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Originally published Saturday, November 9, 2013 at 3:05 AM

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New crime fiction by Rendell, Jance, Penny and Paretsky

Four masters of the crime-fiction genre — all women — return with new books, with new offerings by veterans Ruth Rendell, J.A. Jance, Louise Penny and Sara Paretsky.


Special to The Seattle Times

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Four authors with impressive track records (all women, as it happens) rule this month’s collection of crime fiction.

I’m happy to report that Ruth Rendell’s “No Man’s Nightingale” (Scribner, 288 pp., $26) is as absorbing and rewarding as her other Inspector Wexford novels. (This is the 24th in the Wexford series, not to mention the rest of Rendell’s 70-odd novels).

Sarah Hussain, an idealistic vicar in Wexford’s home village, has been strangled. (As usual for Rendell, the violence is mostly offstage.) Wexford, now retired, doesn’t need persuading to set down the book he’s reading to help his former colleagues investigate.

In the victim’s bedroom, Wexford uncharacteristically removes from the crime scene a letter that she’d used as a bookmark. This bit of evidence proves crucial, and is part of two recurring themes in the book: reading and letter writing, specifically the latter’s obsolete nature in the email age.

Supporting characters — including the vicar’s teenage daughter and a motor-mouthed but somehow endearing cleaning lady — stand out. So does Rendell’s typically clear-eyed examination of a vexing social issue: In this case it’s racism.

Another longtime and scarily prolific writer, Seattle favorite J.A. Jance, returns to her best-known character in “Second Watch” (Morrow, 368 pp., $26.99). That would be Seattle homicide cop J.P. Beaumont: cranky, sharp, independently wealthy, happily married.

Beaumont’s crankiness is justified: He’s in the hospital, restless and in pain following double-knee replacement, and he is not amused. Worse, the detective is haunted by drug-induced hallucinations.

First up is a visit from a University of Washington coed whose unsolved 1973 murder was Beaumont’s first case. His drugged state also conjures up a friend who was killed during their Vietnam days (a character based on someone from Jance’s own past). These poignant otherworldly visits revive powerful memories for Beaumont and trigger new, present-day mysteries.

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec also makes a welcome return in Louise Penny’s “How the Light Gets In” (Minotaur, 416 pp., $25.99).

Here, the big-hearted detective is confronted by a baffling murder in his bucolic home village. The victim was a celebrity — one of Canadian quintuplets who captivated the world following their birth during the Great Depression. (Shades of the real-life Dionne girls.)

At the same time, Gamache is both mourning his broken relationship with his troubled protégée, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, and navigating the tricky waters of his department’s bureaucracy.

Penny’s shimmering prose and empathy for her characters are in full evidence here, and the naturally optimistic Gamache — a man who champions light over shadow — is, as always, a complex and fascinating figure.

Sara Paretsky trailblazed fiction starring hard-boiled female private eyes, and “Critical Mass” (Putnam, 480 pp., $26.95) proves that this gifted author is still, justifiably, a star.

Her intense series character, V.I. Warshawski, has always waged a passionate fight against injustice. Here, the battle involves her best friend — Dr. Lotty Herschel, a native of Vienna. As a child, the now elderly physician was on the Kindertransport, which ferried thousands of Jewish children away from Nazi terror in the 1930s.

Now another survivor, Kitty Binder, contacts Lotty. Kitty’s daughter, a drug addict, has disappeared, and her grandson, a brilliant scientist, vanishes soon after.

Warshawski, quick to help her old friend, travels widely to investigate, from the mean streets of her beloved Chicago to a horrifying meth lab and faraway Vienna.

Along with the present-day story are glimpses back to prewar days in Austria and to secrets (past and present) connected to atomic warfare. Paretsky, who holds a doctorate in history, has an impressive knack for weaving gripping history into her swift plot.

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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