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Jay Brandon. Forge, $23.95 (352pp) ISBN 978-0-312-86542-9

Although Brandon's latest isn't quite up to the high standards of his Edgar-nominated Fade to Heat, it's still an engrossing legal thriller, dominated by three complex and original female characters. San Antonio District Attorney Chris Sinclair is understandably startled when he sees the head of a murder victim modeled by a forensic artist: it bears a striking resemblance to his wild college lover, Jean, who dumped him 16 years ago. But Jean would be 35, Sinclair's age, and the murdered girl found buried in a shallow roadside grave was just 14. Chris and his investigator quickly locate Jean, the mother not only of the dead girl, Kristen, but also of a 16-year-old, Clarissa, who is probably Sinclair's child. All three are somehow involved in the dangerous world of local businessman Raleigh Pentell, who sells drugs to teenagers; during Pentell's trial for Kirsten's murder, Jean's image changes from a caring mother supporting two children by working for an insurance company to a conniving drug dealer using her children for profit. Sinclair sometimes comes across as a bit too thick to have survived as either Jean's lover or a major urban prosecutor, but the dangerously ambiguous Jean, the deceptively fragile Clarissa and Chris's current love interest--Dr. Anne Greenwald, a psychiatrist determined to have a child--are strong enough characters to keep readers interested. (Feb.)