Protagonists who reach out and grab you by the arm, insisting you pay attention to them, make for inviting stories. This is true whether the story is a police procedural, a historical mystery or a contemporary tale. A strong character not only keeps you interested, but also leaves you eager to see his or her next adventure.
"Holy Smoke" by Frederick Ramsay (Poisoned Pen Press, $24.95, 260 pages). To be the chief rabbi in Jerusalem 2000-plus years ago was not an easy job. Gamaliel must cope with the heavy hand of the Roman Empire, officials who urge him to not make waves, his own sense of how to follow Jewish law -- and now a murdered man in the forbidden inner sanctum of the temple.
With the assistance of Loukas the physician, Gamaliel soon discovers wheels within wheels. The temple guards appear to have been compromised, and there are agents of other lands on the prowl, with secret agendas of their own.
There's also that annoying preacher from Galilee, whom Gamaliel shrugs off, though he so irritates the High Priest that he leans on Gamaliel to take some action.
The book gives us a good sense of the city and the culture, the state of medicine and the uneasy alliances that keep things together, more or less. Regrettably, there is a certain talkiness: Gamaliel explains his thinking to Loukas at great length, then does so again in the next chapter.
I'm amazed that Loukas doesn't slap him upside the head.
"Pigeon Pie Mystery" by Julia Stuart (Doubleday, $24.95, 313 pages). In this story, set in 1897 England, Stuart gets top marks for originality, quirkiness, charm and a nice puzzle.
Indian Princess Alexandrina, known as Mink, finds herself abandoned and poverty-stricken when her father, the deposed maharaja, dies under scandalous circumstances. Reduced to having only one servant, the outspoken Pooki (she of the big feet), Mink is offered a grace-and-favor home by Queen Victoria. Most of these homes are filled with impoverished or widowed members of the upper classes.
At a residents' gathering, the obnoxious Maj. Gen. Bagshot eats some pigeon pie (made by Pooki) and keels over dead.
In order to keep her servant away from the hangman's noose, the enterprising Mink investigates. Her methods are her own -- an amalgam of smarts, a strong sense of privilege and a willingness to listen to everyone else.
The book is a lot of fun, enlivened by a debate between a doctor and a homeopath, and the most laugh-out-loud description of a coroner's court hearing that I've ever read.
"Notorious Nineteen" by Janet Evanovich (Bantam Books, $28, 312 pages). When Evanovich started the Stephanie Plum series, she had a lock on a mix of crime and lunatic humor. Over time, the humor seemed forced, and I lost interest.
But now Evanovich is back in form, and I am glad to see it.
The Trenton bond agent is looking for a guy who went missing from a hospital ward -- after embezzling millions from his employer.
It's not her only case; she's also looking for one guy trying to rescue a wooden Tiki and another one who is a nudist. As usual, a couple of cars get blown up. This is all standard Plum territory, along with the stud boyfriend, the ultra-stud sometime colleague and the ex-hooker pal.
There's really no way to sum this up in a tidy package. Let's just say there is some serious crime involved, but it doesn't get in the way of the fun.
"Deadly Stakes" by J.A. Jance (Touchstone Books, 304 pages, $25.99). The prolific Jance has several strong series going. This book features Ali Reynolds, the Arizona-based ex-newscaster who puts her extensive police training to good use.
Ali has known hard times, although she is now well-off. She has a strong sense of social justice and a penchant for getting involved in things that often turn dangerous.
When she agrees to help a couple jailed for the murder of the man's gold-digging ex-wife, she learns that the prosecution wants a quick resolution, which Ali thinks might not be the right one.
There's lots of dysfunctional, not to say criminally dangerous, family stuff going on. There's also a high school student with a perilous secret, and some computer geeks who are willing to break the law to save a life.
From the reader's point of view, there's plenty of action, multiple storylines that never get tangled and a kind of addictive quality that makes it hard to read just one chapter at a time. I haven't liked all the books in this series, but this one is a terrific read.
Roberta Alexander is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her It's a Mystery column is published here monthly. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.