It's an unwritten law of the mystery universe that the star of a hot series doesn't retire until the author can no longer pick up a pen.

So it comes as no shock that Thomas Perry's singular creation, Jane Whitefield, a Seneca guide who spirits people in danger out of harm's way, is back on the job despite having promised her new husband, Dr. Carey McKinnon, that she would give up her perilous career. But you can't blame Jane. In "The Face-Changers" (Random House), Carey's mentor, famed plastic surgeon Dr. Richard Dahlman, is being pursued by the police for a murder he didn't commit. Carey, who believes passionately in human expertise, realized that "Dahlman needed a specialist, not some clumsy amateur who would get him killed. Dahlman needed Jane."

So would I, if I were on the lam, because Jane, who seems to have had the fear centers of her brain removed, is like Pocahontas with super powers--able to rig bombs in coffee pots.While hiding Dahlman, Jane learns that a nefarious group called the Face Changers is using her techniques, even her name, to destroy runners' lives. Naturally, she feels compelled to get rid of the competition, and the way she goes about it is ingenious. Perry is a master at nail-biting suspense. I stayed up until 3 in the morning to reach the surprising denouement and get my blood pressure back to normal.


I couldn't imagine anyone writing a cleverer, more riveting mystery novel than Ruth Rendell until I picked up Barbara Vine's hauntingly beautiful, deeply psychological "The Chimney Sweeper's Boy" (Harmony Books). Vine is the pseudonym Rendell uses when the payoff of a novel is understanding why people do terrible things as opposed to a "Book 'em, Dano" police procedural.

Gerald Candless, a best-selling novelist, dies suddenly of a heart attack, leaving behind Sarah and Hope, his grief-stricken daughters, and Ursula, his long-suffering wife. His publisher asks Sarah to write a biography of her adored father, but within hours of beginning her research, Sarah uncovers the first of many unsettling lies. The deeper she delves, the more that life as she knows it unravels until she is forced to confront the connection behind her mother's aloof behavior, an old London murder and the truth behind her father's fiction.

The intricate construction of this novel is so effortlessly balanced it left me breathless with admiration. It's rare that you come away from a book with the sense of how characters think as well as act. Wallow in the novel because it will be a long time before you read anything this good.


Having dated my share of nice Jewish boys from New Jersey, I have a soft spot in my heart for Harlan Coben's wisecracking sports agent sleuth, Myron Bolitar. In "One False Move" (Delacorte Press), Coben's first hardcover outing, Myron (who picked up rather awesome martial arts skills during a stint "with the government") is asked to watch over Brenda Slaughter, a star basketball player who has been receiving death threats. He figures he'll sign her up as a client, but he doesn't anticipate being swayed by Brenda's beauty, gentle determination--and the fact that she has more personal problems than Monica Lewinsky. Brenda's father, Horace (too coincidentally, Myron's old basketball coach), has just disappeared. Her mother, Anita, vanished 20 years before, and Brenda has aroused the interest of the mob and the scion of the richest family in Livingston, N.J., who is running for governor.

If this sounds unbelievable, it is, but the fast-paced plot spins the reader in a completely different direction than she expects to go. Myron is gallant, likable and delightfully original. I wish the author had turned his wickedly observant eye on the women's sports scene, but his reflections on suburban life and its racial divides are poignant and insightful.


The Times reviews mystery books every other Sunday. Next week: Rochelle O'Gorman Flynn reviews audio books.

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