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Meltzer's latest wheels-within-wheels fun

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Brad Meltzer is an acquired taste, but one more easily embraced than the bulk of his conspiracy-thriller brethren (invariably male as they are).

That's because the stock-in-trade of this bestselling Florida author and TV mystery-solver (Brad Meltzer's Decoded) is rich and intriguing historical context, most recently embodied (in 2011's The Inner Circle) by Beecher White, a young National Archives researcher who becomes embroiled in machinations of the Culper Ring, a presidential spy ring founded by George Washington.

Now, Beecher and his ring colleagues are back to suss out The Fifth Assassin (Grand Central, 448 pages, $30), a modern-day crusader who is recreating all four U.S. presidential assassinations before going after the current White House occupant.

It's all wheels-within-wheels fun, breathlessly but deftly told, with a dissertation on the evolution of modern-day playing cards that will haunt your poker games.

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With his bleak and bloody Belfast Trilogy, set in the fragile, power-grabbing peace following "the Troubles," Stuart Neville joined the swelling ranks of first-rate Celtic noir authors like John Connolly, Ken Bruen, Adrian McKinty and Benjamin Black.

His fourth novel, Ratlines (Soho Crime, 354 pages, $27), shifts back a few decades and south to 1960s Dublin to stir a congealed historical stew -- nationalist Ireland's wartime neutrality and the postwar asylum it granted to Nazi war criminals.

Neville cleverly mixes historical figures like "Hitler's commando," Col. Otto Skorzeny, and Irish justice minister Charles Haughey with fictional assassins, Mossad agents and his chief protagonist, Irish intelligence officer Albert Ryan. When someone starts knocking off ex-Nazis and targets the wealthy and well-connected Skorzeny, Ryan -- one of many Irish who crossed the border to fight for the Allies -- is torn between duty and his contempt for both the victims and their Irish hosts.

Neville runs his conflicted hero through a perilous maze of intrigue and double-cross, echoing the "ratlines" (Nazi escape routes) at the core of this gritty, fascinating thriller.

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A new Simon Serrailer novel is bit like an old-home-week reunion: It's as much about immersing oneself in the latest travails of the perpetually lovelorn Det. Chief and his extended family as it about murder most foul in the English cathedral town of Lafferton.

The seventh Serrailer outing by the prolific Susan Hill, A Question of Identity (Knopf, 368 pages, $30), opens well enough, with the 2002 acquittal of a Yorkshire man in the brutal murders of three elderly women. So inexplicable is the verdict (and Hill doesn't explain it) that fears of vigilante justice convince authorities to relocate the accused with a new identity.

Flash forward a decade and there's a fresh crop of similar victims in a new sheltered-housing development in Lafferton. But by then, we're almost at the novel's halfway mark after slogging through copious updates on the Serrailer clan (father, mother-in-law, sister, niece, nephew, nanny, et al), a series of vignettes involving potential victims and culprits, and -- most grievously -- italicized thought-bubbles from our presumed (and fairly predictable) murderer.

There's no doubt Hill is a thoughtful and accomplished writer, at ease with her subjects and milieu. But when secondary, "real-life" plot lines threaten to swamp the story, the exercise strays perilously close to soap opera.

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And then there's The Blood Gospel (William Morrow, 448 pages, $30), the first of a threatened series by an unholy alliance of American fantasy/thriller writers James Collins and Rebecca Cantrell that lowers the secret-conspiracy bar to subterranean level.

With the requisite relic quest, all manner of supernatural beasties and heroic comic-book caricatures, this mash-up of vampire vogue and Da Vinci Code biblical potboiler would be offensive to even the vaguely religious if it weren't so downright loony.

Someone lost a bet on this one.


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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 12, 2013 J9

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