By Joseph Wambaugh

Three fascinating characters inhabit this crime chronicle: a crack arson investigator, a stealth arsonist who for years wreaks havoc throughout California and an aspiring writer whose unpublished raunchy potboiler is a thinly veiled diary of pyromania. All three, simultaneously, are John Orr, convicted of arson and murder (four died during his rampage) and currently serving life plus 12 years.

After Orr was arrested in 1991, brushfires in the foothills around L.A. dropped 90 percent. While Orr is on the loose, Wambaugh's narrative crackles. Task forces compete for the collar, and Wambaugh has fun with a botched surveillance. The last third of the book, though, documents Orr's second trial with tiresome minutiae. (Morrow, $25.95)

Bottom Line: Bonfire that flames out

By Andrew Miller

On her deathbed in rural England, Alice Valentine is nearly out of strength, but the clan of underachieving relatives gathering around her isn't doing much better. Their story alternates with chapters recounting the exploits of an exiled Hungarian playwright whose work is being translated by Alec, the self-described "ineffectual" son.

Sounds like a handful, but it's not. Elegantly written, this finalist for Britain's prestigious Booker Prize is a satire on American self-obsession (Alice's other son, a Californian, is a tennis pro turned porn star), an exhilarating journey through personal histories and a knowing glimpse at the ways we hold ourselves responsible for saving the people we love. (Harcourt, $24)

Bottom Line: Fresh air

By Lisa Scottoline

Gorgeous redheaded lawyer Anne Murphy tromps through this breezy, low-calorie legal thriller in the trendiest designer heels and handbags. But her wit and steely nerve are her most useful accessories when she decides to play dead to catch her own would-be murderer—the psycho who has mistakenly shotgunned Murphy's look-alike friend.

Messy massive face wounds aside, Courting Trouble is light and easy on the brain from the first page. Its simple, single-suspect plot is laid out in Tic-Tac-size sentences, and Scottoline scatters sassy mock-girlie quips throughout. "To Anne, precision mattered in the law, brain surgery, and lipliner," we're instructed early on. When the friendly officers at a Philadelphia courthouse inquire, "What's cookin', good-lookin'?" she retorts, "The usual. Striking a blow for justice. Paying too much for shoes."

By mid-book the perky "Let's put on a murder investigation!" enthusiasm of Murphy's all-girlfriend law firm may wear thin, and the story can be implausible. It's a stretch when Murphy, attending her own memorial service, eludes notice by disguising herself only with a big hat. But who wants to think in the summer anyway? This is a gavel-to-gavel romp. (HarperCollins, $25.95)

Bottom Line: Fun in the first degree

Hollywood in the Fifties
By Sam Kasher and Jennifer MacNair

Some associate 1950s Hollywood with the antiseptic inanity of Doris Day, Jerry Lewis and Francis the Talking Mule, but this randomly assembled collection (the authors call it "prismatic") looks intelligently at the behind-the-scenes dramas of assorted Eisenhower-era celebrities and film productions. Much here is familiar, such as the tales of the strange careers of James Dean, Rock Hudson ("Can't you get Rock to kiss me properly?" one bewildered actress asked of director Douglas Sirk) and Mae West, who turned down the lead in Sunset Boulevard because she never played losers. Yet there are also surprisingly vivid accounts of the tortured souls of scandal-sheet journalist Howard Rushmore, director Nicholas Ray and playwright William Inge. Decidedly favoring the bad over the beautiful, this book has plenty of scandal, retelling the story of a long-concealed affair between Kim Novak and Sammy Davis Jr. and taking us inside some ur-celebrity boxing matches: Sean Connery once decked Johnny Stompanato, Lana Turner's abusive mobster boyfriend, while Joseph Cotten literally kicked columnist Hedda Hopper's behind when she printed items about his love life. All that's missing is any acknowledgment of the era-defining phobic sci-fi films of the early atomic age, but little green men aren't sexy. (Norton, $26.95)

Bottom Line: Gossip with a brain

By Stuart Woods

Beach book of the week

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London calling, and quick-witted New York P.I. Stone Barrington is accepting the charges in his eighth book. The case: Help a wealthy, mysterious client protect his niece from the criminal dealings of her new beau—without getting tripped up by a slithering nest of spies, counterspies and illegal-weapons merchants.

Woods's effortless, crisp writing and nimbly staged action make this a breezy read. The style, heavy on dialogue, leaves out unnecessary descriptions yet nevertheless brings the reader into an upper-crust British world in which gentlemen dress for dinner and dapper secret agents wittily spar over single malts. Woods does stretch believability a bit in the bedroom, but if James Bond could do it, why not a handsome cop turned lawyer turned P.I.? (Putnam, $24.95)

Bottom Line: Brit hit

By Carol Shields

"Happiness is the lucky pane of glass you carry in your head," notes Reta Winters, the 43-year-old narrator of Shields's disquieting new novel. "It takes all your cunning just to hang on to it, and once it's smashed you have to move into a different sort of life." The pane shatters when Reta's daughter Norah, 19, quits college to live on a street corner in nearby Toronto, silent but for a placard around her neck reading "Goodness."

The moving explanation comes at the end, but in many ways it is beside the point. The heart of this novel from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Stone Diaries examines how precarious life is. With a poet's precision, Shields dissects grief and makes coping with bad luck feel like domestic heroism. Yet this is hardly a slit-the-wrists read. Shields's heroine casts a wry eye on everyone: a reporter is "sweating with minor ambition"; tragedy, she decides, excuses her from being "pointlessly, endlessly polite." This may be the last novel from Shields, a breast cancer victim. She should be proud. (Fourth Estate, $24.95)

Bottom Line: A healing heartbreaker

By Julia Glass

Reading Glass's gentle, slow-moving novel is like sipping lukewarm ice tea on a hot June day: only mildly refreshing. A too-sour squirt of lemon comes from Fenno McLeod, the book's central character and sometime narrator. As a reserved gay man living in New York City, Fenno fears the emotional risks of romantic love even as he forms an intimate friendship with an AIDS-afflicted opera critic who just might be the One. Yet Fenno's primary trait—his aloofness—makes him an annoyingly oblique narrator. His family and friends, observes the opera critic, "can never quite love you...because they will never quite understand you."

Glass fares far better when exploring Fenno's Scottish family ties. In the book's first part (which, like the other two, takes place during June), she details the childhood bonds between Fenno, his boisterous twin brothers and their loving but distant parents.

Although the book's dialogue often sounds stilted (has anyone used the phrase "pray tell?" since the invention of the lightbulb?), Glass displays a knack for lovely aphorisms. "Time plays like an accordion," she writes, "in the way it can stretch out and compress itself in a thousand melodic ways." Alas, Three Junes often loses the melody. (Pantheon, $25)

Bottom Line: Is it July yet?

By James Lee Burke

Burke is among our most gifted crafters of crime fiction. Gamely plunging us into the depths of evil, he returns us gasping to the surface, giving us not answers but literature.

In his latest, Burke revisits swampy New Iberia, La., where his most popular character, sheriff's detective Dave Robicheaux, tangles with a small crowd of creepy suspects to solve the vicious murder of two women. Burke is especially deft describing characters who come with a clanging gin-joint's worth of nicknames like Clete and Tee Bobby Hulin and Buttermilk Struck. A homeless madman has "blonde hair like melted and recooled tallow." Evil plantation overseer Legion Guidry prowls the book in an almost palpably stinking cloud of tobacco, bile and road dust, with an evil hint of sulphur. It's Burke's tangy mastery of such descriptions that assaults the senses and jangles the nerves. (Simon and Schuster, $25)

Bottom Line: Go bayou it

By Jeffrey Lent

Jeffrey Lent's gripping, well-structured novel opens in 1838 with a man known only as Blood tramping through the backwoods of New England in search of a place to escape his past. His traveling companion is the teenage prostitute he won in a brothel card game. First he brutalizes her, but then their relationship grows more complex.

At the heart of this semi-historical novel is the surprising story of Blood's past, which Lent unfolds with precision timing and direct dialogue, though too many things go unsaid: A look in the eye is a speech for these folks. The big finish is dramatic without being Hollywood. This is a compelling, at times chilling, achievement. (Atlantic Monthly, $25)

Bottom Line: Lost is profound

  • Contributors:
  • Edward Karam,
  • Allison Lynn,
  • Laura Italiano,
  • Mark O'Donnell,
  • Sean Gannon,
  • Christina Cheakalos,
  • Michelle Tauber,
  • Pia Nordlinger.