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Richard North Patterson's and David Robbins' latest thrillers leave these reviewers cold.

More Chills than Thrills

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How I wanted to love Richard North Patterson's latest novel, "Dark Lady" (Knopf, $25.95). Not only have I enjoyed Patterson's previous lawyer-centric mysteries, but the author sets this intricate tale of murder, money and politics in Cleveland, my hometown. Of course, Patterson uses the somewhat silly pseudonym of Steelton, but from its setting on Lake Erie's shores to its Polish/African-American ethnic duality, Steelton is Cleveland. Just pages into the book, my heart was pumping as hard as it was at the kickoff of my first Browns game.

Unfortunately, Patterson seems to have become convinced in the past year or two that he is a capital "w" Writer. "Dark Lady" strains under the weight of the author's self-important and sometimes comically breathless prose. While Patterson was working overtime trying to construct clever metaphors and insightful critiques to describe my dear hometown, he didn't work hard enough building a believable mystery.

The "Dark Lady" of the title is Assistant County Prosecutor Stella Marz, a minor but intriguing character from Patterson's 1996 best seller, "Silent Witness." Stella's electoral bid for county prosecutor depends on the success of her boss, Prosecutor Arthur Bright, who is vying to be the first African-American mayor in Steelton's history. But just as the campaign is heating up, the murders of two prominent men throw everyone's motives into question.

Patterson gets some momentum going just over halfway into the book, throwing in a believable love interest that he handles admirably by keeping it low-key. But the bottom line is a book that is more bluster than bite. I just hope that the new Cleveland Brown's franchise isn't as disappointing.

— D.L. Hintz

There's probably a really good book in Richmond author David Robbins, a book that will head to the top of the best-seller lists and stay there for a while.

His latest, "War of the Rats" (Bantam Doubleday Dell, $23.95), comes close, but it doesn't hit the mark.

Lord knows, Robbins worked hard on this story set amidst the ruins of Stalingrad during the World War II Siege that pitted Stalin's forces against Hitler's. His research led him from the Library of Virginia to what was then (in 1990) the Soviet Union.

The genesis of his novel was an account Robbins had read about two master snipers, one German, one Russian. Each had been given the same order during the Siege: find and kill the other. During his research, Robbins even managed to locate a survivor, on whom he modeled one of the two main characters in "War of the Rats."

Like the historical account Robbins read, his novel pits two dangerous riflemen against each other — Zaitsev, a hunter since his early childhood in Siberia, and Thorvald, a German who teaches the skill of sniping. Other characters include an American woman, Tania, who returns to Russia to rescue her grandparents and winds up fighting as a partisan, and a German corporal, Nikki, who is assigned as Thorvald's aide.

The trouble is, it takes more than crisp writing about four characters, an unsatisfying love affair and a few climactic sniping scenes to make a novel that runs to nearly 400 pages. "War of the Rats" takes a lot of reading investment and offers too little satisfaction.

The writing is crisp. Although it takes Robbins 215 pages to get there, the face-off between the two killing machines begins with sentences Hemingway would have approved of. But a good paragraph on page 215, or 100 good paragraphs on 100 pages, doesn't make a can't-put-it-down novel. The talent seems to be there, but "War of the Rats" is not the book that will make Robbins a must-read author.

— Don Dale

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