On the day after Christmas this reviewer gives to you: six great reads, five cruel crimes, four frantic females, three Russian spies, two British detectives and a murder in Minneapolis. "THE CRUEL EVER AFTER"

by Ellen Hart (Minotaur, 336 pages, $25.99)

Chester Garrity wakes propped against a hot tub outside a ransacked house in Minneapolis. Chester's hangover is the least of his problems. The homeowner has been murdered. Chester, restaurateur Jane Lawless' ex-husband, hopes the man's murder "had nothing to do with the statue" looted from a Baghdad museum. Chester is trying to sell the Winged Bull of Nimrud to Julia, with whom Jane has had a fling. By the time Jane asks her ex-husband "What the hell have you got me mixed up in?" Jane is truly mixed. One of the strengths of Hart's acclaimed series (this is the 18th book) is that the rich details about food, family and place never undermine the swift pacing of her plots. Readers feel so much a part of Jane's world that we'd fight for a table at the Lyme House Restaurant in Minneapolis just for a taste of Jane's corned beef and cabbage.


by Alison Bruce (Soho Press, 288 pages, $25)

It's no surprise that Kimberly Guyver knows a cemetery in Cambridge "better than anywhere else," because the past haunts her. When the news reports that a car has been pulled from "the same stretch of the Mediterranean" that she'd seen "swallow it," Kimberly knows her past has finally caught her. Kimberly smells "change is in the air and it smelt sour." D.C. Gary Goodhew, the main character in the second book in this British series, smells it too. Goodhew displays many of the characteristics his medieval name suggests. He's diligent, dependable, humble and honest. Being a detective is a calling, the role of knight-errant suiting him since childhood. When Kimberly's toddler son, Riley, disappears, Goodhew tilts his sword, charging ahead. When you read as many mysteries as I do, it's easy to see characters in the image of detectives past. At first, Goodhew reminded me of his literary counterpart in another university town, Inspector Morse, but I quickly realized Goodhew stands alone. I'm looking forward to more of his investigations.


by Bernhard Schlink (Vintage Crime, 246 pages, $15.95)

A Gordian knot is one tied so tightly it's impossible to loosen. According to myth, whoever could untie the Gordian knot would rule Asia. Many tried and failed. Then Alexander the Great drew his sword and cut the knot. In this clever literary noir novel, Schlink, the author of "The Reader," ties his main character, Georg Polger, up in a Gordian knot -- a series of events forcing Georg, in the end, to take out his sword. Georg is eking out a living as a translator of technical manuals in a small town in France. He "hasn't accomplished much in his life," but he's proud that he's never done anything he didn't want to do. Georg's philosophy is that "when dealing with those whose behavior is so powerful that one can only react, insanity is better than submission." Which, in a way, makes Georg the perfect sap. When he's hired to translate plans for military helicopters and his new girlfriend, Françoise, copies the plans for Russian spies, Georg decides it's all just "a matter of putting the money and the morals in relation to each other." Pretty soon Georg is all tied up.


by Peter James (Minotaur, 560 pages, $25.99)

It's been a decade since Brighton's Detective Superintendent Roy Grace "has felt this good on New Year's Day." Finally accepting his wife's mysterious disappearance years ago, Grace has a new love, a baby on the way and "his irascible boss" is gone. Life is good and then suddenly it's not. His peace cracks when a woman is raped in circumstances similar to a series of rapes and murders in 1997. The complex narrative shifts between the 1997 crimes and similar crimes in the present, with Grace active in both investigations. This is a violent, raw and utterly riveting police procedural from one of the UK's most renowned crime writers. Dense in its detail about police work, the novel takes a commitment, but Grace is a complicated, compelling character. If you're missing Rebus, time you met Grace.


by William C. Whitbeck (The Permanent Press, 272 pages, $28)

In 1945, the Detroit Free Press won a Pulitzer Prize for its series covering the corruption permeating the politics in Lansing, Mich. The real events of the post-war period are the backdrop for the fictional murder of a corrupt state senator. The author is the Chief Judge of the Michigan Court of Appeals, and his take on the period is authentic and appealing. The novel opens and closes with a startling confession (don't skip to the end). In between, the narrator, disabled World War II vet Charlie Cahill, slogs his way through a mire of corruption, all the while knowing he had a hand in the senator's murder.


by Allison Leotta (Touchstone, $25.99, 277 pages)

The balance between romance and suspense can be difficult to sustain in a mystery. In this debut novel, Leotta smoothly blends both into an engaging legal thriller that's far better than anything I've read from Grisham or the like. The sad statistic cited, that more than 80 percent of victims of domestic violence stay with their partners, shapes the novel's heart. Anna Curtis prosecutes domestic abuse for the U.S. Attorney's office in Washington, D.C. (the author is a lawyer with the U.S. Attorney's office). Anna is smart and sexy, but not too savvy and a little naïve. When her first client is murdered, Anna has to face her own violent past -- the choices she made then and how they're influencing the ones she's making now.

Carole E. Barrowman teaches at Alverno College in Milwaukee, and tweets about mysteries under BarrowmanCrime.