Book roundup: Thrillers to heat up winter's chill

As the temperatures plummet, bookstores are heating up. The publishing industry is deep into "thriller season," with enough global conspiracies, shadowy mysteries, and heroes with stalwart-yet-silly names to keep readers happily occupied till the crocuses pop their heads out of the ground. We've rounded up the newest offerings from pros who know how to keep pages turning even in a deep freeze: the man credited with inventing the modern police novel; a veteran of war novels whom Publisher's Weekly has called a modern Homer and Tacitus; a mother-and-son writing team (Charles Todd) whose melancholy mysteries masterfully evoke the aftermath of war; oh, and Jane Austen.

A False Mirror, by Charles Todd ($23.95)

As far as defective detectives go, TV's Adrian Monk doesn't have anything on Ian Rutledge. In 1920, the Scotland Yard inspector is still haunted, quite literally, by World War I. Mistrusted and despised by his boss and raddled with nightmares, Rutledge finds himself summoned to the small town of Hampton Regis, where a trench mate stands accused of savagely assaulting the man who married his former fiancée. Now, the former soldier has taken her hostage and is demanding that Rutledge prove his innocence. Then the beating victim disappears and the bodies start piling up. While the number of people trotting in and out of the hostage's house strains credibility, the overall mystery is well done and the melancholy, atmospheric novel amply proves Rutledge's point that "memory had been a false mirror." Grade: B+

Hollywood Station, by Joseph Wambaugh ($24.99)

Fans have been waiting 10 years for another case from the acclaimed files of the former LAPD sergeant turned Mystery Grand Master.

With its emphasis on crackingly rendered characters and mordant humor, "Hollywood Station" doesn't disappoint. The officers down at Hollywood Station, led by a sergeant called The Oracle, are so busy that Flotsam and Jetsam aren't going to have much time to commune with their surfboards, and Hollywood Nate may never get his SAG card. Understaffed and hobbled by a suffocating bureaucracy, they nonetheless remain devoted to duty.

There is a plot, involving a jewelry store robbery, an undercover operation gone horribly wrong, and a pair of meth addicts, but "Hollywood Station" functions primarily as a series of vignettes. Wambaugh's grounded writing and knowledge of day-to-day operations help anchor some of his more caustic sequences and give the novel a weight that a lot of police procedurals lack. Plus, it's really funny. Grade: A–

Jane and the Barque of Frailty, by Stephanie Barron ($24)

Jane Austen, taking time off from the publication of "Sense and Sensibility," is back for another finely rendered Regency mystery. In 1811, the body of a Russian princess is found on the steps of Lord Castlereagh's home just days after letters detailing their alleged affair were published in the newspaper. Jane, in town visiting her brother and sister-in-law, is one of the few who believe the disgraced lady was murdered. But her investigations take on a greater urgency when she and her sister-in-law are accused of the crime by a Bow Street Runner, and given one week to either find the killer or pack their things for prison. Barron has used up Austen's most famous lines in the earlier mysteries, and Jane's heart was buried along with her beloved Lord Harold Trowbridge two books ago. But "Barque," with its emphasis on the injustices faced by 19th-century women, once again proves that Barron is almost as fluent at translating the nuances of society as her literary sleuth. Grade: B

The Hunters, by W.E.B. Griffin ($26.95)

Major C.J. "Charley" Castillo, special agent for the president, has a problem. The man he spent 480 pages locating in "The Hostage" – an unsavory character involved in the Iraq oil-for-food scam – has just been murdered in front of his eyes, along with one of Castillo's trusted men. So naturally, he gets a promotion and a slush fund worth $16 million. (Seriously, Jack Bauer needs this guy's career counselor: Castillo gets patted on the head and slobbered over by everyone from the president of the United States on down.) Charley – polyglot scion of not one, but two wealthy families – is charged with finding the killers and "rendering them harmless."

Meanwhile, an elderly newspaperman who's been investigating the oil-for-food scheme has been wounded in a kidnapping attempt that was foiled by his fabulous Flemish dog (easily the most memorable character in the book).

Efforts to protect his source and track down the bad guys send Charley rushing across three continents. Sadly, the novel seems to suffer from jet lag – it's bloated, and so tired it keeps repeating itself. And the scurrying to and fro seems designed to disguise the fact that the plot could (and should) have been wrapped up in a few chapters at the end of the previous book. Grade: C

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