in a deadly, high-tech con game supplies ample plot grist, conflicted Kate -- super-sleuth one moment, weak-kneed and self-pitying the next -- is no more believable than the invincible spies that infest the book racks.
Oath of Office, by Michael Palmer (St. Martin's, 384 pages, $32): The Boston doc-cum-bestselling author strays even further from his medical suspense niche with this lame GM-foods conspiracy tale. A shooting rampage, death by termites, DNA ray guns and, of course, White House intrigue. Bad science fiction.
Stay Close, by Harlan Coben, (Dutton, 400 pages, $30): You can't fault the prolific New Jerseyite on premise -- this time it's a cold case that draws a reformed stripper, a dogged cop and a failed photographer into a serial-killer hunt. But, with its two-bit shotgun prose -- and Wile E. Coyote peril courtesy of a silly psycho-enforcer couple -- the treatment is strictly dumbed-down airport fodder. Coben loves two- and three-word gotcha titles, so here's one: Just Say No.
John Sullivan is editor of the Free Press Autos, Homes and Travel sections and specialty websites.