Pageturners

The Alibi Club, by Francine Mathews

A real effort to smuggle heavy water away from the Nazis gets a fictional treatment in Francine Mathews's eighth novel. An American lawyer is found dead, and his girlfriend is determined to track down his killer. Unfortunately, it's May 1940, and Paris is about to fall to the German Army, so Sally doesn't have much time. Meanwhile, everyone from an eminent physicist to a Josephine Baker lookalike are fleeing the city. Sally has more lives than a cat, and the plot hinges on all the major players arriving at the same vineyard in Bordeaux. These contrivances weaken what could have been a nifty spy caper. Grade: C

The Dead Hour, by Denise Mina

Thatcher-era Glasgow is a grim, gray place in Denise Mina's second mystery starring reporter Patricia "Paddy" Meehan. Paddy is working the night shift when she responds to a noise complaint at an expensive home. A blond woman is inside with a bloody face and a well-dressed man is explaining things to the police when Paddy arrives. The man presses a £50 note into the usually ethical Paddy's hand, and she and the police leave. The next day, the woman's body is found, leaving Paddy with the presumed murderer's fingerprints on the bribe and haunting questions about why the dead woman didn't walk out when she had the chance. Grade: B

Gone With the Windsors, by Laurie Graham

It was the royal scandal that rocked a nation. (No, not that one.) When the Prince of Wales abdicated to marry the twice-divorced Wallis Simpson, Wally's old friend Maybell Brumby, a ditzy blond American whose loyalty is as deep as her trust fund, was along to record it all in her journal (and pick up the check). Laurie Graham ("Future Homemakers of America") piles on the frothy fun in this diary-style novelization of the romance between "the Princekin and Mrs. Pushy." Best read in small doses (otherwise Maybell's obliviousness can grate), the book is at its most charming in the early chapters and when Maybell is lavishing presents on her niece and nephew. Grade: B+

Happiness Sold Separately, by Lolly Winston

Lolly Winston ("Good Grief") wastes no time in her second novel: Her heroine finds out her husband is cheating on her in the very first sentence. The affair comes after two tough years for Elinor and Ted Mackey. After the failure of infertility treatments, Elinor has sunk into a deep depression, alleviated only by laundry. Shamed, Ted breaks off relations with his nutritionist girlfriend, but her son has picked Ted out as a father substitute and is determined not to let him go. While "Happiness Sold Separately" doesn't earn comparisons with Anne Tyler, it represents an impressive leap forward for Winston, who has completely shaken off the glittery dust of the chick-lit section. Grade: B

The Night Gardener, by George Pelecanos

Twenty years after three D.C. teens were killed in the "Palindrome murders," the body of Asa Johnson is found under similar circumstances, leading three men who worked the case to wonder if the "Night Gardener" is back in action. One is a straight-laced detective whose son knew the dead boy; the second is a disgraced former officer now working as a chauffeur; and the third is the legendary detective, now retired, who led the case. The palindrome clue, with its ripped-from-the-case-files-of-Encyclopedia-Brown feel, is the weakest aspect of Pelecanos's otherwise disturbingly gritty excavation of racism and social politics in modern Washington. Grade: B+

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