PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 December, 2007, 12:00am

The Bone Garden

by Tess Gerritsen

Bantam, HK$218

Third Degree

by Greg Iles

Hodder and Stoughton, HK$230


by Mandasue Heller

Hodder and Stoughton, HK$230

Tess Gerritsen has come a long way from the romantic fiction she began to write two decades ago while on maternity leave from her job as a doctor. Her taut thrillers, which draw on her medical background, have sold more than 15 million copies in 31 languages and her latest, The Bone Garden, looks set to continue that trend.

It's a complex and cleverly constructed story that draws on her interest in anthropology. The novel opens with a letter written in 1888 and signed OWH, signifying 19th-century physician and poet Oliver Wendell Homes (Gerritsen mixes history with her fiction).

The story then moves to the present, with divorcee Julia Hamill uncovering an ancient human skull as she digs in the garden of her new home, a 130-year-old house in Boston, Massachusetts.

She sets out to identify the nameless woman assisted by Henry Page, the elderly cousin of the woman from whom Julia bought her house and who has boxes of documents that were left in the house when the owner died.

The narrative switches to a Boston hospital in 1830 where women are dying after childbirth owing to lack of basic hygiene. There we meet Rose Connolly, whose sister is a victim of the poor standard of health care. While mourning her sister, Rose meets medical student Norris Marshall who works for a body snatcher to finance his studies. A serial killer is on the loose and Norris, wrongly suspected, teams up with Rose to find the real killer.

Gerritsen interweaves these narratives, skilfully tying them together across the centuries in a typically chilling conclusion.

Greg Iles is rapidly becoming one of America's more successful crime authors. His 24 Hours was filmed as Trapped, with Charlize Theron and Kevin Bacon, in 2002 and since then his star has risen - although he has confounded his fans by writing across genres.

A former musician, he grew up in Natchez, Mississippi (where he now lives) and has set some of his thrillers there, drawing on the political, racial and domestic tensions that simmer under the surface in many towns in the American south.

Third Degree is set in Athens Point, where a domestic drama unfolds in a day. It opens with special-needs teacher Laurel Shields discovering she is pregnant. However, she has been having an affair with the father of one of her pupils and the chances that her doctor husband Warren is the baby's father are slim.

Laurel goes to work stressed and when she returns home mid-morning with a migraine Warren is still there - and he has a gun.

Warren has found the farewell letter her lover wrote Laurel when he called off their relationship, unable to leave his wife because he would lose custody of his disabled son. But he didn't sign it and now Warren is determined to discover who wrote it, whatever it takes.

Iles builds the tension magnificently as the threat to the safety of Laurel and her unborn child grows.

A drama that initially appears to involve several dull characters in a domestic triangle develops new dimensions with each passing hour as details of the apparently perfect doctor husband's life are revealed.

Third Degree is a perceptive study of a marriage gone wrong and of the way couples can live together without truly knowing each other. Most of all, it is a gripping thriller.

Mandasue Heller is, like Iles, a former musician but after publishing seven books it is as a writer that she has gained a reputation.

Heller, from a tough part of Manchester, has said she began writing as a way of coming to terms with a claw hammer attack she suffered as a young mother while sleeping with her son.

That kind of mindless violence features in her work; not gratuitously, but as an integral part of her gritty narratives.

Shafted has its underworld connections but centres around the glitzy, superficial world of television celebrity, where careers can fold like a house of cards. It is written with a breezy and entertaining touch.

Larry Logan, handsome young host of Star Struck, has the world - and an endless supply of willing women - at his fingertips. But Larry likes a drink and after too much alcohol and an indiscretion with an ardent young fan he is summarily dumped from his show. The transition from celebrity to alcoholic loser is swift.

Larry's second chance comes when he agrees to host a fake game show to be run in conjunction with the police - a sting to snare criminals on the run who will be lured in to take part by the offer of big prizes.

But he is playing a dangerous game and when he persuades criminal Dex Lewis to participate and Dex discovers he has bought a one-way ticket to jail, he vows to get even.

Larry is back on the A-list: the publicity that came with Dex's arrest leads to his own prime-time show and he abandons his womanising ways to spend time with his apparently publicity-shy girlfriend, Stephanie.

But is it all too good to be true? Larry is about to find out.

Shafted is far-fetched, superficial and not one of Heller's best. It pushes the boundaries of the crime fiction genre and will probably be a disappointment to many of her loyal readers. But she tells her story well and this is a light, enjoyable read.