Crime fiction tends to focus on grim activities, but in these precarious times, turning to something light can be a welcome balm.

Alexander McCall Smith’s books — most famously his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series — use small, seemingly unimportant events as excuses for big-hearted, smart and slightly cracked characters to reflect on life, love and ethics.

“The Department of Sensitive Crimes” (Pantheon, 240 pp., $24.95) introduces a new series starring Ulf “the Wolf” Varg, who heads a team of police investigators in Malmo, Sweden. In this case, “sensitive crimes” are those considered too quirky or minor for the resources of more conventional cops.

Three unrelated events attract the attention of Varg’s team: Why was a market vendor stabbed in the back of the knee? How can it be that a young woman’s imaginary boyfriend is actually missing? And what’s with the werewolf purportedly terrorizing a luxury resort?

The cops looking into these events are appealingly goofy. Varg frets about growing older, and he and Anna Bengsdotter, who is married, secretly pine for each other. Erik Nykvist dreams only of retirement and talks about nothing but fishing. Carl Holgersson devotedly does the team’s heavy lifting, allowing the others to indulge their eccentricities.

Considering the alarmingly prolific McCall Smith’s track record, it’s a safe bet that sequels will soon be on their way. Thank goodness.


There’s no question of whodunit in “Bluff” (Poisoned Pen, 264 pp., $26.99), Jane Stanton Hitchcock’s witty revenge story. Right off the bat, Maud Warner, a New York socialite of a certain age, walks with impeccable style into the Four Seasons, opens fire on two guys at lunch, and saunters out.

Sun Sutherland, a jillionaire financier, dies. But was Burt Sklar, “accountant to the stars,” the real target? After all, Maud has been loudly claiming for years that Sklar embezzled her family fortune.

(The author knows whereof she speaks: She’s a socialite whose family story bears an uncanny resemblance to Maud’s.)

The rest of the book finds cheerful, whip-smart Maud on the run from her scandalized high-society friends and, of course, the law. Maud, it turns out, is way ahead of them all. A world-class poker player, she has aces up her sleeve, a steely game face, and a grand plan that is revealed only at her leisure. Underestimate Maud at your peril.