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On Crime

Off the beaten track and close to home

By Hallie Ephron
August 21, 2011

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In Megan Abbott’s new standalone, “The End of Everything,’’ Evie Verver and Lizzie Hood are best friends - stuck in the prickly place between girlhood and womanhood - who share a cosmic bond particular to adolescent girls. One hot May afternoon, they’re on their way home from playing field hockey. Evie’s mother drives by to pick her up, and when Evie turns back to offer Lizzie a ride, Lizzie has vanished.

Soon Evie is in the spotlight, the only one who saw a maroon sedan that drove slowly up and back. Evie is the one with whom Lizzie shared her secrets, the last one to see Lizzie alive, and she relishes the power she discovers she has as police investigators listen to her. Best of all, Evie’s presence is embraced by Lizzie’s warm, garrulous dad whose attentions she’s always coveted. Meanwhile, Lizzie’s sister, glamorous and mercurial 17-year-old Dusty, who is tomboy Lizzie’s polar opposite, grows increasingly angry and distant.

The writing is anything but typical, as Abbott’s inventive use of language to build imagery reads more like poetry than prose. Here’s how her children at play taunt each other: “Voices pitchy, giddy, raving, we are all chanting that deathly chant that twists, knifelike, in the ear of the appointed victim.’’ The story veers from the beaten track as well, deftly skirting the familiar “adolescent girl as victim’’ scenario and exploring, instead, the power games that young women engage in with much older men - relatives and neighbors, some of them predators - games in which there are unwritten rules and exquisite danger for all who play.

With “Hell is Empty,’’ Craig Johnson delivers an action-packed Western thriller, rife with evocative setting and literary allusion. This seventh novel featuring wise-cracking Sheriff Walt Longmire creeps stealthily out of the corral with an increasingly tense setup. Longmire and his colleagues are ferrying three prisoners, all of them convicted killers, up Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains to a remote spot where FBI operatives are waiting.

Though the prisoners are shackled, the atmosphere feels fraught with danger as they stop along the way for a meal. Between bites, one prisoner vows repeatedly to kill Longmire and all of his associates. But it’s quiet Raynaud Shade who worries Longmire. He’s the one who’s promised to reveal where he buried the body of a Crow Indian boy.

With a dangerous spring ice storm threatening, Longmire and Deputy “Sancho’’ Saizarbitoria are all too happy to deliver the convicts and let the FBI take over. They’ve barely started for home when the first shoe drops. They head back to find a grisly scene, and the prisoners escaped.

Raynaud Shade feels preternaturally villainous, and as Longmire tracks him, his journey echoes the circles of hell of Dante’s “Inferno,’’ a paperback copy of which Sancho has brought along for light reading. Longmire’s guide, as in the poem, is Virgil, but here he’s a giant Indian, swathed in bearskin. Between a blizzard, animal predators, and ghosts from present and past, Longmire needs all the help he can get. As he observes dryly, “Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.’’

Boston firefighter Jack Fogerty hacks his way into a fire-engulfed apartment above the Senegalese Market, determined to rescue the woman and her teenaged son who live there, in the breathless opening of Margaret McLean’s debut novel “Under Fire.’’ Inured to the dangers of the job, Jack is equipped with turnout gear, breathing apparatus, and a thermal imaging camera. But he has no defense against the bullet that takes him down. Twenty thousand firefighters line up at his funeral, and tempers run high in the courtroom during the trial of the woman Jack rescued, storeowner Amina Diallo, who is charged with murder.

Former prosecutor Sarah Lynch allows herself to be convinced by her uncle Buddy Clancy, a disarmingly daffy, sly attorney, to join Amina’s defense team. McLean puts her own insider knowledge (she was a criminal prosecutor) to work showing the proceedings from the viewpoints of multiple characters, including members of the jury. She creates a strong protagonist in Sarah, who becomes gradually convinced of Amina’s innocence and puts her lawyering skills to work to create reasonable doubt.

The story bogs down with overlong jury proceedings, and though a revelation after the verdict is a neat twist, its implications are dismissed with what feels like legal expediency. But courtroom drama during the trial is first rate, and this portrait of a Boston, divided by racial and class prejudices, feels spot on.

Hallie Ephron is the author of the new suspense novel, “Come and Find Me.’’ Contact her through www.hallieephron.com .

THE END OF EVERYTHING

By Megan Abbott

Little Brown, 256 pp., $23.99

HELL IS EMPTY

By Craig Johnson

Viking, 320 pp., $25.95

UNDER FIRE

By Margaret McLean

Forge, 400 pp., $24.99