by ANN M. COLFORD & r & Origin

by Diana Abu-Jaber

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & M & lt;/span & any artists experience the sense of being the oddball in one's own family or community, the feeling of being "other." From this perspective can come alienation -- or empathy and richly textured powers of observation. Lena Dawson, a fingerprint analyst in Syracuse's city crime lab, follows the latter path. Despite the technical nature of her job, Lena is more artist than scientist, an intuitive rather than a hard-boiled law enforcement professional. She combines instinct and gut feelings with her knowledge of the facts to find uncanny solutions to crimes that stymie the police experts.

As Origin opens, deep in the frigid northern winter, healthy babies are dying in Syracuse. Initially the cases are dismissed as SIDS, but the parents and the public begin to ponder the unthinkable: Could there be a baby killer on the loose? Amid public fears of terrorism and psychopaths, Lena tries to remain impartial, letting the evidence speak for itself. But as she follows the trail, it leads straight into the mystery of her own past. She won't solve this case until she unlocks the secrets of her own origin.

Early in the book, minor characters -- who emerge later as important -- appear with little reason beyond adding local color, leading to a couple of why-did-I-need-to-know-this moments. But the threads of the central mystery merge nicely, building to a legitimate payoff at the end, and the journey is made most enjoyable by Abu-Jaber's keen observations and poetic evocations.

Readers of her earlier books might expect more of the same lyrical prose, woven around Arab-American families and laced with subtle humor and warmth. Those enamored of crime fiction and psychological thrillers might expect a story that unfolds within the conventions of the genre. Origin resists categorization, with a protagonist who is intensely sensitive, most comfortable in her interior world, and yet strangely fascinating.

The risk of defying categorization is that you'll please no one, of course, but that's a risk Abu-Jaber is willing to take here to bring this compelling character to life within a wholly original story.

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