I had exceptionally good reading in mysteries this year. I didn’t realize just how good until I started looking back and putting this post together. The following, in varying degree, were good, solid reads, with much to recommend them:
Crucifixion Creek by Barry Maitland
The Company She Kept by Archer Mayor
[I reviewed both of the above titles in a recent post.]
The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin* [reviewed in The Golden Age of Looking Back]
Resorting to Murder: Holiday Mysteries, edited by Martin Edwards for the British Library Crime Classics series.
Hush Hush by Laura Lippman
The Butchers of Broken Hill by Arthur Upfield*
The Youth Hostel Murders* by Glyn Carr
The Ivory Grin by Ross MacDonald [reviewed briefly, along with other mysteries, in a post entitled Twenty fiction and mystery titles I’ve Loved (or at least liked) this year]. I am an ardent fan of Ross MacDonald. This is an early entry in the Lew Archer series and not quite the equal of the stellar later novels. But there’s a revelation at the very end that really stunned me. Possibly I should have anticipated it, but I didn’t. Part of the genius of this author.
Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Crofts. Another entry in the pantheon of British Crime Classics. I expected to like this book more than I did. It got off to a terrific start, but then about half way through began to drag, partly I think because it was encumbered by an overly complex plot device. Still, I enjoyed the ingenuity and the richness of the period details.
Lamentation by C. J. Sansom. I commented on this title in two posts: Some thoughts on historical fiction and Crime fiction: three good ones. The post on historical fiction also features reviews of A Plague of Angels by P.F. Chisholm and The Hidden Man by Robin Blake.
A Plague of Angels features series protagonist Sir Robert Carey. Carey is equal parts fearless and feckless and is often a trial to his Sergeant-at-arms Henry Dodd. Keeping Carey out of harm’s way is Dodd’s remit, and it’s a full time occupation. The exploits of these two are very entertaining. Chisholm – pen name for Patricia Finney – is a marvelous writer who has deeply researched the Elizabethan era in which she sets this series. Her plots are much enlivened by the intermittent presence of Will Shakespeare and Kit Marlowe, who flit in and out of the narrative like colorful exotic birds.
Chisholm’s main inspiration for this series was a volume of history entitled The Steel Bonnets: The Story of the Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers, written in 1971 by George MacDonald Fraser, author of the Flashman novels. Here’s a quote from that book:
The English-Scottish frontier is and was the dividing line between two of the most energetic, aggressive, talented and altogether formidable nations in human history. Any number of factors, including geography, race movement, and the Romans decided where the line should be, and once it was there, on the map, on the countryside, and in men’s minds, the stage was set. Possibly English on one side and Scots on the other could have lived peaceably as national neighbours—indeed, for long periods they did; but it was not in the nature of either of the beasts to stay quiet for long. No doubt they ought to have done; successive English kings thought so, and did their utmost, by fair means and foul, to bring about the amity and unity which eventually prevailed At least, unity prevailed; amity is a more questionable commodity, especially north of the Border, even today.
(That agglomeration of adjectives at the beginning of the paragraph delights me!)
The Hidden Man is the third entry in Robin Blake’s series featuring coroner Titus Cragg and his colleague and friend Luke Fidelis, a physician. These novels are situated in a precise time and place: Preston, Lancashire, in the 1740s. Blake is yet another author who knows his historical venue intimately but who never lets that knowledge crowd out a good story.
I tend to get very invested in the personal lives of the protagonists in my favorite series. In the post Some thoughts on historical fiction, I wrote the following:
….having recently finished The Hidden Man, I feel firmly rooted in the world that Robin Blake has created. It’s an extremely interesting world and it feels utterly real. I feel as though I actually know Titus Cragg and Luke Fidelis. Titus is married to the sweet and empathetic Elizabeth; Luke is single. (I am most eager for Elizabeth to become pregnant and for Luke to find a soul mate.)
False Tongues by Kate Charles. In 2011, we had the pleasure of meeting Ms Charles in Ludlow, in the Welsh border country. Her novel Appointed to Die had been on our reading list, and I had enjoyed it immensely. False Tongues is part of a different series, one that features Callie Anson, a recently ordained Anglican cleric. With her hesitancy and her soft heart, Callie is one of the most genuine – and genuinely appealing – protagonists I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in a long time. (There’s more on this title in the above mentioned post, Crime fiction: three good ones.) This nugget of biography appears on Kate Charles’s site:
Kate Charles, who was described by the Oxford Times as “a most English writer”, is in fact an expatriate American, though an unashamedly Anglophilic one. She has a special interest and expertise in clerical mysteries, and lectures on crime novels with church backgrounds. After more than twenty years in Bedford, Kate and her husband now live on the English side of the Welsh Marches with their Border Terrier, Rosie.
I can’t help reflecting, albeit with some envy, that for years I’ve had a fantasy of living this life – and here is someone who has gone ahead and done it.
Falling in Love won’t go down as my favorite Guido Brunetti novel, but in the main, Donna Leon never disappoints. I also enjoyed rereading The Girl of His Dreams for the AAUW Readers. Usually if I’m the facilitator, I’m too worried about keeping track of things – and keeping things on track – to actually relax and enjoy the discussion. But this one was the exception.
Jo Bannister’s crime fiction is meticulously plotted and peopled with interesting, believable characters. I’m particularly liking her new Hazel Best series. The first in the series is Deadly Virtues; Perfect Sins is the second. Hazel, who’s just learning the ropes as a constable, is a very appealing protagonist. She has befriended Gabriel Ash, a man driven half mad by the disappearance of his wife and sons. In her turn, Hazel gets unflagging support from her father; their relationship makes these novels shine. (The third in the series, Desperate Measures, has just come out.)
I gather that Keigo Higashino’s Inspector Galileo series is gaining traction world wide. Based on my reading of The Devotion of Suspect X*, this acclaim is deserved. I didn’t think I’d like this novel of contemporary Japan, but I did, quite a bit. It provided an interesting window on a place not well known or understood by me. I always find that with books like this, the particulars (of the culture) and the universal emerge, and merge, in surprising and distinctive ways. And this book had one of the more powerful endings I’ve encountered in crime fiction in quite some time.
*indicates a book read for a Usual Suspects discussion
There’s more to come on the mystery front – stay tuned….