Media roundup: Best mystery/crime/suspense of 2013

December 30, 2013 at 1:56 am (Best of 2013, books, Mystery fiction)

Oline Codgill of the Florida Sun-Sentinel picked her favorites for this year. I’ve only read one title on her list: Crime of Privilege by Walter Walker. This is an excellent legal thriller, which I’d recommend to fans of John Grisham and Scott Turow.  20731105cf64bb5c3f70c02b4ba18ad0

January Magazine had some well known crime fiction aficionados name their favorites. Bill Ott, Booklist’s long time mystery reviewer, has posted his favorites. (This particular list contains three books that I was not able to finish: The Beautiful Mystery, Gone Girl, and The Twenty-Year Death. Ah well – chacun à son goût…)

Library Journal and Publishers Weekly have both posted lists. Of the twelve titles cited by PW, two were also among my favorites for this year: Murder as a Fine Art and How the Light Gets In. Murder-as-a-Fine-Art


Jessica Mann, a crime fiction author who also critiques crime fiction for the British magazine Literary Review, has chosen her favorite titles for this year. They are as follows: Then We Take Berlin by John Lawton, The Paris Winter by Imogen Robertson, Ostland by David Thomas, and The Riot by Laura Wilson. (I recommend A Private Inquiry by Jessica Mann. Her latest novel is Dead Woman Walking.)

inquiry3  Dead woman Walking

I was delighted by NPR’s somewhat idiosyncratic list, not least because Somerset Maugham’s marvelous Ashenden stories share pride of place with other terrific titles, not the least of which is Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, a book I absolutely loved and which I’ve been waiting in vain – until now – to see on one of these lists.  Ashenden5


I’m similarly pleased with the selections made by Seattle Times Critic Adam Woog. He also picked a book that I thought nobody noticed this year but me: Jo Bannister’s excellent Deadly Virtues. In addition, he includes Play Dead by the wildly original Bill James and The Ghost Riders of Ordebec by Fred Vargas, also highly original but in a completely different way. Among the honorable mentions, Woog mentions Hit Me, the latest entry in Lawrence Block’s hugely entertaining series featuring Keller the hit man. (Adam Woog is obviously a person of exceptionally good taste!) 9781250023445_p0_v1_s260x420


Finally, Carol of Usual Suspects put me on to a nice aggregation at The Rap Sheet.  I was particularly pleased to see Sarah Weinman’s name. Her blog Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind was one of the first crime fiction sites I used to visit regularly. (She’s not blogging there anymore, but she does post from time to time on her Tumblr site, Off on a Tangent.)
In honor of its sixtieth anniversary, Britain’s Crime Writers’ Association decided to name the all time best crime novel, best series, and best writer of crime fiction. Here are the short lists for each category, with the winner clearly designated:

CWA best ever crime novel

WINNER: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
On Beulah Height by Reginald Hill
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L Sayers
The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

CWA best ever author

WINNER: Agatha Christie
Raymond Chandler
Arthur Conan Doyle
Reginald Hill
Dashiell Hammett
Dorothy L Sayers
Elmore Leonard
Georges Simenon
PD James
Ruth Rendell

CWA best ever series

WINNER Sherlock Holmes by Conan Doyle
Adam Dalgleish by PD James
Dalziel & Pascoe by Reginald Hill
Hercule Poirot by Agatha Christie
Morse by Colin Dexter
Philip Marlowe by Raymond Chandler
Rebus by Ian Rankin
Peter Wimsey by Dorothy L Sayers
Campion by Margery Allingham

The winners represent rather predictable and not particularly adventurous choices. Nevertheless, I was pleased with some of the names and titles that were included on the shortlists. That holds especially true for Reginald Hill, whose On Beulah Height, a bravura piece of work in any genre, will always have pride of place on any “best list” of mine. (And yes, I’m a huge fan of the entire Dalziel and Pascoe series.) On Beulah Height

Reginald Hill

Reginald Hill

Jake Kerridge of the Daily Telegraph makes some interesting observations on the CWA’s selections. He concludes his article with a list of his own devising.

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Best Books of 2013: more lists

December 28, 2013 at 9:27 pm (Best of 2013, books, Magazines and newspapers)

First: a bit of backtracking with regard to the Washington Post. In a previous post, I expressed dismay at the presence of Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs on their list of the year’s ten best books. On the other hand, Maureen Corrigan, the Post’s perceptive and eloquent crime fiction specialist, did select Louise Penny’s luminous novel How the Light Gets In for inclusion on that list, thereby, in my humble and extremely biased opinion, partially redeeming it.

And yet, I must again draw attention to another bit of end-of-the-year strangeness on the part of the Post. Their venerable critic Jonathan Yardley named his ten favorites for 2013 and managed not to include a single fiction title! Jonathan, you need to get out more. And what you really need in your reading life is some crime fiction. For years now I’ve been saying that’s where the great writing and terrific storytelling are currently to be found. This year has given me no reason to revise that opinion; if anything, it’s made me more firm in that view. Out of my own list of forty-six favorite titles for 2013, twenty-nine fall under the rubric of mystery/suspense.

At any rate – here are yet more lists:

From the Wall Street Journal: Best nonfiction, Best fiction (Yes I know – There’s The Woman Upstairs again!).

From The New Republic.

NPR tried a somewhat different approach to list making this year.

From The New Yorker. In Part One and Part Two, the editors asked their contributors to name their favorite reading of 2013.

Like The New Yorker, The Guardian asked a variety of writers and critics to name their favorites for 2013.

Library Journal staff named their Top Ten, and More.

Publishers Weekly made their selections, as did Kirkus Reviews. This link will take you to Kirkus’s choices for Best Fiction; in a column on the left, you’ll see links to other categories.

Finally – and I mention this with all due modesty, lowering my gaze, half closing my eyes, etc. – I’ve been “pinned” on Pinterest. I don’t really understand how that works, but I’m grateful anyway (I believe Yvette of In So Many Words is the responsible party!) and, along with innumerable worthy others, I’ve been aggregated – Thanks, Largehearted Boy!


Next: best mysteries and crime fiction; stay tuned!

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Merry Christmas from Books to the Ceiling

December 25, 2013 at 7:03 pm (Art, Christmas, Music)

First, music and dance (You’ll have to endure commercial messages at the start of some of these videos, but I think you’ll find it worth your while):


(This is a musician’s loving tribute to her father. Watch on YouTube for more details.)


Dance of the Mirlitons from the Nutcracker, performed by young Russian ballet students:


I had not heard of the Huron Carol before encountering it in Louise Penny’s How the Light Gets In. Penny’s novel is a story of sin and redemption and the race to make things right, just before Christmas descends upon the magical, almost mythical, village of Three Pines, as it lies knee deep in the snows of Canada.

Is it possible for something to be almost too beautiful? Listen…


And finally, the exultant first cantata of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, led by one of the world’s great Bach specialists, Nikolaus Harnoncourt:


Art inspired by the Christmas story:

Adoration of the Magi, by Diego Velasquez

Adoration of the Magi, by Diego Velasquez

Adoration of the Magi, by Gentile da Fabriano

Adoration of the Magi, by Gentile da Fabriano

Nativity, by Giotto di Bondone

Nativity, by Giotto di Bondone

Adoration of the Shepherds, by Gerard van Honthorst

Adoration of the Shepherds, by Gerard van Honthorst

Adoration of the Magi, by Peter Paul Rubens

Adoration of the Magi, by Peter Paul Rubens


Adoration of the Magi, by Sebastiano Ricci

Adoration of the Magi, by Sandro Botticelli

Adoration of the Magi, by Sandro Botticelli

Adoration of the Magi - Tapestry by William Morris & Co., designed by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

Adoration of the Magi – Tapestry by William Morris & Co., designed by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

Nstivity with Burnning Bush, by Albert Herbert

Nativity with Burning Bush, by Albert Herbert (British, 1950s)


For more delightful images inspired by the holiday season, go to one of my favorite sites, In So Many Words…


9780393051582_p0_v2_s600 I used to think that Dickens’s classic Christmas tale was a bit of lighthearted sentiment. Now I think it’s one of the most profound stories I know. Scrooge’s redemption shows us that it is never too late to change, from a bad person to a good one, from a good one to a better one. Best not to wait too long, though.

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The New York Times and The Washington Post choose the Best Books of 2013

December 22, 2013 at 3:03 pm (Best of 2013, books)

This past Tuesday night, the Usual Suspects held their end-of -year wrap-up meeting. This was an exhilarating experience – meat and drink for this book lover and, I believe, all the others who had the good fortune to be present for the occasion. I’m working on a blog post that will provide the highlights of  the meeting. It will take some time – I do so want to do it justice! – so in the meanwhile, I’ll present links to various Best Books sites:

The ever reliable New York Times posted a notable books list that could serve as a guide to good reading for next several months – or even years. From this group, the Top Ten Books of 2013 were chosen. (Kudos to the editors for including Kate Atkinson’s stunning Life After Life in this highly select company.) life_after_life_cover_p_2013

Of course there was overlap between the Times list and the Washington Post’s selections. I was not quite as enthused about the Post’s roster – fiction and nonfiction – as I was about the Times selections. And I confess I’m perplexed by the inclusion of Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs among the Ten Best Books. True, the novel had its memorable moments, but to me it seemed mainly a book length tirade held together – barely –  by a rather contrived plot. Oh well – so much for my little rant. And I almost forgot: I am certainly grateful to the Post for alerting me to The Transylvania Trilogy by Miklos Banffy. This magisterial work was written in Hungarian and published between 1934 and 1940, but it was not translated into English until 1999. I’m inching my way through it and will almost certainly never finish the whole thing, but from what I’ve read of They Were Counted, the first installment, it’s a real gem. oldbanffyIn a piece in The Daily Telegraph, Charles Moore calls Banffy “the Tolstoy of Transylvania.”

Count Miklós Bánffy de Losoncz

Count Miklós Bánffy de Losoncz


There’s more of Best of 2013 to come, when time permits….

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Best Books of 2013, a personal view

December 13, 2013 at 4:32 pm (Best of 2013, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

I guess I can’t postpone it any longer….

Various critics and media outlets have already rendered their judgments. I’ll provide links to those in a subsequent post. Also a reminder: my Best of the Year selections always reflect the best books I’ve read that year, not just those that were published in that calendar year. The list often includes older titles; this year is no exception.

Some months ago, I composed a post in praise of the books I’d enjoyed from January up through June. Rather than providing individual links to those titles yet again, I’ll simply place an asterisk by the ones that I wrote about in that post, which is entitled “June 2013: So far, it’s been a very good year in books.”

As in year’s past, I’ve divided the books into broad categories; within those categories, they’re not in any particular order.

Contemporary Fiction

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158_large life_after_life_cover_p_2013

wmg-cover1 11237

The Wife of Martin Guerre by Janet Lewis
Out of the Black Land by Kerry Greenwood
The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
*The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
*A Possible Life by Sebastian Faulks
*Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan
*When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuko
*The Round House by Louise Erdrich
The Sacred and Profane Love Machine by Iris Murdoch

Comments: The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett and Life After Life by Kate Atkinson are both books that I probably would not have read had they not been book club selections. I liked them both, particularly the Atkinson title, with its unconventional structure and bursts of brilliant writing. I’ve been listening to it, read superbly by Fenella Woolgar. The Bookman’s Tale, on the other hand, was a dark horse, a title I’d never even heard of. In both of these novels, there’s a great deal of jumping back and forth in time. Although I ordinarily prefer a linear narrative in long fiction, I was not duly put off by this disjointedness in either novel. Both writers made very effective use of the flashback technique, although in the case of the Atkinson novel, the device attained an extraordinary degree of complexity. This was off putting for some readers and might have been for me, had I been reading rather than listening.

Here’s an interview with Kate Atkinson:

This year’s classic was The Aspern Papers. Last year’s was The Turn of the Screw. Both are by Henry James, who continues to fascinate by being so brilliantly elusive. I came up what I consider an especially jolly title for a post on The Aspern Papers: “Henry James, Master of Suspense.” What! You may exclaim, Henry James lumped in with the likes of James Patterson, Scott Turow – even, Heaven help us, Dan Brown??!! Now, now, replies Your Faithful Blogger soothingly, not quite. But the creation of suspense in both of the above mentioned narratives is artful and extreme, and in the case of Turn of the Screw, downright terror inducing.

I’ll have more – much more – to say about The Sacred and Profane Love Machine in a later post. This was  actually a rereading for me, as I read this novel when it first came out in the mid 1970s. I just finished it – again – about an hour ago. Suffice it to say for the moment that I am once again in thrall to the sheer brilliance of Iris Murdoch.


9780374102418_custom-ee9a42e2ad4808c0d3b65458a4adad25b91fb217-s6-c30 how-to-read-literature

9780547385426_custom-e701c6e95aad14c90e8c6f673ae7cabf05829aa7-s6-c30  Give-Me-Everything-You-Have

New York Review Book's reissue of Poets in a Landscape. The painting is by Nicolas Poussin.  


The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, by George Packer
How To Read Literature, by Terry Eagleton
I Hate To Leave This Beautiful Place, by Howard Norman
*The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, by Alison Weir
*Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked, by James Lasdun
*The Long Exile: A Tale of Inuit Betrayal and Survival in the High Arctic, by Melanie McGrath
*Poets in a Landscape, by Gilbert Highet

Comments: Somehow I never got around to writing about Howard Norman’s book. I Hate To Leave This Beautiful Place is a riveting, beautifully written memoir with surprising Jewish content (surprising – in a welcome way – to me, at least) and a shocker of a final chapter.

Crime and Suspense

Oh boy…

For a while now I’ve maintained that where fiction is concerned, the best plotting, characterization, and writing are currently to be found in this genre. My reading for this year has done nothing to dissuade me from that position; rather, it has served to reinforce my view on the subject.

The Silence of the Wave cover  LOVTOOT01-2

9780802714428_p0_v1_s260x420  “The Ghost Riders of Ordebec” by Fred Vargas (Penguin).

9781780104089_p0_v1_s260x420  9781780290430_p0_v1_s260x420

The Frozen Shroud  foreign

a-dark-anatomy-by-robin-blake-98-p  ar-303259945maxw638

9781250006943  16115714

hitme2 0547738773

The Silence of the Wave by Ganrico Carofiglio
The Tooth Tattoo by Peter Lovesey
A Murder of Quality by John LeCarre
The Ghost Riders of Ordebec by Fred Vargas
Eva’s Eye by Karin Fossum
*The Caller by Karin Fossum
Gift Wrapped by Peter Turnbull
Play Dead by Bill James
Evil Eye by Joyce Carol Oates
The Frozen Shroud by Martin Edwards
Murder as a Fine Art by David Morrell
Death of the Black-Haired Girl by Robert Stone
*The Golden Egg by Donna Leon
*The Blackhouse by Peter May
Missing Persons by Stephen White
*Chelsea Mansions by Barry Maitland
*The Bedlam Detective by Stephen Gallagher
*Act of Passion by Georges Simenon
*Hit Me by Lawrence Block
*A Foreign Country by Charles Cumming
*A Private Inquiry by Jessica Mann
*A Dark Anatomy by Robin Blake
*Good Bait by John Harvey
*Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L. Sayers
Boundary Waters by William Kent Krueger
White Heat by M.J McGrath
Pardonable Lies by Jacqueline Winspear
How the Light Gets In by Louise Penny
Deadly Virtues by Jo Bannister

Comments: Two of the above were a pleasant surprise: A Murder of Quality by John Le Carre and Murder As a Fine Art by David Morrell. I hadn’t realized that LeCarre’s first two novels feature George Smiley, or that A Murder of Quality is actually a murder mystery in the classic mode rather than a novel of espionage. Furthermore, of LeCarre’s twenty-two works of fiction, George Smiley, one of the world’s most famous fictional spies, is the lead character in only six. (See the entry in Stop! You’re Killing me.)

As for Murder As a Fine Art, I must begin these remarks with an admission. At times, I can be a right snob! (You’re shocked, I’ll bet.) When I learned that Morrell’s novel featured Thomas de Quincey as a main character, I was intrigued. Yet I hesitated. Why? Because among his other literary accomplishments, David Morrell is the creator of Rambo! Was I going to read a novel by the writer who gave us this: SP-3032-bi-RAMBO-STALLONE ?? Obviously the answer is yes. Morrell’s take on De Quincey’s is solidly based on biographical fact. Thomas De Quincey was a strange and fascinating man, and David Morrell has written a terrific literary thriller. (I especially loved Emily, De Quincey’s indefatigable daughter and champion.) murderasafineart

Here’s the entertaining, juiced up video trailer:

Here’s one of my favorite De Quincey quotes:

‘Pleasant it is, no doubt, to drink tea with your sweetheart, but most disagreeable to find her bubbling in the tea-urn.’

At present, there seems to be something of a vogue for Thomas De Quincey.  The above quotation appears at the beginning of The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime, a magisterial survey by Judith Flanders that I’m most eager to read. In addition, De Quincey is referenced – in quite a delightful way – in The Frozen Shroud by Martin Edwards. And The English Opium Eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey by Robert Morrison came out in 2010. I’ve read the first essay in De Quincey’s notorious work On Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts, and I can tell you: as outrageous as you think it might be, it’s even more so.

Thomas De Quincey

Thomas De Quincey

This was a good year for historical mysteries. In addition to Murder As a Fine Art, I thoroughly enjoyed The Bedlam Detective by Stephen Gallagher and A Dark Anatomy by Robin Blake. All three of these novels brought England’s past vividly to life.

For sheet entertainment value, I’m indebted as always to Bill James and Lawrence Block. I’m a long time fan of James’s Harpur and Iles series. I’ve  been reading Lawrence Block for years, but with his newest series character, hit man John Keller, Block has achieved  a whole new level of excellence. And that’s saying something for this veteran, a prolific and highly accomplished writer.

In this video, Block provides background to the creation of Keller:

I’m also grateful Charles Cumming, who showed me in A Foreign Country that it’s possible to create n espionage tale with a plot I can actually follow and characters I genuinely care about. Finally, as a crime fiction aficionado who panics periodically about the future of the British police procedural, I deeply appreciate the offerings of Peter Lovesey (Peter Diamond), Peter Turnbull (Hennessey and Yellich), Martin Edwards (Daniel Kind and Hannah Scarlett), and Barry Maitland (Brock and Kolla). Please keep those books coming; I’m depending on you!

I’m barely half way through Louise Penny’s How the Light Gets In, but I want to place it on this list anyway. It’s a splendid return to form after its exasperating and sluggish predecessor (The Beautiful Mystery) and I’m loving it.


There’s plenty of good reading here, but if you pressed me as to which books affected me especially deeply, I would have to say:

The Sacred and Profane Love Machine
The Long Exile
A Murder of Quality
The Tooth Tattoo
Act of Passion

I’d like to single out three titles that stayed with me long after I’d finished them: The Silence of the Wave by Gianrico Carofiglio,  Gilbert Highet’s Poets in a Landscape, which itself reads like poetry, and finally The Wife of Martin Guerre by Janet Lewis, which is not only a great historical novel but a great novel period and one of the profoundest explorations of the mystery of the human heart that I know.

A still from the 1982 film The Return of Martin Guerre

A still from the 1982 film The Return of Martin Guerre


Author Gallery

Gianrico Carofiglio

Gianrico Carofiglio

George Packer

George Packer

Peter Lovesey

Peter Lovesey

John Le Carre

John Le Carre

Fred Vargas

Fred Vargas

Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates

Janet Lewis

Janet Lewis


Peter May

Karin Fossum

Karin Fossum

Howard Norman

Howard Norman

Gilbert Highet

Gilbert Highet

Iris Murdoch

Iris Murdoch

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‘Can I have brought down all this death in life on us, Brookman wondered, through my fondness for a pretty girl?’ – Death of the Black-Haired Girl, by Robert Stone

December 7, 2013 at 2:07 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

17165876  It had been some time since I’d read anything by Robert Stone, but I’ve never forgotten the deep impression that author’s Damascus Gate made on me when I read it in 1998, the year of its publication. Reviews were leading me to believe I should read Stone’s latest, Death of the Black-Haired Girl. I have now done so, and am glad that I did

Let’s stipulate from the outset: Maud Stack, the eponymous black-haired girl, is no angel. In fact, she is not even especially likeable. An undergraduate at an elite small college in New England, young Maud believes that she already knows the answers to life’s great questions. (The fact is, she is not alone in this  conviction: “Sometimes the college could be an incredibly mean place; when the kids reflected it they had the sharp language and the intelligence but no sense and no mercy.”)

Maud also believes that she can engage in an adulterous relationship with one of her professors without endangering her claim to be living an upright life.

Steven Brookman, the professor in the case, is married and the father of a daughter, Sophia. His family life is precious to him – so precious that he decides he must end the affair with Maud. The risk of exposure is simply too great. This is especially true where Sophia is concerned: “Their bantering, fond relationship was a treasure of his life and he dreaded the loss of it.”

(As I’m writing this, I’m thinking of Breaking Bad, specifically of Walter White and his son, Walt Junior. Junior is a good-hearted child who would make any parent proud. Walt is fiercely committed to keeping his depraved criminal activities a secret from this son whom he adores, and who in turn idolizes him. It is a beautiful and inevitably doomed relationship. I’m also thinking of Blaise Gavender and his son David in Iris Murdoch’s riveting novel The Sacred and Profane Love Machine. Heaven save us from these people who assume that life’s blessings are  theirs by right, even – especially? – when they transgress against those blessings in the most blatant and unforgivable way.)

400000000000000503374_s4  From Damascus Gate, I recall Robert Stone’s prose style as blunt, unadorned, and at times devastating. Wielding this skill with its full force, he can startle and sadden in equal measure:

The wise guys always pointed out how you had to have at least two people to have a murder. A famous person had said, “Character is fate.” This was the wise-guy version: A person had made a mistake, they liked to say, and somebody had to pay. They didn’t give a damn about justice, only about restoring their version of the natural order. The victim was always at a disadvantage, being dead and so often unsightly.

At times, God comes into the picture, though He is not always welcome. In her review of this novel in The New York Times, Claire Messud says of Robert Stone that “Graham Greene is in some ways his natural antecedent,” and I think I know what she means.

As for Steven Brookman’s idle query, quoted in the title of this post, one must of course respond in the affirmative, although he is perhaps giving himself too much credit as a master manipulator of fate – his own, and that of the people around him. Yet another form of professorial arrogance, one is tempted to opine.

Robert Stone

Robert Stone

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Yet another reason to visit Scotland….

December 3, 2013 at 1:28 am (Art, Scotland)

As if there weren’t already a sufficient number –

But really, take a look at this:


And this:


And this:


Behold the kelpies!!


Click here for the statement by the artist Andy Scott.

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