by Caleb Carr

The year is a seemingly genteel 1897. But don't be fooled: Trouble is always afoot in turn-of-the-century Manhattan, a fetid hellhole chock-full of cocaine-snorting gangs and crime-infested, prostitute-seething, traffic-congested streets. Ah, those were the days!

Yes, according to Caleb Carr, author of this swift-reading sequel to his stylish, bestselling 1994 mystery The Alienist, the New York City of yore was an exhilarating but terrifying maelstrom where innocent people—even babies—sometimes get killed. In the eye of the storm once again sits Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, the alienist, who is in essence a forensic psychiatrist using his groundbreaking theories to illuminate the mind of a murderer, much to the chagrin—and amazement—of the proper authorities. When the wife of a Spanish diplomat reports that her child is missing, Kreizler reenergizes his able but mismatched sleuthing team, which includes Cyrus Montrose, his African-American servant; Sara Howard, a suffragette private investigator; John Schuyler Moore, a boozy New York Times reporter; and a comical pair of moonlighting police detectives, Marcus and Lucius Isaacson, as well as the narrator, a resourceful petty criminal turned tobacconist named Stevie Taggert.

As before, historical figures like Cornelius Vanderbilt, "Diamond Jim" Brady and Albert Pinkham Ryder lend a credible hand to the proceedings. But it is this novel's penetrating social commentary (particularly in regard to antiquated notions of femininity), not its famous faces, that make Angel such an entertainingly convincing read. (Random House, $25.95)

by Anne Rice

Famous for her vampire tales, Anne Rice has written a new novel in which the elixir of life isn't blood but, rather, music. At the center of Violin is a New Orleans woman named Triana, who has had more than her share of family tragedy. On the night after her second husband dies of AIDS, a mysterious violinist appears on the street outside her window to serenade her, and before long he reveals himself as the ghost of a long-dead Russian musician. Triana's spirit-maestro whisks her away, first to Vienna during Beethoven's era, then to Paganini's Venice and later to Brazil. Meanwhile, his stirring performances help her discover her musical gifts and make peace with her own restless ghosts.

Rice's many fans will find in Violin much of what they admire in her work: the ornate language, the dramatic emotions, the promise of a demonically sexy life after death—a fictional symphony that always seems to be played at a louder volume and higher pitch than the familiar sounds of our workaday world. (Knopf, $25.95)

by Roy Rowan and Brooke Janis

Now it can be told: The Tet Offensive may have hurt Lyndon Johnson, but he really blew it with the Pet Offensive—when he was photographed holding up his beagles Him and Her by their ears. This and other moments that turned the White House into a doghouse are fetchingly chronicled in a compendium of canine stories familiar (Nixon's Checkers speech, the legend that FDR sent a destroyer to pick up his Scottie Fala) and strange: Did you know that President Lincoln's yellow mutt Fido was assassinated by a drunk mere months after his master, or that (conspiracy theorists take note) years ago Bill Clinton's cocker spaniel Zeke was run over by a car? (Socks the cat has remained suspiciously silent on the issue.) And then there are the excellently named pooches, like Prudence Prim (Hoover) or Grits (Carter). Despite occasional woofers in the prose ("These two Presidents," the authors write of Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland, "did have one thing in common: dogs"), the book succeeds in keeping the tail of trivia" wagging the dog of American history. This one is fur keeps. (Algonquin Books, $17.95)

by Blake Morrison

On a Friday afternoon in February 1993, two 10-year old boys in Liverpool, England, were playing hooky ("sagging") when they decided to kidnap 2-year-old James Bulger in a shopping mall. After battering him senseless with bricks and an iron bar, they then left him to die on railway tracks. The trial of the juvenile miscreants, both found guilty, settled the "how" of the murder. In As If, Blake Morrison, who covered the case for The New Yorker, raises the "why."

Morrison calls the incident "a new superlative in horror," an odd phrase that rings true. Was it a truant prank gone wrong? A bloodstained battery was discovered near the toddler's lifeless body. Had he been sexually assaulted? The cooler of the two defendants, Robert Thompson, had grown up in a violent household. Had Robert bullied Jon Venables, his cohort, into the crime? Was the victim a surrogate for one of Robert's siblings? Robert, denying his part in the slaying, chillingly told the police, "If I wanted to kill a baby, I'd kill my own, wouldn't I?"

As If powerful and compelling, is at its best when Morrison reconstructs the crime and examines the boys' confessions and their background. The book could do with a little less of the author's introspection, yet this is not so grave a fault. Morrison ponders the horror as if he himself were on trial. Maybe he was; maybe we all were. (Picador USA, $21)

by Jamaica Kincaid

Jamaica Kincaid has built a top-drawer literary reputation through the painful strip-mining of her family history. In The Autobiography of My Mother and other works, the Antigua, West Indies-born author (who now lives in Vermont) has employed what her mother, whose parenting skills are terminally dissected, refers to as long memory. Here Kincaid sifts through the life of her younger brother Devon Drew, who died of AIDS in 1996 at 33. The first of the book's two parts recounts Devon's last year, when Kincaid returns to Antigua to visit him and deal with the looming presence of Mom. "My mother loves her children I want to say, in her way!" Kincaid writes, despairingly, of the woman's domineering, suffocating manner. "It never has occurred to her that her way of loving us might not be the best thing for us." The second part begins with Devon's dying and includes revelations of a shadow existence as a gay man. Kincaid's prose is, as always, meticulous—the emotions scalding, the declarations harsh. But she triumphs here by transforming tortured memory into emancipating elegy. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $19)

by Alice Hoffman

When March Murray travels from Northern California to her childhood home in Massachusetts, she tells herself—and her husband, Richard Cooper—that her purpose in going is to attend the funeral of the beloved housekeeper who raised her after her mother died when March was very young. But readers of Here. on Earth will rapidly intuit that the real reason for March's return is her insatiable longing for her first love, Hollis—and that, in her 12th novel, Alice Hoffman has written a sly, intensely romantic update of Emily Bronte's classic 19th-century novel Wuthering Heights.

Like Bronte, Hoffman evokes a stormy landscape, a troubled and secretive clan, a mysterious orphan, a volatile chemistry of passion and social class, and a cyclonic affair that threatens everything in its path. Interlocking subplots involving March's teenage daughter, her reclusive brother, her best friend—and a revelation about her late housekeeper—dovetail as the novel nears its dramatic conclusion, an ending that may alter our view of the dark, brooding Heathcliff as we revisit him (incarnated here as Hollis) in the revealing light of our 20th-century ideas about men and women. (Putnam, $23.95)

by Peter Tasker

Page-Turner of the Week

SOMETHING IS ROTTEN IN TOKYO, AND IT HAS NOTHING TO DO with the sushi. At least that's what private eye Kazuo Mori comes to suspect as the mysterious death of a friend's daughter launches him on a serpentine trail of corruption that could lead to the highest levels of Japanese society—if it doesn't kill him first.

Securities analyst Richard Mitchell is starting to have similar suspicions. Pressed by his boss to write a glowing recommendation of a seemingly lackluster trading company, the young Briton begins to investigate. What he discovers is scary indeed, drawing him—and Mori, with whom he will cross paths—inexorably closer to a sinister religious cult and its underworld allies.

With a plot that barrels along faster than a bullet train, this thriller is even more of a killer than Tasker's fiction debut, Silent Thunder. Especially strong is his portrait of a society he has known for 15 years as a top fiscal analyst, ever speeding toward the future yet yearning to stay connected to its old soul. (Doubleday, $23.95)

>Paul Reiser

BRINGING UP BABY

WHEN PAUL REISER OF NBC'S HIT MAD About You published his second book, he probably didn't expect to become such a babe magnet. But judging from the 300 people—many with strollers—jamming the aisles of Brentano's in L.A., that is what the 41-year-old actor-comedian has become since the August release of his bestselling Babyhood (Rob Weisbach Books, $22).

The idea came naturally to the author of 1994's Couplehood, once his wife, Paula, became pregnant. " 'You know, honey, there's probably a book in this,' " he recalls saying. So he began noting each burp and giggle of son Ezra Samuel, now 2. The task turned out to be challenging. "There would be all these funny moments and these great thoughts, but I'd be too tired to remember them exactly," he says.

For fans like Mark and Maureen Weiner of Orange County, Reiser's late-night toil has proved helpful. "He takes a much more humorous approach to [fatherhood] than I am able to take," says the 30-year-old chemist and father to baby Adam.

As he autographs books, Reiser dutifully trades stories and examines baby pictures brought by his fans. Soon, he says, he'd like to get beyond just talking, and writing, about baby Ezra. Says Reiser with a tired smile: "I want to see what it's like to experience him without a pencil in my hand."

  • Contributors:
  • Alec Foege,
  • Francine Prose,
  • Kyle Smith,
  • David Lehman,
  • Pam Lambert,
  • Nick Charles,
  • Craig Tomashoff.