“Follow Her Home” by Steph Cha; Minotaur (288 pages, $24.99)


An engrossing novel can be more than entertainment – it can double as an escape and a refuge from harsh realities. Steph Cha’s intriguing debut “Follow Her Home” works as a testament to the power of storytelling and a cautionary tale against forsaking reality for fiction.


As a teenager, Korean-American Juniper Song found that safe retreat in Raymond Chandler’s novels, immersing herself in Philip Marlowe’s adventures to escape her overprotective mother. But too often she allowed herself to believe she could be the sleuth like Marlowe. While that led to a family tragedy from which she has never recovered, her desire to be a detective has never dampened.


So she jumps at the chance to play private eye when her best friend and former Yale classmate Lucas Cook asks her to find out whether his father is having an affair. Lucas suspects that his father, William, a prominent L.A. attorney, is seeing Lori Lin, who also is Korean-American. Lucas is worried that his emotionally fragile mother would be pushed to suicide if the affair became public. Song, as her friends call her, romanticizes all things Marlowe, from his hard-drinking to his chain-smoking ways, though, try as she might, she has never quite mastered either. But Song is about to get a dose of reality while driving around L.A.’s side streets and wondering what Marlowe would do. After following Lori to her home, Song is knocked unconscious and wakes to find her car trunk contains a body, which then disappears. As Song begins to prove that she can be an insightful detective in her own right, the case becomes personal. Song begins to believe that Lori is a victim, not a predator, a situation that echoes Song’s own life.


Cha elevates “Follow Her Home” with glimpses at the culture of Korean-American families. But these scenes are too brief and only make the reader want more.


Although at times a bit uneven, “Follow Her Home” works as an homage to Chandler as the plot explores a young woman learning to trust her own instincts.


Like Marlowe, Song must find the knight errant within herself before she can help another.


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-”The Broken Places” by Ace Atkins; Putnam (352 pages, $26.95)


The melding of Western and crime fiction often refers to novels that take place in those high plains states such as Wyoming, Montana and Arizona.


Ace Atkins has found his own home on the range in Jericho, Miss., where lawlessness and graft have nearly overwhelmed the town. And the hero to clean up this mess is Quinn Colson, a former U.S. Ranger who is now the sheriff of his small hometown. In the third novel in this series, Atkins continues to combine sturdy character studies with an action-packed tale about the contemporary issues of war veterans and small-town corruption.


Religion, forgiveness and redemption of the earthly kind swirl in the strong “The Broken Places,” which builds to an unpredictable finale.


Jericho is indeed still a broken place, though Quinn has been doing his best to put the town on a righteous path. The town is divided over Jamey Dixon, who has returned to his hometown after being pardoned for the murder conviction of his girlfriend. Jamey has set up The River, a makeshift church on the outskirts of town, preaching the Bible and offering comfort to anyone who comes. But many residents can’t forgive Jamey, especially Ophelia Bundren whose sister was his victim. Quinn has a personal interest in keeping a close watch on Jamey, who is dating Caddy Colson, the sheriff’s sister. Meanwhile, two escaped convicts are heading to Jericho, seeking vengeance on Jamey who they believe double crossed them.


Atkins’ affinity for solid plotting shines in “The Broken Places.” His characters are so believable that you expect to run into them at the local diner. Quinn’s relationship with his family, which includes his mother, sister and her young son, bring a rich texture to “The Broken Places.” Atkins understands the rugged beauty of rural Mississippi, where a simple field can illustrate a kaleidoscope of colors.


The first two novels in the Quinn Colson series were each nominated for an Edgar. A couple of years ago, the Robert B. Parker estate tapped Atkins to continue the Spenser series; “Wonderland,” his second novel about the Boston detective, was released three weeks ago.


“The Broken Places” again shows what a powerful storyteller Atkins is.


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©2013 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)


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