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All kinds of people are fascinated by the criminal underworld, a predilection much reflected in literary works and in the media. The plots of Dickens's most popular novels and of Shakespeare's most compelling plays turn upon "murder most foul", and the television schedules are full of true and fictional investigations into suspicious deaths. So a ready-made audience is guaranteed for The Penguin Encyclopedia of Crime by Oliver Cyriax (Pounds 9.99).

This compendium gives extensive coverage to notorious criminals from Jack the Ripper to Frederick West, provocative new information about unsolved crimes such as the deaths of Marilyn Monroe and President Kennedy, and explains controversial judgments (Craig and Bentley and the Bridgewater Four, for example). Sections on the history of detection, forensic science, the Mafia, and Prohibition provide further illumination.

But it is the unexpected that intrigues the most. Take the index entry "vacuum cleaner, human". It refers to a 28-year-old Brazilian in Bangkok, who connected "a brachial implant of a long thin tube running subcutaneously from the tip of the little finger on his left hand" to a storage pit in his armpit. Flexing his muscles to activate a small pump, "Barros hoovered up loose diamonds using his little finger as a nozzle".

Who does this describe? "This woman is headstrong, obstinate, and dangerously self-opinionated". The answer can be found in The Mammoth Book of 1,000 Great Lives edited by Jonathan Law (Robinson Pounds 5.99), in one of 250 boxes containing colourful anecdotes about people who have shaped the world. Browsers will enjoy following the fortunes of figures such as Plutarch, Aeschylus, Genghis Khan, Sitting Bull, Bette Davis, Salman Rushdie, Nelson Mandela, Rupert Murdoch, O J Simpson and Madonna.

And the mystery Iron Lady? Baroness Thatcher, no less, as described in a report by the personnel department at ICI, which rejected her application for a job in 1948.

"I want to be alone" and "Play it again, Sam" are two of the most commonly misquoted and misattributed lines in the English language. Brewer's Quotations: a phrase and fable dictionary, by Nigel Rees, deviser and presenter of BBC Radio's quizanthology Quote . . . Unquote (Cassell Pounds 9.99), redresses the balance. As well as telling us what Garbo and Bogart really said, Rees discusses 2,000 disputed sayings.

Rees has also compiled an entertaining Dictionary of Catchphrases (Cassell Pounds 6.99), containing 1,200 popular expressions from history ("Not tonight, Josephine"), the world of entertainment ("Here's looking at you kid" and "Beam me up, Scotty) and advertising jingles ("Don't you just love being in control").

Students, aspiring authors and professional writers will find helpful information on grammar, punctuation, spelling and choosing the right word in Guide to Written English by James Aitchison (Cassell Pounds 6.99). The book contains sections on planning and writing essays, letters and reports, highlights common errors, and is fully indexed. Another useful helpmate is Dictionary of Appropriate Adjectives (Cassell Pounds 7.99), by E H Mikhail, which arranges 4,000 nouns in thematic sequence, each accompanied by a list of suggested adjectives.

Writers and researchers specialising in international subjects will find conventional Western values challenged in The World: A Third World Guide 199596, published by Instituto del Tercer Mundo (in Montevideo, Uruguay) and distributed by Oxfam Publishing (telephone 01865 313172) Pounds 24.94. It claims to be the only global almanac from the perspective of "the South".

Dictionary of the Middle East by Dilip Hiro (Macmillan Pounds 14.99), also clears up a few misconceptions and is essential reading for those hazy about the region's wars and religious sects.

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