By Albert DeMeo

Most Mob stories can't help making heroes out of crooks. The truth, as told in this unsentimental memoir by the only son of a hit man in the Gambino crime family, is far darker.

While running errands in New York City's Little Italy, Albert learned from his dad, Roy, such nursery rhymes as "Two in the head, make sure they're dead." Later, over cappuccinos in gentlemen's clubs, father and son discussed the former's inevitable death.

When that day arrives, DeMeo already understands the futility of life in the Mafia. Forsaking his legacy, he lands a Wall Street job and starts a family. But when the extent of his father's crimes is publicly revealed in 1992's true-crime book Murder Machine, Albert loses everything: his job, his wife, his mind. Reclaiming his dignity with unsparing recollections, DeMeo finds that honesty is the road out of perdition. (Broadway, $24.95]

Bottom Line: A story you can't refuse

By Karin Slaughter

A cold-eyed coroner who is also a warm-hearted pediatrician in Grant County, Ga., Sara Linton flirts and spars with her sexy ex-husband, police chief Jeffrey Tolliver. Sara gets drawn into working with self-destructive detective Lena Adams, who has more firsthand experience with violence than she cares to admit. Lena's complex feelings drive this elaborately grotesque suspense tale.

A night at the local roller rink turns to tragedy when Jeffrey is forced to shoot a teenage girl and Sara finds a dead baby in a trash can. How these incidents are connected is the crux of a sickening criminal conspiracy. Unfortunately, Slaughter rolls out so many perverse miseries—rape, mutilation, incest—at such a rapid clip that she allows the story's procedural credibility to fall by the wayside. Vital witnesses aren't interviewed until it's too late, and the police shooting merely leads to a cursory investigation. Eventually all of the ugliness crowds out Slaughter's meticulous characterizations: The resolution is so twisted and monstrous it may make you want to take a long vacation from the scalpels-and-suspects genre. (Morrow, $24.95)

Bottom Line: Engrossing but gross

By Tom Clancy

If the nuclear-terrorism movie based on Tom Clancy's The Sum of All Fears kept you up all night, here's the antidote: a novel like warm milk laced with NyQuil. As Red Rabbit opens, Soviet leaders are plotting to kill the Pope. A KGB agent sympathetic to the Pontiff considers defecting, while hero Jack Ryan balances family life with his CIA job. Six hundred pages later, virtually nothing has changed.

We know the Pope will get shot—but survive—because we saw it on the news 21 years ago. Getting to that conclusion demands slogging through then-KGB-head Yuri Andropov's conversations with his bureaucratic colleagues, not to mention the tedious theorizing among Ryan's CIA bosses on what the boring Soviet deskniks might be thinking about Andropov's plan. The only suspense lies in wondering whether something will happen before the book runs out of pages. Rent a James Bond movie instead, comrade. (Putnam, $28.95)

Bottom Line: Dead rabbit

By Cassandra King
Beach book of the week

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Life is miserable for Dean Lynch, but childhood was so much worse that she tells herself she doesn't mind the contempt of her husband, Ben, an arrogant Methodist minister in a tidy Florida panhandle town.

Change comes achingly slowly for Dean, but when it does it's a delight to see this trampled-down flower begin to bloom. Her first stumbling steps toward reinventing herself—visiting a fortune teller, for instance—come only at the prodding of her best friend. But as Dean begins to look outside her home and establish closer relationships with her fellow townspeople—such as a gay couple heedless of the community's disapproval of their plan to get married—her confidence grows. Could there be more in store for her than a role as best supporting wife? King keeps the pace surprisingly fast-moving with a style full of tension and quiet dread, as if terrible events wait to spring off the next page.

Like her husband, The Prince of Tides author Pat Conroy, King has a tendency both to overdo Southern quirkiness and to lean on stock characters: King's gaggle of disapproving church ladies, with ideas as rigid as their oversprayed coiffures, are often too shrill to be believed. But Dean's paralyzing insecurity will resonate with anyone who has struggled for acceptance. As slice-of-life stories go, this is an extraordinarily generous one: rich, dense and satisfying. (Hyperion, $23.95)

Bottom Line: Sunday best

  • Contributors:
  • Edward Nawotka,
  • Arion Berger,
  • Todd Seavey,
  • Debby Waldman.