By Jeffery Deaver

Deaver's sleek thrillers starring fashion-model-turned-cop Amelia Sachs and her quadriplegic sleuth lover Lincoln Rhyme always boast a distinctive twist or three, but The Vanished Man's plot is so crooked it could hide behind a spiral staircase. That's because the bad guy is a mad magician who keeps switching victims and identities as he roams Manhattan staging murders based on famous magic tricks.

Malerick, as he calls himself, is an inspired nemesis for Rhyme (previously the hero of The Bone Collector and three other novels), and Deaver's immersion in the history of prestidigitation freshens up his usual forensics-based detective drama. The climax would be punchier if simpler, but this story calls for an ingeniously devious set of endings, and Deaver delivers. Movie thrillers should be this good. (Simon St Schuster, $25)

BOTTOM LINE: Presto! A terrific yarn

By Kathy Dobie

The title of Dobie's graceful and disturbing memoir is a snapshot of the author's naïveté as a teenager, when she felt protected and admired by the bad boys of her town. Then protection turned into betrayal and admiration into assault. The book looks at who the author was before and after an episode of humiliating group sex—from the persona of willing jailbait she adopted and its consequences, to the fearless writer she later became.

Dobie, an accomplished journalist, doesn't bother with easy psychological rationalizations for her youthful recklessness; she tells the story as if she's living it from page to page, without hindsight to excuse or explain. The Only Girl in the Car is as tough, sad and triumphant as the woman who wrote it. (Dial, $23.95)

BOTTOM LINE: Memorable journey

By T.C. Boyle

Literary prankster Boyle cuts down on the punch lines but amps up his deliriously inventive way with words in this gorgeously crafted epic about flower children on the run. In 1970 California, LSD-fueled peaceniks Star, Pan and Marco, who have set up a free-love triangle, are getting hassled by The Man after a car accident. So they take their patchouli to Alaska, only to be shunned by their moose-hunting new neighbors.

Boyle's wow-'em style reaches hallucinatory levels in a black comedy that gets darker by the page. But the author who provided such sinister laughs in 1993's The Road to Wellville this time uses his vast talents to make us squirm rather than chuckle. The way this heartbreaking tale so beautifully tells it, no matter where you hide or how many drugs you take, you can never escape the cold, greedy side of human nature. (Viking, $25.95)

BOTTOM LINE: What a long, great trip it is

Page-turner of the week

By George Pelecanos

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The N-word and the F-word are common currency among Pele-canos's ruthless young drug dealers, but the G-word—guns—propels the plot of this novel, part 3 of a trilogy that began with Right as Rain and continued with Hell to Pay. This time Derek Strange, a black private investigator, and his white partner, Terry Quinn, don't always see eye to eye. Strange's work helping to defend a proud but fatalistic drug lord irks Quinn, while together they hunt for a young client who is linked to a killing. Their investigation ricochets from drug gangs and a fearless witness to a former cop turned gun dealer.

Pelecanos's ear is keenly tuned to the corrosive street slang of Washington, D.C., which here echoes with ethnic slurs and rap music, and he convincingly maps out how the cycle of violence accelerates when gang members are compelled to prove how tough they are. There are a few weak points, such as the partners' debate on the death penalty, which tends toward boilerplate, and the ending's questionable implied endorsement of vigilantism. But this brutally realistic novel is otherwise as polished as a Glock. (Little, Brown, $24.95)

BOTTOM LINE: High-caliber excitement

By Sophie Kinsella

What a pickle! Becky Bloomwood, the beguiling but unrepentantly acquisitive heroine of the two previous Shopaholic books, is engaged. Her mum is planning a backyard wedding at the family home in England. The groom's Momzilla mother is commissioning a fantasy shindig at New York's Plaza Hotel. They're scheduled for the very same day. What to do?

This comedy of errors teeters between cute and cutesy. The characters have little depth—it's never even clear why Becky and Luke are a viable couple—but that's beside the point. Becky, the kind of girl who cheats on the couples' quizzes in magazines to get a higher score, often makes for clever company. But her ding-a-ling antics, like pretending the wedding planner is a deranged woman in love with her fiancé, are just plot devices. Becky's dithering drags on long enough that it's a relief when she finally gets to, and through, the big day. (Delta, $10.95)

BOTTOM LINE: Mildly engaging

  • Contributors:
  • Tim Appelo,
  • Arion Berger,
  • Sean Daly,
  • Edward Karam,
  • Joyce Cohen.