- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 15, 2004

Ten pages into P.J. Tracy’s second effort, Live Bait (Putnam, $23.95, 340 pages), I put it down to make sure I had a copy of the same author’s first book, “Monkeewrench,” safely put away. It is a wrenching fact that a mystery reviewer cannot keep every book that hits the desk, but this is a series well worth shelving with the rest of the aristocrats of mystery writing. Move over, Sue Grafton, and make room.

P.J. Tracy is the name chosen by mother-daughter writing team P.J. and Traci Lambrecht (it is not clear from the cover picture who is who). I don’t know who does what, either, but the results are impressive.

This second outing is well-named because the plot has an impressive hook in it. In the Twin Cities area that has earned a name for quiet living, someone is killing elderly Jews, Jews who share the painful distinction of having survived the Nazi death camps.

Who would want to kill someone so old that he already has the proverbial one foot in the grave? Especially when the first victim has a reputation for having led a well-lived life filled with good deeds. The death of this first man, owner of a plant nursery, provokes an outpouring that would have made Lady Di proud.

Pity the poor detectives who have to find someone who hated him enough to kill him. The appealing Grace MacBride and her team of computer wizards are back and ready to run support as needed. But will Grace ever shed her boots? That’s a cryptic remark, folks, intended to clue you in that you have to go get this book. It will not disappoint.

• • •

Lee Child’s Jack Reacher would not be a comfortable man to have around on a long-term basis, but he is very useful when the metabolic byproduct hits the air-moving machine, so to speak.

Which it does in The Enemy (Delacorte Press, $25, 393 pages), a look back into Reacher’s past and a partial explanation of why he is what he is. Set in the early days of 1990, “The Enemy” opens with the death by heart attack of a two-star general in a motel that even the roaches disdain.

Reacher, newly appointed to head the Military Police department at a nearby Army base, gets the assignment to sanitize the situation — quietly and efficiently, please — so the Army and the general’s wife are spared embarrassment.

All fine and good, but a small piece of the general’s luggage is missing and everyone is playing coy about its contents.

The next death obviously is a homicide, and a rather messy one. The victim is Special Forces, which raises several obvious questions. For starters: Who sneaks up on a Green Beret? Another: Why is everyone pressing to pass it off as a training accident? And, of course, is it somehow connected with the general’s death?

This one has Reacher at his insubordinate best, insubordination that eventually involves a freewheeling trip to the Pentagon. I do love Reacher, provided I can keep about 10 feet between us. (Did I mention the tank duel?)

• • •

Don’t you just love geology? If you don’t love geology, you haven’t been exposed to Sarah Andrews’ fine series involving forensic geologist Em Hansen. Earth Colors (St. Martin’s Minotaur, $23.95, 289 pages) lets the author combine her knowledge of art and geology as Em is exposed to an attractive man (and possible scoundrel) who wants her to help authenticate a supposedly “lost” Remington painting.

This ninth outing is as notable for Em’s pondering as it is for Em’s detecting. She has reached one of those pivotal points in life where certain paths must be chosen and certain doors must be closed, never again to be opened. It’s the emotional equivalent of cleaning out a closet and discarding beloved items that no longer fit and will never be used again. Only more permanent and more painful.

I’m tempted to call “Earth Colors” a woman’s book, except surely men hit these bumpy places, too. Read it for the plot, read it for the smooth writing or read it for its insights — it rewards on all these levels.

• • •

Veteran author Carolyn Haines’ Hallowed Bones (Delacorte Press, $23.95, 338 pages) has a subplot so similar to the story of “Earth Colors” that I am beginning to wonder if several of my favorite writers are having simultaneous midlife crises.

Sarah Booth Delaney is asked to take on the case of a woman accused of killing her severely handicapped baby daughter, a child destined to die in infancy even without someone’s intervention.

The mother is a faith healer who could not heal her child but who has something about her that attracts those wounded in body and soul. And those who know the mother swear she loved this little girl and cherished every moment of her life.

Fans of Sarah Booth will remember Jitty, the family ghost with a sense of style who has a vested interest in Sarah Booth’s love life. Jitty needs someone in the direct family line to haunt or she cannot hang around on this plane. So she needs Sarah Booth to procreate, and Sarah Booth’s biological clock is ticking pretty loudly.

By this time Jitty isn’t even concerning herself with wedding vows. There are two candidates who would suit Jitty (and Sarah Booth), but in each case there are obstacles.

The miserably married sheriff can’t bring himself to leave his flaky wife, and the wealthy old flame wants Sarah Booth to leave her beloved family estate (peeling paint and all) and move to Europe with him.

Sarah Booth has crimes to solve and decisions to make. The crime-solving turns out to be easier than the decision-making. Again, there is an emotional closet to clean and some important things need to be boxed and put away for good.

Mrs. Haines and Sarah Booth are always good value, even for those of us who have to steal the time just to read our favorite books.

Judith Kreiner is a copy editor at The Washington Times.

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