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Crime thrillers offer flash and substance

No Way Back, By Michael Crow, HarperCollins, 293 pp, $25.95

Dangerous Games, By John Shannon, Carroll & Graf, 248 pp, $25

One purrs smoothly, the other stumbles a little and gropes -- but hold on until you see which crosses the finish line first.

We're speaking here of two new thrillers, each part of an ongoing series: Michael Crow's third Luther Ewing outing, called ''No Way Back," and John Shannon's latest Jack Liffey novel, ''Dangerous Games."

For slick testosterone-driven action, the pseudonymous Crow is, as they now say of excellent professional ballplayers, ''nice." His serial hero Ewing's, uh, batting average is impressive: In various wars and mercenary actions, the sometime Baltimore narcotics detective has smoked Bosnian snipers, dispatched Iraqi regulars, blown away Russian operatives. On the job, he's a man against all people, a fine-tuned, ecumenical killing machine.

In the new book, after Ewing is suspended from the narcotics squad, he picks up a freelance CIA job as security for a South Korean CEO closing a clandestine deal with two rogue Russian generals. Don't ask -- suffice it to say that this complicated exchange has grave international implications and that only the coolest, hardest players get to join the action.

Never mind that as much of the plot is foreplay as it is consummation: Ewing's elaborate secret training in a Washington, D.C., safe house occupies virtually half the book. But it's entertaining watching him honed to needle sharpness by the three fetching, accomplished women responsible for teaching him Korean, toning up his Russian, and retooling his killing skills. Really the only place Crow falters markedly is with his dopey litanies of all the luxe furniture, haberdashery, cars, and lethal hardware that overimpress Ewing (or is it Crow himself?) wherever the globe-trotting novel goes. Ewing is deep into coffee: ''Fresh-brewed, dark and powerful: Tastes like Sulawesi or New Caledonian."

Otherwise, the writing is as nimbly brisk as the second half of the story's violence-and-sex- soaked intrigue in places as far-flung as Big Sur, Pusan, and Vladivostok. Ewing (half Vietnamese, half African-American, but lacking almost any aura of ethnicity) is a kind of 21st-century James Bond, cooler and crueler than the original, and the book is a Bondish fantasy, smooth as cream, reliably entertaining, and, despite some posturing introspection, soulless.

''Dangerous Games" is another breed of crime fiction, never as slick or cinematic as John Shannon would like, but with a head on its shoulders and some purpose beyond mere titillation. It's common for authors of crime fiction to borrow techniques from moviemakers. In his episodic new novel, Shannon crosscuts between fast-moving parallel plots that sometimes graze each other as they race along but don't converge fully until the story's explosive finale. Think ''Magnolia" or ''21 Grams" in terms of multiple plot strands -- and existential ambitions.

Each of the narrative elements could probably sustain a novel by itself, and indeed ''Games" might've been a better read had the author pared down the plotting even a little.

Liffey, an introspectively moral detective who rescues imperiled kids, and Gloria Ramirez, his downbeat cop girlfriend, offer up a life-battered, against-the-odds love story. He's living with her in violence-pocked Latino East LA when his teenage daughter Maeve is wounded in a drive-by shooting in Gloria's front yard. The bearded young shooter is one of Liffey's central concerns in the book; another is the stunning, naive Native American girl Luisa Wilson, caught in the scummy currents of the LA porn trade.

The self-styled investigator is trying to find and save her from the underbelly of the entertainment industry, where Shannon's subplots blossom darkly. One involves a failed indie filmmaker and his cynical partner collaborating on a couple of ''reality" films (the sordid ''Dangerous Games" and its sequel) featuring drifters and drunks paid peanuts to be set aflame or jammed into grocery carts and maimed in downhill spills captured on digital video.

Shannon is masterful at creating these and other horrifying, often giddy, scenes of mayhem. Still, the real rewards of this novel are not in the rocketing, multiple plot lines but the quieter, gray world of wounded and searching souls caught up in the madness. Friendship, the tumult and effort of serious romantic love, the devotions of paternal affection, and giving people a chance to redeem themselves are ultimately what matter to Shannon and his appealingly thoughtful hero.

Shannon's not as facile a stylist as Crow, but his characters inhabit a real world of credible risk and need, fear and doubt, thought and action. It's a realm that's harder to write about and, in the end, of much greater interest than Crow's. Crow's is fine fare for the hammock. But discerning readers will want to sit up straighter to savor the more substantial pleasures Shannon has to offer.

John Koch can be reached at

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