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Two new thrillers explore the complex relationship between law-breaking friends.

Partners in Crime

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Thousands of readers will rush out and buy John Sandford's latest novel, "Certain Prey," (Putnam, $24.95) just to find out what's happening with Lucas Davenport, the smart, rich and mean police detective at the heart of the 10 previous "Prey" novels. And those readers will be disappointed. Davenport has been pushed to the sidelines in a story that focuses instead on an unlikely pair of female assassins, one a seasoned professional and one an overanxious newcomer. Sure, the rule-breaking, battle-scarred Lucas cracks the case in the end, but until the rousing finale, he doesn't do anything more exciting than some dirty dancing with a comely FBI agent.

But even if Davenport lovers will go away dissatisfied, this latest "Prey" has plenty of pleasures to gratify the rest of us who just want a fast-paced narrative filled with well-drawn characters and snappy dialogue. Sandford has always mixed streetwise and blackly humorous language reminiscent of Elmore Leonard with a methodical attention to detail similar to Patricia Cornwell. As a result, his books make you laugh when you know you shouldn't and keep you engrossed just as you think the tension is ebbing.

"Certain Prey" begins with savagely ambitious defense attorney, Carmel Loan, hiring a mob hit-woman to rub out the rich wife of a handsome lawyer she has the hots for. While it's supposed to be a one-time hit, circumstances conspire to keep Carmel and her hired gun, Clara Rinker, working together to rub out all evidence of their wrongdoing. Sandford gets a lot of mileage out of the friendship that develops between Carmel and Clara and their breezy girl-talk before, during and after their brutal crimes. With Clara, the author has created a quirky and compelling character who he is clearly interested in developing further in the future. Perhaps next time around, he'll remember to spend some time developing his marquee protagonist as well.

— D.L. Hintz

The title is a little too cute, but that's about the only thing in Robert Draper's new novel "Hadrian's Walls," (Alfred A. Knopf, $23) that doesn't thrill, engage and entertain.

Draper's debut novel is the story of Hadrian Coleman, his best friend, Sonny Hope, and the town they grew up in, Shepherdsville, Texas.

In Shepherdsville, crime pays. A massive prison system is the East Texas town's bread and butter. And the prison is the tie that binds Coleman, an escaped convict who returns home from years on the run, and Hope, the state's director of prisons, who engineers Coleman's pardon.

The story opens with Coleman's return to town as a free man, thanks to his friend Hope. The saga of his incarceration and subsequent escape is told effectively through intermittent flashbacks. But Coleman's return quickly becomes considerably less joyous. He slowly realizes that Hope, in over his head because of some shady dealings as a high-placed state official, has placed a few strings on Coleman's pardon. The strings may put Coleman back in the prison he escaped from years before.

As Coleman is pinched tighter by his "friend," and his relationship with Hope becomes deliciously complex, Draper's gift for storytelling really comes out, and the novel thrills and satisfies through the end.

Even though this is his first novel, Draper spent years as a writer and editor at Texas Monthly, and it shows. He knows how to accurately describe the people and places in his novel, and most of all he knows how to tell a gripping, intricate story.

— Mark Stroh

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