Readers might well be humming Auld Lang Syne as they ponder their choices in thrillers this gift-giving season, and it isn't just the holiday either.
Old acquaintances are the best bests for buyers of thrillers this year, with veteran authors delivering a bounty of volumes worthy of fireside evenings. Some star beloved recurring characters, like Martin Cruz Smith's post-Soviet detective, Arkady Renko. Other proven talents, like James Lee Burke, are expanding the world of new characters, as Burke's Montana attorney Billy Bob Holland takes a turn instead of Burke's classic Cajun detective, Dave Robicheaux.
The Soviet Union may be history now, but toxic legacies of its imperialist past still shape the communities it ruled. Smith, who introduced the phlegmatic, resourceful detective Renko in 1981's "Gorky Park," has chronicled the fall of the old order and the rise of the new Russia in Renko novels. In the Moscow of "Wolves Eat Dogs" (Simon & Schuster, $26), billionaire businessmen have replaced Kremlin apparatchiks as the real power brokers.
Renko investigates the curious suicide of Pasha Ivanov, a man whose wealth and position among the nation's new elite seemed to give him everything to live for. But the saltshaker in his hand, and the pile of salt in his closet, leads Renko to start wondering if the explanation is rather more complicated than the sudden depression Ivanov's business associates push as explanation. Renko inability to shrug and turn away makes him a good detective, but an odd Russian, at least in Smith's works.
Renko's investigation leads him into the Zone of Exclusion surrounding Chernobyl, the Ukranian town where a 1986 nuclear reactor meltdown blanketed the countryside with deadly radioactive particles. Amid the forbidden area, Renko tracks his killer, an outcast amid outcasts, delving into the hidden life of a community grown like a mutant mushroom in an implacably hostile landscape.
In 1960s Los Angeles, Walter Mosely's accidental detective, Easy Rawlins, is exploring scorched earth of his own in "Little Scarlet" (Little Brown, $25). Watts has been burning for days as rioters reacted to the arrest of a black man. Rawlins, a black World War II veteran kept his head, as usual, and stayed out of the way.
But police come looking for him after the violence dies down - asking for help. A black woman named Nola had been strangled in her apartment. In the same building where a white man disappeared after escaping from the clutch of rioters who might have slain him. The dead woman's aunt insists the white man did it, but she was so unhinged after the riots she's in a mental ward, so who knows?
As Rawlins embarks on his search for the guilty, he finds that the racial cauldron of central L.A. isn't a place where truth matters more than race. Accompanied by his casually homicidal associate Mouse, Rawlins eases through misunderstandings and dangerous corners, carrying the weight of a potential riot on his broad shoulders.
If he finds that a white man did kill the woman, and Watts erupts again, will he have done the right thing? For his community? For himself? Mosley delves into the question of how justice can be created for individuals amid a greater sea of unrighteousness, and his story sweeps readers through to the bittersweet conclusion.
Thrillers that combine absorbing storytelling with rich literature are rare, but Alan Furst has been a reliable supplier over the years. He continues his specialty of turning lesser-known battlefields of World War II into elegant fiction with "Dark Voyage" (Random House, $25).
It's May 1941, and Holland has fallen quickly before the Nazis. Aboard the freighter Noordendam in the Port of Tangier, Captain Eric DeHaan has to decide whether he'll surrender his own neutrality, and join the Dutch Royal Navy, in exile.
Masquerading as a Spanish tramp steamer, DeHaan's ship takes on a cargo of radio equipment, spies and refugees along with its camouflage of cork oak and crates of tinned sardines. As it sails up the Mediterranean, its only defense is its obvious helplessness, with its feeble engines and rust-streaked hull.
In its ports of call, as he meets with the agents who direct him, DeHaan tries to gauge the line between patriotic duty and suicidal recklessness. His third mission, through the Baltic Sea, ratchets up the tension, but Furst has more to offer than mere thrills. Packed with historical insights, once the entertainment evaporates it occurs to you that you've been slipped a graduate seminar as well, with no bitter vitamin aftertaste.
Skulduggery on the high seas is a giggle riot in "Skinny Dip" (Knopf, $25), the latest from Florida mayhem master Carl Hiiasen. Joey Perrone's creep of a husband picks their second anniversary cruise as a swell time to kill her. But she's a better swimmer than he thought, and finds a lucky life preserver.
She's found by Mick Stranahan, the ex-Miami ex-cop and Hiiasen fan favorite from "Skin Tight." Together, they try to deduce why Chaz Perrone tried to whack his wife. The cretin's job as a wildlife biologist overseeing the U.S. government's cleanup of the Everglades might have something to do with it, but when did weeds and bugs become motive for murder?
Since Chaz thinks he's been successful, Joey gets to play the vengeful ghost as she haunts their condo. If that's not enough pressure, Chaz's real boss - the agribusiness king who's been bribing him to fake pollution test results - has assigned Chaz a minder to make sure he doesn't get squirrelly. It has the opposite effect, of course, helping kick the shenanigans into high gear.
Literature it ain't. But if you find it under the Christmas tree, you might skip the new scarf and let the giggles keep you warm.