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Sunday, November 14, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Scene of the Crime

By Adam Woog
Special to The Seattle Times

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Ruth Rendell's books always rise to the top. She's so good that she can even refresh a weary crime-fiction cliché, like the serial killer in "The Rottweiler" (Crown, 339 pp., $25).

Someone is strangling young women, and everyone connected to Inez Ferry's London antiques shop is rattled: Inez, gentle and secretly mournful; her assistant Zeinab, beautiful but ditzy (and duplicitous); and the eccentric, ethnically diverse tenants in the apartments upstairs. We soon learn that one of these people is the killer, though the police think otherwise.

Yes, this is a serial-killer book. But, as always with Rendell, the focus is less on the crimes than on her characters and their carefully layered secret lives. In her quiet, silken-noose way, Rendell illuminates these people, traces their intersecting paths, and gives them meaning and substance.

"Good Girl Wants It Bad" (Carroll & Graf, 251 pp., $13 paperback original) isn't some cheesy blue-movie script, as the title might suggest, but a pitch-perfect, coal-black comedy. Novelist Scott Bradfield has created, in jailhouse-diary form, a wickedly funny story about Delilah (Lah) Riordan, convicted of several horrible crimes.

Not that Lah cares. She's a blithe (if trampy) spirit — catnip to anything in pants, including the prison warden and shrink. (She's awfully accommodating to them, too.) Every guy in Lah's orbit suffers a terrible accident, but she's quite vocal about how she doesn't belong behind bars. Here's a sample: "The facts speak for themselves ... First off, I have not killed that many people, maybe two, though there have been several accidents involving men I knew, one of whom I actually loved."

Three Northwest writers offer new books with spirited female protagonists.

"Mad Money" (Mira paperback original, 378 pp., $6.50 ) is a breezy debut by Linda L. Richards, Galiano Islander and editor of the online literary journal JanuaryMagazine.com. Stockbroker Madeline Carter, recovering from witnessing a murder, reinvents herself as a day trader in Los Angeles. Her mistake is investing heavily in a company whose new CEO is an old boyfriend. When he goes missing, the stock plummets and Madeline, trying to figure things out, lands in all sorts of trouble.

Meg Chittenden of Ocean Shores is a veteran writer whose latest cheerfully energetic story is "Snap Shot" (Berkley paperback original, 304 pp., $5.99). Diane Gordon, ex-private eye turned photographer, is asked to judge a photo show in Port Findlay (a fictional Port Townsend). But Diane stumbles on the murdered body of a community leader and investigates along with another juror — a sexy chiropractor. (There's a reason for this particular profession: Chittenden's son is a chiropractor.)

Longtime Eugene writer Kate Wilhelm, meanwhile, offers a solid entry in her series about Barbara Holloway: "The Unbidden Truth" (MIRA, 368 pp., $23.95). The canny attorney is handed money from a mysterious source in return for defending a gifted pianist, Carrie Fredericks, accused of murdering a sleazy club owner. As Barbara investigates, puzzling questions emerge. For example: Carrie has no memories before the accident that killed her parents and traumatized her at age 8. Since the foster parents who raised her had no musical instruments, how did she learn to play the piano?

"Chango's Fire" (Rayo/HarperCollins, 273 pp., $23.95) is a strong entry from a young New York writer, Ernesto Quiñonez. Julio, who lives in a tight-knit Spanish Harlem neighborhood, is in the urban renewal business: He works construction by day and burns down buildings by night. He wants to get out of the arson racket, which has made him wealthy and earned millions of insurance dollars for his boss — but the boss, unwilling to let Julio go, sets up an impossible dilemma.

The book is uneven, especially in character development. Julio is fully drawn, but some of the others — notably Helen, the Anglo woman he loves — are paper-thin. Luckily, this defect is balanced by Quiñonez's gift for capturing the jittery rhythms of New York life and his vivid Spanglish dialogue.

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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