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On Crime

Toxins, terror, and a friendly ghost

By Hallie Ephron
October 26, 2008
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Exposed
By Alex Kava
Mira, 332 pp., $24.95

Hell Bent
By William G. Tapply
St. Martin's Minotaur, 320 pp., $24.95

Ghost at Work
By Carolyn Hart
Morrow, 304 pp., $24.95

Bioterrorism gets its full quota of respect in Alex Kava's latest thrill ride, "Exposed." This time, FBI agent Maggie O'Dell is the victim of a particularly nasty bioterrorist attack.

Echoing the unsolved 1982 Tylenol tampering and the 2001 anthrax attacks, someone is sending out a virulent strain of Ebola to apparently random victims. Maggie and her boss, Assistant Director Cunningham, are first responders lured to what they think is an imminent bomb attack. Instead, the door is answered by a child; the girl's mother is in the house, near death, infected by an unknown but clearly lethal toxin.

Soon Maggie finds herself whisked off to a biosafety containment hospital, cared for by doctors and nurses encased in high-tech protective suits. Her partner, Agent R. J. Tully, who by a fluke wasn't at the scene with her, tries to put together clues from an increasing number of similar incidents. This killer taunts investigators with clues deliberately planted to mislead.

Though at least one critical plot point stretches credulity - Maggie tucks a piece of evidence into her pants before she's taken from the crime scene and doesn't get fired for doing it - Kava creates thoroughly authentic, three-dimensional personalities for her two protagonists and the cast of characters whose smaller, personal stories are woven integrally into the plot. She takes a page from "The Da Vinci Code," intercutting short scenes from the viewpoints of Maggie, Tully, a nameless villain, and others. The reader lurches from cliffhanger to cliffhanger. Occasionally these jumps feel forced and storytelling takes a back seat to manipulation, but it works well as the tale barrels toward a satisfying and intriguing open-ended finale.

Terrorism is only the backdrop for William G. Tapply's 24th Brady Coyne novel. "Hell Bent" opens with a pair of news stories about a 1971 bombing that leveled an MIT physics building and killed six graduate students as well as the radical antiwar organizer who was rigging the device. Skip to the present, and the United States is involved in another seemingly endless war.

Brady is in his modest law office with its view of Copley Place. In comes Alex Shaw, a former lover he hasn't seen for seven years. Sparks fly. Estranged from Evie, his main squeeze, Brady is ripe for seduction.

But Alex insists she hasn't come to renew their friendship. She needs Brady to help her brother, Gus, a brilliant news photographer who went to Iraq on his own to record the war's hidden reality. There, he had his shutter hand blown off. Alex is afraid that Gus, unable to work and suffering from post-traumatic stress, has simply given up and will be rolled over by his wife's lawyer in pending divorce proceedings. She convinces Brady to talk to Gus and offer to represent him.

Most readers will see the first plot twist coming. Plenty of unexpected turns follow as Brady searches for missing photographs that Gus took in Iraq and tracks down the members of Gus's support group.

With generous helpings of great food, therapeutic booze, lust, passion, and crackling dialogue, this one showcases a New England master of the legal thriller.

Carolyn Hart's series first, "Ghost at Work," inhabits a far cozier world. Her charming new sleuth, Bailey Ruth Raeburn, a dearly departed on her fledgling mission as an emissary of Heaven's Department of Good Intentions, arrives just in time for Halloween. The Rescue Express returns her to her hometown of Adelaide, Okla., to assist the rector's wife, Kathleen Abbott. She finds Kathleen standing over a dead body. Her first thought: "If the presence of a murdered man on the screened-in back porch of the rectory put her in jeopardy, he had to go."

Bailey Ruth cheerfully moves the body, cleans up the crime scene, and redistributes clues to draw the attention of investigators away from Kathleen, often so exuberantly that her handler, the deep-voiced Wiggins, has to keep reminding her of the rules. (Number 1: Avoid public notice.)

Hart's version of heaven is a hoot, and her ghost is much more like "Topper" 's Marion Kirby than "The Turn of the Screw" 's Miss Jessel. The mystery itself, with its profusion of suspects (the victim was a scoundrel and a blackmailer), is pedestrian, but Bailey Ruth and Wiggins will delight readers who prefer their mysteries light and seasoned with wit and the supernatural.

Hallie Ephron is author of "Never Tell a Lie," to be published in January. Contact her through www.hallieephron.com.

See "Bookings," Page D6, for information on a local appearance by William G. Tapply.

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