Hellfire and damnation in New Orleans

Exquisite Corpse by Poppy Z Brite (Orion pounds 16.99) is the story of two serial killers - furious souls raging against a dying light and putting out several others' as they do so. It is so fin de siecle that, if the millennium were not about to happen, Brite would have needed to time-travel to meet it. Her book is crammed full of the whole nihilistic canon of the late Nineties - Aids and serial murder and rape and cannibalism, and more murder and more rapes and eventually you just have to ask: so what? Yes, there's a palpable sense of place - old money and new diseases mingle body fluids in the French Quarter of New Orleans, and Brite's prose style is subtle and evocative but, after 244 pages of blood and guts and rape and pain, you are left simply longing for just one good joke.

In James Gabriel Berman's Misbegotten (4th Estate pounds 8.99) we are presented with another anti-hero for our times. Billy Crapshoot is a cool, slick- operating, smooth-dressing villain who goes to work with a carnation in his buttonhole and has us applauding his skill with the gun and the knife. He lurches from gutterside car-jackings to a bedside womb-jacking via a crash course in bad poetry and an artificial insemination clinic run by Dr Strangelove. This is a version of Rosemary's Baby, in which the mother, Caitlin Bourke, is an indolent princess and the devil is Billy Crapshoot with his healthy sperm and even healthier capacity to lie and scheme.

The narrative swings back and forth between prospective mother and donor- father-to-be, and culminates in an isolated house on a dark night - a scene straight out of the kind of movie that has you behind the sofa shouting, "No! Don't go down there!"

Peter Straub's The Hellfire Club (HarperCollins pounds 15.99) contains another woman in peril. But this time it's the cut-throat world of author-worship and a family publishing dynasty, with its attendant slanders, conspiracies and decades-old plagiarisms, that provides the breeding ground for fear, rather than the simple desire for a baby. This is a horror story, thriller and family saga all rolled into one (Straub even throws in Vietnam flashbacks for good measure) with a villain who is eloquent, witty and extremely difficult to kill off. Just one question - why, if takes four graphically written pages to describe a brutal rape, is ordinary marital sex dismissed with an unsatisfying "twenty minutes later..."? Not coyness, surely?

Even though the leading ladies in both these books fight back eventually - and this is certainly a welcome new direction in thriller writing - you can't help thinking that if Berman's Caitlin Bourke and Straub's Nora Chancel actually did something with their lives rather than just waiting around until their husbands got home, they might not have had time to get into such trouble in the first place.

Set in 1982, with the World Cup being played only miles away in Barcelona, Bernado Atxaga's The Lone Man (Harvill Press pounds 15.99) is a blissful book - a thriller with compassion and soul, as good as rich fresh bread, and twice as satisfying. It's got everything: an ex-radical who is now a baker, hidden "terrorists," a sane man in an insane asylum, the leftovers of a once- active political cell who are between them obsessed with sex, love, betrayal, Rosa Luxemburg, Franco and football. When Carlos agrees to hide two Basque Separatist "terrorists," they become the catalyst for a confrontation between his radical past and his current friends and comrades. Billed as a crime thriller, Atxaga's novel is very much more than that: a rich, slow, poetic read, enhanced in every respect by Margaret Jull Costa's excellent translation.

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