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Originally published Saturday, February 12, 2011 at 7:04 PM

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New crime fiction by Dana Stabenow, A.D. Miller and Flavia de Luce

New in crime fiction: Dana Stabenow's Aleut detective Kate Shugak inherits a mystery; a debut thriller by Economist writer A.D. Miller; and new offerings by Flavia de Luce and Martha Grimes.

Special to The Seattle Times

Crime fiction |

Two novels from icy climes, and two narrated by precocious adolescents with bracingly tart voices, stand out among this month's harvest of crime novels.

Private eye Kate Shugak, an Aleut native, lives on a large homestead within a (fictional) national park in rural Alaska. Awesomely self-sufficient (as might be expected, given her isolation), she lives a life steeped in her peoples' culture, but is also not averse to pleasures filtering in from outside (she cooks moose stew, for instance, while listening to vintage soul music).

"Though Not Dead" (Minotaur, 446 pp., $25.99) is the latest in Dana Stabenow's robust series. It's her most far-reaching Shugak story yet, ambitiously incorporating some of Alaska's colorful history. The author remains sensitive to her native state's harsh wilderness and its resourceful, eccentric inhabitants.

"Old Sam," a beloved elder in her large and close-knit family, leaves Shugak an inheritance that includes a baffling directive: Find my father. The detective's curiosity and sense of duty lead her to explore the old man's checkered past — which in turn leads to a hunt for several valuable objects, including a missing Russian icon and a manuscript that may have been written by a surprising acquaintance of Old Sam: Dashiell Hammett.

Alaska's cold, but so is Moscow, the setting for A.D. Miller's assured fiction debut, "Snowdrops" (Doubleday, 262 pp., $24.95). Miller, a writer and editor for the British newspaper the Economist, lived in Moscow and memorably captures the city's atmosphere during the glitzy, anything-goes era that succeeded Soviet Communism.

Nick Platt, a young lawyer working for a British firm's office, has a seemingly innocuous meeting with two Russian women in a subway station. Things get complicated fast, as Nick falls for one of them and is drawn into a shady scheme to help their elderly relative swap her prime apartment for another.

Nick is shockingly gullible, and readers will anticipate his fate long before he does. Meanwhile, two subplots that echo the main story seem a little forced. Nonetheless, Miller's uncluttered prose and feel for the city's Wild West atmosphere are pleasures.

Flavia de Luce, the U.K.'s most intrepid girl chemist-detective-busybody, returns in Alan Bradley's delightful "A Red Herring Without Mustard" (Delacorte, 399 pp., $24). The youngest of three daughters of a shabbily aristocratic widower, Flavia lives in a rural village in post-World-War-II England, and her existence is periodically enlivened by crimes that require her unusual skills.

Here, a gypsy woman whose husband died on the de Luce estate pops up — as does her granddaughter, the improbably named Porcelain. Bradley's plot involves (among much else) the village thief, a missing child, an assault on the gypsy woman, and two stolen fireplace ornaments. Bradley occasionally spreads the cuteness a little thick (the ornaments have names, as does Flavia's bicycle). But no matter — the book's forthright and eerily mature narrator is a treasure.

Another intrepid and observant adolescent, Emma Graham, explored decades-old linked mysteries in Martha Grimes' 2005 book "Belle Ruin." But it was to no avail, and she carries on in Grimes' "Fadeaway Girl" (Viking, 323 pp., $26.95). (The title refers to the mystery, but it also echoes a style of drawing that creates an illusory girl who fades into the background.)

Like Flavia, Emma has multiple talents — in this case, waitress (in her mother's hotel) and inquisitive reporter (for a local paper). She scours her patch of rural Maryland, interviewing some colorful and beautifully realized characters, for clues to the old puzzle, which involved an apparent kidnapping, a burned-out building, and unexplained deaths.


Knowledge of Emma's previous doings will help immensely here. As with Flavia above, so will a willingness to accept her startlingly adult perceptions.

That said, Grimes is, as usual, in sure-footed and inventive form.

Adam Woog's column on crime

and mystery fiction appears on the second Sunday of the month in The Seattle Times.

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