Best Reading in 2012: Crime fiction, with an acknowledgement of the pleasures of being a Usual Suspect in good standing

December 16, 2012 at 7:30 pm (Best of 2012, books, Mystery fiction)

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uncommonappeal  the-dead-witness-a-connoisseurs-collection-of-victorian-detective-stories

deadmansgrip  zita

It’s that time once more and so I’ll weigh in, along with everyone else, with my choices for the best books of the year. While the titles I’ll be naming are largely new, several older titles and classics also gave me  reading pleasure in 2012. I’m putting it all  in the mix. A more precise term for what I’m attempting here is ‘Best Reading Experiences of the year,’ rather than ‘Best Books.’

As in years past, crime fiction looms large on my list. For me, this genre remains a reliable source of memorable characters, vivid settings, and great stories. So, I’ll start there:

Undercover – Bill James

Death of a Nationalist – Rebecca Pawel

The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds – Alexander McCall Smith.  I love the Isabel Dalhousie series.  These books have everything I look for in mystery fiction and in novels in general. Fascinating characters find themselves in strange and intriguing situations, and it all happens with the precise yet dreamily evoked city of Edinburgh as the backdrop. McCall Smith pours out his love for Scotland, its artists, writers and philosophers, without ever becoming maudlin or repetitive. All this is delivered up to the reader in flawless prose spiced with a gentle wit.

The Dead Witness: A Connoisseur’s Collection of Victorian Detective Stories– Michael Sims, ed. What a juicy compendium this is! I’m making my way through it slowly, savoring each literary morsel. Some favorites so far: ‘The Diary of Ann Rodway’ by Wilkie Collins , ‘The Little Old Man of Batignolles’  by Emile Gaboriau, and ‘The Dead Witness; or, The Bush Waterhole’ by Mary Fortune, aka W.W. Sims’s inclusion of the opening chapter of A Study in Scarlet made me realize that I’d never read this work, in which Arthur Conan Doyle unleashed Sherlock Holmes on unsuspecting but soon to be voracious readers all over the world. I was surprised and delighted by this initial depiction of the soon to be Great Detective; he seems almost childlike in his enthusiasm for chemistry and other pursuits. And of course this is where you’ll find  the oft-quoted line, delivered by Holmes to an astonished Watson: “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”

The Gaboriau story was yet  another wonderful surprise. I’ll definitely be seeking out other works by this author, in particular Monsieur Lecoq. In A Guide  to Classic Mystery and Detection, Michael E. Grost observes:

Émile Gaboriau’s Monsieur Lecoq (1868) is so clearly a detective novel in the modern sense that it takes one’s breath away. Here is clearly a major point of coalescence of the genre.

Editor Michael Sims favors the reader with in depth profiles of each of the authors whose works are featured in this fine collection. His brief recounting of the life of Mary Fortune (aka W.W.) is particularly poignant. Sims identifies ‘The Dead Witness’ as “the first known detective story written by a woman.” As such, it’s an appropriate choice as the title for this anthology.

Defending Jacob – William Landay

Involuntary Witness – Gianrico Carofiglio

The Terrorists – Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. Twice in the past few weeks, when I have been subbing at the library’s Central Branch, customers have come in asking for books in the Martin Beck series and wanting to talk about them. This delights me no end. These seminal novels in the history of crime fiction seem well on their way to achieving classic status, if they’re not there already.

Cop To Corpse – Peter Lovesey. The pinnacle of perfection in the police procedural subgenre. I’ll be leading a discussion of this novel for the Usual Suspects next summer.

Before the Poison – Peter Robinson

The Pale Horse – Agatha Christie.

Paradise City – Archer Mayor. I didn’t have time to blog about it, but I do want to recommend this latest offering in Archer Mayor’s superb Joe Gunther series.

Kill My Darling – Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

The Hanging Wood – Martin Edwards

The St. Zita Society – Ruth Rendell

A Fatal Inversion – Ruth Rendell, writing as Barbara Vine. Yes, all right; this writer can do no wrong in my book. That said, The St. Zita Society, while very entertaining, is not especially profound. A Fatal Inversion, however, struck me as being very deep indeed….

Death Comes to Pemberley – P.D. James. I’m including this title largely for sentimental reasons: I’ve a long standing admiration for James, but I would not rank this novel among her best. I remain a loyal fan of the Adam Dalgliesh series, of which my favorite is A Certain Justice.

A Cold Day for Murder – Dana Stabenow

The Fear Index – Robert Harris. A gee golly wow of a thriller that nevertheless should win some kind of award for sheer inventiveness coupled with fiendish complexity. Ditto the next title:

All Cry Chaos – Leonard Rosen’s novel has some of the same challenges and virtues of The Fear Index,  but the humanity of its central figure and the personal catastrophe that befalls him make it a somewhat more accessible work.

I’d Know You Anywhere – Laura Lippman. I remember feeling somewhat dubious concerning this novel, thinking it would be similar to What the Dead Know and probably not as good. To my surprise, I liked it even more than Lippman’s prize-winning riff on the still unsolved disappearance of the Lyon sisters.

The Altered Case – Peter Turnbull

Dead Man’s Grip – Peter James

Boundary Waters – William Kent Krueger. I haven’t finished it yet, but I wanted to include it here anyway. It puzzles me why Krueger and Archer Mayor, both terrific writers of regional American crime fiction, are not better known and appreciated.

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I’m reading Boundary Waters for our next Usual Suspects discussion, and I’d like to take a minute to express my gratitude to this wonderful group of mystery lovers. This past Tuesday evening, we held our end of your summit, an event which I always enjoy. Pauline does a great deal of preparation for this meeting, writing up each of our discussions, comparing our selections for this year with those we made last year, and formulating questions for us to consider. Here are several of them:

Which books made for the best discussions? Why was this the case?
How much did the setting matter in the books we read? Did we read any books where the setting was as important as an actual character, and therefore vital to the story?
Is it a bonus to read and discuss books that introduce us to new information, e.g. period, location? If so, which books in 2012 met those criteria?
How important is characterization in the books you read, or was the plot more important?
What are you looking for in your ‘ideal’ mystery? Did any of our 2012 choices approach that goal?

I credit Usual Suspects with providing me with quality reading in crime fiction this year. Here’s the list down of our 2012 selections:

I’d Know You Anywhere – Laura Lippman
The Mystery of Edwin Drood – Charles Dickens
Crocodile on the Sandbank – Elizabeth Peters
A Cold Day for Murder – Dana Stabenow
The Poisoner’s Handbook – Deborah Blum
The Pale Horse – Agatha Christie (my selection)
Caught – Harlan Coben
The Terrorists – Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo
The Crossing Places – Elly Griffiths
Death of a Nationalist – Rebecca Pawel

At our end of year session, we always vote for favorite title. I was pleasantly surprised by the group’s choice of The Poisoner’s Handbook. I read this riveting account of “Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York” when it came out in 2010. I’d allotted only a few hours for reviewing it before our discussion, and I was immediately sorry that I didn’t have time to reread it from scratch.  poisonersh

The second part of the meeting was given over to the recommendation of titles, one per Suspect. Here’s that list:

Call the Midwife – Jennifer Worth
Burial at Sea – Charles Finch
The Fear Index – Robert Harris
The Dead Witness: A Connoisseur’s Collection of Victorian Detective Stories –  Michael Sims, Editor
The Golden Box – Frances Crane
The Ice Princess – Camilla Lackberg
Room – Emma Donoghue
Defending Jacob – William Landay
Broken English: An Amish Country Mystery (Ohio Amish Mysteries) – P. L. Gaus
Billy Boyle – James R. Benn

So: my favorite crime fiction title for 2012? As always, that’s a tough call. I’d have to say just for sheer inventiveness, gorgeous writing, and evocation of an almost suffocating sense of dread that only mounts as the narrative progresses,  Barbara Vine’s A Fatal Inversion has the edge. I would love to discuss this book, but it’s out of print and not owned by the local library. (I read it on my Kindle.) For  the record, there are two other novels that I’d dearly love to discuss, but they present the same difficulty of access as the Barbara Vine title: The Piper on the Mountain by Ellis Peters and An Air That Kills by Andrew Taylor.


air  piper

Author Gallery

Gianrico Carofiglio

Gianrico Carofiglio

William Landay

William Landay

Peter Turnbull

Peter Turnbull

Baroness James of Holland Park  (P.D. James)

Baroness James of Holland Park (P.D. James)

Peter Lovesey

Peter Lovesey

Archer Mayor

Archer Mayor

William Kent Krueger

William Kent Krueger

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