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An ink-stained wretch, a Gothed-up teen, and a Harley-loving farmer

Every once in a while, an author creates a stunningly original character. Denise Mina has done it in ''Field of Blood." Patricia ''Paddy" Meehan is an 18-year-old ''lowly copyboy" for The Scottish Daily News who yearns with every fiber of her scrappy, Irish Catholic self to be a reporter. Instead she's making trips to the local pub to get editors' tankards filled, trying to evade the ''boys" from the pressroom who are drinking there.

In a quirk of fate, she bears the same name as a man whose murder conviction was overturned by the work of an investigative journalist. The character of her namesake is based on the real Patrick Meehan, whom Mina, according to an author's note, interviewed in the late 1980s. When two young boys are arrested for the brutal murder of a 3-year-old boy, Paddy wonders if they, too, are victims of overeager police investigators. She knows one of the boys and becomes convinced that an adult instigated the unspeakable crime.

Her search for answers brings her an ally, reporter Terry Hewitt (''He was plump with disproportionately short legs, but there was an air about him, an aura of dirty-bad man, that made Paddy's mouth water when she dared look at him"), and a father confessor, Dr. Pete, who presides over the newsroom from the pub (''His bushy eyebrows billowed out from a face scarred by a decade-long hangover").

This is a beautifully written novel about the evanescence of truth in a world where guilt and innocence are rendered in shades of gray.

J. P. Beaumont is an old-fashioned kind of detective, a jaded former alcoholic who hangs around his Seattle office at the Special Homicide Investigation Team, waiting for trouble to find him. In J. A. Jance's ''Long Time Gone," it's double trouble in the guise of a nun and a Gothed-up teenager.

Sister Mary Katherine is being tormented by the memory of a stabbing she witnessed 50 years earlier. Beaumont scratches his head over why a higher-up in the attorney general's office wants him to give this ice-cold case his complete attention, but he wades in, uncovering a ''conspiracy of silence" surrounding the investigation of the murder Sister Mary Katherine witnessed.

He's distracted from this investigation when his former partner, Ron Peters, shows up. Peters's former wife, Rosemary, a drug addict who left Peters years earlier and recently found religion, has just been shot to death. Evidence implicates Ron's daughter, Heather, who is also Beaumont's goddaughter, though he barely recognizes her under layers of makeup and attitude.

While Beaumont officially investigates the decades-old stabbing murder, unofficially he tries to help Ron and Heather. Whichever way Beaumont turns, he steps on toes and butts horns with his nemesis, police captain Paul Kramer.

Fans of Jance will overlook the redundancies, clumsy dialogue, and occasional spurts of purple prose (''In the stark silence that followed, I was convinced I could hear the shattering of broken hearts"). There are those who won't mind a prologue that steals the novel's thunder, or plot twists fueled by conveniently overheard conversations, or actions that stretch credibility. Beaumont is appealing, and this novel is an easy read, but Jance has been around the block quite a few times with this series, and the tread is starting to wear.

Milk cows, motorcycles, and Mennonites seem like an odd combination for a mystery, but Judy Clemens makes it work. In ''Three Can Keep a Secret," exhausted dairy farm owner Stella Crown ponders her tattoos, laments the loss of her beloved Harley, and grieves over the death of a farmhand who was a father figure to her. She hires a young Mennonite mother, Lucy Lapp, who quickly shows she's as competent at shooting a rifle as she is at calming cows. But no sooner have they settled into a comfortable routine than Stella receives ominous warnings about Lucy's past, and she wonders about the ''accident" that killed Lucy's husband two years earlier. Meanwhile, one of Stella's biker pals is threatened by a series of increasingly violent incidents.

Character and setting are stronger than plot in this novel. Glimpses of good-guy biker culture and the inner workings of a dairy farm create a rich, convincing backdrop, and Stella is a quirky, tough female protagonist with a soft center -- though I kept wondering why it took her so long to flat out ask Lucy about her husband's death.

This novel explores family -- the relatives we are handed, and the relationships we choose to create -- and the poisonous trail family secrets can leave in their wake.

Hallie Ephron is co-author of ''Guilt," the fifth Dr. Peter Zak psychological mystery thriller by G. H. Ephron.

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