Here's a triplet of contemporary thrillers, whose intricate plots are haunted by murderous events in the past. One is a breathless spy-versus-spy story, one is a police procedural and one is a true ghost story.
The Jefferson Key, by Steve Berry
Random House, $26
The history: Presidential assassinations. Private ship captains under a centuries-old contract with Congress to capture and loot enemy vessels. Pirates! Berry's latest Cotton Malone story is so packed with surprising American history (privateers did contribute to American success in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812) that it concludes with a "writer's note" to help readers sort fact from fiction.
The mystery: Cotton Malone is arrested for an attempt on President Danny Daniels life. Who set him up? And which spy agency head was that person double-crossing? Written in short episodes, each ending with someone in peril, The Jefferson Key has more "sides" than a geodesic dome, and the action never lets up.
Best for: Readers who believe in extensive government coverups; American history buffs
The verdict: With bullets flying everywhere and gripping history hooks, this lightweight-but-lively book is likely to be a breakthrough for Berry to wide readership.
The White Devil, by Justin Evans
The time: It's the early 1800s and the man who would come to be known as Lord Byron is a student at a private boys school called Harrow, where he strikes up a friendship with a white-haired charity case known as John Harness. Though a school for the privileged, the Harrow of 1800 is overrun with rats -- both rodent and human.
The crime: Two centuries later, 17-year-old Andrew Taylor, having been kicked out of his American prep school, is the new boy at Harrow. The lone female student at Harrow immediately notices Andrew's remarkable resemblance to Byron, and shortly after that the only friend Andrew has made at the English school dies under peculiar circumstances.
Best for: Readers who believe in ghostly happenings, classic-literature buffs
The verdict: Evans, who was a student at Harrow, has written a literary gothic thriller that doesn't become compulsive reading till well into the story.
The Fallen Angel, by David Hewson
Random House, $25
The place: Rome's historical ghetto, a place where streets are narrow and secrets are dark, and where a 16th-century teenager, Beatrice Cenci, was hanged for pushing her incestuously abusive father out of an upper-story window.
The case: It's a hot August, and detective Nic Costa is enjoying his vacation and a first kiss with Agata, a beautiful young nun who recently left that life, when they hear screams. A pale, wispy American girl dressed in pajamas is wailing beside the body of her father, who has just fallen from the upper story of a run-down apartment in the ghetto. The similarities with the Cenci case are obvious. Too obvious?
Best for: Readers who believe in good people and good pasta; Italy buffs
The verdict: This moody police procedural has a nice twist at the end and gets a big boost from its Roman setting .