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It’s fair (and much too easy) to say that some of Denise Vitola’s characters really suck: In the Dumfries, Va., author’s moody debut, The Winter Man, vampires roam Washington. Heroine Nicki Chim is a blood-slurping forensic hematologist who claims, “I never once have been able to turn into a bat or a wolf…and don’t have to sleep in a coffin or dirt from my homeland.” In other words, Chim is a very ’90s neck-biter; she listens to jazz, gambles on football, and helps a bumbling D.C. police department solve ghastly murders. Of course, she still drains the random victim, but “wouldn’t think of taking someone down who had a chance to make a difference in the world.” As complex as Lestat Chim isn’t, but she is campier, thanks to comments like “I never suck on a person who has high blood pressure….I get the hiccups from it, and beyond that, I get cranky as hell.” This mass-market paperback is loaded with local references, including an improbable passage in which the Redskins humiliate a lousy Dallas team (not even Vlad the Impaler at defensive end could have helped this year’s Hogs). And Vitola deserves kudos for The Winter Man’s downbeat ending, opting against a commercial conclusion in favor of an unsettling walk on the dark side.

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