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Sunday, May 13, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Scene of the Crime

'Sweet Mister' entices with sex, weirdness

Special to The Seattle Times

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The brilliant Missouri writer Daniel Woodrell draws from a deep and resonant well of Southern literary tradition. In his world, greed, violence, yearning, dark humor, sexual high jinks, and all-around weirdness are the stock in trade.

Woodrell's also high on words, and he fine-tunes each sentence with precision. This makes him an enthralling storyteller, even when describing something dire. It helps that he's also in love with his characters - they're mostly trashy losers, and they know it, but they're capable nonetheless of a heartbreaking dignity.

"The Death of Sweet Mister" (Putnam, $23.95) is powerful stuff. It's narrated by teenaged Shuggie Akins, lonely and uneducated but perceptive enough. His hell-raising father forces Shuggie to participate in humiliating small-time burglaries. His mother all but drags Shuggie into bed with her teasing come-ons. With a mix like this, you know that something's gotta give, and it certainly does.

"The Singing of the Dead" (St. Martin's Minotaur, $23.95) is the latest from Anchorage, Alaska's Dana Stabenow, who excels at evoking the bleakness and beauty of the far north.

Stabenow's new book finds her series star, Aleutian private eye Kate Shugak, joining a political campaign as security. Shugak's reclusive and wary under the best of circumstances, and she's reluctant to sign up, but she needs the money and thinks work might alleviate the deep grief that has followed the death of her true love.

Her presence is needed when Anne Gordaoff, a Native American woman who's running for the state Senate, starts getting threatening mail. Even the capable Kate, however, is unable to prevent the murder of a Gordaoff staffer.

Twisting around this plot is another that dips back in time. While digging up dirt on Gordaoff's rival, a free-lance researcher finds a story about a shady lady who was murdered during the Klondike Gold Rush. This tale turns out to connect with present-day events - and gives author Stabenow a chance to have fun with a slice of Alaska's colorful history.

G.M. Ford, best known for his comic novels starring smarty-pants Seattle private eye Leo Waterman, takes off in a promising new direction with "Fury" (Morrow, $24). It's a breakneck-paced, smoothly written and distinctly uncomic tale of a race to prevent an execution.

Frank Corso was once a top investigative reporter. After a scandal involving invented facts, however, he's reduced to being a cynical columnist for a second-string (and thoroughly fictional) Seattle paper.

Corso's convinced that Walter Himes, scheduled to die for a series of brutal murders, is a sleazebag - but not a killer. He teams up with a brave-hearted photographer to prove it, and in the process recovers something of his own humanity.

"The Big Ask" (Arcade, $23.95), the latest breezy mystery by Melbourne newspaper columnist Shane Mahoney, finds his roguish series hero, Murray Whelan, at a low point.

Whelan, a career political fixer, is sick at heart over his missing teenage son. His boss, Transportation Minister Angelo Agnelli, wants him to pull a dirty trick on a tough, Teamsters-like union. Plus, he's got no love life, unless you count a brief encounter in the back of a truck with an old flame.

When his dealings with the union turn violent, Murray - surprisingly resourceful for being such a charming sad sack - finds himself in pretty hot water. The political intrigues of a South Australian city may not seem the stuff of high drama, but they are - and Whelan's a delight.

Doc Ford, the reserved marine biologist who's the heart of Randy Wayne White's water-borne Florida novels, hates trouble. Really hates it. Has, in fact, created an obsessively ordered life for himself in order to avoid it - if only to conceal his past, which involved far-off and deeply secret governmental activities.

Sometimes, though, trouble just can't be avoided. Take "Shark River" (Putnam, $24.95). When Ford innocently witnesses an attempted kidnapping, he instinctively charges to the rescue.

Turns out, the victim is the bright, beautiful daughter of a high-powered politician. The politician, recognizing the steel beneath Ford's mild surface, persuades the good doctor to help him track the bad guys who are after him and his daughter.

Buzzing around the book are some memorable characters. There's Ford's buddy Tomlinson, whose drug-fried synapses either enhance or compromise his deep mystical insights. (It's hard to tell which.) There's also Ransom, the stunning Bahamian woman who claims to be Ford's cousin - and whose powerful presence forces him to examine a chapter of his past.

Seattle writer Adam Woog's column on mystery and crime fiction appears on the second Sunday of the month in The Seattle Times.

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