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Originally published March 10, 2014 at 12:01 AM | Page modified March 10, 2014 at 2:09 PM

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New in crime fiction: tales from Wales, Los Angeles and Cairo

New in crime fiction: Harry Bingham brings back his Welsh detective, Benjamin Black channels Philip Marlowe, and Olen Steinhauer visits Egypt and the Arab Spring.


Special to The Seattle Times

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An unstable but mesmerizing cop, an iconic private eye, and a grieving woman ensnared in espionage star in three new works of crime fiction.

In crime fiction, already chock-full of quirky characters, Welsh homicide detective Fiona Griffiths stands tall. Harry Bingham has created a startlingly original character, and “Love Story, With Murders” (Delacorte, 400 pp., $27) is just as startlingly original.

In her teens, Griffiths had a bizarre psychotic episode (she calls it “my illness”), and it left her unpredictable and perhaps autistic. (Plenty of marijuana and mental exercises help keep the strangeness at bay.)

But she’s a terrific cop, identifying so strongly with murder victims that she practically reads their minds. (Bingham’s previous book about her was the tellingly titled “Talking to the Dead.”)

“Love Story, With Murders” (another telling title) opens with Griffiths called to a grisly discovery: a severed human leg, complete with snazzy pink high-heeled shoe, in a garage freezer in suburban Cardiff.

Other body parts soon show up scattered around the city. They belonged to two people — a college student and a university lecturer.

Griffiths’ singular talents find a link between the victims and possibly to her family as well: The student moonlighted as a stripper, and Griffiths’ dad is a rascally reformed criminal who once ran a strip club. The result is extraordinary, intense, and — despite the grisly stuff — often oddly funny.

Booker Prize winner John Banville, as Benjamin Black, wrote a series of atmospheric stories starring an Irish pathologist called Quirke. He sets off in a different direction — down the mean streets of Southern California — with “The Black-Eyed Blonde” (Holt, 304 pp, $27).

All the familiar tropes of hard-boiled fiction are here. Drop-dead gorgeous woman visits a seedy detective’s office with an enigmatic job offer? Check.

The private eye, while investigating, is slipped a Mickey Finn and pistol-whipped? Check.

He’s a loner with a private code of honor? Check.

We’re talking about Philip Marlowe, of course — Raymond Chandler’s immortal creation and the gold standard for hard-boiled dicks everywhere.

Marlowe’s task: find the blonde’s missing lover. It seems easy enough, but something strange happens: The lover’s killed in a hit-and-run accident ... d then he’s spotted up in San Francisco, very much alive.

“The Black-Eyed Blonde” is miles better than an earlier homage to Marlowe, Robert B. Parker’s lackluster “Perchance to Dream.” As with that book, Banville/Black had the Chandler estate’s blessing, but here the estate’s faith is better placed. The writing’s as smooth as good whiskey, the plot is satisfyingly twisty, and the narration perfectly captures Marlowe’s bone-weary sadness and tattered nobility.

Shame about the generic title of Olen Steinhauer’s “The Cairo Affair (Minotaur, 416 pp., $26.99). The book, which confirms the author’s place among the best contemporary-espionage writers, deserves a more evocative tag.

Sophie Kohl is in a Budapest restaurant with her husband, an American diplomat. She nervously confesses a past affair — only to see her spouse gunned down.

Numb with grief and guilt but smart and resilient, Sophie travels to Cairo and connects with the CIA agent she once bedded. She also uncovers a CIA operation, supposedly dormant but apparently now in play. How are the men in her life connected to it?

Set against the Arab Spring, with flashbacks to the volatile Balkans of the early 1990s, Steinhauer’s book has a crackerjack plot and plenty of the double-crosses, shadowy spies and expert tradecraft you’d expect. His characters aren’t as brilliantly drawn as those of masters like John le Carré or Alan Furst — but he’s damned good, and he’s still young. Plenty of time to perfect his tradecraft.

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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