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By Ruth Rendell
346 pages, $24

An astute book critic accurately observed that Englishwoman Ruth Rendell, "one of crime fiction's most prodigious talents," is herself a mystery.

"Every book is as good as, if not better than, the last," the critic noted after scanning Rendell's Inspector Reg Wexford mystery series. The latest in the series was 1997's "Road Rage."

The prize-winning London author manages to repeat her uncanny build-up of tension in "Harm Done," a quality that now typifies her most telling novels.

The scene again is the small English picture-postcard town of Kingsmarkham. Chief Inspector Wexford must again pierce the surface placidity to root out the sheer wickedness roiling beneath its surface.

A young woman goes missing, but turns up unharmed, unable to describe very convincingly what had happened to her. A week later, another young woman vanishes, yet reappears unharmed.

Meanwhile, a notorious pedophile is released from prison, having paid his debt to society. But the citizenry of Kingsmarkham are up in arms over the release, refusing to accept it. They threaten to harass the ex-con, convert themselves into a bloodcurdling mob and burn down the "pedo's" house. In the furor that follows a policeman is accidentally killed by a Molotov cocktail that strikes his home.

Eventually, a child from a well-to-do family is kidnapped and Kingsmarkham is faced with three incendiary but seemingly unconnected situations. But they are, of course, connected by the prodigiously talented author.

A little slow and labored at times, but brimming with solid Rendellian virtues.

Rendell crosses the finish line once again with all her intelligence -- and mesmerizing storytelling talent, keeping her at the very top of England's superlative and unmatchable talented suspense writers.

More thrills, briefly
Cry Dance, by Kirk Mitchell, Bantam; 354 pages, $23.95 -- Emmett Quanah Parker, a Comanche and investigator for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, is assigned to probe the murder of a young white woman employed by their agency. The plot whirls around Indian gaming and casinos, their effects, pro and con, among participants who embrace them. Veteran agent Parker is paired with special FBI agent Anna Turnipseed who's fresh out of Quantico.

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