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Originally published Sunday, January 12, 2014 at 3:03 AM

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Cure for the post-holiday blues: captivating crime fiction

Adam Woog offers a prescription for distraction from post-holiday blues — new crime fiction by Robert Harris, C.J. Sansom, Christopher Fowler and Seattle author M.A. Lawson.

Special to The Seattle Times

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What better way to defeat the post-holiday blues than by swatting them with some absorbing crime fiction?

History is fertile ground for crime novelists — just ask British author Robert Harris, whose “An Officer and a Spy” (Knopf, 464 pp., $27.95) is another of his extraordinary fictions based on topics like Nazis, ancient Romans and recent heads of state.

Here, Harris evokes the scandalous 19th-century trial of Alfred Dreyfus, a French soldier (and, not coincidentally, a Jew) wrongly convicted of treason.

Georges Picquart (a real-life figure) is the new head of France’s secret service. When a horrified Picquart learns that the evidence against Dreyfus is false, his superiors suppress it; Picquart, an honorable man, refuses to go along.

Harris’ captivating and nuanced writing wears its research lightly. Clearly but without preaching, the author finds links between the Dreyfus Affair and today’s atmosphere of government secrecy, national security and religious bias.

In “Dominion” (Mulholland, 640 pp., $27), another British novelist, C.J. Sansom, asks: What if the Nazis had won?

It’s 1952. England is part of the Third Reich, an aging and decrepit Hitler is still in power, and daily life is grim indeed. Dissent is prohibited, quasi-military thugs control the streets, and Jews are in constant danger.

Sansom drops a minor civil servant, David Fitzgerald, into this volatile situation. The secretly half-Jewish Fitzgerald reluctantly takes on a mission for England’s underground resistance. He must rescue an old friend — an engineer with vital information — from imprisonment in a psychiatric hospital.

Rich details add depth to the story: A huge portrait of Hitler hangs in London’s National Portrait Gallery. Adlai Stevenson is America’s president. Churchill leads the underground movement.

Many writers besides Sansom and Harris have considered alternate histories of World War II. Happily, Sansom has an original and impressive voice. The book is overlong and the dialogue sometimes stilted, but no matter — “Dominion” is absorbing and richly conceived.

London’s oldest police detectives, John May and Arthur Bryant, are back, thank God, in “The Invisible Code” (Bantam, 368 pp., $26), the 10th in Christopher Fowler’s series about their team, the aptly named Peculiar Crimes Unit.

May is the charming, sensible one; Bryant is the one with a soup-stained collar and a breathtaking amount of useless, fascinating facts in his head.

Both are older than dirt, smarter than hell and twice as funny.

Here, Bryant’s intuition and knowledge of arcane history link three wildly disparate events: the death of a woman in a church, the murder of a photographer and the arrest of a glamorous Albanian woman married to a bigwig politician. Fowler’s sly jokes never get in the way of his intricate plot, and the result is deeply satisfying.

Seattleite Mike Lawson, aka M.A. Lawson, launches a highly promising series with “Rosarito Beach” (Blue Rider/Penguin, 352 pp., $26.95). The star of this swift, sure-footed tale is DEA agent Kay Hamilton, whom I don’t ever, ever want to meet in a dark alley.

Hamilton is ultra-demanding, single-minded, short-tempered, and frankly not very likable.

Unhappily transferred to San Diego after her last assignment went bad, Hamilton is now in pursuit of a Mexican drug kingpin’s brother, convinced that the brother’s arrest will smoke the big guy out of hiding. Need I add that things don’t go according to plan?

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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