CRIME WATCH: A roundup of books featuring murder, mayhem and a few sleuths

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Stalking Susan

By Julie Kramer

Doubleday, $22.95

The television news adage "if it bleeds, it leads" is no truer than it is in Julie Kramer's dazzling debut novel "Stalking Susan," where a down-and-out Minneapolis television reporter gets hold of a story about a possible serial killer stalking women in the Twin Cities area that could resurrect her flagging career—and also make her the prime target of a cold-blooded psychopath.

Riley Spartz is a 36-year old reporter still struggling to put the pieces of her personal life back together after the tragic death of her policeman husband more than a year earlier. With her career "in the toilet" and sweeps month quickly approaching, Spartz gets the break of a lifetime when a former Minneapolis homicide detective gives her his notes about two cold cases that may be related. Further investigation leads Spartz to a chilling revelation: someone is killing women named Susan on the same day every year.

It's hard to believe that "Stalking Susan" is Kramer's first novel. Her confident, witty writing style is as fluid as it is flawless—from developing the complex back story and the cast of offbeat characters to creating a sense of authenticity relating to life in the world of television news, Kramer's narrative sensibilities are spot-on throughout.

Readers who enjoy novels by authors like Janet Evanovich will soon be stalking Julie Kramer—on the bookstore shelves, that is.

The Shadow Walker

By Michael Walters

Berkley, $14 (paper)

British author Michael Walters' debut novel, the first installment of a mystery series set in modern day Mongolia, begins with much promise. A blend of pulse-pounding police procedural and horror-nuanced suspense, the plot revolves around a growing number of homicides in and around Ulan Bator—murders where the victims have been ritualistically butchered and displayed.

Nergui, former Head of the Serious Crimes Team and now Ministry of Justice and Internal Affairs operative, is tasked with tracking down the elusive serial killer—a decided rarity in a country whose most common crime is cattle theft.

Aided by visiting British Chief Inspector Drew McLeish —whose trip to Mongolia was prompted by the murder of a British businessman—the duo follow tangential leads from nomadic ger-dwelling communities to unlikely tourist destinations in the Gobi desert. But still the murderer remains anonymous and the body count continues to rise.

When McLeish is abducted by the killer, Nergui is faced with a looming international incident that could cripple the already unstable Mongolian economy.

Like other mystery novels set in exotic locales (for example Arnaldur Indridason's Icelandic "Silence of the Grave" or Henning Mankell's Sweden-based Kurt Wallander saga), a huge driving force of "The Shadow Walker" is the setting itself. "It was still a primitive state in many ways ... for generations life had been scraped daily from the bare earth, where nothing lay between man and heaven except a thin protection of wood and felt."

But even the striking backdrop and intriguing Mongolian culture can't make up for an anticlimactic conclusion that was as disappointing as the rest of the book was absolutely riveting.

Breaking Cover

By J.D. Rhoades

St. Martins Minotaur, $25.95

After penning three "redneck noir" novels featuring North Carolina bail bondsman Jack Keller, J.D. Rhoades has written a stand-alone story that could quite possibly be the perfectly crafted hard-edged thriller. With a plot that features a rogue undercover FBI agent, a sadistic outlaw motorcycle gang that controls a network of backwoods meth labs and a harem of hillbilly strippers, an overly ambitious female television reporter, and a much-publicized kidnapping case involving two young brothers, what more could a discerning crime fiction reader hope for?

"Breaking Cover" is nothing short of masterful on numerous levels: Rhoades' singular ability to make every character—even peripheral ones—unique, realistic and intriguing; his innate sense of narrative tempo, which is pedal-to-the-metal throughout thanks in no small part to a staccato writing style and succinct chapters all ending with cliffhangers of varying degrees; and, lastly, the author's over-the-top, pulp fiction-inspired audaciousness, which will have readers saying to themselves, "I can't believe that just happened...."

Simply put, "Breaking Cover" is destined to become a crime fiction cult classic—leather biker jacket, submachine gun and crystal meth not included.

Chernobyl Murders

By Michael Beres

Medallion Press, $25.95

Aficionados of Cold War thrillers from writers like John le Carré, Tom Clancy and Len Deighton are in for a treat—and it comes courtesy of Chicago native Michael Beres.

Revolving around the events of April 26, 1986 when a reactor at a Ukrainian nuclear power plant exploded and released massive amounts of radioactivity into the surrounding area, "Chernobyl Murders" is equal parts spy thriller, murder mystery, ecological cautionary tale and, surprisingly enough, compelling love story. Powered by Ludlumesque pacing and meticulously detailed plotlines (Beres worked for the Atomic Energy Commission in the '60s and '70s), the story largely follows two characters: Kiev militia detective Lazlo Horvath and Juli Popovics, a technician at the Chernobyl plant.

After Horvath's brother—an engineer at the power plant—dies in the blast, he and his brother's pregnant mistress (Popovics) become scapegoats for a ruthless KGB major who has vowed to pin the disaster on them and further his political aspirations in the process.

So with the Soviet Union in political disarray and hundreds of thousands of displaced people creating chaos in the region, the unlikely pair must somehow find a way to survive and get the truth out—or become tagged some of history's most infamous villains.

"Chernobyl Murders" is a page-turner of the highest order: from the compelling characterization to the vividly described landscape of a devastated Ukraine to the stunning cover art, Beres has penned himself a winner.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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