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Originally published Sunday, September 8, 2013 at 5:11 AM

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New crime fiction: lost children, British cops, sleuthing comics

New in crime fiction for September: a new book by Susan Hill, a Harpur and Isles mystery by Bill James, Martin Limón’s short stories, a new Matt Murdock mystery by Robert J. Ray and Gary Alexander’s comic sleuth.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Martin Limón

The author of “Nightmare Range” will sign books at noon Sept. 24, Seattle Mystery Bookshop, 117 Cherry St., Seattle (206-587-5737, seattlemystery.com)

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Susan Hill is best known for her Deputy Chief Inspector Simon Serrailler series. But she’s a prolific author otherwise, with a special sideline in disturbing ghost stories. Case in point: a pair of novellas, “The Small Hand and Dolly” (Vintage, 288 pp., $15, paperback original). Thanks to Hill’s deceptively simple plots and straightforward prose, you won’t even notice the noose she’s slipping around your throat.

Both stories involve crumbling mansions and the spirits of lost children. In “The Small Hand,” a rare book dealer is drawn to an eerie house in a desolate stretch of British countryside ... and then strange things start happening, notably the recurring feeling that a child is placing a trusting hand in his. And in “Dolly,” a spoiled girl living with her cold, distant aunt in another eerie house is denied a coveted doll, unleashing — well, to tell more would be telling.

Sometimes artists return to the same themes over and over, finding new and enriching details. Case in point: Bill James and his addictive series about British coppers Harpur and Iles — the latest being “Play Dead” (Crème de la Crime, 208 pp., $28.95).

All of the usual elements are here: James’ fresh, playful and sometimes startling prose. The bizarre relationship between stolid, droll Harpur and his superior, Iles, who’s brilliant but crazier than a road lizard. Characters who hide stiletto-sharp insults behind ornate, idiosyncratic words. And the Machiavellian balance of power between cops and bad guys, blurring the line between good and evil. Not to mention a wagonload of pitch-black humor.

In the new book, the pair is away from their usual turf, assigned to dig up the root of widespread corruption in a nearby city’s police force. And speaking of criminal: Many of James’ books are hard to find in this country. He’s undeniably an acquired taste, but he deserves better. I’m just saying.

For local writers, meanwhile, it’s a healthy month. Lynnwood resident Martin Limón hasn’t just written engrossing novels about George Sueño and Ernie Bascom, Army detectives stationed in Korea in the 1970s. He also produces a healthy dose of short stories about them, now gathered in “Nightmare Range” (Soho, 400 pp., $25). While lacking a novel’s breadth, the 17 stories in this collection profit from the author’s deep knowledge of his subject matter.

Seattleite Robert J. Ray’s Matt Murdock — a classic hard-boiled gumshoe if there ever was one — is back with “Murdock Tackles Taos” (Camel Press, 331 pp., $16.95 paperback original). Murdock’s search for a missing woman takes him to New Mexico, where fate drops another mystery in his lap and teams him (professionally and otherwise) with Helene Steinbeck, another cop turned detective. Bonus: Camel Press is reissuing the five previous Murdock books, and it’s about time.

Another welcome return is that of Kent resident Gary Alexander’s hero Buster Hightower, a stand-up comic and reluctant, always entertaining sleuth. In “Loot” (Five Star, 264 pp., $25.95), hapless Buster gets tangled in shenanigans involving, among other stuff, a nice lady of a certain age, a greenhorn private detective, a dimwitted stalker, hidden swag and some really cool cars.

Finally: Elmore Leonard died last month at 87. That, I hope, is the sort of punchy statement favored by a guy who once advised young writers to leave out the parts people tend to skip.

I had the pleasure of interviewing this virtuoso a few times, and he was invariably a lot like his books: funny, personable, perceptive and with a very low tolerance for bull. So long, Dutch.

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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