CRIME fiction makes its pitch as the literary genre for the new millennium with a particularly strong batch of novels released in the first two months of the 21st Century.

Top of the pile - in terms of popularity, at least - is

the return of Dalziel and Pascoe in Reginald Hill's Arms And The Women (Collins Crime; #16.99).

This time round the action centres on Pascoe's long-suffering wife, Ellie, who finds herself caught up with Irish gun-runners, Colombian drug-dealers, and duplicious secret service agents . . . all a far cry from the bluff Yorkshire detective duo's usual crime beat. Hill remains one of our most entertaining crime writers.

Northern Irish author Colin Bateman is fast becoming the UK's Carl Hiaasen thanks to a series of offbeat and increasingly outrageous comic mystery novels. His latest, Turbulent Priests (HarperCollins, #10.99), isn't short of either of his trademarks - the black-as-two-in-the-morning humour and the high body count. It's Bateman's sixth novel and the third to feature his bevvy-merchant, newspaper-reporting anti-hero Dan Starkey, who finds himself dispatched to a remote Irish island where the locals claim to have witnessed the Second Coming.

Strong stomachs are required to digest Jefferson Parker's particularly gruesome, not to mention utterly horrifying, The Blue Hour (HarperCollins, #9.99). Parker ventures into Thomas Harris territory for this unpleasant (but entirely gripping) tale about a California-based serial killer who takes beautiful women from shopping malls. What he does with (and to) their bodies does not bear thinking about. Crime novels don't come much darker than this.

If you want a name to watch for the future then keep your eyes trained upon George P Pelecanos, one of America's most promising authors, crime or otherwise. His Washington-set mysteries, most of them featuring private eye Nick Stefanos, just keep getting better and better. In Shame The Devil (Gollancz, #9.99), Pelecanos reaches new heights.

Frank Farrow is a cold-hearted criminal. Three years ago his younger brother got killed when a robbery went badly wrong. Frank escaped - but now he's back to avenge the death of his sibling.

I know it's only January, but believe me, you would be hard-pressed to read a better crime novel this year.

One of the most impressive writing debuts of last year was that of John Connolly with Every Dead Thing, a compulsive read which introduced the character of Charlie Parker. Now Mr Connolly is back with that tricky second novel. Dark Hollow (Hodder & Stoughton, #10.00), like its predecessor, involves Parker in the hunt for a killer. This time in the wintry landscape of Maine. Brutal, scary, and excellent.

Talking of Connollys, the more established Michael Connelly has a new novel published this month. In Void Moon (Orion, #16.99) he takes a break from his LAPD detective, Harry Bosch, in order to introduce Cassie Black, a beautiful and highly-appealing professional thief who robs high-rolling gamblers of their winnings in the Las Vegas casinos. Then Cassie targets a mark who just happens to be Mob-connected, and she finds herself up against a ruthless killer who seems to predict her every move.

In Nelson deMille's The Lion's Game (Little, Brown, #16.99), a Middle-Eastern terrorist arrives in New York hell-bent on avenging his family's death (they were all blown up in the infamous US bombing raid on Gaddafi's compound in 1986) by assassinating the five pilots who took part in the operation. It's down to Special Agents John Corey and Kate Mansfield to track him down as he leaves a bloody trail of terror across America.

Over a long and prolific career, Lawrence Sanders provided a great deal of pleasure to crime fiction fans. His books may never have been cutting edge but, nevertheless, he always managed to produce engaging and highly entertaining novels. McNally's Dilemma (Hodder & Stoughton, #16.99), the last book he wrote before his death, is no exception. Here his Palm Beach PI, Archy McNally, takes on the murder of a rich socialite and uncovers a thorny tangle of blackmail and deceit.

Allan Laing