Book reviews: Clues to some cracking reads

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WHEN MICK PRENTICE DISAPpeared from Fife during the 1984 miners' strike it was assumed he had turned to scabbing down South. It is only 23 years later that his daughter – desperate to find a donor for her dying child – reports him missing. In Val McDermid's new novel, A Darker Domain, (HarperCollins, £17.99) DI Karen Pirie takes up the case.

Meanwhile, journalist Annabel Richmond, on holiday in Tuscany, stumbles upon evidence that casts light on the case of Catriona Maclennan Grant and her baby Adam,kidnapped 25 years ago. The cases will inevitably turn

out to be linked: but how and why? McDermid takes her time to unravel

a narrative that yoyos back and forth in time and between Scotland and Italy. The Thatcher-bashing is tiresome but the final 100 pages make it worthwhile.

Serial killings near Marseilles, with the killer leaving the print of a three-fingered hand, perplex police Commandant Michel de Palma in The First Fingerprint by Xavier-Marie Bonnot (Maclehose Press, 16.99). The secrets, potentially priceless, of an underwater cave decorated with prehistoric paintings seem to be the link here. De Palma, no fool, fathoms the mystery, which climaxes in a shock finale.

Skin and Bone by Kathryn Fox (Hodder, 6.99) is set in Australia and features Detective Kate Farrer, a cop in search of yet another serial killer. The criminal's method is brutal, yet subtle – victim bludgeoned to death and frozen solid to muddy the evidential waters. This is a complex investigation, with not a single character free of suspicion. There are surprises right through to the end in an irresistible page-turner.

A Carrion Death by Michael Stanley (Headline, 19.99), set in Botswana, is a brutal antidote to Alexander McCall Smith's cosy No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. Detective Kubu investigates a brutal murder linked to vast sums of money involved in gem-trading, together with family upheavals and rivalries at which King Lear's nasty daughters would blanch. There are diabolically cunning tricks to deceive the cops (and family members), but Kubu is not to be fooled, in a plot climaxing in a series of whizz-bang surprises.

The Mark by Jason Pinter (Mira, 6.99) is one long chase in which an ambitious young journalist finds himself dragged into a pursuit in which, if he fails to attain the objective, he will die. It may be the FBI or the Mafia which kills him, but he will be dead all the same. Indeed, the opening paragraph has him at the point of death. The book is all about the chase, not the objective, which is what Alfred Hitchcock would have called a McGuffin, a device of no importance simply there to trigger the pursuit. But Pinter makes the most of it, from the killing of a cop at the start to an unpredictable ending, with, along the way, fun and terror in a highly proficient debut.

Joseph Wambaugh's Hollywood Crows (Quercus, 14.99) is a joy. The Crows are police officers whose job is to ensure harmonious community relations. Even so, they get dragged into murder investigations. Wambaugh, a former cop, knows every move and all the jargon. Countless laugh-out-loud dialogue lines, together with characters – such as two surfers – made me wish this 343-page book was twice as long. But Hollywood Crows is not simply irresistible situation comedy. It is centred on a complex murder plot that leads to a very dark ending.

The Saladin Murders by Matt Rees (Atlantic Books, 11.99) features Omar Yussef, a middle-aged Palestinian teacher and amateur sleuth. He travels into the Gaza Strip, where the roster of murders includes a UN official. Rees not only provides a classic investigation into a terrible crime, he paints a picture of life in this hell-hole, with Palestinian gangs warring with each other while the Israeli presence looms. Rees is not only writing first-rate crime novels but indispensable pages of contemporary history.

The Affair of the Mutilated Mink by James Anderson (Allison and Busby, 9.99) is an English country house mystery set in the 1930s. Film star Rex Ransom joins a house party with a Hollywood producer. An Italian glamour-girl also turns up, only to become a murder victim whose demise Inspector Wilkins is summoned to investigate. This book is fun to read, with a trick ending that is nevertheless perfectly fair.