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MYSTERIES

Blood of the Lamb by Michael Lister (Bleak House Books, $19.95). Is it possible to find the guilty person when everyone is a suspect?

That's the problem facing John Jordan, an ex-cop turned chaplain at a Florida Panhandle prison that houses some of the state's most violent criminals.

Even worse, the victim is an innocent child who should never have been allowed to be at the prison. The 7-year-old adopted daughter of ex-con turned televangelist Bobby Earl Caldwell was locked in the chaplain's office with her mother when the little girl was killed.

Author Michael Lister, who spent seven years as a chaplain with the Florida Department of Corrections, perfectly blends religion into a gritty, realistic look at prison life. "Blood of the Lamb," his second novel, has been a long time coming as his debut "Power in the Blood" was published in 1997.

"Blood of the Lamb" was worth the wait. Lister adds just enough religion to give the full flavor of the role of faith at a prison without preaching or overpowering his solid plot. Lister invigorates the religion mystery -- a growing sub-category of the genre -- inside a hard-boiled novel. The myriad aspects of prison life and the scenes at the various locations in the prison are realistically explored.

Lemon City by Elaine Meryl Brown (Ballantine Books/Strivers Row, $12.95). Life is generally sweet in Lemon City, an isolated town near Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. Settled by freed slaves before the Civil War, Lemon City has become a prosperous enclave, a close-knit community and a safe place. While the city's 10 rules generally are variations on mind your own business, there's also the mandate about not marrying "an outsider."

Faye Dunlap, the doted-on granddaughter of one of Lemon City's leaders, breaks that law when she marries Harry Lee Thompson, whom she met in college. Isolated towns can be charming, but they can also be stifling. And while Faye thinks she loves Harry, she mainly marries him because she sees her New York City-born husband as a ticket out of Lemon City. The year is 1973, and Faye wants to see the world and become involved in the civil rights movement.

But Harry's no hero. He's a bit of a grifter who's quite taken with the idea of marrying into a wealthy family. That Harry turns up dead is told on the first page in an obit that shows just how much he ingratiated himself to the town.

HBO executive and screenwriter Elaine Meryl Brown delivers an amusing, charming debut with "Lemon City." Brown paints an energetic portrait of a tight black community that, like it or not, is being invaded by the outside world. Characters are realistic and well explored. Although the story becomes too cloying near the end, "Lemon City" features just enough tartness to make the plot refreshing.

-- Knight Ridder Newspapers

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