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Crime fiction newcomers are close to perfect

It's like asking which child is a mother's favorite, or whether a 1959 bottle of Henri Jayer Richebourg Grand Cru from Cote de Nuits is better than a 1971 Château Mouton Rothchild first-growth Petit Verdot.

So Lori Rader-Day's Little Pretty Things, released this month, and Lynne Raimondo's Dante's Dilemma, to be released Aug. 4, are equally difficult to rank as one greater than a great other one. These are two terrific stories written by two of crime fiction's most talented newcomers.

Every writer of fiction has a distinct narrative personality, and each has a primary focus on one of two essential things: artistic prose or powerful storytelling. Writers who can achieve both dizzying paragraphs and riveting plots are rare and often become rich and famous – think Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, Mark Twain, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy.

With Little Pretty Things and Dante's Dilemma, we have writers with a remarkable gift for storytelling. They write well, no question, but they have chosen to forego the clever turns of phrase, double entendres and nosebleed heights of wordsmithing so they might disappear altogether from their stories.

Little Pretty Things, a genius title to begin with, follows up on Rader-Day's bizarrely stunning debut I heartily reviewed here a year ago, The Black Hour, is about Juliet Townsend, a woman who cleans rooms in the fleabag Mid-Night Inn under a roaring interstate in a woebegone Midwest town too far from Chicago.

Juliet has proved herself a loser, a lifetime achievement first stenciled in lime on the running track 10 years ago at Midway High School, where she perpetually came in second to her best friend, track star Maddy Bell.

Juliet's friendship with Maddy was like that of a pilot fish and a shark, feeding on the leftovers and basking in the ferocity while feeling small, helpless and nearly worthless by a chasm of a few seconds at the finish.

Her loser status becomes etched in stone as she steals little pretty things left behind by hourly room-renters and road-weary families skimping across the heartland.

One night, Maddy arrives at the Mid-Night Inn in her flowing gabardine trench coat, Italian high-heels and bobbed and tinted hairdo, sporting a walnut-sized diamond ring, red nails and lips and a thousand-watt smile.

She bubbles over when she sees Juliet, rents a room for one night, and by the next morning, Juliet, clinging to her little pretty things, is the prime murder suspect when Maddy is found hanging from the rusted railing outside Room 14, right above the ice machine.

Dante's Dilemma by Lynne Raimondo is nearly as pithy as Little Pretty Things, not quite as sensational as her debut novel I reviewed last year, Dante's Wood, or as deliciously tricky as her next installment in the Angelotti series, Dante's Poison, but her protagonist Mark “Dante” Angelotti, a blind psychiatrist, is arguably the most charming and incisive crime-solver in anybody's book.

In Dante's Dilemma, Angelotti is hired by the prosecution to determine the sanity of the estranged wife and confessed murderer of a University of Chicago professor, whose body was found in one of the exhibits at “Scav,” the school's world-famous annual scavenger hunt, missing a vital piece of his anatomy.

Nothing about a Raimondo novel is quite as it seems, and Dante's Dilemma will keep you up long past a sensible bedtime.

If you've ever thought of writing a crime novel, you'd want to carefully study the books of Lori Rader-Day and Lynne Raimondo to learn how.

jeff@jeffmannix.com. Jeff Mannix is a local journalist and author.

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