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Book Review: Cut and Cover by Kevin Hurley & Not on Fire, Only Dying by Susan Rukeyser 

Buckle up, Hudson Valley noir fans. Two powerful new voices have emerged.

We meet Cut and Cover's John Rexford at an uber foodie Westchester winery, where he learns details of a planned attack on the lower Hudson Valley: blowing up tanks of chlorine gas, ruining Manhattan's water supply, and detonating its gas mains. The potential loss of life would overshadow 9/11.

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Rexford lives on his Marine Corps disability near the Ulster/Delaware county line. He's a fanatical mountain biker, a blacksmith, and a highly trained assassin whose "retirement" is deep cover for wetwork that needs doing on American soil. The biking and ironwork are Zen self-medication techniques that help his rampaging PTSD.

Hurley crafts a world of top-secret espionage and deadly contests taking place beneath the surface of everyday life. The backdrop is meticulously rendered, from the bullyboys in their pickup truck to Woodstock's Village Green; you may never eat somewhere trendy again without wondering what those guys in the corner are really talking about.

Too often, spy thrillers start with a baseline acceptance of global conflict and unexamined assumptions about who the good guys are. Cut and Cover has a deeper take: Are we in a perpetual war for oil, or is that a cover story for the naked lust for power? How much good do do-gooders really do? What are the benefits and limits of international law? The deadly struggle between Rexford and sociopathic mercenary Yoda is developed deftly; violence is not overdone, but when it happens, it's nightmarish, and even the deserving recipients aren't cardboard targets but human beings.

Rexford battles crisis with one hand and his own issues with the other. So does Marko, the noirish hero of Rukeyser's Not on Fire, Only Dying.

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We meet Marko in the greasy, dusty entry of Salty's Salvage and Supply, a failing business in a river city's faded downtown. The woman he's desperately in love with lurches in, claiming her baby's been kidnapped from his stroller in front of the dive bar across the street.

On parole after 20 years, Marko is an underground medicine man and sometime day laborer, walking the streets in an oilskin duster with postpolitical aphorisms about wolves and sheep pinned to the back. His convict status only compounds the wary alienation he's always felt as a Roma descendant; his therapy of choice includes random acts of gallantry, deep conversation, and good herb.

Marko's love Lola is a mental health client whose improvised medication cocktails cloud her memory like Rondout fog, leaving everyone—including her—unsure if her baby ever really existed. Suspense builds in layers: Is the baby alive? Was he ever? Will Marko's love for Lola strengthen her tenuous grip on reality? Will he be pushed into violence, and possibly back into a cage? The author's poetic, laser-focused empathy unmasks life on the urban edge of Ulster County as Steinbeck's did Cannery Row, revealing "normal" as a shoddy sham.

Rukeyser, who used to own Kingston's Frog Alley bookstore and spent hours gazing out the window, has written a love thriller. Hurley, a Catskills resident from a multigeneration military family, has written a high-stakes espionage piece. Both debut novels transcend genre, blending multilayered philosophical meditations on violence, machismo, 21st-century living, and the things we do for love into rip-roaring, nutritious page-turners.

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