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Sunday, May 11, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Scene of the Crime

Rebels, hoods, terrorists, and maybe a killer

Special to The Seattle Times

"Shelter From the Storm" (Putnam, $23.95) suffers from a generic title, but otherwise it's a standout. Author Michael Mewshaw has earned praise from writers as disparate as Larry McMurtry, Graham Greene, Robert Stone and Oscar Hijuelos — and this book shows why.

A security consultant named McClintock has arrived in a Central Asian country — one of those places with a name ending in "stan" — a country where gunfire and chaos are the norm. His son-in-law, a plant scientist, has been kidnapped, and there are two ransom notes. The first wants money; the second demands passage to America for a feral boy cared for by an American woman.

The plot is sturdy and swift, McClintock is memorable, and the woman is indelibly fearless. But perhaps Mewshaw's strongest suit is his ability to create a sense of place; his fictional country is startlingly alive.

Minette Walters' "Fox Evil" (Putnam, $24.95) is everything we'd expect from her: an insightful and slightly creepy tale of psychological suspense, elegantly written.

Nancy Smith is an outstanding officer in the British Army, raised by loving adoptive parents. Colonel James Lockyer-Fox is an elderly, wealthy loner. Their lives intersect when the colonel sends Nancy a bombshell of a letter revealing that he is her birth grandfather.

Reluctantly, she meets the old man and learns his ulterior motive: He's being accused of terrible things — including the death of his wife — and fervently believes she can absolve him.

Thomas Sanchez has built a cult following with novels like "Rabbit Boss" and "Mile Zero." He's an ambitious, passionate writer, with a penchant for iconic times and places — such as corrupt, yeasty 1950s Havana, the setting of "King Bongo" (Knopf, $25).

It's New Year's Eve 1957; Castro and his "boys in the hills" are on the verge of victory. A bomb in a crowded nightspot misses King Bongo — a gifted musician with a rebellious streak — but his girlfriend dies and his sister, a dancer, disappears.

The quest that follows sends Bongo through a city in turmoil and into contact with a large cast of characters. The sprawling story is perfectly served by Sanchez's excited, hothouse prose.

You get checks every month from an unknown source. You're young and foolish, so you cash them; a little extra comes in handy. Then one day you learn it's time to repay the debt. That's the setup for Donald E. Westlake's "Money for Nothing" (Mysterious Press, $24.95).

Nice guy Josh Redmont is the patsy, trapped into helping a mysterious foreign agency carry out an assassination on American soil. Luckily, Josh finds another guy in the same boat, and together they work it out.

At times the book's tone wavers slightly, as if Westlake couldn't decide whether to write one of his peerless comedies or one of his peerless thrillers. Nonetheless, like everything this casually brilliant writer produces, it's compulsively readable, a little unsettling, and in the end deeply satisfying.

"And All the Saints" (Warner, $24.95) is an entertaining mock memoir of a real-life character: the legendary gangster Owney Madden, who rose from the Irish slums of New York to a position of power before and during Prohibition.

Who knows if this well researched book really sounds like Madden? It doesn't really matter; author Michael Walsh has created a compelling and totally believable voice.

Local news:

For his book "Black River," Seattle writer G.M. Ford has won the 2003 Spotted Owl award, given by the Friends of Mystery for the best mystery novel by a Pacific Northwest writer. Ford had some stiff competition. Here are the finalists:

Michael Dibdin ("And Then You Die"), Aaron Elkins ("Turncoat"), Earl Emerson ("Vertical Burn"), Mary Freeman ("Garden View"), April Henry ("Learning To Fly"), Sue Henry ("Cold Company"), J. A. Jance, ("Partner In Crime"), Kris Nelscott ("Thin Walls") and Kate Wilhelm ("Skeletons").

Congratulations to all — each of these books is worth checking out.

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

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