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ON CRIME

Plots and puzzles, from the occult to the cozy

Sleeping With Fear
By Kay Hooper
Bantam, 292 pp., $25

Winter’s Child
By Margaret Maron
Mysterious, 336 pp., $24.99

Evanly Bodies
By Rhys Bowen
St. Martin’s, 224 pp., $23.95

Kay Hooper's ``Sleeping With Fear" is a potent mix of suspense, sex, violence, and romance, iced with the occult. Federal agent Riley Crane is a psychic Femme Nikita. Strong, smart, hot, and clairvoyant, she's an expert on all things paranormal, as well as trained in marksmanship and self-defense. She's even learned to read and talk at the same time.

But when she wakes up, covered in blood, alone in an unfamiliar cottage on the South Carolina coast, her sixth sense is AWOL and her other five are dulled, ``as if she saw and heard and touched and smelled her surroundings through some kind of wispy veil."

Riley checks in with her boss in the Special Crime s Unit. He doesn't know what she's been up to for the last two weeks. Unfortunately, neither does she. All she knows is that she came to Opal Island to help local authorities investigate a group rumored to be performing satanic rites.

Unsure of what's real and what's not, and not knowing whom she can trust, Riley picks up where she thinks she left off. The police have just discovered a grisly murder with all the trappings of a satanic rite, and she goes with them to investigate. Soon she's convinced that the elements of satanic ritual are a smoke screen, an attempt to divert investigators from something even more evil.

Reading this novel -- with its twists, time shifts, and unexpected revelations -- is like caroming about in a super-charged M. C. Escher landscape in which mysterious passages lead to dead ends and up-staircases descend. And as preposterous as the story becomes, it works with the help of a cast of compelling characters and the heat of burgeoning romance.

For a cozier tale, thoroughly grounded in the real world, there's Margaret Maron's ``Winter's Child.'' The sleuths are Maron's long time series protagonist, Judge Deborah Knott, and her new husband, Dwight Bryant, a personable and hunky sheriff's deputy.

The novel opens as Dwight and his partner, Mayleen Evans, investigate a pickup truck that ran off the road near Possum Creek in North Carolina. They quickly realize that despite the beer cans in the car, this is not a case of drunken driving. The driver was shot. The victim, J. D. Rouse, is a sleazy local character, a rowdy who ``grabbed what he wanted with greedy hands and with no regard for what he might be wrecking," so of course there's no shortage of suspects.

Dwight has barely begun to investigate when he's lured to Virginia by his 8-year-old son, Cal, who lives with Dwight's former wife, Jonna. The ostensible reason: Cal wants Dwight to be his third-grade ``show and tell." But soon Dwight realizes something is amiss. Jonna hasn't been home for 24 hours and Cal has been fending for himself. Soon Cal disappears, too.

This is a novel thick with plot and subplot, and readers get plenty of red herrings to ponder as the narrative switches between Dwight's efforts to find his son and Mayleen 's investigation of Rouse's murder. The writing is crisp, and there's a vinegary Southern twang in the voice of Deborah. Too bad she's relegated to a supporting role in this outing.

But fans of the series should find that reading this novel is like slipping into a comfortable pair of shoes.

Llanfair, the Welsh village setting for Rhys Bowen's series featuring Constable Evan Evans, is so small and inbred that the butcher, milkman, and postman are all named Evans. In ``Evanly Bodies," the town's placid homogeneity is knocked out of kilter when a Pakistani couple takes over the local grocery store. Their abrasive son, Rashid, is a Muslim extremist. Their daughter , Jamila, quickly makes friends at the local high school.

Jamila confides to her teacher, Bronwen Evans (Constable Evans's wife), that her parents are going to ship her back to Pakistan for an arranged marriage. Bronwen's efforts to intervene on Jamila's behalf are met with hostility.

Life as usual in the constabulary is upended, too, as Constable Evans is assigned to a major crimes investigation unit and under the thumb of the aptly named Inspector Bragg, a senior officer known for belittling subordinates and for taking credit for their work. The team's first case is the murder of a university profess or, shot through the window of his kitchen as he ate his morning boiled egg.

While Evans is off investigating, Jamila disappears. Frantic with worry, Bronwen begs Evans to help find the missing girl. There's dramatic tension as Evans works overtime on what has turned into a string of murders while trying to find Jamila.

This novel is perched between a British police procedural and a cozy. The main characters are likable, and the story of a family caught between cultures is current and moving in a world that may be cozy but feels very real, especially when evil is in the eye of the beholder.

Hallie Ephron is the author of the Edgar-nominated ``Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: How to Knock 'Em Dead With Style." Contact her through www.hallieephron.com.

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