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.
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…)
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.)
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.
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!)
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
Arthur Conan Doyle
Dorothy L Sayers
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.)
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.
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 New Republic.
NPR tried a somewhat different approach to list making this year.
Like The New Yorker, The Guardian asked a variety of writers and critics to name their favorites for 2013.
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!
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.)
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. In a piece in The Daily Telegraph, Charles Moore calls Banffy “the Tolstoy of Transylvania.”
There’s more of Best of 2013 to come, when time permits….
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.
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.
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
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 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: ?? 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.)
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.
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.
The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud. I remain ambivalent about this novel. At times it struck me as whiny and self-indulgent, but at other times, it seemed insightful and even profound. I admire the way in which the author sustained the edgy, angry mood.
A Possible Life by Sebastian Faulks. This work is subtitled “A Novel in Five Parts.” To me, it seemed like a collection of five novellas, with very little connecting one to the other. Still, with Faulks you can depend on wonderful writing and a lively imagination. (My favorite among his works is A Week in December.)
Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan. McEwan is one of my favorite writers, and I thoroughly enjoyed this tale of the hapless Serena Frome, an intelligent, ambitious woman tripped up repeatedly the yearnings of her vulnerable heart. Sweet Tooth is compulsively readable and highly entertaining, but it doesn’t achieve profundity, and I don’t think McEwan had that intention here anyway. For that extra dimension, I recommend Saturday and Enduring Love.
Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L. Sayers. This discussion choice presented some challenges for the Usual Suspects, but members gamely persevered. (That perseverance is one of the reasons I like this group so much.) The latter part of the novel contained a detailed description of a cricket game calculated to cause glazed eyes in all but the most ardent sports fan. Still, it IS Dorothy L. Sayers and her inimitable creation, Lord Peter Wimsey.
Good Bait by John Harvey. A good, solid procedural, but perhaps not on a par with Harvey’s beloved Charlie Resnick novels.
The Caller by Karin Fossum. Fossum is my current favorite among the Scandinavians, but this otherwise compelling novel contained a scene involving a child crime victim that was sufficiently nasty that I felt duty bound to warn would-be readers of its presence. (How I wish that authors I admire wouldn’t do this!)
Chelsea Mansions by Barry Maitland. The latest entry in the Brock and Kolla series, a favorite of mine. A story with lots of twists and turns, and plenty of heart as well.
The Golden Egg by Donna Leon. The always reliable Leon delivers once more. A sad and poignant tale, filled with the humane compassion that are the hallmarks of her exceptionally appealing protagonist, Commissario Guido Brunetti. And of course the city of Venice, simultaneously vibrant and decadent, is like a character itself.
The Black House by Peter May.Somewhat overstuffed with regard to the plot, but the lore and legend of the Isle of Lewis are genuinely fascinating. The description of the stranger-than-fiction annual event called the guga harvest alone is worth the price of admission.
The Bedlam Detective by Stephen Gallagher. A nicely done historical mystery set in the year 1912. The protagonist, Sebastian Becker was formerly in the employ of the Pinkerton Detective Agency in the U.S. As this novel begins, he’s back in his native England and working for a UK public body called the Masters of Lunacy. He’s been sent by his boss to look into the affairs of a wealthy aristocrat whose behavior has become increasingly erratic.
Act of Passion by Georges Simenon. For me, Simenon’s ‘romans durs’ – hard novels – are the polar opposite of the Maigret novels. The latter follow the classic police procedural formula. Maigret’s presence, and that of his team at the Quai des Orfevres, provide reassurance that the crime will be solved and order restored. But in a novel like Act of Passion, you have no idea what’s going to happen next – only that things will go from tense to tenser, as you read on, spellbound and filled with dread.
The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, by Alison Weir. Will we ever tire of the story of the doomed queen? As I finished Bring Up the Bodies, the second entry in Hilary Mantel’s magisterial trilogy, I experienced a powerful desire to know more of the facts in the case of Anne Boleyn. I did not hesitate to select a biography by Alison Weir, an acknowledged master of this turbulent era of English history. (I just discovered that there is yet another book just out on the subject: The Creation of Anne Boleyn: a new look at England’s most notorious queen, by Susan Bordo.)
The above titles were very fine indeed. But the following were truly exceptional:
Hit Me by Lawrence Block. Who would have thought that the exploits of a professional hit man could be so endlessly entertaining? That wily old pro Lawrence Block has come up with an inventive and original take on a crime fiction staple, the killer for hire.
A Private Inquiry by Jessica Mann. I was looking for a novel set in Cornwall, and this one filled the bill beautifully. Barbara Pomeroy is an arbitration judge, a powerful position that allows her to render decisions in matters concerning real estate development projects. Although based with her husband and son in St. Ives, Barbara travels a great deal for her work, which she loves. But in her absence, a sinister force begins to insinuate itself into her family’s life. A novel of psychological suspense that features both a compulsive narrative and thoroughly engaging characters.
A Foreign Country by Charles Cumming. Easily the best novel of espionage I’ve read in recent years; beautifully written, cunningly plotted, and featuring an exceptionally sympathetic protagonist.
A Dark Anatomy by Robin Blake. Blake’s historical mystery takes place in 1740 and is set in Preston, Lancashire. (Lancashire is in the North of England, to the west of Yorkshire.) Coroner Titus Cragg is called to a gruesome murder scene. The victim is the wife of Ramilles Brockletower, the local squire and a personage of considerable eminence in the region. He had chosen his bride while in the West Indies; she had never been a good fit back in England. Local gossip went so far as to assert that Dolores Brockletower dabbled in witchcraft. But Titus Cragg cannot be dealing solely with idle talk. He must overcome the reluctance of numerous townspeople in order to get at the shocking truth about the killing, and the even more shocking truth about who Dolores Brockletower really is.
I haven’t had a chance to write about A Dark Anatomy, but I want to say right here that I absolutely loved this book. What a vivid, utterly believably recreation of a time past Robin Blake has given us! I hated for it to end, and can only hope there’s another in the works.
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (audio). Every couple of years, I feel compelled to return to this book. Sometimes I read it; this time, I listened to the audiobook narrated by Flo Gibson. Each time I revisit James’s immensely disturbing masterpiece, I come away with some new insight, but also yet again with the realization that the mystery at its heart is, as ever, ambiguous and impenetrable.
When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka. I tend to be skeptical of the claim that book clubs often introduce you to the delights of a new reading experience. This is one case in which that actually did happen. Otsuka’s two novels, When the Emperor Was Divine and its prequel of sorts, The Buddha in the Attic, were recent discussion choices of the AAUW Readers (suggested, in fact, by my book loving friend Emma). Emperor affected me deeply. It deals with the fate of a family swept up in the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War. Julie Otsuka’s writing is elegant, restrained and precise. Just below the surface there runs a current of barely restrained rage. a rage that is not given full expression until the novel nears its end. A real tour de force, powerful and immensely moving.
The Round House by Louise Erdrich. I’ve been meaning to read something by this esteemed author for quite some time. The recommendation given at the AAUW Readers Bring – a -Book session last month convinced me that The Round House was the one to try. This novel is about an Ojibwe family, Geraldine, Bazil and Joe Coutts. They reside on a reservation in North Dakota, and their story is told by thirteen-year-old Joe. Erdrich gets the voice of this teenager memorably and exactly right. Her depiction of life “on the res” is laced with humor and pathos – completely convincing and just as completely unforgettable.
Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked, by James Lasdun. An immensely disturbing and riveting read. Lasdun’s experience with an obsessive former student provides on object lesson in the perils of the technology revolution. (James Lasdun is a terrific writer whose gifts deserve wider recognition than they have thus far garnered.)
The Long Exile: A Tale of Inuit Betrayal and Survival in the High Arctic, by Melanie McGrath. Until I read this book, I was completely ignorant of this tale of massive injustice. The ultimate vindication of the Inuit People does not lessen the sense of outrage at what was done to them by officials of the Canadian government and the RCMP some sixty years ago. It’s a story that needed to be told, and Melanie McGrath does a masterful job of telling it.
Poets in a Landscape by Gilbert Highet. Born in Glasgow Scotland in 1906, Gilbert Highet taught the classics at Columbia University from 1938 to 1971. During that time, his charismatic classroom presence became legendary. Poets in a Landscape is part history, part travelogue, and wholly magical. Every page is animated by Highet’s deep knowledge and love of Italy, both past and present:
It is good for us to think of Catullus returning to his northland from enervating Asia or corrupt Rome, and, for a time, being happy in ‘relief long-sought, where the mind drops its burdens.’ Yet he was a man doomed to misery. We come closer to his soul when, with his single small volume of poems (a promise of far richer possibilities unfulfilled) in our hand, we stand above the endlessly rolling waves that beat on Sirmio, and watch the olive trees, twisted into shapes like those of tormented prisoners, tossing their arms wildly in the air, and feel upon our faces the tearful violence of the restless and passionate wind.
From start to finish, a transcendent reading experience.