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Sunday, December 1, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Scene of the Crime

Best mysteries of 2002

Special to The Seattle Times

Need something for the crime-fiction fan on your holiday list? Here are some standouts from the past year:

"An Experiment in Treason" by Bruce Alexander (Putnam, $24.95). The latest in a lively series about Sir John Fielding, London's real-life 18th-century blind judge, co-stars a rascally Benjamin Franklin. It's as vivid and sharp-witted as a Hogarth sketch.

"Jolie Blon's Bounce" by James Lee Burke (Simon & Schuster, $25). Cajun homicide detective Dave Robicheaux has a keen empathy for the underdog and a strong sense of how past and present intersect. The author's recurring themes (the corruption of money, the poignant divisions of race and class) resonate as Robicheaux sees if a gifted musician is really a murderer.

"And Then You Die" by Michael Dibdin (Pantheon, $21). Reflective, droll Italian policeman Aurelio Zen keeps finding dead people near him — in a beach chair, on a flight to America — and matches wits with a spectacularly unlucky assassin in the latest from Seattleite Dibdin.

"The Ivory Coast" by Charles Fleming (St. Martin's Minotaur, $24.95). This story about Vegas in the mid-'50s is somber in tone, rich in historical texture, and careful in its nuances of race and class. The people circling what will be the town's first black-oriented casino-hotel all have an angle — and all plan on grabbing the main chance.

"Black River" by G.M. Ford (Morrow, $23.95). A breakneck thriller about Frank Corso, a Seattle investigative journalist with a shady past and poor anger-management skills. A gangster whose shoddy building techniques have resulted in dozens of deaths is on trial; Corso's interest is intensely personal.

"Blood of Victory" by Alan Furst (Random House, $24.95). Former Seattle-area resident Furst is perhaps the finest spy novelist now writing. His elegant, luminous new book is set in the fall of 1940, as a Russian expatriate writer reluctantly joins a plot to keep Romanian oil from the Nazis. Furst excels at showing how people find bits of happiness in the horrors of war: the leisurely espresso, the elegant party, the furtive love affair.

"Justice Hall" by Laurie R. King (Bantam, $23.95). Mary Russell, the wife created by author King for an officially retired Sherlock Holmes, is fully his equal in brains and verve. Here, they attack a mystery of identity threatening one of England's noblest families.

"Tishomingo Blues" by Elmore Leonard (Morrow, $25.95). The virtuoso of sly dialogue and slinky plots cracks open a new deck and shows us some more cool sleight of hand. One sultry evening, a professional high diver witnesses a murder and is plunged into a scam involving Southern racketeers, double-crosses and Civil War re-enactors.

"Rumpole Rests His Case" by John Mortimer (Viking, $24.95). Horace Rumpole, that peerless champion of British law, is in full grumpy-but-soft-hearted flight in this delightful collection, though the final story intimates that he may be mortal after all.

"Bad Boy Brawly Brown" by Walter Mosley (Little, Brown, $24.95). Informal L.A. detective Easy Rawlins is a genuine hero — big-hearted and courageous, with a prudent and supple intelligence. Mosley's books, which chronologically explore shifting race relations, here reach the early 1960s, as Easy looks for a young man involved with a shady group of black militants.

"Adam and Eve and Pinch Me" by Ruth Rendell (Crown, $25). The reigning queen of British psychological thrillers sets delicate traps that slowly constrict and do not let readers loose. This one concerns a charming rogue who sponges off a series of guileless women.

"The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency," "Tears of the Giraffe," and "Morality for Beautiful Girls" by Alexander McCall Smith (Anchor paper, $12 each). Precious Ramotswe — the only female detective in all Botswana — is wise, patriotic, moral, instinctively feminist and sensible. In these utterly charming books, written by a Scotsman raised in Africa, she solves such problems as missing children, freeloading fake relatives, and a scandal involving the Miss Beauty and Integrity contest.

"Put a Lid On It" by Donald E. Westlake (Mysterious Press, $23.95). The mad genius of the comic caper creates a gleefully wicked variant on Watergate. A thief is sprung from jail to steal a video before an upcoming election, and he's way smarter than the feds who hire him.

Close runners-up:

"The Hearse Case Scenario" by Tim Cockey (Hyperion, $23.95). Hitchcock Sewell — the snappiest undertaker in Baltimore — helps a childhood friend who may or may not have murdered her boyfriend.

"December 6" by Martin Cruz Smith (Simon & Schuster, $26). Tokyo just before World War II — an endless warren of bustling action — is the real star of this richly imagined thriller about a genial American con man.

"Sinister Heights" by Loren D. Estleman (Mysterious Press, $24.95). A rich widow hires Amos Walker, true keeper of the grizzled gumshoe flame, to track down her late hubby's heirs.

"Vertical Burn" by Earl Emerson (Ballantine, $24.95). This vivid story by a Seattle Fire Department lieutenant/writer is guaranteed to scare the socks off us citizens: A fireman discovers a conspiracy to torch the Columbia Tower.

"In A True Light" by John Harvey (Carroll & Graf, $26). In a story of broken family bonds, bittersweet memory, and the act of creation, a British art forger treks to New York to find the daughter he never knew and relives his role in that city's vibrant 1950s art scene.

"Basket Case" by Carl Hiaasen (Knopf, $25.95). The satirist's latest comic thriller fizzes with subversive high spirits and two hapless targets: newspapers and pop music.

"Hell to Pay" by George P. Pelecanos (Little, Brown, $24.95). A terse, intensely cinematic morality tale set in Washington, D.C.'s mean streets, about the search for a teenage girl in a netherworld of pimps, drugs and street-smart kids.

"The Walkaway" by Scott Phillips (Ballantine, $22). A nifty noir gem about an ex-cop whose faulty memory hides the location of ill-gotten gains.

"Winter and Night" by S.J. Rozan (St. Martin's Minotaur, $24.95). Lydia Chin and Bill Smith — an odd couple of detectives with an interestingly complicated relationship — search for a suburban teen and find dangerous obsessions.

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

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