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Cover of "Murder for Choir" by Joelle Charbonneau. Penguin.

What's the single most important factor in judging a mystery? Plot is certainly high on the list. What's the point of reading a puzzler if all the answers are obvious from the beginning?

But character may be even more important. The author has to create characters that make me care about what happens to them and whose actions are at least relatively believable under the circumstances.

"Season of Darkness" by Maureen Jennings (McClelland & Stewart), 416 pages, $22.95). If you've ever tended to romanticize World War II, "Season of Darkness" will cure you.

The number of damaged people who "survived" probably never has been tallied.

This story focuses on Tom Tyler, a veteran of World War I and a detective inspector in the English police. The death of a popular Land Girl is the first substantive case he's dealt with for ages. (With all the young men gone, Land Girls were recruited from Britain to help farmers bring in their crops.)

In addition to the case, Tyler must cope with his son, who has not been the same since returning from the battle at Dunkirk, as well as his unhappy teenaged daughter. His first love, long a resident of Switzerland, is back in the area. He also gets some help from an unlikely source: a German psychiatrist interned at a local camp.

The characters are complex and fully developed, and the story is both particular to them and part of a much bigger picture. All in all, an engrossing story.

"A Fatal Winter" by G.M. Malliet (Minotaur Books, $24.99, 384 pages). Max Tudor, who became an Anglican priest after a career as a British intelligence agent, is once again up to his cassock in murder in a delightful village mystery.

The scene is nearby Chedrow Castle, a sprawling old place where it's easier to eavesdrop than to find your room.

There are two deaths at the castle and a slew of younger relatives with their hands out. Not surprisingly in a mystery set in a castle, there are some secrets and questions of inheritance. The book is, in fact, a traditional British mystery set in a typical locale, but with a modern sensibility.

The characters are well-drawn and engaging, not always easy to do when there's a large cast. And Max, the good-looking former MI-5 operative who just wants to live a quiet life -- well, that's not in the cards. And that's good news for readers.

"The Incense Game" by Laura Joh Rowland (Minotaur, $25.99, 304 pages). A devastating earthquake in Japan in 1703 has left Sano Ichiro, chamberlain and second only to the emperor, with his hands full, what with the court and countryside in ruins. Plus the emperor keeps querulously demanding that Sano make things normal again.

But the death by poison of two daughters of a nobleman threatens the precarious recovery effort when he demands Sano investigate the case.

As always in this series, Sano's wife Reiko gets involved. They are a formidable pair, and even if roles for women were limited at that time, Reiko makes her contribution felt.

Although the book is fiction, the earthquake itself was real, and one of the fascinations of the book is watching how this rigid, crumbling society tries to reassemble itself. It is an issue that reverberates here in earthquake country.

"Murder for Choir" by Joelle Charbonneau (Penguin, 296 pages, $7.99). Paige Marshall, an opera singer looking for a boost to her career, agrees to coach a high school show choir. This seems to be roughly equivalent to teaching crocodiles to dance.

The world of the show choir is a new one to me, and was engaging and terrifying in equal measure. And that was before another coach is murdered, and one of Paige's students becomes the prime suspect.

Paige is your typical feisty young protagonist, unwilling to go for the obvious solution or to take "no" for an answer. Happily, Charbonneau makes her lively and believable. A few of the plot developments are on the farfetched side, but, if you suspend your disbelief, you'll find this first-in-a-new-series book has a lot to recommend it.

Roberta Alexander is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Contact her at ralex711@yahoo.com.