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Uneasy times in Exile

Dead Connection
By Alafair Burke
Holt, 319 pp., $19.95

Killer Weekend
By Ridley Pearson
Putnam, 326 pp., $24.95

Reduced Circumstances
By Vincent H. O’Neil
St. Martin’s, 224 pp., $22.95

Are Internet dating sites that guarantee "anonymity" doing their clients a favor? In Alafair Burke's "Dead Connection," Ellie Hatcher, the NYPD detective investigating the murders of two young women who were clients of such a service, doesn't think so. "Anonymity. Safety. Privacy. It all sounded good. Unless, of course, a killer used the anonymity to ensure safety and privacy from the police."

In Hatcher, Burke has created a strong female protagonist in the tradition of Sara Paretsky's V. I. Warshawski and Marcia Muller's Sharon McCone. At 30, she's risen to the rank of detective in just 13 months. A shapely blonde, once a first runner-up in a Junior Miss Wichita beauty pageant, she's become a cop because her father was a great one, even if his reputation has been sullied by his supposed suicide. She knows that she could have played it safe with her life, but long ago she "decided that sitting with blissful ignorance on life's sidelines was not in her nature."

Thoughtful, empathic, and introspective, she makes a perfect foil for cocksure renegade homicide detective Flann McIlroy. He's known for being anything but a team player and for a willingness to take an investigation in decidedly unorthodox directions. When he asks Hatcher to team with him to investigate the murders, at first she's puzzled, then flattered -- until she realizes he may be setting her up to bait the killer.

According to the jacket copy, Burke is a former district attorney who teaches law. The police procedure she writes feels utterly authentic, as do her depictions of New York City with its hopeful single 30-somethings (including Hatcher herself) who unwittingly put themselves at risk as they search for Mr. Right.

As strong as the characters are, at the end the plotting feels less sure-handed. Early on, Burke puts us in her villain's head and allows us to read his chilling thoughts as he stalks and dispatches his victims. When the killer's identity and motives are revealed, it fails to deliver on that setup. And while I realize that a stock ploy of today's thriller writers is to feint left and hit right to keep the reader off balance, it feels like a cheat when the final twist seems this disjointed.

Ridley Pearson writes thrillers, the kind that try to yank you to the edge of your seat and keep you there. "Killer Weekend" succeeds.

Things begin with New York state attorney Liz Shaler unaware of a widening crack in the floor of her Sun Valley, Idaho, vacation home. Her anger people -- it's part of the job -- and one very nasty, unhappy guy is coming up through a trap door to give her more than a piece of his mind. Patrolman Walt Fleming happens to be walking by. He notices a broken screen leading to a crawl space under the house and investigates. Fleming takes a bullet, Shaler is saved, and the story takes off like a bottle rocket.

Eight years later, Shaler returns to Sun Valley to announce her candidacy for the presidency. The patrolman is now sheriff, and FBI and private security are competing with him to ensure her safety. The guy who's stalking Shaler now makes her earlier attacker look like Mother Teresa.

A terrifying villain, an appealing protagonist, intricate plotting, and breakneck pacing make this an easy summer read for thriller fans. Yes, the writing is manipulative, but ingeniously so.

A far tamer tale is Vincent H. O'Neil's "Reduced Circumstances." Protagonist Frank Cole used to own a dot-com wonder company before it went bust and his life imploded. In this second series novel, he's taken refuge from creditors in a small town in the Florida Panhandle, appropriately named Exile. He's working as evening dispatcher for the Midnight Taxi Service, where he also swabs out the cabs and gets coffee for five ragtag but agreeable drivers.

Driver Billy Lee shows up one morning with a story about a young guy he picked up in nearby Davis at the fleabag Seaview Motel ("Nebraska's got a better view of the sea"). The kid was running out of the motel parking lot, which was awash in flashing blue lights and police cruisers. It turns out there was a drug bust, and Billy Lee's fare may have been involved.

A pair of nefarious-looking "bail bondsmen" come around asking questions about the kid, and so does private investigator Curtis Winslow. The young man is soon found murdered, Billy Lee disappears, and Frank teams up with Winslow to crack the case.

O'Neil has a lot going for him, including an affable protagonist, wonderfully seedy settings, and engaging banter from the colorful cast of taxi drivers. But the plot sputters along, propelled mostly by talk, talk, and more talk, or by characters pondering what they just talked about. The plot resolution is so complicated that even Cole comments at the end at how "jumbled" it is.

Exile may be deliberately set in the middle of nowhere, but I wish there'd been more there there.

Hallie Ephron is author of "Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: How to Knock 'Em Dead With Style" and co-author of the Dr. Peter Zak mysteries. Contact her through www.hallieephron.com.

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