Pageturners

A look at four thrillers, including one by a New York Times reporter.

The Faithful Spy, by Alex Berenson

Not for nothing does former New York Times reporter Berenson mention TV's "24" in his debut thriller. His John Wells is such a loner he makes Jack Bauer look like captain of the pep squad. The only CIA agent to infiltrate Al Qaeda, Wells has been living in Pakistan so long that almost no one knows of his existence - and those who do aren't sure he's still on America's side. Now Al Qaeda has sent him back to the States, and Wells is the only one who can foil the terrorists' plans - except he doesn't know any of the details. Competently executed, and with a reporter's eye for detail, but the level of fear-mongering can get wearying. Grade: B-

The Old Wine Shades, by Martha Grimes

The classic "man walks into a bar" set-up gets a murderous twist in Grimes's latest novel. Faced with time on his hands (thanks to overstepping the law to save some children in Grimes's previous book, "Winds of Change"), Inspector Richard Jury finds himself sucked in by an unlikely yarn spun by a stranger he meets in a pub. Call it the Case of the Disappearing Family: A woman, a child, and a dog vanish while house-hunting. The frantic husband descends into despair. Then, months later, the dog comes back. Grimes, a consummate pro, is clearly enjoying herself here. Whether readers are equally charmed may depend on a) whether they've already heard of the theory of Schrödinger's cat, and b) if they can accept chapters narrated by a dog. Grade: B+

Promise Me, by Harlan Coben

No good deed goes unpunished in Coben's new thriller, starring entertainment agent Myron Bolitar ("Darkest Fear"). After hearing two teenage girls talk about catching rides with drunk drivers, Bolitar makes them promise that they will call him if they need a chauffeur. In return, he'll take them anywhere they need to go, no questions asked, no tattling to parents. A few weeks later, one of the girls does just that - and disappears after getting out of Bolitar's car. Cue the police, angry parents, and even the mob. Coben keeps the hairpin turns coming and the plot zooming. But his over-reliance on violence and gimmicky supporting characters who don't advance the tale - female pro wrestlers, creepy hitmen who spout pop tunes in Spanish - gets old. Grade: C+

Through a Glass, Darkly, by Donna Leon

A favor for a friend leads Commissario Guido Brunetti to a murder in Leon's 15th mystery. After freeing an environmental activist who was arrested during a protest, Brunetti learns that the activist's father-in-law has been threatening his life. Brunetti is checking into whether the threats have teeth, when a body turns up at the family glassworks on the island of Murano. Leon's an accomplished writer, and her Brunetti shares Inspector Morse's appreciation for the finer things in life, especially books and food. But the Venetian is more urbane, since his straight-talking wife would never put up with Morse's curmudgeonly antics. Leon cheats a little - the mystery's solution turns on a chance conversation - but who can resist Venice in springtime? Grade: B+

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