Paperbacks

Domino by Ross King (Minerva, pounds 5.99) Eighteenth century London is brought dizzingly alive in Ross King's first novel, a peculiar mystery featuring a beady-eyed castrato and a hapless young portrait painter. Set adrift amongst ''Persons of Quality'' and over-perfumed fops, the innocent George Cautley comes to discover that London's beau monde is an insubstantial and deceptive place to want to be. King's prose sniffs out London's darker street-corners with a doggedness to match Peter Ackroyd's.

Sleepers by Lorenzo Carcaterra (Arrow, pounds 5.99) Lorenzo Carceterra's ''true story'' reads like a treatment for a Martin Scorcese script. It's 1967, New York is Hells Kitchen, and four young boys, Lorenzo, Michael, Johnny and Tommy spend their summer stealing comic books, sitting under water hydrants and running jobs for ''King Benny'', until an incident with a runaway hot dog cart sets events of a more sinister kind in motion. A big best seller in the States ... but what with Catholic priests, Italian hoods, and little boys, how could Carcaterra go wrong?

Small g: a Summer Idyll by Patricia Highsmith (Penguin, pounds 4.99) Highsmith's last novel, but one that might disappoint even her most devoted fans. Set in a small bar in Zurich and with an unusually messy cast of characters (including a performing pet poodle by the name of Lulu), the book doesn't have the power and momentum of Carol, the author's previous gay novel. But some delicious Highsmithesque touches still remain: good food features prominently on the bar's menu, and a club-footed seamstress casts her malevolent eye over the summer's proceedings.

Hemingway's Chair by Michael Palin (Mandarin, pounds 5.99) Martin Sproat lives a double life. By day he works as assistant manager of Theston Post Office, by night he transforms himself into his bourbon-slugging hero, ''Papa'' Hemingway. And just as well, as the time to kick ass has come. Palin's gentle satire on the perils of Post Office privatisation is a study in physical comedy (people are always wearing peculiar sandals, or geting trapped in small cars) and untidy passions. An airport book worth picking up.

London at War 1939-1945 by Philip Ziegler (Mandarin, pounds 6.99) This absorbing history is packed with detail. Even before hostilities commenced, Covent Garden's stalwart response to Czech victimisation was a production of Smetana's The Bartered Bride, unfortunately in German. As bombs rained down, one general praised the ''little tarts'' who continued to ply for trade. There is much humour amid the drama. ''Halt or I'll fire,'' cried a Home Guard. ''Fire,'' came the response. It was a fireman attempting to put out a blaze in the guard's barracks.

Letters Vol I: 1926-1954 by John Betjeman (Minerva, pounds 7.99) Edited with exemplary skill by his daughter, this bumper haul reminds us what a treat old Betje was. The contents are more savage and self-confident than might have been expected. On his brief spell as prep school master: ''how I loathe them all''. On his father: ''it makes me sick to think of him''. Despite occasional hints of the melancholia which dogged his later years, the overwhelming impression is one of hilarity. Illustrated with the author's scratchy marginalia, this is the funniest collection of letters since Waugh's.

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Vol I by Edward Gibbon (Penguin, pounds 15) Despite its awesome bulk and towering reputation, Gibbon's magnum opus is engagingly readable (one devotee is Rolling Stone Keith Richard). This first volume takes the story up to the last pagan emperor in the 4th century, including a detour in time for a swipe at the early Christians (''it was not in this world that the primitive Christians were desirous of making themselves either agreeable or useful'').

The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy by David Cannadine (Papermac, pounds 15) Gibbon's ringing phrase is only half proven in this acclaimed panorama of the posh. Cannadine demolishes the notion that the nobility were scythed down in the First World War - 80 per cent returned from the front. More significant was increased urbanisation and the ''dilution of select society'' by the predatory new rich. And the aristocracy has yet to fall. Despite the entertaining examples of dissipation given here, it remains tenacious in its own interests.

The Penguin Encyclopedia of Crime by Oliver Cyriax (pounds 9.99) One of the oddest reference books in recent years, but also creepily enthralling. Cyriax (a great name for a villain), has an idiosyncratic approach to his murky subject matter. Successive entries include: Kidnapping, invention of; Kidney, human; Kids, crack; Killer bimbos. As well as potted accounts of causes celebres, he delves into arcane areas ranging from treadwheels to ''Dolphins, sex with''. Not for the faint-hearted, this book is rich in black humour.

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