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Heroes with flaws, Scottish secrets, and one very cold case

Page 2 of 2 -- His colleagues wonder why he's wasting time pursuing this ancient case as Gunther follows the gun, using forensics techniques unavailable decades earlier -- ballistics, fingerprints, DNA -- plus good old-fashioned investigation. Meanwhile, his long-time girlfriend, businesswoman Gail Zigman, decides she's going to run for the state senate. As her campaign gets more and more frantic, Gunther finds himself alone, grieving anew as memories of his wife's death are dredged up by the investigation.

Because of Mayor's crisp writing, and his ability to create thoroughly human, complex, and surprising characters, ''The Surrogate Thief" rises above the average police procedural. For example, when Gunther questions a woman in a nursing home about her daughter's past, we get no caricature of a geriatric or harridan mother. Their conversation veers to why Gunther never had children, and she observes: ''That's the struggle, isn't it? Not to have kids and to mourn their absence, or to have them and be forever concerned about their fate."

From page one, you know you're in the hands of a pro.

''The Reunion," a first novel set in Scotland by Sue Walker, is also about an unsolved crime, but this time it's more of a what-happened than a whodunit. A group of former patients in an adolescent psychiatric unit have made a pact to never reveal the horrific truth about something they did while they were hospitalized.

As the novel opens, the 6-year-old daughter of Simon Calder, one of the former patients, has been kidnapped. Calder is now a successful psychologist. He becomes convinced that the kidnapping is divine retribution for what he and his fellow patients were responsible for years earlier, and he resolves to break their pact of silence and somehow make amends.

The novel zigzags in time, and moves in and out of multiple viewpoints. As the secret threatens to come unraveled, one of the former patients commits suicide and another becomes demented after losing her family in a fire. It becomes clear that someone doesn't want this secret to come to light.

Despite compelling characters, an interesting story, and sharp writing, what's in short supply here is that critical element that makes for a satisfying read: fair play. For example, one chapter ends: ''With an inner weariness taking hold of him, he fetched another package from the old nurses' office." What package? We don't find out for pages. The all-important ''secret" is known to several of the characters narrating the story, but the reader doesn't find out until near the end. Too bad, because the book ends up feeling like a 300-page tease.

Hallie Ephron is co-author of the Dr. Peter Zak series of psychological mystery thrillers by G. H. Ephron. 

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