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Intrepid investigators enliven new mysteries

| Sunday, Oct. 12, 2008

Denise Hamilton, best known for her award-winning series about reporter Eve Diamond, makes a smooth transition from contemporary Los Angeles to the City of Angels of 1949 in the lively "The Last Embrace."

As in her series, Hamilton's sixth novel vividly captures the nuances of L.A., showing that the same concerns of immigration, development and economics haunted the city in the post-World War II years as they do today. Of course, the lure of Hollywood and possible stardom remains a constant.

Lily Kessler spent the war years as a spy for the OSS. She has come to L.A. not for stardom but to find her late fiance's sister, Kitty, a starlet who has disappeared from her Hollywood rooming house. Using skills honed during the war, Lily jump-starts an investigation the cops seem to have dropped.

Hamilton richly draws on L.A.'s history, from fears about the Black Dahlia murder, mob boss Mickey Cohen and the era's police corruption. The author also gives an insider's view on the movies' burgeoning special-effects industry, including the early days of stop-motion animation. The changing role of women post-World War II also is scrutinized.

Although a few cardboard supporting characters detract from "The Last Embrace," the brisk pace and Hamilton's strong story-telling skills keep the story on track.

The strong-willed, intelligent Lily more than carries the plot in "The Last Embrace," and her return would be most welcome.

"South of Hell," by P.J. Parrish (Pocket Star Books, $7.99 paperback)

Hell is a place that private detective Louis Kincaid knows well, but he also had hoped never to return to this aptly named little Michigan town south of Ann Arbor.

But a call from a cop re-opening a years-old case involving a missing woman jolts Kincaid out of his comfortable life near Sanibel, Fla. New complications have surfaced in the cold case. As Kincaid helps with the investigation, he's reunited with his old girlfriend, Jo Frye, and is forced to confront his painful past.

Wrapped in the tenets of a private detective novel with overtones of a police procedural, "South of Hell" also successfully taps into domestic violence, Michigan's racial history and how the cavalier attitude of a young man can haunt his life.

The tense plot in careens with multiple twists as the suspense accelerates. Characters who are easy to care about and a vivid look at the Michigan landscape -- Hell is a real town -- further elevate the story.

Parrish, the pseudonym for sisters Kristy Montee of Florida and Kelly Nichols of Mississippi, have amassed multiple awards and nominations with their novels about Kincaid and last year's "A Thousand Bones," which focused on Frye. "South of Hell" continues their high standards.

Additional Information:

'The Last Embrace'

Author : Denise Hamilton

Publisher : Scribner, $15 paperback

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