As with fiction, I’m going to divide these titles onto two groups: first, those that I thoroughly enjoyed and would readily recommend, and second, those that were, in a word, superb.
I feel that there was a great deal to cheer about this year where mysteries are concerned. As I delved into the archives for 2008, I couldn’t help but marvel at all the terrific reads I’ve encountered this year. Almost all the authors I’m getting ready to praise are those whose work I’ve read before. Am I conservative about trying new (to me) writers in this genre? Oh yes. I have to be, you see, in order to keep from being completely overwhelmed!
So – without further ado – Group One, Part One:
Thunder Bay by William Krueger. Krueger was one of several people that I missed seeing at Bouchercon (so many authors/ reviewers/editors, so little time). This book was nominated for an Anthony but lost to Laura Lippman’s What the Dead Know. Lippman’s novel was outstanding, to be sure, but in this contest, I was rooting for Thunder Bay. More readers need to become familiar with Krueger’s fine work. His books are set in the Iron Range of northern Minnesota, and his sympathetic portrayal of Native Americans (in this case, the Ojibwe) calls to mind the work of the late, greatly lamented Tony Hillerman.
Last Post by Robert Barnard. I read this a while ago and don’t have a very specific memory of it, but I’ve been a fan of Barnard’s for many years now. I know few other authors whose novels delight me so reliably and consistently. In addition to Last Post, I’d like to recommend an earlier work by Barnard, Death by Sheer Torture. It’s a hugely entertaining riff on the beloved (by me, anyway) English Country House Murder subgenre.
The Accomplice by Elizabeth Ironside. I was pleasantly surprised by this intense, gracefully written novel. I say that because I wasn’t a great fan of this author’s Death in the Garden.
When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson. True, I wasn’t as wild about it as some reviewers were, and I don’t think it’s in the same league with the stellar Case Histories. But Atkinson is an inventive, witty, empathetic writer, so there was much in this novel to enjoy and appreciate.
The Miracle at Speedy Motors by Alexander McCall Smith. This author is astonishingly prolific. Might he be, possibly, too prolific? I’ve been worried lately that McCall Smith is suffering from media overexposure. Still, that possibility does not detract one iota from his stellar accomplishments in the field of crime fiction. I’m a huge fan, both of Precious Ramotswe and Isabel Dalhousie
Once a Biker by Peter Turnbull. I know that I can depend on Peter Turnbull for a good, solid police procedural in the durable British style. (And I’m currently behind in this series by two books – yay!) It’s a wonderful bonus that his Hennessey-Yellich series is set in York, surely one of the world’s most magical cities. I love reading about ancient walls, bars, snickelways, and the shambles – I’ve been there!!
Headhunters by Peter Lovesey. Lovesey is yet another favorite author of procedurals. Lately, he’s been de-emphasizing long time series protagonist Peter Diamond while bringing Henrietta “Hen” Mallin of the West Sussex Constabulary to the fore. These books are exceptionally well written and cunningly plotted; they also have a great sense of place. Diamond was with the Force in Bath; Headhunters takes place on England’s South Coast. It’s a great setting, and a great story.
The Price of Butcher’s Meat by Reginald Hill. Please don’t be put off by the atrocious title. On the other hand, I would not advise tackling this book if you are not already familiar with the Dalziel and Pascoe novels. I’m currently working up a post reviewing this latest series entry; I’ll also be talking about the series as a whole. Meanwhile, if you want to get started, I suggest Ruling Passion (1973), Bones and Silence, which won the CWA Gold Dagger in 1990, The Wood Beyond (1995), or On Beulah Height (1998). I’ll’ say it right out, right here: Reginald Hill is one of my all time favorite writers in any genre.
Waterloo Sunset by Martin Edwards. I entitled my post on this highly entertaining novel ” ‘Another Place:’ or, Liverpool Revealed.” It was revealed to me, at any rate, as a city well worth getting to know. Martin Edwards’s latest, Dancing for the Hangman, has been recently published in the UK, to excellent reviews. In Hangman, an historical novel, the author tackles the notorious case of Hawley Harvey Crippen. (Meanwhile, we fans of the Lake District novels featuring Daniel Kind and Hannah Scarlett eagerly – anxiously? - await the fourth entry in that fine series.) Martin Edwards also has a blog, Do You Write Under Your Own Name, that’s well worth checking out.
I read and enjoyed three historical mysteries this year: The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard, The Triumph of Caesar by Steven Saylor, and The Lost Luggage Porter by Andrew Martin. I’ve read every entry in Steven Saylor’s Roma sub Rosa series. I find his re-creation of ancient Rome fascinating and convincing. Saylor’s knowledge of that period of history is encyclopedic, but his research never obtrudes; his narratives are lively and thoroughly engrossing.
As for The Lost Luggage Porter – well, this slim little volume was a real find. Return with Andrew Martin to the north of England as it was a century ago. Get deep inside the railway culture of the times with detective Jim Stringer as he goes undercover in order to catch a thief – or rather, a ring of thieves. Clutching his Railway Police Manual, the appealing, all-too-human Stringer is alternately bold and terrified – sometimes both at the same time! I loved this author’s writing; he makes use of the slightly antiquated diction that I find so effective and convincing in historical fiction. (The Lost Luggage Porter is the third in a series that’s appearing in the U.S. in a somewhat erratic order. The trade paperbacks feature an exceptionally appealing design – to be appreciated if and when you can get hold of them!)
While we’re on the subject, Peter Lovesey has penned some excellent historical mysteries. He’s the author of the Sergeant Cribb series, set in mid-Victorian Britain and every bit as evocative of the period as the novels of Anne Perry. And I especially recommend Rough Cider, whose setting alternates between 1964 and in wartime England (1943).
That’s it for Group One, Part One. Stay tuned for Group One Part Two, to be followed – and I’m not saying how swiftly! – by Group Two.