Crime writing
Time to use those Christmas book tokens on two debut crime novels that cannot fail to impress. Both are billed as successors to Patricia Cornwell. Heinemann even offer a money-back guarantee if Deja Dead by Kathy Reichs (pounds 10) is not as good as Cornwell. They won't have to shell out any refunds. While Cornwell's protagonist pursues her criminals via the post-mortem table, ex-alcoholic, 40-odd "Tempe" Brennan, narrator of Deja Dead, takes one step further towards gruesomely specialised detection. Tempe is only called in when the body is classified "too decomposed for standard autopsy". (She is, like Reichs, a forensic anthropologist.) Knife scars on the bones of dead women follow a pattern. Meanwhile Tempe's best friend, Gabby, a new-age hippy carrying out research with prostitutes, goes missing. Gabby might be at risk; so might Tempe's teenage daughter. Then a severed head is delivered to Tempe's home.

With its pacy action, gritty realism, insights into an unusual form of detection, a setting in bilingual Montreal and a heroine with a delicious turn of phrase, Deja Dead cannot be beat. My only minor quibble is that it's well-nigh impossible for armchair sleuths to unmask the villain, as the clues aren't there until the end.

No complaints on that score about Marianne Wesson's debut novel, Render Up the Body (Headline, pounds 16.99). It, too, features a protagonist whose job is that of her author. Colorado-based Cinda, a lawyer, is disillusioned with the District Attorney's office and starts a new career as director of a Rape Crisis Centre. Enter the complications: sexy black solicitor Ben; overweight Grace, who ingratiates herself with the Centre staff, and Tory, Cinda's best friend, who has become incommunicado.

Cinda's principles are put to the test. A vehement opponent of the death penalty, she reluctantly agrees to represent Jason Smiley, a convicted murderer awaiting execution. She is sure he is innocent of the capital offence. But Smiley is also a rapist. As she struggles with legal precedent in an effort to free him, she undermines her position at the Centre. Marianne Wesson keeps a tight grip on the complex threads of her plot. She creates characters whose rounded humanity and moral dilemmas are irresistible. She challenges knee-jerk reactions to the effect of rape on its victims, and she plants those clues right from the start. In short, there's no need to compare this author with Patricia Cornwell. Render Up the Body stands on its own merit as a very fine achievement.

Farewell To the Flesh by Gemma O'Connor (Bantam, pounds 5.99) is also eminently readable, but in a glum sort of way. Dubliner Tess Galloway's partner, Marcus, has topped himself in a motor-bike accident. She is also suffering first-time motherhood. Dirty nappies and puke stains feature so regularly I wouldn't have been surprised to find a real noxious splodge or two on the pages.

Tess is a property lawyer, persuaded to handle the sale of a convent's cemetery, and deal with exhuming the corpses. These nuns need the money, then discover - surprise, surprise - that they have one more coffin than they bargained for. The bad guy is obvious: all that is at stake is his complex motive; and whether Tess will finally, improbably, make it with Marcus's older brother.

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