By Steve Hamilton
St. Martin's, 294 pp., $24.95
A Killer's Kiss
By William Lashner
Morrow, 336 pp., $24.95
By Zoë Sharp
St. Martin's, 278 pp., $23.95
Instead of the mayhem and pyrotechnics that have become de rigueur for the opening chapter of today's thrillers, Steve Hamilton's "Night Work" delivers a nuanced portrait of Joe Trumbull as he tapes his hands and gazes out the window at a full moon that he knows brings "nothing but trouble." He's about to go on a blind date, his first since his fiancée was murdered. He beats back anxiety by jumping rope and working the speed bag at a seedy gym in what was once a bus station. His room-and-a-half apartment, up a rickety flight of stairs, was once the bus station office. Instead of the usual burnt-out-cop protagonist, Joe is a juvenile probation officer who loves his job helping kids, whom he affectionately refers to as his "knuckleheads," most of them teetering on the brink of self-destruction ("I imagine the traps dug on either side of them, the wild animals waiting at the bottom").
Joe showers and collects his nerves, soothed by an infusion of explosive jazz, and goes off to meet his date. She turns out to be the gorgeous, intelligent, shapely, raven-haired Marlene. Things go well, and as he leaves her apartment in the wee hours, he realizes, "For the first time in years, I was genuinely looking forward to the next day."
Hamilton is so good at making the reader care about these characters that it's heart-wrenching when the inevitabilities of the genre kick in and Marlene is murdered. Soon every woman with whom Joe has the slightest relationship becomes the target of a serial killer.
This novel explores a dark landscape and, in the final chapters, veers into the macabre. But by then Hamilton has earned enough sympathy and good will to keep the reader going, rooting for his broken hero through to the ending.
Turn up the lights and turn on the hip-hop for William Lashner's "A Killer's Kiss." In this seventh series novel, Victor Carl is a slick, smart-aleck attorney who never got over losing Julia - she's the girl who dumped him, way back when, for a urologist.
Julia has just come back into Victor's life when the massive Detective Hanratty ("like a block of cement') and his partner, the slim, sharp-faced Detective Sims, come knocking. "I'm naked," Victor says when he sees them through his apartment-door peephole. "Then put something on. Our stomachs are strong but not that strong," Sims shoots back at him.
It turns out that while Victor and Julia have been renewing their acquaintance, her husband was getting shot dead. The $1.7 million that should have been in his safe has gone missing. Evidence mounts, implicating (who else?) Victor.
This is not a novel for readers looking for complex characterization or thematic depth. Instead, it reaches cruising altitude on caricature and zingy one-liners. Hanratty and Sims play goony good-cop/bad-cop. The overgrown adolescent Derek Moats, who becomes Victor's sidekick, is a motor-mouth black kid who's channeling Eddie Murphy's performance in "Beverly Hills Cop." There's a brutal, blustering Russian thug and his helpmate, a villainous weasel who cuts off bits of his victims as keepsakes, and an obsequious accountant who wrings his hands like Dickens's Uriah Heep. And of course there's Julia, the femme fatale who seduces and deceives.
Finally, there's Victor himself, who knows firsthand what "old love" does to a person: "It turns you stupid." Even he has no explanation for why he keeps trying to save Julia, who, in turn, seems bent on framing him for her husband's murder.
Security consultant Charlie Fox is strong, tough, and a sharpshooter - a guy's girl - in "Second Shot," British author Zoë Sharp's second series novel published in the United States. Charlie's boss, handsome Sean Meyer, who is also her lover, knows her weakness. Emotion causes her to hesitate. In her line of work, the result can be fatal.
Does Charlie have the sangfroid needed for a solo job protecting Simone Kerse, a young mother who's just hit the lottery to the tune of $13 mil and is now "at risk from every crackpot and kidnapper out there"? Sean pulls a knife on Charlie and challenges her to prove that she can operate unemotionally. Talk about tough love.
The novel's opening reveals Charlie, lying in a frozen ditch and badly wounded, and Simone being shot dead. The next chapters reveal what came before. Knowing Simone is going to get killed gives the novel's first half some needed momentum, because bodyguarding is tedious work, especially with annoying, whiny Simone as the "principal" who persists in putting herself and her 4-year-old daughter, Ella, in danger. Once Simone is out of the way, the novel moves more briskly as Charlie tries to figure out who shot whom.
Sharp captures Charlie's hyper-vigilance as she narrates every shrug, twitch, and raised eyebrow, but the level of detail can be exhausting and slow the story. The stakes are ratcheted by repeatedly traumatizing a child - something this reader finds a tough sell. But for all Charlie's "machismo," she's a complex, interesting character, and Sharp makes her physical and psychic pain a visceral reality.
Hallie Ephron is author of "Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: How to Knock 'Em Dead With Style" and co-author of the Dr. Peter Zak mysteries. Contact her through hallieephron.com.