Family story has pull of riveting characters

Envy the Night

By Michael Koryta. Thomas Dunne Books. 288 pages. $24.95. ****

Michael Koryta, who writes the Lincoln Perry series, delivers a great new stand-alone novel. “Envy the Night” is a story full of family history, with a likable protagonist and a strong sense of place.

The place is a Wisconsin lake, all pine needles, wood smoke and hidden cabins.

The family history shows Koryta's skill at telling a story from the middle, as it were. Half of the story happens before the book begins, when war buddies buy a lake retreat together to seal their friendship, only to see the friendship darken and end in death. It's also in those years that one of the friends, Frank Temple II, drills his son so relentlessly in close-quarters combat that Frank III becomes freakishly fast and deadly.

Fast-forward to today; the man Frank III holds responsible for his father's death is rumored to be returning to the lake retreat, and young Frank intends to be there to finally mete out justice.

Koryta's characters are irresistible: a weathered woodsman who was once a small-time Detroit leg-breaker; a woman who is running her father's auto body shop after his stroke; an FBI agent who feels a proprietary interest in Frank III, along with a strong sense of guilt at how he manipulated the boy after his father's death; even the leering, sullen mechanic who works at the body shop is given some humanity.

Good characters, a plot that unfolds backwards and forwards as we discover more about Frank II's death, and a writing style that keeps you turning pages.

The Fifth Floor

By Michael Harvey. Knopf.

273 pages. $23.95. ***

Even the occasional glimpse of a Lexus or a digital camera doesn't mar “Fifth Floor's” feel of a Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler classic. Michael Harvey has crafted a beautiful homage to the golden age of detective stories in this tale of Chicago politics, old and new.

The fifth floor of City Hall holds the mayor's office – “A court of intrigue, inside a building of stone and a city of red blood and muscle.”

While following one of the mayor's staffers, PI Michael Kelly happens on a body, and in the course of investigating that, he finds clues to a mystery from the days of the Great Chicago Fire.

A great read, even if you haven't read Hammett and Chandler – but you'll want to, by the time you finish this one.

Death's Half Acre

By Margaret Maron. Grand Central

Publishing. 262 pages. $24.99. ***

Our own Margaret Maron always explores some unique facet of North Carolina in her Deborah Knott mysteries – potteries, fisheries, furniture. In our city of cranes and new subdivision signs, the subject of “Death's Half Acre” is particularly cogent.

Developers are circling Judge Knott's native Colleton County like vultures, and the county commissioners are headed by a developers' darling. When she's found dead with an apologetic suicide note, the rumor mill goes wild, but no one is quite sure what shady deal she's apologizing for.

Deborah is also worried about her father, the bootlegger-turned-solid-citizen who is suddenly being seen in odd places doing things he won't explain to her. Along the way, as always, Maron explores her chosen issue in various lights, from new subdivisions that bring in newcomers unfamiliar with local ways (and not too interested in them, either), to bureaucratic wrangling over a proposed “stump dump,” to courthouse fallout from real estate deals.

There's also plenty of authentic Southern culture, written by a native, so if you're a newcomer who is interested in learning more about your adopted state, you could do worse than reading the Deborah Knott series.

Empire of Lies

By Andrew Klavan. Harcourt.

383 pages. $25. ****

Mystery series, with their familiar characters and consistent writing style, can be a comfy read, but it's a rare writer who can constantly shift styles in stand-alone novels and keep you coming back for more.

Andrew Klavan has written eerie gothic, hard-bitten action and thrillers destined to become movies (“True Crime” and “Don't Say a Word”) – all with a perfect ear for the various genres. And like a concert pianist bored with the same old trills, he has moved on to a virtuoso level with “Empire of Lies” by giving us a hero with as many faults as some villains.

Jason Harrow, a political conservative and “even worse, a believing Christian,” is also a former S&M freak and the son of a paranoid who saw patterns within patterns. Ironically, he discovers a real conspiracy that ends in a boffo climax that seems to show some influence from Klavan's exposure to the movie industry.

Along the way the author riffs on unwed celebrity mothers, media feeding frenzies, true crime shows and other symptoms of cultural decadence.

There are rewards for the reader on every page: a downtown police station is “like an imperial outpost in some rebellious tribal backwater”; a Captain Kirk-styled actor stands “sleek in his silvery unitard in front of one of those papier-mâché boulders they seemed to have on other planets back then.”

It's a great read and proof once again of Klavan's unique talent.

Good People

By Marcus Sakey. Dutton Adult.

326 pages. 24.95. *

I read this book from cover to cover and now I'll never have that time back, but at least some good came of it because I can warn you not to waste your time on it.

Maybe Sakey is right that good people will do the wrong thing given the right set of circumstances, but what I saw here was stupid people who grab what looks like free money and then make a bunch of stupid mistakes, lie to the police and each other, and by the time the bad guys show up to start in on them, all you can say is, “Well, duh.”

Also new on shelves

“Angel's Tip,” by Alafair Burke. (Harper. 342 pages. $23.95.) The usual “inside the mind of a serial killer,” but made slightly more palatable by the Burke family touch.

“Legally Dead,” by Edna Buchanan. (Simon & Schuster. 358 pages. $26.) A team helps government witnesses “die” so they can be convincingly hidden. Reminiscent of Thomas Perry's Jane Whitefield series, but Edna Buchanan is no Thomas Perry.

“Damage Control,” by J.A. Jance. (William Morrow. 374 pages. $25.95.) Joanna Brady uncovers the truth behind a supposed suicide pact.

“Faces of Fear,” by John Saul. (Ballantine Books. 324 pages. $26.) Finally, a novel about the evils of plastic surgery.

Salem Macknee has reviewed mysteries for the Observer since 1994.