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Originally published Sunday, April 13, 2014 at 3:03 AM

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Crime fiction: welcome returns by Brunetti and Anna Pigeon

Adam Woog rounds up new crime fiction: a new Commissario Brunetti mystery, a hit man cloaked as a law-firm intern and the latest installment in Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon series.


Special to The Seattle Times

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Crime Fiction

An iconic Italian cop leads off this month’s selection of crime fiction, followed by a couple of tales (one comic, one decidedly not) about killers for hire.

“By Its Cover” (Atlantic Monthly Press, 288 pp., $26) is the latest in Donna Leon’s intelligent and deeply satisfying mysteries about Commissario Guido Brunetti. The Venetian detective has reached such iconic status that his many fans can now take tours of the real-life locales that the fictional Brunetti haunts.

The new book is about books — specifically, precious manuscripts dating back hundreds of years. Someone has been visiting a specialist library and slicing out pages to sell on the black market. For connoisseurs, this problem (all too real in the world of antiquarian books) amounts to gruesome ritual murder.

And speaking of murder, a dead body doesn’t show up until fairly late in this leisurely story. Until then, Brunetti’s investigation into the crime centers not on death but on the thefts themselves. Suspicion quickly falls on a regular visitor to the library who disappears, then is revealed to be something other than the American scholar he claimed to be.

Leon’s usual concerns with social issues are toned down here, but fans will rejoice that staples of the Brunetti canon — including conversations with his smart wife and frequent breaks for food and coffee — are very much in evidence.

Shane Kuhn’s debut, “The Intern’s Handbook” (Simon & Schuster, 288 pp., $25), is a serious guilty pleasure. (Well, semi-serious and semi-guilty, but definitely a pleasure.)

The premise is inspired: Human Resources Inc. (HR) is a group of professional assassins who get close to their targets (typically highflying corporate types) by posing as interns. No one ever pays attention to interns, so the killers can take care of business in safe anonymity.

The book is structured on two levels: it’s a cheerful guide for new HR employees and an account of narrator John Lago’s final assignment. Lago, like all HR employees, was recruited at an early age and extensively trained but is approaching the mandatory retirement of 25. (Company policy is that it’s hard to pretend to be an intern if you’re older than that.)

Fundamental to any successful hit man is the ability to be stone cold, and Lago is no exception — until he encounters Alice, a fetching lawyer in the firm Lago infiltrates, and Marcus, his until-now missing father. Through them, Lago is surprised to discover he is capable of actual emotions.

The story devolves into a gratuitous bloodbath toward the end, and a boatload of disbelief has to be suspended to buy the premise that Lago can successfully fake internship in a law office. That aside, this is one gleeful and morbidly funny satire.

National Park Ranger Anna Pigeon, the heroine of Nevada Barr’s long-running series, drops into “Deliverance” country in “Destroyer Angel” (Minotaur, 352 pp., $26.99).

Pigeon, always more comfortable in the wilderness with animals than she is in town with humans, is camping deep in the Minnesota woods with two friends and their respective teenage daughters. Things are fine — until a team of thugs tracks them down. The brutes have orders to kill, but the women don’t know why.

There’s a complicating factor: One of the women is disabled. One reason for the trip, in fact, is to test some cutting-edge camping gear for the disabled.

Far from civilization, the campers have only a short time to discover why they’re in danger and to find a safe way out. Fortunately, all of them are smart and resourceful.

The plot, while solid, is a bit by-the-numbers. But Barr is sensitive to the bravery and emotional strength that the disabled can summon and, as always, she writes beautifully about the wild places she so clearly loves.

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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