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THRILLERS

THE KILLING HOUR, by Lisa Gardner (Bantam, $23.95, 325 pp)

New Agent Kimberly Quincy is a driven young woman. Halfway through the FBI training course at Quantico, Va., she is exhausted by a combination of the rigorous physical training schedule she sets for herself and the emotional fallout of the murders of her mother and sister several years earlier, killings for which she blames herself since she invited the killer into their lives.

In Lisa Gardner's gripping novel, The Killing Hour, Kimberly's tendency to be a rebel and a loner has left her without friends, and that's fine with her. And she is rapidly alienating the FBI instructors who have her future in their hands, but she can't seem to stop herself.

It doesn't help when she leaves her group during a training exercise and, while wandering in the woods, finds the body of a young woman on the Quantico grounds that the FBI shares with the Marine Corps. The woman has been killed in the identical way as a series of young women in Georgia three years earlier, by a killer who kidnaps the women in pairs, murders one immediately, and leaves clues on and in her body that lead to the second woman.

In only one case did the Georgia Bureau of Investigation find the second woman in time to save her. Now the killer is in Virginia, and there is a second victim out there in mortal danger.

The killer strikes during vicious summer heat waves and always leaves the same ominous message: "Clock ticking _ planet dying _ animals weeping _ rivers screaming. Can't you hear it? Heat kills _ " Kimberly's supervisors forbid her to get involved. She's only a new agent, after all. While Kimberly won't admit it, the dead woman bears a physical resemblance to her dead sister, so how can she not get involved? In the process, she meets Mac, the frustrated GBI special agent who has been trying for four years to track down this serial killer.

Kimberly and Mac team up in a clandestine effort to find the second woman, fearing the FBI's plodding line of investigation will eat up the little time they have.

And then the bombshell falls. This time the killer has kidnapped four women and scattered the remaining three all over the broad face of Virginia with only a gallon of water each to keep them alive. The Killing Hour is a wickedly riveting novel which hides the identity of the killer long enough to keep the pages turning. My only caveat: I wish Gardner didn't use phrases like, "the front windshield." That stings.

LAST TO DIE, by James Grippando (HarperCollins, $23.95)

When we last encountered James Grippando's Miami criminal lawyer Jack Swyteck, a butchered body in his bathtub had pretty much erased his tenuous marriage. Jack is past that now and on to the less bizarre. Or so he thinks until his best friend, Theo Knight, a man Jack rescued from death row, asks him to represent his brother, Tatum.

Tatum has been named as one of the beneficiaries of a $46-million estate. That would be a nice thing except that Sally Fenning, the woman whose money is on the table, had only recently asked Tatum to kill her. Tatum, once a hit man, swears he didn't do it. The key to this story is Fenning's past, and her sense of irony. After her husband left her with a baby, an intruder broke into her house, stabbed her and murdered the child. Police never found the assailant. Eventually, Sally remarried money. But 18 months into the relationship she left her second husband with the $46-million.

So why would she want to die? And why are the only beneficiaries of her estate her evil ex-husband, his divorce lawyer, a reporter who hounded Fenning about doing a book about her daughter's death, the assistant state attorney who could never make a murder case, Tatum Knight and one anonymous beneficiary who is not in the room when the will is read? The answer is that the money will remain in a trust, and the last person alive gets it all. Hence the book's title, Last to Die.

This arrangement sets off predictable intrigue and mayhem, and it becomes clear quickly that most, if not all, of the beneficiaries will not live normal life spans. While you can see this fallout clearly, the fun is in watching it unfold. And don't be too sure that you've figured it out until you get to the final pages.

Unfortunately, the ending also contains a trick worthy of the master of trickery, Jeffrey Deaver. And that is not a compliment. I can't say too much more without giving it away, but it is tantamount to a mystery revealing in the final pages that the butler did it, when there has never been a butler in the story.

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

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