While a devious and tricky plot can make a mystery shine, the real appeal for me is the characters: Are they believable? Do I want to spend a few hours in their company watching them complicate, or perhaps simplify, their lives? This month's authors all succeed in creating characters that bounce right off the page.

  • "The Amazing Harvey" by Don Passman (Minotaur, $25.99, 336 pages) Substitute teacher Harvey Kendall is trying to make it as a professional magician. He's a nice guy whose world collapses when he becomes the prime suspect in the murder of a young woman. His DNA is found on her body ... and he has never met the victim, much less killed her.

    He doesn't have much in the way of friends or resources. But he has a magician's eye and the knowledge that things are not always what they seem. After all, his stock-in-trade is creating illusions. He finds a lawyer but also investigates on his own.

    It always comes back to: How did his DNA get to the murder scene?

    Harvey's a poor schnook, but determined. As a protagonist, he's entertaining and believable; readers will find it easy to root for him. The magicians' world is interesting, and the story moves briskly, delivering on its promise.

  • "Moving Target" by J.A. Jance (Simon & Schuster, $23.99, 320 pages) Ali Reynolds is not the most engaging of Jance's protagonists, but in this book she comes into her own. She goes to England with Leland Brooks, her butler and friend, to confront his long-estranged family and starts looking into the death of Brooks' father decades earlier.

    But the main action is back in the U.S., where B. Simpson, Ali's fiancé and a computer expert, is drawn into the investigation into the assault on a young incarcerated hacker in which the young man is severely burned. Happily, Simpson is assisted by one of the great characters from this series, Sister Anselm, the patient advocate I'd like nearby if I land in the hospital.

    The story, on two continents, is complicated and interesting, but the best thing is the characters, rich and deep and believable.

  • "An Old Betrayal" by Charles Finch (Minotaur, $24.99, 294 pages) The complex and interesting Charles Lenox is back in a story that has royal ramifications. (In 1875 London, that means Queen Victoria.) Charles, still drawn to detecting despite his busy schedule in Parliament, does a favor for a friend and gets drawn into a maze of shifting identities. And when someone is murdered, Charles and his friend are still trying to figure out who's who ... and what does he want.

    There is a fair amount about Charles' home life, his close relationship with his wife and his continuing astonishment at the growth of his small daughter.

    While the case itself is complex and challenging, the real pleasure of this book is Charles himself, a man of privilege and education still trying to figure out what he wants out of life.

  • "Murder and Marinara" by Rosie Genova (Obsidian, $7.99, 326 pages) This new Italian Kitchen Mystery series is a variant of the "perky young protagonist moves and gets involved with murder" subgenre. It is also several slices above the usual salami.

    Victoria Rienzi takes a break from writing a popular mystery series featuring a Hercule Poirot-ish hero and moves back to her New Jersey hometown and her family's restaurant, Casa Lido, run by her indomitable grandmother. The Jersey Shore town is abuzz over the news that a reality series may be filmed there.

    Many -- including the Rienzis -- are opposed. So when the show's producer dies in the restaurant, possibly of food poisoning, the family is in danger of losing its livelihood. The prime suspect is Victoria's former boyfriend, the hunky Tim.

    The Jersey tone is captured very well here, and the family and assorted friends sound like real people. Victoria keeps discovering that a real murder case doesn't flow as easily as the ones she writes. There's also a hint of romance, just enough to suggest it will come up in future books in the series.

    Roberta Alexander is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Reach her at ralex711@yahoo.com