Lifeless by Mark Billingham Little, Brown, $188 Rage by Jonathan Kellerman Michael Joseph, $165 Faithless by Karin Slaughter Century, $195 Mark Billingham's publishers are banking on him - literally. Having dubbed him 'crime writing's new Mr Big', Little, Brown is spending $5.5 million to persuade the rest of the world and to take him and his latest thriller Lifeless 'to the very top'. 'Mr Big' is plastered on public transport from his home base in Britain, and around the world to Australia. So is he worth it? Lifeless is a classy piece of crime writing, there's no doubt about that. In the five books since he began his series featuring D.I. Tom Thorne with Sleepyhead in 2001, Billingham has successfully made the unlikely transition from stand-up comedian and children's drama writer to thriller writer. This time Thorne goes undercover with London's homeless, sleeping on London's streets as part of the hunt for the brutal killer of three homeless men. As he does so, he wrestles with his own demons: his career has taken a sharp dive following the death of his father, an Alzheimer's sufferer, in a fire which may have been deliberately lit. Consumed by guilt over his father's death, Thorne is not coping. To the colleagues who are also his friends, he takes to life on the streets a little too readily. In his acknowledgements Billingham pays tribute to the young street people who helped him understand their world. As a result, he portrays it with understanding but without being patronising. Those with little understanding of what drives people to live on the streets, the horrors they endure, the community they create and the friendships that arise out of such adversity - and surely that's most of us - will learn much from Lifeless. Yet Billingham imparts what he knows in the context of a gripping thriller, never preaching, drawing us into the two parallel worlds. Thorne, who makes friends on the streets - friends he knows he is deceiving and must leave when the police hunt ends - grows to understand that the line between the two is not as clear as he thought. 'Two pay cheques. A couple of months. That's all that separates a lot of us from sleeping in a doorway,' he realises. In the publishing world Billingham is, as one reviewer put it before Lifeless, 'just four books in'. Now make that five. Jonathan Kellerman has been pumping out the best-sellers, one a year, sometimes two, since he struck gold with When the Bough Breaks in 1985. He's more than 20 books in, virtually all best-sellers. If Billingham is Mr Big, what does that make Kellerman? Like Billingham, Kellerman wasn't always a crime writer. He began his working life as a clinical psychologist - and it shows. Applying his professional interest in what makes human beings tick to his fiction has resulted in more than 20 best-selling thrillers, most forming part of his long-running Alex Delaware series, a cut above many of their ilk and as much about the why-dunnit of crime as the who-dunnit. Kellerman, who specialised in the treatment of children, has written three psychological texts and there are echoes of his 1999 work Savage Spawn: Reflections on Violent Children in his latest Delaware, Rage. Dr Delaware, a Los Angeles clinical psychologist, uses his skills to help the police, most often his long-time friend and colleague Lieutenant Milo Sturgis, and the courts. Rage hinges on an eight-year-old case for which Delaware was called on to evaluate two teenage boys who led two-year-old Kristal Malley from a shopping mall to her death, battering her to death and dumping her body in a nearby bin. There are obvious parallels with the real-life, 1993 case of Jamie Bulger, which drew outrage when the two-year-old British child was led from a shopping centre and battered to death, his body dumped on nearby train tracks. His two attackers, 10 at the time, were released in 2001 after eight years in jail and relocated with new identities. Kellerman, with a professional interest in the issue, saw the fictional possibilities. Rage opens with Delaware being phoned, eight years after the murder of Malley, by one of her killers. He is newly released and desperate to talk. Delaware agrees, but the young killer is murdered before he can keep their appointment. Solving this new case inevitably means revisiting the past for Delaware and Sturgis, with the dead child's father the obvious suspect. But little is obvious in Kellerman's work and as the body count increases, so does the list of suspects. Kellerman has constructed a clever and absorbing story replete with his usual complement of complications, red herrings and dead ends, applying a light touch to tricky and potentially offensive subject matter. Like Billingham and Kellerman, Karin Slaughter is a series writer. Her Grant County thrillers, set in her home state of Georgia, have won fans worldwide for their strong, credible characters and clever plotting. Faithless is no exception. Her publishers saw fit to begin this edition with four pages of plaudits from reviewers and other writers, headed 'Praise for Karin Slaughter', rather than allowing Faithless to stand (or fall) on its merits - an off-putting and unnecessary tactic for a work that combines an intriguing storyline with complex relationships. The complexities involve not only the suspects, but key characters: police chief Jeffrey Tolliver, and paediatrician and part-time medical examiner Sara Linton, his ex-wife. Five years on the pair are a couple again, but their relationship is still troubled. Jeffrey's offsider, Detective Lena Adams, has apparently overcome a drinking problem and a vicious rape, only to become the victim of a violent partner who will kill her if he discovers she has had an abortion. And there is Sara's sister Tessa, who was also attacked, and who has become involved with the religious cult which is to be the focus of a murder investigation. This is a multi-strand story that works on several levels. It's ironic that the numerous bouquets on those initial pages focus on how chilling, how gripping, how terrifying were Slaughter's first four best-sellers. Faithless moves at a gentler pace, no less compelling for that, but working as a gradual unfolding of events and motives, an exploration of relationships. This is first-class writing from one who knows many readers want more than a simple police procedural from contemporary crime fiction.