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Covere of "The Llama of Death," by Betty Webb. Poisoned Pen Press.

The qualities of an investigator usually determine the outcome of a case, at least in mystery fiction. Their specialized knowledge gives them -- and us -- insight while their peculiar prejudices limit their understanding.

The protagonists in today's books use their unique perspectives to peel back the layers of mystery.

"Bad Blood" by Dana Stabenow (Minotaur, $25.99, 384 pages). Kate Shugak, Alaska's investigator extraordinaire, gets caught up in a blood feud between two native villages, only one of which is thriving.

A death in one village is avenged against the other, and Sgt. Jim Chopin has little luck in getting anyone to break the code of silence. More deaths follow. The situation is complicated -- and made infinitely more dangerous -- by a Romeo-and-Juliet romance. Neither village is likely to condone one of its own taking up with one of the "enemy."

Other factors involve the new flying pastor and the controversial gold mine that has brought work, as well as environmental threats, to local residents and their way of life.

"Bad Blood" is a page-turner, with action on several fronts. As always, Alaska itself is a significant character in Stabenow's universe -- huge, surprising and dangerous.

"Proof of Guilt" by Charles Todd (William Morrow, $25.99, 343 pages). This is the 15th installment of the mostly excellent Ian Rutledge series, and I am beginning to wonder if enough is enough.

Rutledge, an inspector at Scotland Yard, came out of World War I emotionally damaged, haunted by an action he was forced to take on the battlefield. All these stories have been multi-layered, with both a mystery to solve and personal demons to placate.


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His latest case starts with an unidentified body and leads to a family-run wine business whose complex roots may have reached into the present with murderous intent. Rutledge's job is complicated as well by a new boss, who has his own ideas of who is guilty.

The story is as carefully plotted as usual, but most of the characters seemed flat. About halfway through I began to wonder if I cared who did what to whom. That's not a good sign.

"The Llama of Death" by Betty Webb (Poisoned Pen Press, $24.95, 258 pages). Zookeeper Teddy Bentley has more to worry about than the behavior of Alejandro, the llama at a Renaissance fair in the Monterey Bay area.

Particularly when the owner of a local wedding chapel turns up dead at Alejandro's feet. But the camelid didn't do it, ... and soon Teddy's irritating socialite mother is accused of the crime.

In attempting to free her mother, Teddy discovers a secret about the victim, as well as others in the community who might have wanted him dead.

The book weaves together two strands, not always successfully. All the stuff about the zoo and the animals is fascinating. The characters, many of them one-note deep, not so much.

"Speaking From Among the Bones" by Alan Bradley (Delacorte Press, $24, 378 pages). The delightful and entertaining Flavia de Luce is back, meddling in murder and chemistry.

The motherless Flavia, who lives with her father and two older sisters on a rundown estate in post-World War II England, is on hand when the body of the church organist is found in the crypt of a saint buried 500 years before.

Flavia, who is irrepressible and smart, often manages to get in the way of the authorities. She tries to keep her investigations from her father, who is rather detached, but worried about losing the estate. The sisters have their own agendas here; the oldest, at 18, is busy collecting suitors.

It's all complicated and lots of fun. My only quibble is that the solution, once we get there, is a tad contrived. Still, it's always good news to learn that Flavia hasn't blown the place up with her sophisticated chemistry lab.

Roberta Alexander is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her "It's a Mystery" column is published here monthly. Contact her at ralex711@yahoo.com.