Stephen Hunter, . . Simon & Schuster, $25 (496pp) ISBN 978-0-684-86361-0

Earl Swagger, the gritty WWII-vet hero of Hunter's bestselling thriller Hot Springs, is back in this virtually un-put-downable gothic chiller about unspeakable evil in the murky Mississippi bayous. In 1951, five years after the conclusion of Hot Springs, straight arrow ex–county prosecutor Sam Vincent tells Earl—his trusted friend and former investigator, now a sergeant in the Arkansas state police—that he has been hired by a Chicago attorney to travel to Thebes, a mythic prison camp in the remote backwaters of Mississippi to verify the death of a black man who is the beneficiary of a will left by a one-time employer. When Earl hasn't heard from Sam by an agreed upon date, he goes looking for him and discovers that he is being held in the prison. Earl frees Sam, but is taken prisoner himself. Tortured by the prison hierarchy who fear he has been sent by a federal agency to expose their abominable secrets, Earl, aided by a trusty, escapes, vowing to return to destroy the camp and kill its evil warden and his henchmen. A staunch upholder of the law, self-righteous Sam refuses to participate in Earl's plan for retribution, but promises not to interfere. Assembling a strike force of seven of the country's most able gunmen, Earl sets out to wipe Thebes from the face of the earth. Meanwhile, probing the fate of a famous doctor who worked for the military researching biological warfare during WWII, Sam realizes Thebes may harbor an even darker secret after a bomb attempt on his life. Unforgettable characters in vivid settings more than offset the melodramatic, credibility-stretching scenarios of this hard-driving thriller. Once again, Hunter proves he is a master of cinematic prose. Agent, Esther Newberg, ICM. (Oct. 12)

Forecast:A 10-city author tour will jump-start sales of this reliable blood-guts-and-glory sequel, with a 125,000 first printing.