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All-star spring lineup

Typically, the new mysteries of March and April are a little like spring training baseball games: appealing enough if you're a true fan, but little noted nor long remembered an hour after they're finished. These are usually the months when publishers send out their B-squad books as the beach-chair blockbusters of summer stretch and suit up.

Not this year. In effect, the season has already begun with a full roster of newly released whodunits and thrillers that came to play and maybe make it all the way to the playoffs.

For one good example, "The Birthday Present" (Shaye Areheart Books, 336 pages) by Ruth Rendell, writing under her Barbara Vine pen name, is a sinister little psychological thriller that follows a Thatcher-era British politician as he implodes after a birthday present to his married lover catastrophically runs into the law of unintended consequences.

It's all a bit kinky, but when up-and-coming Ivor Tesham, a Tory and member of Parliament, and his voracious mistress, Hebe, progress from furtive trysts to what the British tabloids in the 1980s called "adventure sex," he finds himself heading down a path that would probably earn Eliot Spitzer a good conduct medal.

Ivor arranges a fantasy kidnapping of his paramour as a surprise birthday present. When the kidnap vehicle crashes into an enormous truck, leaving a bound and gagged Hebe and one of the kidnappers dead and the other gravely injured, Ivor seems miraculously in the clear.

Nobody, including the police, Hebe's clueless husband or the kidnappers -- who think they've kidnapped someone else -- knows about the affair.

Vine/Rendell cleverly constructs a plot with more twists than a Cotswold country lane to make us focus not on predictable guilt or remorse -- Ivor doesn't understand those. No, at it's core "The Birthday Present" is a dazzling psychological portrait, often painted by other characters who may know more or less than we think they do, of a gifted and powerful man slowly and then obsessively eating himself alive without ever figuring out he's on the menu.

Another hot spring prospect is Jonathan Rabb's "Shadow and Light" (Sarah Crichton Books, 384 pages), which brings back wry, gloomy Weimar Berlin police inspector Nikolai Hoffner (whom we first met in 2005's "Rosa") as he tries to hold on to his wits, his job and maybe his life amid the simultaneous arrival of Nazism and talking pictures.

It's 1927, and Nikolai is called to investigate the apparent (although flimsily so) suicide of a prominent Berlin film company executive. The trail of evidence soon leads to wonderfully depicted encounters with such real historical figures as the legendary German film director Fritz Lang and Hitler henchman-to-be Joseph Goebbels, as well as a host of imagined characters.

Who knew the advent of talkies had such a profound and frightening effect on the silent movie industry, although I suppose the Internet's effect on print media today offers parallels. But as Nikolai's investigation proceeds into Weimar Berlin's squalid world of sex, drugs and Reich 'n' Rule, we learn the concurrent arrival of talkies and Nazis led some ordinarily decent, intelligent people to turn to betrayal, corruption and murder.

The title "Shadow and Light" comes from a character's observation that without sound, movies are merely shadow and light. The book is an atmospheric period piece that will make you happy you accepted Rabb's invitation to come to the cabaret.

As long as we're roaming the 20th century, let's try one more decade before we drift even further back in time. Newcomer Malla Nunn's "A Beautiful Place to Die" (Atria Books, 388 pages) is the compelling first in a projected series featuring police detective Emmanuel Cooper and set in 1950s South Africa, at the start of the Apartheid era.

Cooper is sent to the tiny South Africa-Mozambique border town of Jacob's Rest after an Afrikaner police officer, a white man with, shall we say, extraordinary relationships of various kinds with white and black residents, is murdered. The English-speaking Cooper almost immediately finds himself walking a tightrope between the races and also between the political and social factions within the hamlet's white population.

Because of Dunn's almost flawless insertion of historical background about how South Africa evolved, if that's the word, into such a brutally segregated society in the 1950s, and an only seemingly conventional plot that explores some of the agonizing ramifications of that rift on the novel's well-drawn characters, "A Beautiful Place to Die" enlightens as it entertains.

In "Revelation" (Viking, 550 pages), C.J. Sansom's massive fourth entry in his popular series featuring Tudor era barrister andsleuth Matthew Shardlake, an aging Henry VIII's willful pursuit of the recently widowed Catherine Parr as his sixth wife takes center stage. But only for a while.

In 1548, as the decrepit old king almost comically pursues his bride and tries to impose a kind of pope-free Catholicism on England, Londoner Shardlake dodges the kind of political involvement that has nearly cost him in the past. You will be happy to hear that he fails.

When his best friend is viciously murdered, he finds that Protestant religious fanatics may be behind the deed and powerful Archbishop Thomas Cranmer may be involved in a cover-up. Shardlake risks neck and limb to get to the bottom of things, and he gives us an intimate portrait of court life in Henry VIII's twilight period.

Finally, a flash forward to Victorian London and "Execution Dock" (Random House, 220 pages), in which the prolific Anne Perry brings back Superintendent William Monk of the Thames River Police.

You might think the words Victorian and kiddie porn wouldn't belong in the same sentence. But in this 15th appearance, Monk sets out to bring down politically connected brothel owner Jericho Phillips, who, like his influential clients, will stop at nothing to keep Monk from impeding his expensive perversions. As usual, Monk's likable wife Hester, who runs a home for abused women, joins the chase with an unusually resourceful crew of amateur detectives.

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