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VLS Beach Reads: Detectives, drugs, denim, and an unusually high number of birds

 Seven Steps for Highly Effective Beach Readers

1. INHERIT incomprehensibly vast fortune from heretofore unknown eccentric spinster aunt.

2. INVEST said heaps of the green stuff in volatile biotech stock.

illustration: Anthony Freda

3. INCREASE initial investment sevenfold. (This may take a couple days.)

4. IMPRESS neighbors by snapping up all land between you and closest available waterfront. Fill area with sand.

5. IMBIBE scandalously colored cocktail.

6. REPEAT # 4.

7. INAUGURATE your newfound dominion by buying and reading all the titles below. And above all—relax! ED PARK

Edited by Tim McLoughlin
Akashic, 366 pp., $15.95
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The hard-boiled crime story's been looking like a $60 hooker at a statesman's ball. Fortunately, Brooklyn Noir's contributors are aware of their surroundings, literal and literary. Set in 19 different neighborhoods in the 718 (and . . . Galway?), the stories display equal parts pre-gentrification nostalgia (for mom-and-pop stores, defunct watering holes, the Dodgers) and self-awareness without the smug aftertaste. In Pete Hamill's "The Book Signing," an L.A.-based writer returns to his native Park Slope and, gratefully, discovers violence beneath its bourgeois exterior; Pearl Abraham exposes a neglected subgenre in "Hasidic Noir"; and Norman Kelley pegs gangsta rap as a latter-day incarnation of noir in his satirical "The Code." Be cool: This pulp's got enough juice to keep those margaritas coming. DARREN REIDY

By David Bezmozgis
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 147 pp., $18
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Summer lit tends to be about loss, though it's supposed to be the season of sweetness and sun. Enter the title story of Bezmozgis's promising debut. Natasha is a weary nymphet obliged to leave Russia when her mother marries the dumpy uncle of our stoned 16-year-old narrator, high on his first taste of philosophy and hash, both courtesy of his charismatic dealer. Bezmozgis's 1980s Toronto sounds a lot like America, a volatile mix of immigrants, ambition, kindness, and ice-cold greed. BENJAMIN STRONG

By Jerry Stahl
Bloomsbury, 288 pp., $23.95
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In 1921, 300-pound vaudeville star Fatty Arbuckle was accused of raping a young starlet with a champagne bottle. There is something inherently rewarding, if not addictive, about watching the rich get dragged down to ankle level, and the Arbuckle scandal is often associated with the blossoming of the tabloid: Fatty became the first celebrity to provide the public with a decent view of his nosedive. I, Fatty, Jerry Stahl's first-person history of the actor, combines the juice of the tabloid story with Stahl's particular brand of drug-drenched self-effacement. That the "I" making the confessions happens to have earned his fame by jumping off roofs, walking into walls, and plunging his face into whipped-custard pies barely detracts from the drama of the actor's fall from grace. RACHEL AVIV

By Arturo Pérez-Reverte
Translated by Andrew Hurley
Putnam, 448 pp., $25.95
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From its brilliant opening sentence, The Queen of the South grabs you by the throat and won't let go: Teresa Mendoza wakes up one morning to find that her drug-smuggling boyfriend has been murdered—and she's next. Pérez-Reverte's addictive thriller follows the Mexican twentysomething heroine as she eludes the Sinaloa cartel and international law enforcement in exotic locales, and as she metamorphoses into the contraband queenpin of the Mediterranean. The author, a journalist turned Spanish Royal Academician, also weaves in a parallel plot, that of an ex-reporter investigating Teresa's life story years later. Pérez-Reverte's prose hums with the music of Mexican narco-corridos, songs of tragic loves, lawless adventures, and deadly betrayals. JORGE MORALES

By Jacqueline Winspear
Soho, 311 pp., $25
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Not since P.D. James's Cordelia Gray has a female detective appeared quite as suitable as Jacqueline Winspear's smartly suited Maisie Dobbs. Set in inter-war London, Winspear's novels follow "M. Dobbs, Psychologist and Investigator," a onetime tweeny (with stints as a Cambridge student and battlefield nurse) who now runs a successful detection agency. Birds finds Maisie in pursuit of a wealthy businessman's missing daughter. Like her heroine, Winspear's prose is brisk and efficient, evincing little patience for frippery. Nevertheless, she does occasionally indulge in historical detail, discussing the fashion of the kick-pleated skirt or the five-step method for starting an MG motorcar. While Maisie may "work hard at her own isolation," she could develop quite a following. ALEXIS SOLOSKI

illustration: Anthony Freda
By Ian Caldwell & Dustin Thomason
The Dial Press, 372 pp., $24
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Methadone for those in Da Vinci Code withdrawal, Caldwell and Thomason's The Rule of Four similarly teases eurekas from real-world enigmas. Instead of staring at the Mona Lisa, the puzzle-piercing Princetonians deconstruct the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a 500-year-old book dense with allegory, acrostics, and nightmare. Like Lev Grossman's Codex, Rule is as careful with language as it is in deploying lit-wonk thrills; it's also a near-anthropological look at some of Princeton's odder traditions (Nude Olympics, R.I.P.). Part of the fun is watching the treacherous text of the Hypnerotomachia ("the Struggle for Love in a Dream") yield to a singularly tantalizing solution; the secret pleasure here is the way the authors, lifelong friends, have imagined themselves into their novel, a rue-soaked tale of double lives and double meanings. E.P.

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