- - Friday, January 6, 2012

Denise Mina
Reagan Arthur Books, $25.99 400 pages

James Patterson
Little, Brown, $28.99 384 pages

It begins with darkness and murder. A young woman is brutally stamped to death by a teenager, and the most bitter irony is that she is the wrong woman. Denise Mina usually writes on the dark side, and she has perhaps outdone herself this time in a tragic study of the young and their sometimes cruel parents. A tough yet graceful writer, Ms. Mina specializes in female protagonists such as Detective Inspector Alex Morrow, who doesn’t allow the complications of being pregnant with twins get in the way of solving crime. In previous books, Ms. Mina has demonstrated talent for writing about the problems of women who rise to prominence in law enforcement, and she is sensitive in acknowledging that not all the fault is on the part of the men.

“The End of Wasp Season” is less of a thriller than a psychological crime novel that focuses on the pain of children driven far beyond their capacity to deal with the neurotic adults who control their lives. These are teenagers such as Thomas and his friend Squeak, both sons of rich, brutal and amoral men for whom all women are a sometime thing, especially socially addicted wives. When Thomas’ father, Lars Anderson, hangs himself in the yard of his pretentious home, the bitter 15-year-old boy is gripped less by mourning than by a desire for revenge. He holds his father’s mistress responsible and that is why he and Squeak break into what be thinks is her home and commit a crime so bloodily violent it shocks even the police who find the body.

Yet the dead woman turns out to be a stranger, a part-time prostitute expanding on her duties in an escort service. The realization of those facts turns torment into torture for Thomas, who is also coping with a deranged little sister and a vapid mother. Halfway through his teens, he knows his life has crumbled and he can’t even bring himself to emulate his father’s suicide. It is the ultimate humiliation when his father’s mistress proves to be of the same breed as his mother. She even makes a pass at him.

There are no happy endings for the kind of book with which Ms. Mina excels. Minds and bodies are twisted and tragedy permeates the plot. Even the detective inspector clinging to the hope that the new babies will assuage her grief at the loss of a previous child, finds herself often in a dark place where her considerate husband cannot always comfort her. There is a flicker of hope for one stricken family in the end, but even that is burdened by sorrow. You won’t especially like this book but you won’t stop reading it.

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The children of the president of the United States are kidnapped, the water supply of Washington, D.C., is poisoned, there is a plot to release sarin gas in the city, and the secretary of state is blown up. What more do you want from a thriller?

“Kill Alex Cross” is more of a roller coaster than a book, charging through short, brief chapters with dialogue that has little to recommend it apart from its brevity.

The immensely prolific James Patterson has galloped through dozens of books starring his crusading detective Alex Cross, who sounds like a tough teddy bear. The Patterson style is to write high-speed thrillers with basic plotting, and the reader is usually clued in on grim events in advance. In this case, the author is using current terrorism as a topic, with a neat twist in the kidnapping of Zoe and Ethan, the children of the president, which is not quite what it seems.

The characters of terrorists Hala and Tariq are classic stereotypes, mouthing their hatred of the United States and relishing their role of dealing death to Americans while unflinching about the need to use the cyanide capsules that are their version of a suicide bomb. The woman Hala is by far the more ruthless of the pair and demonstrates her strength when she refuses to abandon her life for the cause of the Family, the latest group of killers from the Middle East to infiltrate America.

What is intriguing is that the terrorists are dedicated to demolishing as much of Washington as possible, but not necessarily the president’s children.

The most chilling message received at the White House emphasizes there is no ransom demand, just a warning that the president will never see his children again. It is Alex Cross to the rescue again, in the vanguard of a small army of local police, Secret Service, FBI and CIA. He is not only on the trail of a sociopath bent on personal revenge, but he manages to find time to adopt Ava, a street child who makes the mistake of mugging Cross‘ formidable grandmother, Nana, and finds herself with a home and a kind but hardbitten cop for a father.

It is classic Patterson and the kind of book that can take your mind off a plane trip as long as it isn’t too long. And of course, Alex Cross doesn’t get killed.

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

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