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THRILLERS

THE EMPTY CHAIR, by Jeffrey Deaver, Simon & Schuster, $25.

After making only a cameo appearance in Jeffrey Deaver's last book, The Devil's Teardrop, quadriplegic criminologist Lincoln Rhyme is back full bore in The Empty Chair, an important reference to a psychology tactic in which a reticent patient talks to an empty chair as if someone critical in his or her life were sitting there listening. It is an overly long and overly complex thriller which is, for all that, difficult to set aside.

Rhyme has left his native New York for North Carolina where he hopes an experimental surgical procedure might help his condition, though he knows it could kill him. But he and his partner, Amelia Sachs, are quickly caught up in a case in the creepy backwater town of Avery, N.C., a community apparently devoid of children. A high school hero has been killed and two young women kidnapped, apparently hauled away into the swampy countryside by a homicidal teenager, Garrett Hanlon, known to the locals as "Insect Boy."

It is a race against time to find the women before they are killed. The book is filled with marvelously descriptive scenes of foot-chases through bogs and fields, of hide-and-seek, of passion and evil and double-cross. Hanlon is captured, due to some mighty deduction by the great Lincoln Rhyme, about halfway through the book, and it would be folly to disclose why that is. Suffice it to say that all is not as it seems in the little town of Avery, N.C., a place where, it seems, no one is to be trusted.

Deaver has minimized the cheats, the red herrings he has used in the past, and The Empty Chair is better for it.

PLACES IN THE DARK, by Thomas H. Cook, Bantam, $23.95.

Thomas H. Cook is an author who doesn't jolt readers as much as he hypnotizes them. His new thriller, Places in the Dark, is no exception. On the surface, this story about two brothers who fall in love with the same woman is not new, but the way they fall in love and the very nature of the woman raises the book far above the basic theme.

When Dora March appears in Port Alma, Maine, William Chase falls for her immediately. But that is to be expected. William is a slave to his heart, unlike his older brother Cal, the practical one. At first Cal finds Dora a deeply suspicious woman. He wishes William would turn his back on her. He becomes convinced she has a dark, perhaps even an evil side. Dora can sense things about people in an abnormal way, and she is always right. Cal suspects there is something very ominous in her background. He becomes certain of it when, watching her from hiding one night, she slips off her robe to reveal deep knife scars on her back.

There is something ominous about Dora, to be sure. But it isn't what Cal suspects, and it isn't what most readers will suspect, either.

Places in the Dark is elegantly written, conveying a gentle, almost English feel for character development. It belongs on your summer reading list.

IN HER DEFENSE, by Stephen Horn, HarperCollins, $25.

Stephen Horn's debut novel, In Her Defense, ponders the question: Why would a lawyer try to free a murder defendant who admits she did the deed? Horn renders the answer crisply and with the finesse of a much more experienced writer.

Washington, D.C. attorney Frank O'Connell has thrown over his cushy family law firm for the life of a public defender. He doesn't want anything handed to him; he wants to earn it. He gets a chance when he winds up defending socialite Ashley Bronson for the murder of Cabinet member Raymond Garvey.

Bronson says she killed Garvey because he hounded her father to suicide, but the truth lies deeper than that, as truths in fiction often do. Bronson's father's journal, the only shred of evidence O'Connell has to work with, leads him on a dangerous trip through history, where more is at stake than the guilt or innocence of a client.

While some of his themes are familiar, Horn's deft plotting and skillful writing make everything seem fresh.

Jean Heller is the author of the mystery-thrillers, Handyman and Maximum Impact.

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