Certain book covers set off alarm bells. Chubby girls spilling out of Victorian bodices, for instance, or oiled-up gladiators bursting through tiny leather tunics are rarely good omens. Cleavage usually indicates bad writing. Then there is the Western with its title in cattle-brand lettering. Inside you will likely discover ''windswept plains" being traversed by ''fiery women" called ''ma'am," and ''square-jawed" men called ''pardner."
Guy Vanderhaeghe's ''The Last Crossing" has the rough-hewn title. Its jacket copy even promises a ''fiery . . . woman." But Vanderhaeghe, being an ornery Canadian, shattered my comforting prejudice on the first page by introducing Charles Gaunt, an artist and poet who wryly regards the ''tardy laurels finally pressed upon [his] indifferent brow."
Charles is English, English to the core. That core was, however, exposed to an overwhelming passion in an even more overwhelming landscape when he set out 20 years earlier to find his missing brother in the Blackfoot territory of Montana. Heard it before, you say. Proud man on epic quest, humbled by wilderness, confronts self. But you have not read ''The Last Crossing." And I wish that I could say the same, because every novel since then (except the P. G. Wodehouse canon, of course) has seemed cramped or stale. Toward the end I felt like Charles, wishing that I could start again.
It is not simply the adventure -- the terrifying Civil War flashbacks, the Blackfoot-Cree battle, the grizzly bear attack, the showdowns, the rescues -- or the fine-tuned tension. Vanderhaeghe describes the 1870s frontier with laconic ease in the distinctly individual voices of characters we trust from the outset. Wagon wheels ''crusted thickly with mud, and then unwound in long bandages of greasy clay." A minister's ''fat little hands cuddled up to his waistcoat like hairless kittens."
There is no stylistic showing off, no Cormac McCarthy-like macho mysticism. The suppleness and grace of Vandherhaeghe's imagery will remind you instead of Charles Portis or Annie Proulx; like those craftsmen, Vanderhaeghe makes his writing serve the story. And the story never flags. Jerry Potts, a half-Blackfoot, half-Scot guide, leads Charles and his brother Addington, a syphilitic Royal Lancer, north from Fort Benton to find Charles's twin brother, a religious missionary. Lucy Stoveall tags along hoping to find her sister's murderer, and Custis Straw, a haunted Civil War veteran, follows Lucy.
Quest and revenge, love and loss converge before the novel's satisfying final twist. ''Never mind I'm alone again," Lucy concludes, ''one bird on a bough in a cold wind."
Speaking of cold . . . Ben Jones's gripping first novel, ''The Rope Eater," transports us to the polar regions that have consistently bewitched not only Scott and Shackleton types but also generations of readers who cannot get enough of frostbite and cannibalism. ''The Rope Eater" supplies a surfeit of both but, as in ''The Last Crossing," this novel's original horror is the Civil War. ''In the falling darkness, men called for water, and for whiskey, for their wives, for blankets to ward off the cold," narrator Brendan Kane recalls. ''I saw things I should not have seen. Arms and legs stacked like cordwood outside the medical tent."
Brendan deserts, but not before he has collected hundreds of letters from the pockets of the dead and wounded: ''I found myself stumbling among bodies swelling in the gentle sun, my eyes watering from the stench as I gathered the letters to me." Reaching New Bedford, he dutifully delivers his burden to the postmaster and joins the strange crew of the Narthex, knowing nothing of the ship's destination or mission, although the presence of a three-handed Muslim engine tender surely indicates something more eccentric than a whaling expedition.
Soon we are in the realm of pack ice, pemmican, and inadequate clothing. The expedition leader announces that the Narthex is bound for a ''lush Garden of Eden in the heart of the Arctic" as described in a great-uncle's journal that three-handed Aziz has translated. Strange. Stranger still when Aziz tells Brendan his story of growing up in a desert tribe that survived by deforming its children for sale to the circus. Joseph Conrad meets John Irving? This is unfair to Jones, who describes battlefields as vividly as he does Arctic storms and who has a veteran's way with suspense. But ''The Rope Eater" suffers from fractured identity, particularly when it winds up becoming something of an Edgar Allan Poe nightmare on ice. Polar-disaster devotees will love it nonetheless. Delicate readers, on the other hand, may be horrified.
Lastly, a real disappointment. Robert Barnard is one of my favorite British mystery writers, and an earlier World War II novel of his, ''Out of the Blackout," was a small gem. His latest, ''A Cry From the Dark," returns to that era, moving between outback Australia in the 1930s and present-day London as elderly writer Bettina Whitelaw completes her memoirs. A rape in the past may explain a robbery in the present. Or it may not. Barnard seems not to care either way, and none of the novel's subplots compensates for his lack of conviction and our lack of interest.
Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is a correspondent for the Irish Times.