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Last published at August 7, 2009 at 7:01 PM

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Crime fiction: playing with fire, Depression-era noir and a political-religious thriller

New crime fiction in August includes the sequel to "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," a wicked slice of noir from Megan Abbott and the concluding volume of Robert Ferrigno's "Assassin" trilogy.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Robert Ferrigno

The author of "Heart of the Assassin" will appear at these area sites:

• At noon Tuesday, Seattle Mystery Bookshop, 117 Cherry St., Seattle. Free (206-587-5737, seattlemystery.com).

• At 7 p.m. Thursday, Garfield Book Co., Pacific Lutheran University, 208 Garfield St., Suite 101, Tacoma. Free (253-535-7665, http://luteworld.plu.edu).

• At 7 p.m. Aug. 18 at Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park. Free (206-366-3333, thirdplacebooks.com).

Summer arrived with a vengeance, and with it some crime novels to take the edge off any excessive heat.

The late Swedish writer Stieg Larsson's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" was astonishing in its quality and popularity. Its sequel is the equally mesmerizing "The Girl Who Played With Fire" (Knopf, 514 pp., $25.95, translated by Reg Keeland).

Lisbeth Salander — the near-autistic, punkish computer hacker of the title — again encounters Mikael Blomkvist, a sharp-eyed investigative journalist, this time tracking the shadowy figures behind a sex-trafficking operation. She has a personal reason for getting involved in the hunt, and things heat up when her fingerprints are found on the gun that killed others who were tied to the search for the criminals. The troubled, brilliant Lisbeth is unforgettable.

Also from Scandinavia is a chilling story of small-town obsession and death: "The Water's Edge" (Houghton Mifflin/Harcourt, 240 pp., $25, translated by Charlotte Barslund) by Karin Fossum, one of Norway's top crime novelists. It centers on Inspector Konrad Sejer's query into the violation and death of a young boy — and the disappearance of another.

The book has several sterling qualities, including a concise, crisp translation and a terrifying portrait of the fragmenting couple that discovers the body — especially the husband and his creepy fixation with the case.

Megan Abbott's latest wicked morsel of noir is "Bury Me Deep" (Simon & Schuster, 240 pp., $15 paperback original). Loosely based on a real-life case, it weaves together Depression-era infatuation, sex and betrayal.

Marion Sweeney arrives in sun-baked Phoenix and falls in with a bad crowd of party girls and guys. The resulting liaisons lead to, among other bad things, a gruesome double murder. Abbott's giddy prose and dialogue zigzag from flowery to slangy, but she's always in control. While there's no real comparison to Fitzgerald, "Bury Me Deep" is reminiscent of "The Great Gatsby" in its uncanny scenes of drink and drugs. They were so powerful that I had the impression I was myself intoxicated. Just an impression, I hasten to add.

Kirkland writer Robert Ferrigno completes his "Assassin" books with "Heart of the Assassin" (Scribner, 400 pp., $25.95). This trilogy (best read as a whole) provocatively combines a speculative thriller with an examination of politico-religious doubt, faith, danger — and, not least, love.

In the near future, after the apocalyptic destruction of New York, D.C. and Mecca, America has split into Islamic and Christian nations — each with its own dangerous extremists. An increasingly aggressive South American empire threatens both nations, but a renowned historian believes they can reunite against the danger. The key: retrieving a piece of the True Cross, hidden somewhere in the nuclear wasteland of D.C.

Undertaking the mission is Rakkim Epps, a fearless and brainy Muslim warrior. But Ferrigno has a special gift for creating terrific villains, and there are some doozies here — among them The Old One, a 150-year-old caliph bent on becoming a Muslim Messiah.

Finally, a tip of the nonfiction hat to Harold Schechter's "The Whole Death Catalog" (Ballantine, 320 pp., $18 paperback). For anyone interested in the social aspects of the Grim Reaper, resistance to this book is futile. It's informative, endlessly entertaining and, yes, charming, with short, snappy entries and graphics elucidating everything from the sacred and sublime to the deeply weird.

A sample observation: Humans (unlike some creatures) are programmed, in part, to remain alive after reproducing, so that they can nurture their offspring into adulthood. Schechter points out that this should comfort those of us facing our kids' college tuition — those outgoing dollars help us stay alive.

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

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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