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Originally published Sunday, June 10, 2012 at 5:00 AM

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New in crime fiction: Billingham, Furst and the return of Inspector Montalbano

June's crop of crime fiction features a gritty London tale of tragedy and suspense by Mark Billingham, Alan Furst's latest Paris-set spy story and the return of Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano.

Special to The Seattle Times

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This month's crime-fiction selections bounce from England to Paris, Sicily, and Norway — choice locations indeed.

British author Mark Billingham moonlights as a stand-up comedian (I can personally vouch that his shtick is a riot). But you wouldn't guess that from "The Demands" (Mulholland, 416 pp., $24.99), his latest about police detective Thomas Thorne. It's as serious — and as gripping — as they come.

Javed Akhtar owns a small London corner shop (that is, convenience store). He's a decent man grieving for a son who died in prison in an apparent suicide. Akhtar, convinced that it was murder and that the police are not listening to him, is desperate. One day he snaps, randomly kidnaps two unlucky customers and locks them in a backroom. His demand: that the police reopen the case.

The story shuttles between the tense standoff between police and kidnapper and a parallel investigation, as Thorne races to learn what happened.

Billingham excels at sensitive character portraits, in particular the deepening relationship between the kidnapper and one of his hostages: Helen Weeks, a frequent customer at the shop — and, as it happens, one of Thorne's colleagues.

Alan Furst remains in the elite top rank of espionage writers, as "Mission to Paris" (Random House, 272 pp., $27) demonstrates. Furst continues to find gold in a specific place and time: Europe circa World War II. You'd think that a writer could only find so much there before things got stale, but despite some similar themes and characters each new book seems fresh.

It's 1938, and Fredric Stahl, an Austrian-born movie star, is in Paris to make a movie. His combination of European roots and Hollywood glamour make him a perfect secret agent, and despite misgivings, he signs up with the good guys to spy against the Nazis. This involves various deceptions, including pretending to enjoy the company of socialites with fascist leanings (remember, Stahl's an excellent actor).

In addition to his sturdy plots and seemingly effortless prose, Furst loves atmospheric detail: steamy bistros on a winter's night, the moral ambiguities and compromises of life in wartime, the intense pleasures of flirtation (as well as what comes later). And speaking of pleasure, that's what this book provides in abundance.

Andrea Camilleri's prolific output includes fourteen zesty books about Sicily's Inspector Montalbano, the latest being "The Age of Doubt" (Penguin, 274 pp., $15 paperback, translated by Stephen Sartarelli). Montalbano inspires such fandom that you can even take cruises pointing out Sicilian landmarks associated with him.

Appropriately enough, water is a recurring theme here. After an ominous and prescient dream about a storm, Montalbano deals with problems of mounting seriousness. First, police headquarters are flooded. A woman starts asking about a luxury yacht due to dock. And then the same yacht's crew discovers a floating corpse.

One quibble: At least in translation, the mangled speech of Montalbano's dopey, endearing subordinate Catarelli tends to distract and interrupt the flow. That aside, Montalbano's cases, including this one, are delicious.

On the local front: Renton writer Jeanne Matthews sends her appealing heroine, anthropologist Dinah Pelerin, to wintertime in the Far North in "Bonereapers" (Poisoned Pen Press, 246 pp., $24.95). A genetic seed vault in Norway becomes the scene of crimes that quickly escalate to include agribusiness corruption, implicating powerful American politicians.

Jeanne Matthews will appear at 7 p.m. Thursday at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park. Free (206-366-3333, www.thirdplacebooks.com), and at 2 p.m. June 23 at the King County Public Library, Fairwood Branch, 17009 140th Ave. S.E ., Renton, (425-226-0522, www.kcls.org/fairwood/).

Adam Woog's column on crime and mystery fiction appears on the second Sunday of the month in The Seattle Times.

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