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Sunday, June 13, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Scene of the Crime

Special to The Seattle Times

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How often do a father and daughter publish books in the same month? Not often, I'll wager.

Alafair Burke made a promising debut with "Judgment Calls," about a Portland deputy prosector named Samantha Kincaid. (Burke teaches criminal law at Hofstra University but once held a similar position in the Rose City.) Now Kincaid returns in another absorbing legal thriller, "Missing Justice" (Henry Holt, 352 pp., $19.95).

A prominent judge is killed. Evidence points to a poor black man as the culprit, but Kincaid suspects a frame and, while investigating, unravels a major scam. Her character is an essentially sunny one, but it doesn't keep her from getting down in the dirt and grime when it comes to prosecuting brutal murder.

Meanwhile, the author's more famous father, James Lee Burke, offers "In the Moon of Red Ponies" (Simon & Schuster, 322 pp., $24.95). Billy Bob Holland, Texas Ranger turned Montana lawyer, gets tangled up with a psycho (Wyatt Dixon, in a return appearance from "Bitterroot") and an enigmatic Native American (Johnny American Horse, who may be involved in a break-in at a local research lab).

This may not be Burke's finest. Everyone in this book has a grudge, no one is very sympathetic, there's virtually no humor, and the author's usual obsessions — creepy redneck killers, bad rich guys, racism, class warfare and government conspiracies — get yet another workout. Nonetheless, Burke's fierce and beautiful prose is always a pleasure to read.

Without excessive fanfare, Charles McCarry has for years been writing singularly intelligent spy thrillers. "Old Boys" (Overlook, 480 pp., $25.95) is one of his best. It postulates multiple searches.

First, some retired CIA spies, each seventysomething but still loaded for bear, band together to look for one of their own: Paul Christopher, the quietly effective spy from previous McCarry books, now vanished somewhere in China. Christopher, in turn, is searching for his mother, an amazingly resourceful woman in her 90s who's traveled the world for years in possession of an ancient scroll. Finally, there's a Middle Eastern terrorist desperate to possess the scroll, which would be explosive ammunition in his rabidly anti-Christian campaign.

The action bounces around the world at high speed, juiced by wonderful set-pieces (check out the Far East falconry) and memorable characters (dig the elderly but still coquettish Hungarian ex-spy).

Michael Connelly is a modern master of crime fiction, with a real desire to meditate on evil and the price paid for battling it. "The Narrows" (Little, Brown, 404 pp., $25.95) brings Connelly's longtime series character, now-retired L.A. cop Harry Bosch, together with Rachel Walling, the FBI agent who starred in Connelly's standalone novel "The Poet."

Bosch agrees to look into the death of his old friend Terry McCaleb (the central figure in Connelly's "Blood Work"). Meanwhile, Walling is called back into action after Robert Backus, the serial killer called the Poet, sets her an irresistible trap in the Nevada desert ... and the two plots intersect. Though the bad, bad Poet remains over-the-top and cartoonish — curiously at odds with the gravitas of Connelly's writing — the book is redeemed by the author's canny and careful plotting.

Awards department

Congratulations to retired Seattle policeman Lowen Clausen, recipient of this year's Spotted Owl for the best mystery novel of 2003 by a Pacific Northwest author. Clausen won for "Second Watch," a police procedural set largely in Ballard, that notorious hotbed of evil. He's the only writer to snag a second Spotted Owl; his previous winner was "First Avenue."

Hats off also to the runners-up: "A Blind Eye" (G.M. Ford), "Acts of Vengeance" (Frank Smith), "Fire Flight" (John Nance), "A Fistful Of Rain" (Greg Rucka), "Shaman Pass" (Stan Jones), "Land of the Blind" (Jess Walter), "Watch Them Die" (Kevin O'Brien), "Silent Proof" (Michael Hawley) and "A Grave Denied" (Dana Stabenow).

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

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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