Master storytellers James Patterson and Carl Hiaasen live up to high expectations with their latest efforts. 

A Thrill-a-Minute

Carl Hiaasen's "Sick Puppy" (Knopf, $25) starts its inexorably hilarious romp through the lives of a handful of lovable characters and the despicable demons who are after them on page 7, on an interstate highway somewhere north of Yeehaw Junction, Fla.

Twilly Spree, a goofball in his mid-20s and rich as Croesus thanks to a trust fund set up by his late grandfather, is just tooling along in his dirty black pickup when the man driving the Range Rover in front of him starts throwing fast-food wrappers out of his window.

That man is Palmer Stoat, a powerful and unprincipled lobbyist who's on the payroll of everybody important in Florida politics. He doesn't have even a hint of it yet, but he's just crossed paths with the man who'll be his undoing.

Stoat's dog, too, will play a major role in his fall. The dog, which Stoat and his wife Desi call Boodle, and which Spree will rename McGuinn, is at home guarding the house — after a fashion. Boodle/McGuinn is one of the most delightful and finely drawn characters in a caper novel since Lilian Jackson Braun invented Yum Yum and Koko for her "The Cat Who ..." series. Weighing in at more than 100 pounds, Boodle/McGuinn is a black Lab who won't retrieve, who loves whoever fed him last, who lives in a world where play is the prime directive and where there's no such thing as a bad odor, and who — to his own delight — is frequently flatulent.

But back to the highway outside Yeehaw Junction and to Twilly Spree, who decides the answer to Palmer Stoat's propensity to litter is ecoterrorism. And before this hilarious novel draws to a close, Twilly, Palmer, Desi and Boodle/McGuinn will find themselves involved in kidnapping, a conspiracy to jam a bill through the legislature to build condos on an island wildlife sanctuary, a couple of grisly deaths and devilishly comic adventures galore.

There's at least a laugh per paragraph in "Sick Puppy," despite its off-center characters and their wacky ideas about right and wrong. And author Hiaasen proves himself to be a master at off-the-wall humor and at sucking readers into a story they can't wait to finish. Best of all, he knows how to end a good yarn with a satisfying conclusion, one that will keep readers waiting eagerly for his next tale.

Continuing his series of macabre murder mysteries with innocent-sounding names ("Cat and Mouse," "Kiss the Girls," "Jack and Jill"), James Patterson is back with "Pop Goes the Weasel" (Little Brown, $26.95).

The featured character in the series is Alex Cross, an African-American police detective in Washington who also has a doctorate in psychology. His partner is the enormous John Sampson, another D.C. detective, who persists in calling Cross "Sugar." Keeping the home fires burning for Cross is his grandmother, Nana-Mama, a no-nonsense woman who cooks as only a grandmother can and who has cared for Cross and his two pre-teen children since their mother died. Cross' on-the-job nemesis is his racist and despotic boss, George Pittman — a suck-up who keeps his eye on elite Washington and ignores crime in the poorer neighborhoods. The light of Cross' life is Christine, principal of the school his children attend, and it looks like Cross is about to pop the question — if he can keep her out of harm's way.

Danger this time is named Geoffrey Shafer, a vicious serial killer with diplomatic immunity and an office in the British Embassy. Shafer's random killings make him the hardest kind of madman to track, but the particularly vicious nature of his crimes make catching him imperative.

Patterson writes in a cinematic style, with short, punchy chapters that mimic scenes from a movie. Most are no more than three pages, and dialogue, rather than narration, moves the story forward with breakneck speed.

"Pop Goes the Weasel" takes Cross and Sampson from D.C. to the Caribbean as they unravel this breathtaking puzzle about a role-playing monster who has crossed the line from the virtual world to reality.

Patterson is a master of the bombshell surprise, and "Pop Goes the Weasel" will keep you up far past bedtime if you let

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