Scene of the Crime

I've noted before how delicately and almost fastidiously Ruth Rendell weaves the silken nooses of her plots, the better to ensnare characters (and, by extension, readers). I'm happy to report that Rendell's knack for subtle psychological suspense is fully deployed in her latest, "13 Steps Down" (Crown, 340 pp., $25).

Michael "Mix" Cellini rents a flat in Gwendolen Chawcer's huge, crumbling London house. He's an overweight, alcoholic repairman of exercise equipment; she's a crotchety but aristocratic old lady. Both are pathetically deluded.

Mix identifies with a famous murderer of years past and is fixated on a famous model, secure in his mind that she'll soon be his girlfriend. Gwendolen, meanwhile, believes that her decades-old, unspoken passion for her family's doctor has always been reciprocated. The obsessions of these two twine around each other, the atmosphere grows clammy, violence seems inevitable, and the author slowly tightens her noose.

"Easy Streets" (Norton, 191 pp., $23.95) is a slim but very tasty entry in Bill James' long-running series about British coppers Harpur and Iles. For years, order has been maintained in their provincial British town through a complex relationship between police and crooks, in which one side discreetly looks the other way if the other maintains certain basic standards. Now, though, a gang war threatens to upset this careful balance.

James' world is sui generis. First, there's his amazing blend of filigreed language and thuggish violence; the way both crooks and cops talk is as artificial, mysterious and drolly funny as anything Damon Runyon ever dreamed up. Then there's his elliptical writing; James likes to let readers fill in certain blanks themselves. And then there's Harpur and Iles' odd love-hate relationship; it's a notable one, even in a genre of fiction that treasures odd love-hate relationships.

James Sallis is a prolific and cruelly under-recognized writer — a poet, novelist, essayist and biographer (of the great crime writer Chester Himes). His new book, "Drive" (Poisoned Pen Press, 160 pp., $19.95), is a doozy: a compact, beautifully written little noir gem.

It whips along as coolly and efficiently as the guy it's named for. Driver is (what else?) a professional driver — for the movies by day, for armed robbers by night. Driver's the best, but he has some strict ground rules — he doesn't carry a gun or participate in rough stuff. He just drives, that's all. But when a heist goes bad and he's double-crossed, Driver doesn't hesitate to break his rules and exact implacable revenge.

"The Long Mile" (Murder Ink paperback original, 239 pp., $13.95) is the latest from a versatile Bellingham writer, Clyde W. Ford. (His other recent effort includes "Red Herring," a locally set espionage novel about an unmanned vessel loaded with explosives and aimed toward an oil refinery.)

Ford returns to his native New York City for "The Long Mile's" setting. Former police detective John Shannon's release from prison, after two years on a trumped-up murder charge, should be cause for celebration; instead he finds his teenage son missing and his detecting skills forcefully requested by a shadowy government agent.

Shannon — already a pariah among the cops he once served with — goes out on his own to find his son, discovering in the process a trail of drug dealing and police corruption. This basic plot engine may be a familiar one, but Ford keeps the suspense high and smoothly propels his story to a satisfying conclusion.

Seattle writer Adam Woog's column on mystery and crime fiction appears on the second Sunday of the month in The Times.