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On Crime

Chasing white rabbits, and long-lost truths

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Hallie Ephron
May 25, 2008

Island of Lost Girls
By Jennifer McMahon
Harper, 272 pp., paperback, $13.95

Judgment Day
By Sheldon Siegel
MacAdam/Cage, 360 pp., $26

Head Wounds By Chris Knopf
Permanent, 272 pp., $28

The Lost Boys of "Peter Pan" 's Neverland never grew up. In Jennifer McMahon's second novel, "Island of Lost Girls," little girls suffer the same fate.

The novel begins with Rhonda Farr witnessing the abduction of little Ernestine Florucci in front of Pat's Mini Mart. While Ernie's mother is inside buying a lottery ticket, a gold Volkswagen Beetle pulls up, and out climbs a rabbit ("all white and, as she would tell the police, about six feet tall"). Rhonda watches, dumbfounded, from her car by the gas pumps as what is surely a man in a bunny suit hops out and offers Ernie his paw. An instant later, without any struggle at all, the rabbit helps Ernie out of her mother's car, buckles her into the Volkswagen, and drives her away.

Rhonda is guilt-ridden, unable to understand why she did nothing to stop the kidnapping. To make amends, she volunteers at the "Find Ernie" headquarters that is soon set up at the mini-mart.

Ernie's disappearance stirs up memories of the time when Rhonda was a freshman in high school and her best friend, Lizzie, vanished. Three years before that, Lizzie's father had disappeared. The novel seesaws between past and present, as Rhonda searches for truths that may help her finally stop being a lost girl herself.

Like "The Lovely Bones," despite grim and nearly unbearable subject matter, this book is un-put-downable from page 1. The writing is exquisite and often very funny, and themes of childhood and loss resonate. McMahon is particularly adept at creating children, and the vibrant world of imagination where they seek a respite from reality.

An innocent man is on death row in Sheldon Siegel's legal thriller "Judgment Day." Nate Fineman will die in a week if attorneys Mike Daley and his ex-wife, Rosie Fernandez, fail to find evidence of "freestanding innocence," the appeals court's higher standard than the trial court's "reasonable doubt."

Nate may be innocent of murdering three people in the back room of the Golden Dragon restaurant in San Francisco's Chinatown, but he's no altar boy. The former defense attorney ("a street-smart hustler with a glib manner and a photographic memory") earned the enmity of San Francisco's finest when he convinced a judge to dismiss a murder charge against a man who had shot a police officer "four times at point-blank range in front of two witnesses."

The last-ditch appeal is not a case Mike and Rosie would ordinarily take, but Nate offers the kind of money they can't afford to turn down. As an added incentive, Mike may be able to determine whether his deceased father, a police detective, was involved in planting evidence that implicated Nate.

This sixth series novel has the usual legal-thriller setup going for it - a ticking clock, high stakes, and a likable pair of attorneys, well-meaning souls who find themselves pulled deeper and deeper into jeopardy. The story unfolds slowly as Mike, Rosie, and Mike's detective brother pursue leads and interview witnesses. But Siegel's real strength is courtroom drama, and the novel catches fire near the end as, before a judge, Mike and Rosie present the case they hope will save their client's life.

In Chris Knopf's third series novel, "Head Wounds," our hero, Sam Acquillo, is a 50-ish guy who's been knocked about by life. An ex-boxer, ex-businessman, and ex-husband, Acquillo works as a finish carpenter and lives alone with a personable mutt in a barely winterized summer cottage in wealthy Southampton, N.Y. Every other word out of his mouth is sarcasm. And though he's been told by doctors that another blow to the head could be fatal ("I knew my lifetime concussion limit was all used up"), he can't walk away from a brawl. A scruffy maverick, he's surrounded by friends, including a gorgeous, wealthy girlfriend, Amanda Anselma, who's got her own trail of exes, including a former husband who's serving a prison term for bank fraud.

The plot involves real-estate schemes, toxic waste, and killer pool. Oh yeah, there's a murder. A local builder is found staple-gunned to death soon after he tries to muscle in on one of Amanda's renovation projects and gets beaten up by Acquillo. Acquillo, whose fingerprints are on the murder weapon and whose footprints are all over the murder scene, naturally becomes the prime suspect.

What makes the novel feel fresh is whip-smart, snappy dialogue and intriguing characters, particularly smart women who handily skirt cliché. Knopf is also a dab hand at describing settings and characters. He brings the working-class side of Southampton, where fishermen and mechanics hang out after work, vividly to the page. For instance, he tells us that a barmaid at the Pequot, a "crummy little joint" in Sag Harbor, "looked like she'd died recently after being trapped inside a dark closet." This is a hero squarely in the tradition of Travis McGee (John D. MacDonald called McGee a "tattered knight on a spavined steed"), fueled by plenty of machismo and colossal amounts of vodka and beer.

Hallie Ephron is the author of "1001 Books for Every Mood." She can be reached through www.hallieephron.com.

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