Ghosting for the ex-PM | Deadhead with a badge | A hit man's nightmare

It's the gig of a lifetime: ghostwriting the memoirs of England's highly charismatic ex-prime minister. But the unnamed writer-narrator of Robert Harris' "The Ghost" (Simon & Schuster, 335 pp., $26) is more accustomed to the private lives of musicians and actors, and he's soon in way over his head — especially after uncovering some highly explosive material.

Harris specializes in uncommonly intelligent thrillers that explore the what-ifs of alternate politics and history (including "Enigma" and "Fatherland"), and this is one of his best. "The Ghost" is never less than riveting — and timely, too, considering the recent auction for the upcoming memoirs of a certain real-life former PM.

"The Silk Train Murder" (Carrol & Graf, 320 pp., $25) is an uneven but promising historical mystery debut from Vancouver, B.C.'s Sharon Rowse. At the turn of the 20th century, things are hard for John Lansdowne Grenville: He's spurned his aristocratic British family to stake out a hardscrabble life in western Canada.

A friend offers Grenville a job guarding the silk trains set to carry a fortune in rare cloth en route from China through Vancouver to the East Coast — but when someone is murdered in the Vancouver train yards, Grenville's friend is wrongly accused. Weak on atmosphere, "The Silk Train Murder" is nonetheless a well-researched and lively story.

Gavin Pruitt, the hero of "Slipknot" (Kearney Street, 247 pp., $14.95 paperback original) is an unlikely combo plate of a hero — he's both a sheriff and a dedicated Grateful Dead fan. Bellingham resident Gary McKinney (himself a writer-musician combo plate) places his laid-back cop in a fictional county in Southwest Washington, investigating the murder of an ecologist.

Meanwhile, loggers and "greenback" environmentalists lock horns and Gavin also has to deal with his current lover, a sexy (and aggressive) ex-lover, a daughter, and a variety of rascals — some of whom are trying to scare the bejesus out of him. This is great fun, though the frequent references to Dead lyrics sometimes seem a little strained to me. (Then again, what do I know? I was never a serious Deadhead.)

Small-craft warning! The combination of cottage-industry crafts and murder is popular right now, with everyone from butchers and bakers to candlestick-makers getting into the amateur-sleuth act. Seattle writer Cricket McRae's cheerful "Lye in Wait" (Midnight Ink, 324 pp., $12.95 paperback original) is a good example.

Sophie Mae Reynolds, who runs a home-based business in Seattle creating beauty products, finds a neighbor dead in her workshop. He's Walter, the local handyman, and he's ingested lye. True, Walter was once overheard contemplating suicide — but he's an unlikely candidate for that act, having just come into some money and gotten engaged. What's going on?

Kevin Wignall's "Who is Conrad Hirst?" (Simon & Schuster, 227 pp., $14 paperback original) is an unconventional yarn from a young British writer. Conrad is a professional hit man who wants out of the business. To succeed, he figures, he has to execute the four people who know what he does for a living.

But things get complicated — after Conrad kills the first, the others start turning up dead by other means. And is he killing the right people? The book drags a bit whenever Conrad gets all pensive on us, agonizing over searching for his real self, but when Wignall sticks to his strengths — lean storytelling and sharp characterizations — he's right on target.

"A Christmas Beginning" (Ballantine, 190 pp., $17.95) is the latest in Anne Perry's brief and always welcome seasonal mysteries. Superintendent Runcorn, a moody London policeman of the Victorian age, is vacationing alone on a remote Welsh island. But when the free-spirited sister of the local vicar is murdered, Runcorn's holiday is over.

Perry's use of period detail is, as always, strong and evocative. She also uses her tale to explore a number of intriguing themes — notably how Runcorn's working-class attitude thoroughly annoys the local gentry.

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