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This rough and tumble thriller marks the debut of what the publisher sees as a popular new series. Perhaps. But "A K A Jane" is flawed, opening with a bang and, at mid-point, sputtering out with a whimper.

Too bad, because Maureen Tan clearly is clearly a gifted writer with a sure eye for explosive action and high-octane delivery, each a sine qua non for the type of excitement essential for her chosen genre.

The author, an international science writer and assistant director of the Engineering Publications Office at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has created, in her heroine Jane Nichols, a distaff James Bond.

While bouncing around today's troubled globe as an undercover counter-terrorism agent for Britain's security service, MI-5, Jane -- also known as Molly Shanks, Moura McCarthy or Gina Miller -- remains as cool, lethal and ruthless as any professional colleague of Ian Fleming's secret agent 007. And as sexy, if not more so.

The first half of "A K A Jane," in which she successfully infiltrates a group of IRA terrorists, is tightly told, a humdinger. Not in the second half, however.

When she quits "the great game" in favor of moving to Savannah, Ga., to write hard-boiled private eye thrillers, Jane eventually is lured back to the covert life to seek revenge on onetime fellow agent Jim O'Neil, who killed her lover back in Ireland.

Now, in the American South, the narrative becomes so overcrowded with new and old cast members and tangled agendas that the reader is left glassy-eyed. Instead of the fast, sharp, exciting storytelling that opened "A K A Jane," we have a sagging yarn that runs out of gas in an unsurprising and cop-out denouement.
By Maureen Tan
Mysterious Press
292 pages, $22

More thrills, briefly
Musclebound, by Liza Cody; Mysterious Press, 283 pages, $22 -- Mean, tough Eva Wylie, is out of work as the London Lady Assassin, in the rowdiest rumble in her career as a woman wrestler. When she finds a sports bag stuffed with money, thugs close in and it's time to take it on the lam.

Holy Terror in the Hebrides, by Jeanne M. Dams; Walker, 184 pages, $21.95 -- Woes pile up for amateur sleuth Dorothy Martin when she visits friends on the island of Iona, off the Scottish coast. Her host falls ill, she's traveling with an ecumenical group that's anything but ecumenical, and a storm's bearing down on Iona.

Killing the Lawyers, by Reginald Hill; St. Martin's, 288 pages, $23.95 -- Best known for creating the Dalziel and Pascoe crime novels, English author Hill can also take pride in his stories featuring private investigator Joe Sixsmith, of which "Killing" is the third. Sixsmith's job: discover who's threatening a female athlete if she wins an important race.