Pick of the week Veritas by William Lashner

William Lashner's first novel Hostile Witness was astonishingly confident. In Veritas (HarperCollins, pounds 16.99) there is something almost saucy about the way he plays with plot, characters and structure. Lashner aims for larger than life rather than slice of life, for truth rather than realism. In the tradition of Raymond Chandler, and in contrast to recent fashion, his characters speak wry dialogue instead of street-stutter.

Lashner's narrator is Victor Carl, a reluctant Mafia lawyer, one of the most interesting series characters to appear in years. He is not so much an anti-hero as a non-hero, a bitter failure whose sadness is amplified by self-awareness. He wants to be a cynic, but is unable to shake off the values of his working-class upbringing. His spends his life chasing wealth, but knows "money is the goal of cowards", and being rich wouldn't make him the "someone else" he longs to be.

In this book Victor is forced to engage in shuttlecock diplomacy during a mob war, trying to find out who is killing the heirs to a pickle fortune, the damned inhabitants of a Chandleresque great house called Veritas, where the gardener quotes Gibbon and the old ballroom "looked as if hadn't been balled in decades". Amid some terrific gag lines, and some accomplished farce, there is to Lashner's work a seriousness of moral and literary purpose is characteristic of much Nineties thriller writing. Excitingly and refreshingly, many American lawyer/writers in particular clearly feel that the medium of entertainment, not that of self-consciously opaque, "literary" fiction, best suits their ends.

By contrast, Ed McBain, whose only discernible purpose is fun, comes across as a little old-fashioned in his funky amorality. Nocturne (Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 16.99) is roughly the 50th police procedural set in the 87th Precinct, in a series which began in 1956. Fresh as ever, this latest episode - in which the 87th investigates the deaths of an elderly concert pianist and a young whore - provides an almost indecent quantity of irresistible fun. McBain's liver spots are revealed only by the odd slip into crankiness. A running joke has characters misattributing the screenwriter's credit on The Birds to Hitchcock, instead of Evan Hunter (aka Ed McBain) and there are the usual mutterings about "political correctness" that men of his age cannot resist.

Overt purpose is not significantly present in the work of most modern women crime writers, either, as if the feminism that has dominated the field over the past decade has created a kind of moral glass ceiling. Many, such as Carol O'Connell, write about emotions, but do so with a coldness that would have surprised their female predecessors.

Despite this, readers disappointed by the over-hyped debut novel that made O'Connell a slush-pile millionaire will find in Flight of the Stone Angel (Hutchinson, pounds 9.99) some bewitching bayou Gothic. Full of characters from crime fiction's past, it includes the idiot savant who witnessed the murder, a spinster heiress in a crumbling mansion who knows more than she'll ever let on, and the small-town sheriff who acts like a hick to outwit outsiders. O'Connell's more-or-less sociopathic heroine Mallory, a streetkid turned NYPD detective, is in the Louisiana wetlands hunting the mob who stoned her mother to death 17 years ago. I have rarely read a more original and haunting murder scene than this. Unfortunately, the motive behind it will come as no surprise: if a book about the South written in the Nineties by a New York woman didn't contain incest and child-molesting, one would suspect it of being a forgery.

Of these four books, the one least concerned with imparting a world view is, ironically, an "environmental mystery": Endangered Species by Nevada Barr (Headline, pounds 16.99). Barr's series heroine is park ranger Anna Pigeon, here firewatching on a nature reserve off the coast of Georgia. When a drug-prevention plane crashes on the island, killing the two men on board, Anna investigates. Barr is a working ranger who writes traditional whodunits with clues, a limited circle of suspects, and an amateur sleuth who falls into a "vortex of darkness" when clonked on the head. Her story moves along at a fine pace, her humour is understated, and her nature writing lyrical and informative. Perhaps when you write environmental mysteries, you don't need to put a message in the bottle - the label is message enough.

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