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Dial Ms. for murder

Ruth Rendell, others prove that in crafting subtle, innovative crime fiction, the female is definitely the deadlier sex

t's hardly news that Ruth Rendell has a new book coming out; it's a slow year for her when she writes fewer than two. And for the most part, "The Water's Lovely" shows why so many of her peers consider her the best crime writer alive.

The psychological acuity, the ability to make the gothic seem both real and vital, the modernist sensibility, are all intact in this, her 63d work of fiction. So much so that you wonder how people can even mention writers Michael Connelly, Ian Rankin, or Walter Mosley in the same breath.

What "The Water's Lovely" and other books in the public eye this year make evident is that when it comes to killers and other criminals, the best of the visionaries these days are women, and foreign females in particular. Three women -- Natsuo Kirino, Zoë Heller, and Morag Joss -- are so good that Rendell may no longer even be at the head of the class, even though all three are obviously indebted to her and the writer she's often paired with, the late Patricia Highsmith.

What do Rendell and her daughters in crime offer that the menfolk don't? First and foremost, there's a willingness to tear down the conventions of the genre rather than play to them. Heller isn't really a mystery writer at all, though if "Notes on a Scandal (What Was She Thinking?)" is any indication, she could have a rich career if she went in that direction. (And the book is light - years better than the film.) In Joss's latest, "Puccini's Ghosts," you don't know until the last page whether a murder has been committed at all. Kirino's "Grotesque" and her earlier novel "Out " walk the same razor's edge as Jim Thompson, but they also enter into places -- psychologically and sociologically -- where Thompson would have blushed to go. Rendell's "The Water's Lovely" continues the same parsing of romantic obsession and turn-of-the - millennium precariousness that have made her books a breed apart. It's no wonder that many of the world's most renowned filmmakers, such as Pedro Almodóvar and Claude Chabrol, have been drawn to her works.

What gives the latest novels of Rendell, Heller, Joss, and Kirino such literary richness is the lack of an easy moral center and the ability to make us want to spend time in such a world. For one thing, there's no standing detective -- though Joss's first three novels did feature recurring characters -- so we don't have that ready-made stand-in for the author's moral code.

Instead, we're cast into a world of narrators who are unreliable or obsessive-compulsive at best and psychotic at worst. That isn't unique to them, certainly, or to women. Just look at Thompson's novels, such as "The Killer Inside Me ." What's different about Thompson and many of his colleagues, though, is the yearning they seem to harbor to be players; there's a macho swagger to their writing that gets in the way of their powers of observation. The great artists are often outsiders, or as Kirino's narrator says in "Grotesque," "I was unlike all the other students who commuted to school from perfectly normal families. Precisely for this reason, I was able to enjoy myself as a spectator on the sidelines."

That's a double-edged sword, because much of what Kirino is writing about, amid the murders in "Grotesque" and "Out," is the traditional second-class citizenship and commodification of women in Japan. Not that anyone is going to mistake her for a Japanese Gloria Steinem. Traditional feminists would blanch at how the women of "Out" literally chop up men who behave badly or how "even a wholesome girl from a normal family," in "Grotesque," turns to prostitution for a grim sense of power. As one prostitute says to another, "I hate men, but I love sex. It's the opposite for you, isn't it, Kazue? . . . If you and I became one, we'd be perfect. We'd be able to live the ultimate life. But on the other hand, if it's the perfect life you want, best not to be born a woman."

Sex and violence get tangled up in Kirino's novels as much as they do in Mickey Spillane's. But where Spillane is drooling over joining the two, the agenda-free Kirino is exploring, psychologically and sociologically, and often to chilling effect, why they're twisted together by her characters. And where Rendell often shows a certain prissiness in terms of not letting her characters get away with murder, Kirino's dramas are more unpredictable.

Class is another area where men and women, Americans and Brits, tend to go in opposite directions. In the classic, hard-boiled novel, the more one is educated, the less he or she is likely to be an honorable person. Philip Marlowe is forever sneering at college boys. Robert Parker's Hawk, on the other hand, is a mensch of a hit man. You can't be wise without being streetwise.

Women, British women in particular, have no such sentimentality about street smarts, classless societies, or bad educations. There's nothing magical about their working-class characters, whether they're hit men or illiterate women. Their frustrations are often lethal, as in Rendell's "A Judgement in Stone." Rendell's working-class men and women are often a very nasty lot, such as the brother and sister in "The Water's Lovely."

Heller is particularly good at writing about class. The working-class school of "Notes on a Scandal," which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2003 , is compared with "Lord of the Flies," which makes the teacher's surrender to the underage boy all the more Laurentian and, in a strange way, more understandable. Neither Sheba, the "criminal," nor the older teacher, Barbara, is as one-dimensional as in the film. In fact, where Judi Dench's character is really an unreliable and totally unlikable narrator, Barbara in the book elicits sympathy and laughs with her "Notes From Underground" sense of what's wrong with the world. That doesn't make her right; it just makes it obvious that we're in a world of grays. But what a colorful world of grays, as in Barbara's description of a colleague at school:

"There are certain people in whom you can detect the seeds of madness -- seeds that have remained dormant only because the people in question have lived relatively comfortable, middle-class lives. They function perfectly well in the world, but you can imagine, given a nasty parent, or a prolonged bout of unemployment, how their potential for craziness might have been realised."

Who knows if Heller will continue to write suspense novels; her first book, "Everything You Know," is a non-genre novel about a misanthropic writer with similarities to the anti-heroes of Roth and Updike. Except he's funnier, and a kissing cousin of Barbara in "Notes on a Scandal." Heller's next book, due out this fall, is "The Believers," a seriocomic look at faith and family dysfunction.

Heller now lives in New York, so let's hope that she doesn't succumb to Salman Rushdie celebrity disease in America. Perhaps, like Highsmith, she'll walk the line between Amer ica and Europe, crime novels and other genres, bending the rules as she goes along.

That's what Joss seems to be doing in "Puccini's Ghosts," even if her writing is more similar to Rendell's than Highsmith's in its casual but atmospheric elegance -- "Behind me, the room creaks with damp. Its emptiness sighs."

In this novel about a young woman falling under the spell of Puccini and an older opera star in an English village's mounting of "Turandot," Joss -- also, like Rendell -- meditates on the obsessiveness of romantic love. Is the romantic obsessiveness in Puccini's music something positive or negative? And will it cost people their lives, or sanity, to find out?

Joss started out with three so-so traditional mysteries set in Bath, England, centered on a cellist, Sara Selkirk . But as with most standing characters, there was little chance of radical character development or of the sense of disequilibrium found in the best crime writing.

It was in her fourth novel, 2005's "Half Broken Things," that she shot past other writers from the British Isles, such as Minette Walters and Val McDermid . I would take Joss over her champion, P. D. James, who's far too fussy and stodgy for my taste, though that might have something to do with her reliance on Adam Dalgleish.

In "Half Broken Things," in which three loners come together in a bizarre search for love among the ruins, Joss is particularly nuanced. Here, as with Kirino, you sense that she's unafraid of casting her lot with people on the outside, rather than needing to find a Marlowe-esque code for living a life.

She isn't as successful in "Puccini's Ghosts" in straddling crime drama as she was in this earlier novel, which masterfully draws you into its unconventional sense of morality. It's that sense of not knowing quite where we are in these and other novels that makes the literary crime novel superior to the merely entertaining one. And in crime fiction, that's ultimately what separates the women from the boys.