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The Independent Culture
! What Men Say by Joan Smith, Vintage £5.99. In life, serial sleuths (unlike killers) are never amateurs. Fictional crime connoisseurs such as Wimsey, and the likes of Smith's Loretta Lawson - whose relation to murder is supposed to be contingent - lead absurd lives: their acquaintances get slaughtered, or accused of murder, with the same regularity as they visit the dentist. But once you've strung up your disbelief, Smith is agreeably expert in the genre. In her fourth case, the murder-prone feminist's best friend is suspected when a corpse turns up in her barn. The background is Oxford and the plot is satisfyingly packed with all the impedimenta of motive, means and opportunity. One delightfully surreal alibi involves being caught in the background of a TV scene from Morse.

! The Spirit of Cricket: A Personal Anthology by Christopher Martin-Jenkins, Faber £7.99. Cricket writers are suckers for hyperbole and rhetoric. Neville Cardus did it much of the time, I am convinced, with tongue in cheek, but the sheer leisureliness of the game does cause a writer to dwell over this sentence, that simile, and to elaborate in way that would make a football correspondent blush. That, of course, is why there are many great extracts in this anthology, as well as many fatuous ones, including the editor's own speculation that World War I might have been avoided "had the Germans been playing test cricket in 1914". Cricket, as these extracts show again and again, is either a match or a metaphor. It has never been and never will be an incitement to peace.

! Resurrection Man by Eoin McNamee, Picador £5.99. This first novel follows the vicious career of Victor, a sectarian killer from Belfast's Protestant ranks. This is violence for real, death-squad violence, with heads coming off bodies and knees drilled by pistol shots. But there is a constructed and ritualistic element in the deeds of the psychopathic Victor and his friends, re-enactments of old gangster films, semi-digested scraps of nazi ideology. As fiction should, it gives a personal, inside-out reading of what we usually see with exterior detachment as "news", and the prose comes up with unforgettable phrases, eg the description of Victor's weak father who "needed to stand up twice before he cast a shadow". At times the cadences are over-repetitive, but it is a tough, poetic novel of great distinction.

! With One Lousy Free Packet of Seeds by Lynne Truss, Penguin £5.99. For a chuntering old hack called Osborne Lonsdale, being a celebrity interviewer in the world of horticultural journalism means 12 years writing the "Me and My Shed" column. Osborne's the rubicund leading character in this comedy about an obsolete gardening magazine taken over by a teenage computer millionaire. Down to do a "shed" interview in Devon, Osborne intersects with various other characters connected with the deal. Humorous situations are then played out in a sleepy railway halt, a B & B called Dunquenchin, a TV star's garden shed and other locations of impeccably rural English pedigree. There's a tidily raked, 1950s, Ealing-meets-Amis feel to it all.

! Special Tasks: Memoirs of an Unwanted Witness by Pavel Sudoplatov and others, Warner £9.99. A virtual committee - including Sudoplatov's son and two Americans - was involved in compiling these memoirs of the spymaster who organised Trotsky's murder, ran Stalin's or, more precisely, Beria's network of foreign agents (including the atomic spies Fuchs and MacLean) and was so intimately connected with the secret policies of Stalinism that Khruschev sacked and imprisoned him. The most startling allegation is that four of the century's greatest nuclear scientists - Szilard, Fermi, Oppenheimer and Bohr - were Soviet agents. There is strangely little evidence beyond the mere assertion of this but, at 88, Sudoplatov has nothing much to lose but his memory.

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