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'AMEN' GETS DEEPLY INTO RELATIONSHIPS

Attention, suspense connoisseurs: Make room at the top for a writer from Down Under.

If 71-year-old Australian Jon Cleary isn't already one of your favorite spellbinders, his latest novel should make him so. His thrillers featuring Sydney homicide inspector Scobie Malone have been invariably excellent, occasionally superlative. "Now and Then, Amen" is one of the latter.

A Malone story is always so much more than a murder mystery. It peers deeply into character and human -- particularly familial -- relationships, and explores with great sensitivity the personal toll law enforcement exacts from its committed practitioners.

In "Now and Then, Amen," Malone has to solve the murder of a young activist Roman Catholic nun who'd served the poor in Nicaragua during its guerrilla civil war. This means tangling with powerful Australian political, church and business interests, and with an anti-communist zealot of an archbishop whose billionaire father bankrolls the Nicaraguan contras and wants to see his son become pope.

Cleary, whose narratives are edged with droll, delicious and sardonic wit, has been writing full-bodied, action-jammed, flamboyant thrillers -- nearly 40 of them -- since 1945, Scobie Malone stories since 1966. Amazingly, each manages to top the one before.

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