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Thrillers for a Winter's Eve

A CROOKED MAN, by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (Simon & Schuster, 351 pp., $23). When Sen. Nick Schlafer goes fishing at his family camp, he pulls in a whopper: a ventriloquist's dummy that he initially mistakes for a little boy. Schlafer, the father of a young son, knows a death threat when he sees one. But discovering who's sent that threat isn't simple. Schlafer has just introduced legislation calling for the decriminalization of drugs, angering not only the president and fellow lawmakers, but also less law-abiding factions.

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Lehmann-Haupt, a daily book reviewer for the New York Times, shows both some unusual strengths and common weaknesses as a first-time novelist. Strongest are his eye for detail and his ear for dialogue. And his inside peeks at Washington at work and play are right on the mark. The weakest element is the fact that the reader can identify the villain almost immediately, robbing the ending of any suspense. Too, the reader is denied the satisfaction of a final confrontation between good and evil, as Lehmann-Haupt bewilderingly has that resolution occur offstage. Still, ''A Crooked Man'' has the undeniable gift of making one turn page after page simply to see what's next.

FAITH, by Len Deighton (HarperCollins, 337 pp., $24). If you haven't followed the riveting, poignant, and often hilarious adventures of British spy Bernard Samson since his debut in 1984's ''Berlin Game,'' you can still enjoy his latest appearance in ''Faith.'' But longtime fans will be doubly rewarded by the reappearance of the international cast of characters that Deighton has given them to love, hate, distrust, and worry about.

Now, in ''Faith,'' the first of a new trilogy, Samson is sent to Europe to pick up an East German officer who might be willing to defect to Britain. But just about everything that can go wrong does, and once again Samson is forced to clean up disasters, both personal and political, that others (often his own superiors) have created. As is always the case with Deighton, the result is a tightly plotted, impeccably cast novel that will have readers old and new looking forward to the next installments of Samson.

NEST OF VIPERS, by Linda Davies (Doubleday, 406 pp., $23). Sorry, John Grisham, but the age of legal thrillers might finally be on the wane if Linda Davies's exceptional new financial thriller is any indication.

Sarah Jensen is a rarity in the vicious, male-dominated world of currency traders in the city of London. Driven by secrets in her past, Sarah is a determined success in her own company. So when the governor of the Bank of England asks her to uncover corrupt trading at another company, she agrees: She thrives on risk. But what Sarah doesn't know will prove to be life-threatening: Behind the governor's request is Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, which wants the goods on a ruthless Mafia connection.

''Nest of Vipers'' is such a good read it's almost scary to realize it's Davies's first novel. A merchant banker herself, Davies describes intricate money matters so well that even readers with unbalanced checkbooks can comprehend. Her control over the plot, her touch with characters, and her sense of timing make this one you can bank on.

FREE TO TRADE, by Michael Ridpath (HarperCollins, 346 pp., $23). Like ''Nest of Vipers,'' this is a financial thriller set in London. Unfortunately, it isn't anywhere as strong as the Davies book.

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Paul Murray is content as a bond trader for a London house, and begins to hope that his friendship with colleague Debbie Chater might lead to love. But when she is found dead in the Thames, Paul doesn't agree with the police's verdict of accident or suicide; Paul had just seen her former lover accost her. His international search for the truth involves him in fraud, coverups and murder. Ridpath has some deft touches with character, but his pacing is frequently off, his dialogue stilted, and the solution is apparent too early in the book.

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