Just like clockwork, here's another perfectly balanced whizbang of a toy from Donald E. Westlake, mad-genius emeritus of the caper novel...

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Just like clockwork, here’s another perfectly balanced whizbang of a toy from Donald E. Westlake, mad-genius emeritus of the caper novel. “Watch Your Back!” (Mysterious Press, 310 pp., $24.95) is chock-full of Westlake trademarks: genial affection for his characters, an ear for expansive dialogue and casually brilliant plotcraft. John Dortmunder and his thieving crew have targeted the plush apartment of a Manhattan zillionaire. Meanwhile, the eternally gloomy Dortmunder needs to save a beloved tavern, long the site of his planning sessions, that’s fallen into the clutches of rapacious and not very bright mobsters. As might be expected, high jinks ensue.

Oregon-coast resident and prolific novelist Kris Nelscott writes books about unofficial private eye Smokey Dalton that bear a superficial resemblance to Walter Mosley’s celebrated Easy Rawlins books. That is, the hero/narrator is a black, unlicensed gumshoe who moves through key periods in America’s racial history as the series progresses. There, however, the resemblance ends; Nelscott has her own, very distinct voice, and her series creates its own deeply satisfying pleasures and cogent points.

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In “War at Home” (St. Martin’s Minotaur, 336 pp., $24.95) the series’ chronology has progressed to the volatile summer of ’69, and Dalton’s holed up in Chicago, on the run from authorities for past issues. A friend begs him to head east and look for her son, a gifted student at Yale who’s suddenly disappeared. Accompanied by his young son and a teenage friend, Dalton tracks the missing boy through a series of dispiriting hippie crash pads and scary Black Power strongholds, discovering along the way that the missing student’s psyche had some hidden and not very savory depths. Nelscott excels at setting a scene, and her evocation of student unrest during that unsettled time is sharp and memorable.

Coming Up

Joseph Kanon

The author of “Alibi,” will appear at 5 p.m. April 20 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600; www.elliottbaybook.com).

The French have an honored tradition in the policier, detective stories with world-weary, droll, and ineffably French characters. An Algerian living in France, Yasmina Khadra, has written a policier with a pungent North African twist in “Double Blank” (Toby Crime, 140 pp., $12.95 paperback original). (The pseudonymous author is a former Algerian army officer.) This slim and swift story is told by Inspector Llob, whose investigation into the violent death of a shady diplomat cuts across several layers of life in Algiers, from sleazy lowlifes to equally sleazy billionaires.

Joseph Kanon is a specialist in superior historical thrillers (“Los Alamos,” “The Good German”). His new book, “Alibi” (Holt, 404 pp., $26), has an irresistible setting — Venice, just after World War II — and an interesting protagonist, a former war-crimes investigator named Adam Miller. When Miller, an American, visits his socialite mother in Venice, he falls in love with a Jewish camp survivor, Claudia Grassini. But Claudia plants suspicion in Adam about his mother’s fiancé, an elegant Venetian doctor. Was he a Nazi collaborator?

“Alibi” wants to be both a gorgeous love story and a taut espionage thriller, and Kanon has a little trouble reconciling the two tonal palettes; but overall the book’s a great success — moody, deeply atmospheric, and as labyrinthine as the streets of Venice.

Well-Deserved Honors Department: Popular Internet site Mystery Ink has announced its 2005 Gumshoe Award winners. Among them: January Magazine’s Crime Fiction Section, masterminded by Seattle’s very own J. Kingston Pierce. Bravo, Jeff!

Seattle writer Adam Woog’s column

on mystery and crime fiction

appears on the second Sunday

of the month in The Seattle Times.