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Dark Passages: Knockout debuts of the 'decade'

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Purists may differ on the semantics, arguing that the new decade won't start for another 11 months, but psychologically, it's hard not to be swayed by the switch from 19 to 20, and from leaving "two-thousand-nine" for "twenty-ten." And so, by consensus, we're a month into a new decade, still dissociating numerical economic recovery with the hard numbers of job loss. From a more local, bookish standpoint, we're caught in the middle of exciting, electronic-induced times and the prolonged death throes of The Way Things Were.

In the midst of the new decade's tumult, book publishing's lifeblood -- first-time writers -- still requires feeding. We're hungry for fresh voices unsullied by Bookscan stats, backlist expectations and narrative investment because, when new, the potential is limitless, and we can delay disappointment until the next book (which is why the so-called "sophomore slump" is only partially true; it's less the product of a bad outing than the author falling victim to heightened forecasts by readers and critics alike).

The boom-bust cycle applies just as much to the mystery world as it does to more literary-minded spheres. New voices often herald new series, but even when the books mean to stand alone, the entry threshold is steeper than ever. It's not enough to be good that first time out; one must be near close to outstanding -- or at least carry a distinctive voice -- to stand a chance for the future.

This is why I'm heartened by 2010's new class so far. By year's end, no doubt the submission list for the Edgar Award's Best First Novel will be the typical mix of many good-to-mediocre novels, even more tepid or flat-out-terrible outings, and a smattering of very good-to-great, but already, there are a few contenders strutting confidently out of the gate.

Steven Lamb, the 12-year-old at the center of Belinda Bauer's astonishing psychological thriller "Blacklands" (Simon & Schuster: 240 pp. $23), has a hobby most adults would find a little creepy: devouring every bit of knowledge to do with serial killers. But there's a mission quality to it, as he was born six years after his older brother vanished, a likely victim of the local murderous psychopath Arnold Avery. In his own literal-minded way, Steven believes only quantifiable evidence -- his brother's bones -- will bring some closure for his family. And so, a correspondence begins, leading to an ever-horrifying dance between innocent and evil that becomes ever intermingled as the suspense mechanism kicks into high gear.

Careful analysis likely reveals some plot holes and a less-than-perfect understanding of the British prison system, but as a claustrophobic account of when a lamb sets himself for the slaughter, Bauer and the flattened prose that disguises a wellspring of roiling emotions, "Blacklands" is a terrifying knockout.

Impending catastrophe looms at the heart of Carla Buckley's "The Things That Keep Us Here" (Delacorte: 398 pp., $25), as does relatively current headlines. Whereas the H1N1 strain of flu pandemic set the world on edge alongside economic crises, Buckley spins out the onset and aftermath of the even deadlier H5N1 (or avian) flu from the perspective of Peter Brooks, the researcher alternately paralyzed by and moved to act on the discovery, and his estranged wife, Ann, who faces more primal ethical dilemmas like keeping her daughters safe. "You plan for the worst. And then when the worst happens, you find out how useless your planning was," says one character, but what he doesn't say -- and what "Things" accurately portrays -- is how mass disaster brings out strength in unexpected quarters and weakness in more surprising places.

Randy Susan Meyers' "The Murderer's Daughters" (St. Martin's: 310 pp., $24.99) also examines a catastrophe that is no less devastating though only affecting two sisters. Lulu, age 10, let her father into the house. Five-year-old Merry got caught in the frenzy of her father's actions, when the knife meant for her mother also struck her. Men kill their wives all too often, but the after-effects are as unique as the individuals who are forced to cope with them. Lulu chooses to shut down, amplifying her survival skills and smarts to a career as a doctor with a family of her own, damping down the act through sheer force of will. Merry, however, stays close to her imprisoned father, and no other man will ever live up to him even as they collude in the breakdown of her confidence. How both sisters live, from the squalor of an orphanage to the empty silences of suburban living, is all too believable and heartbreaking because there is no acceptable answer for how to deal with one's part, as living victim, of a horrible crime -- only an often-lonely struggle to do what's supposed to be right that takes many more wrong turns.

Finally, James Thompson's "Snow Angels" (Putnam: 265 pp., $24.95) is a debut on American soil, but the author (using the byline "Jim Thompson" -- not to be confused with the late, great noir master) has published two other books in Finland, his expatriate home and where this new book is set. Like other examples of the Scandinavian crime invasion, there's a tortured cop (Inspector Vaara), a gruesome murder of a Somali immigrant acting as blunt metaphor for the erosion of society, and humdingers of plot twists that, in hindsight, play as they should.

But "Snow Angels" is memorable as much for the reverse expatriate subplot -- Vaara's pregnant American wife, Kate, is the outsider barely managing with the country's never-ending darkness around Christmastime -- as it is for the wonderfully lurid quality of both the prose and revelations behind the initial and later murders. Vaara cautions his wife that "what you perceive as silence, we perceive as solitude," but it's the mix of both that provides the necessary ingredients for this stark page-turner.

Weinman blogs about crime and mystery fiction at www.sarahweinman.com. Dark Passages appears monthly at www.latimes.com/books.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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