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A bundle of chilling whodunits warm up Santa's gift bag

By now, the Christmas carols are into their second month, leaving the uncharitable feeling that your eardrums are hosting rabid woodpeckers.

If you're looking for an antidote to all this "peace on earth good will toward men" stuff, this season's crop of top thrillers is right up your alley. There's not a lot of hugs and kisses among the bunch -- just sharp-edged stories that'll warm you up faster than a Yule log.


The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly (Little Brown, 412 pages, $27). Unlike defense attorneys on television, Mickey Haller does not go through his workday driven by the need to save innocent clients from the clutches of the justice system.

His office is the back seat of a Lincoln Town Car, where he conducts his law practice by cell phone while a satisfied client -- working off his bill -- chauffeurs him from courthouse to courthouse across Los Angeles.

Everybody's guilty of something, Haller says -- even the system itself. Like a house built by underpaid, overworked laborers, every case has hidden flaws. "My job was to peel away the paint and find the cracks. To work my fingers and tools into those cracks and widen them. To make them so big that either the house fell down, or failing that, my client slipped through."

He's a master of playing the angles, whether it's schmoozing a prosecutor or tipping a television cameraman to get his name mentioned on the air. When the Louis Roulet case comes his way, Haller can hear the cha-ching.

A Beverly Hills playboy charged with the attempted rape of a prostitute won't go away easily, and no matter what happens to Roulet, it's good news for Haller's bottom line. A cynical courtroom veteran with a divorce and a kid on his record, Haller can only be surprised by one thing -- a client who might be honest-to-God innocent.

Michael Connelly, best known for novels featuring the detective Hieronymus Bosch, has crafted one of the most enthralling legal thrillers since "Presumed Innocent." Connelly's mastery of courthouse scenes, legal realities and efficient storytelling combines for a remarkably effective tale.

If intoxication by fiction was a crime, "The Lincoln Lawyer" would leave readers pleading guilty by the cellblock-full.


Ordinary Heroes by Scott Turow (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 384 pages, $25). Scott Turow, who practically invented the legal thriller, takes a break from the courtroom to plunge into the maelstrom of World War II combat in Europe.

In 2003, Stewart Dubinsky, a middle-aged newspaper reporter, is cleaning out his recently deceased father's effects when he stumbles across a secret that his proper, insurance company lawyer father hid his entire life. Despite his father's service with the Judge Advocate General -- the military's lawyers -- he faced a court martial before the end of the war.

His mother, who Dubinsky's father rescued from a Nazi concentration camp and married, isn't interested in delving into the past. But Dubinsky's reportorial talents lead him to Barrington Leach, who represented his father during his court martial.

Leach turns over a manuscript Dubinsky's father wrote while awaiting his sentence -- the life in prison he says he deserves -- and the manuscript makes up the bulk of "Ordinary Heroes."

Wide-eyed, Dubinsky finds that the father who always downplayed his war experiences had always kept the best stories to himself. How he was sent to investigate a commando who might have gone wild, named Maj. Robert Martin, for instance, and the spitfire Polish partisan Gita Lodz, Martin's aide-de-camp.

And now the officer who'd never seen a shot fired was literally dropped into the middle of the Battle of the Bulge, and being pressed into the command of a rifle company with German tanks growling forward through the snowdrifts.

At the concentration camp where Dubinsky's father finds his future mother, the very foundations of the moral universe have been called into account: "If human beings could do this," Dubinsky's father writes, "it seemed unfathomable how we could ever save ourselves."

Turow's story asks how justice can coexist with the horrors of war, and on a slightly smaller scale, if children are prepared for the pitfalls of knowing everything about their progenitors. At the same time, it serves as a wrenchingly heartfelt homage to the generation that fought the Last Good War.

As a nation at war, it presents a poignant story of what it took some soldiers to return to civilian life and try to raise families, all the while straining to scrub the corpses' stink from their nostrils, and their minds.


Blood of Angels by Reed Arvin (Harper Collins, 354 pages, $17). Tom Dennehy capped his long career as a Nashville prosecutor when he convicted two strangers for the same death.

Wilson Owens was convicted of murdering a convenience store customer, and was executed in Tennessee's death chamber. Paramedic David Bridges went for negligent homicide because Bridges responded to the 911 call while wired on methamphetamine, and inserted a breathing tube incorrectly before the wounded customer died.

The case raised common-sense questions: Did the bullets kill the customer or was it a medical mistake? But the convictions Dennehy obtained were upheld on appeal. Then the Innocence Project announces that another man has confessed to the convenience store shootings -- a man who looks so much like Owen they could be twins.

The prosecutors scoff, but the convict says he can tell them where to find the missing murder weapon, and Dennehy starts to sweat.

His latest case is another curveball. The leader of Nashville's Sudanese immigrant community has been charged with murdering his white girlfriend. He confessed, but a female minister and anti-death penalty activist says the suspect was with her all night.

Tough cases that come undone are the meat and potatoes of legal thrillers. "Blood of Angels" serves them up with exceptional elan, getting a lot of little details right without bogging down the story.


Ash & Bone by John Harvey (Harcourt, 373 pages, $25). Ace English detective novelist John Harvey has a minor specialty in stories about police officers trying to keep their focus in the office while their personal life threatens to unhinge them.

Frank Elder has been retired for more than a year, and his family's still paying for his career. He got divorced, and lives alone. Worse, his teenage daughter carries psychological damage from a serial killer kidnapping her -- as if being a teenager wasn't enough to make you stop talking to your father.

A policewoman he had a fling with a decade ago is murdered, and Elder gets the itch to try his hand again. She had recently witnessed the police shooting of a reputed gangster that left internal investigators with questions about whether the killing was necessary.

But the detective on the case, Karen Shields, isn't keen on some old geezer showing up to second-guess her decisions. Then other police officers find heroin in his daughter's car. Where will he focus this time?

Harvey's skill at fleshing out the internal lives of his characters makes his stories unusually satisfying to consume, and "Ash & Bone" is no exception. Reading it, you can almost be reassured that as long as honest, decent detectives pursue their inquiries on the behalf of the rest of us, their human flaws won't matter much in the end.

Andrew Z. Galarneau is a News reporter and frequent News book reviewer.

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