1. THE DA VINCI CODE - Dan Brown
Plot: A curator at the Louvre is murdered, but before he dies leaves clues that send his granddaughter (a police cryptologist) and his colleague (a Harvard professor) on a search for the killer.
Gist: This goddess-worshipping conspiracy tale is still No. 1 with its weird theories of biblical interpretation and a profane premise: that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and produced a daughter.
2. SKINNY DIP - Carl Hiaasen
Plot: A promiscuous biologist, who's supposed to be monitoring pollution in the Everglades, throws his wife off a cruise ship when he thinks she's found out he is faking the tests. He then suffers the consequences.
Gist: Skinny Dip, heavy on sex and violence, also features fast action, crisp (often foul) dialogue, and unusual characters. The most endearing is a crook with a pain problem that he remedies by stealing medicinal patches off the backs of cancer patients. One patient helps him see that he can change.
3. FIVE PEOPLE YOU MEET IN HEAVEN - Mitch Albom
Plot: An old man dies and in heaven meets five people whose lives were intertwined with his.
Gist: The bestselling author of Tuesdays with Morrie has a knack for description, but his fable about what happens after death flows poorly and drips with clichés. Aphorisms like "in heaven you get to make sense of your yesterdays" compete with Jonathan Livingston Seagull's wisdom.
4. RULE OF FOUR - Ian Caldwell, Dustin Thomason
Plot: Two brilliant Princeton students unlock the secrets of the Hypnerotomachia, a Renaissance manuscript that has bewitched scholars for centuries, and unleash a killer.
Gist: The Rule of Four is both a mystery and a coming-of-age novel, with the reader thrust into a strange academic world, where books are more important than people. The narrator, Tom, is torn between solving the mysteries of the manuscript and meeting the demands of a budding (sexual) relationship.
5. R IS FOR RICOCHET - Sue Grafton
Plot: Kinsey Milhone is hired to pick up from prison a wealthy man's daughter who has served time for embezzlement. The case gets complicated when Kinsey learns that her crime was part of a larger money-laundering scheme.
Gist: It's amazing that Sue Grafton still has any plots left after writing 18 Kinsey Milhone novels. Time doesn't change much in Kinsey's world-she's still in the '80s, before the era of cell phones and "safe sex"-and some of the characters and plot lines are showing their age.
In the spotlight
New books in two detective series featuring female protagonists came out recently. Kathy Reichs's Tempe Brennan, a forensic anthropologist, appeared in Monday Mourning (Scribner, 2004), and Lisa Scottoline's Mary DiNunzio, a young Philadelphia lawyer, appeared in Killer Smile (HarperCollins, 2004).
Like her heroine, Kathy Reich is a forensic anthropologist. When she writes about bones, she knows what she's talking about. Ms. Reichs benefits from the current interest in forensics, but the slapdash writing and shallow characters will disappoint readers.
Lisa Scottoline, who practiced law before writing novels, often examines legal ethics. In Killer Smile she explores issues related to the WWII internment of Italian-Americans. Ms. Scottoline knows South Philly, and DiNunzio is an appealing character because she reflects Italian Catholic culture. Sometimes Ms. Scottoline's lawyers have foul mouths, but because DiNunzio doesn't talk that way, this book is largely clean.