- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 15, 2007

Even if you aren’t a dog lover, you are likely to be intrigued by a book jacket dominated by the questing black nose and two furry paws of a golden retriever.

Especially when it is followed by an excerpt that reads, “The dog I’m looking at … has more dignity in his eyes than I could accumulate in seven hundred years. Those eyes are saying, ‘I don’t belong here.’”

You’re hooked.

Not only that, Play Dead (Grand Central Publishing, $24.99, 320 pages) is an amusing and well written mystery, with Reggie, the golden retriever in question, playing a starring if silent role as a witness to murder. It is the latest in David Rosenfelt’s series about Andy Paterson, a New Jersey defense lawyer who is daffy about dogs.

Owning a golden retriever of his own, Paterson goes charging to the rescue of Reggie, another noble dog endangered by the evil of the two-legged world. Reggie is the key to a five-year-old murder case in the course of which he has been declared drowned, and survived, only to wind up on death row in the dog pound for defending himself with his teeth against the kicks of a new owner.

But even Paterson can’t protect Reggie against future peril until he solves a mystery that explores the depths of justice as practiced by the U.S. Government.

Paterson is a likable, witty character who succeeds in being serious without taking himself seriously. He is obviously the kind of lawyer any good dog would need.

n n n

Death may be hot on the trail of the inimitable Andy Dalziel, the renowned and rotund detective who is the “fat man” of the Yorkshire-based “Dalziel and Pascoe” series, but few readers will believe the grim reaper is likely to catch up with him. Reginald Hill uses terrorism as a backdrop for Death Comes for the Fat Man (HarperCollins, $24.95, 416 pages) his latest chapter in the lives of crime hunters Dalziel and his partner, Peter Pascoe, and does a skillful job.

With Dalziel hallucinating luridly and often lewdly in his hospital bed, Pascoe becomes lead investigator in the case to the point that he adopts not only the fat man’s philosophies but his speech patterns. Given the difference in their personalities, the ploy doesn’t always work, but it means that Dalziel and the threat of his dying as a result of being more or less blown up in the street are a strong and continuing presence in the plot. Mr. Hill’s subsidiary characters are always well drawn, from Pascoe’s feisty wife to the marvelous Police Constable Hector, whose bumbling proves crucial — if accidentally so — in providing clues.

The contrast between conventional police work and the ruthless tactics of the Central Antiterrorism Unit is effectively underscored by making Pascoe a pawn of a group whose methods make him both wary and uneasy. And he isn’t quite enough like Dalziel to be comfortable about taking them on. The book is a reminder that the strength of the series lies in the partnership between two very different men who effectively play off each other.

But the timeliness of the story, with the classic English setting darkened by murders of Muslims and the strategizing of a sect that boasts ties to the ancient order of Knights Templar make this one of Mr Hill’s more fast paced thrillers. And it is comforting to know that the fat man will be waddling through the pages of the next book.

n n n

His name is Charlie and he is a tough, streetwise 10-year-old runaway in 19th century England who finds himself sent on errands that involve carrying bundles containing severed legs, not to mention a head.

In an inspired plot twist, he is also presented as the young Charles Dickens, gathering material for the great literary career that lies beyond a childhood where he learned the dark secrets of the streets as well as the scandals brewed in a royal palace. Gwendoline Butler is an impressive stylist whose well researched vignette of the past is enhanced by the central character of a young boy who is shrewd and wary far beyond his years.

Charlie has learned how to survive in an era that showed little kindness toward children, as well as displaying the talents of a detective in the making. He knows he wants to be a writer, and he uses his childhood experiences to accumulate material on which he can draw later. Ms. Butler displays a knack for irony, most notably when Charlie discovers he has been making pocket money by carrying bags that contain bits and pieces of a murdered man.

Which is how he gains the friendship of Major Mearns, a gruff and tough veteran soldier who serves as a “watcher” or spy in King George IV’s royal household at Windsor. Dread Murder (St. Martin’s Minotaur, $23.95, 224 pages) is a gem of brevity that demonstrates how the author’s command of her historical knowledge can recreate life in a world in which both life and survival were not easy.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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