Summer's mystery all-stars

If, unlike me, you find watching baseball to be about as stimulating as watching wall paint fade, then you can eschew the national pastime's forthcoming All-Star game and spend time instead with a veritable all-star team of crackerjack mysteries and thrillers by most of the genre's heaviest hitters. You won't care if you ever get back.

I'll drop the lame baseball metaphor in a sec, but this is just too good to pass up: First up -- are you ready? -- Alan Furst.

For decades now, Furst has been the absolute master of literary thrillers ("The World at Night," "The Foreign Correspondent") atmospherically set in the capitals of Europe on the eve of World War II. His latest, "The Spies of Warsaw" (Random House, $25, 266 pages) adroitly blends history and mystery and uses real and imagined period characters to outline the political, diplomatic and military miscalculations that helped make that war inevitable.

Furst begins in the fall of 1937 as Col. Jean-Francois Mercier, a world-weary widower and second-tier aristocrat serving as military attaché at the French embassy in Warsaw, works a small cadre of informants to discover where and when Hitler's mobilizing armies will strike first.

Despite evidence gleaned from his amateur agents, and from sources he cultivates in Polish military and social circles, Mercier's increasingly dire warnings to his superiors in Paris go mainly unheeded. Consequently, Mercier begins to take matters into his own hand, at great personal peril.

Although Furst's plot is uncharacteristically meandering, his characters, particularly Mercier and his very French, very complicated family, and a dashing Polish intelligence officer are vividly drawn.

Beyond that, Furst cinematically places us in the midst of exquisitely drawn settings, from Paris cafes to voluptuous Warsaw embassy parties to the deepest, darkest groves of the Black Forest at dusk. To wit: "Mercier felt the Parisian mystique take hold of his heart, a sudden nameless ecstasy in the damp air -- air scented by black tobacco and fried potatoes and charged with the restless melancholy of the city at the end of its day." For-mi-DA-ble!

Ruth Rendell's so-called psychological thrillers, usually written under the Barbara Vine pseudonym, leave me as cold as the murky pond where some emotional basket-case character inevitably drowns himself. But when Rendell, writing as Rendell, brings back her decent, insightful Chief Inspector Reg Wexford of the ostensibly bucolic Sussex town of Kingsmarkham, I settle in with a pint and a ploughman's.

In "Not in the Flesh" (Crown, $25.95, 303 pages), the 21st in this popular procedural series, a truffle-hunting hound gets things under way by digging up a decomposing corpse in a corner of Old Grimble's Field. When more human remains quickly turn up nearby, Wexford and colleagues have their hands full figuring out whether the bodies have anything to do with an ancient land dispute over Grimble's Field, or if it all goes both literally and figuratively deeper. A host of sketchy town and country suspects vex the venerable Wexford, but Rendell gives us an entertaining array of devilishly deceitful characters -- particularly the cantankerous John Grimble -- in the flesh, so to speak.

The equally well-regarded Elizabeth George's Inspector Thomas Lynley (of the PBS "Mystery" series bearing his name) is as superficially different from Wexford as his vintage Bristol 410 is from Wexford's squad car. Lynley is an aristocrat, albeit a reluctant one, from a titled family, and though he is frequently imperious and arrogant, especially toward his spunky working-class sergeant, Barbara Havers, his investigative instincts and insights are as dead-on as Wexford's.

As "Careless in Red" (Harper, $27.95, 626 pages) opens, a grieving Lynley (wife Helen was killed in street violence in a previous volume) has been hiking alone for days along the Cornish coast when he comes upon the body of a young climber fallen to his death from a cliff.

Although Lynley has abandoned, at least temporarily, his Scotland Yard position, he reports the discovery to local police and finds himself dragged into the investigation. Turns out there were many who had reason to wish the young man dead, and what seemed a simple accident quickly becomes a cunning murder.

"Careless" is too long by half, Lynley's grief is often nearly comically fulsome, and the likable Sgt. Havers is absent the first half of the novel. But stick with "Careless in Red" for the deftly drawn local characters, the alluring descriptions of Cornish country and custom, and for a fiendishly clever surprising ending.

In the fast-paced "Nothing to Lose" (Delacorte, $27, 407 pages), megaseller Lee Child's adamantine hero Jack Reacher is back and taking on a whole town (or two, actually). Reacher has no job, no car, and no baggage -- emotional or carry-on. This time he shows up on his way to someplace else in little Despair, Colo. -- separated by a few miles of bad road from a place called Hope, Colo., and immediately runs into trouble with four locals. Before it's all over (which is always too soon in these beautifully crafted books), Reacher has cleaned up a mess that will be all too familiar to those who follow the news, and leaves folks in both towns asking, "Who was that masked man?"

Jeffrey Deaver is another summertime perennial best-seller. His latest, "The Broken Window" (Simon and Schuster, $26.95, 414 pages), pits series hero Lincoln Rhyme, a retired NYPD criminalist and quadriplegic, against someone who is using electronic data mining (aka identity theft) to implicate innocent men in murders he commits. Warning: You don't have to be even mildly paranoid to get halfway through "Broken Window" and want to cancel all your credit cards and bank accounts; never sign on to the Internet again; and communicate with friends and family only in person. Too bad. Too late. This book will scare the pants off you, especially if you bought them online.