Best Books of 2017: Contemporary Crime Fiction, Part Two

January 3, 2018 at 3:11 pm (Best of 2017, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

We’ve slipped over the finish line into 2018, so it behooves me to finish posting my “best reads” in crime fiction of the past year:

Old Bones by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. A series that, by virtue of its wit, sympathetic cast of characters, and above all its self-effacing hero Bill Slider, has been an unadulterated delight since its inception back in 1991.

Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

Dungeon House Martin Edwards. Another winning series, by an author who’s also a distinguished scholar of the genre.

Skin and Bone by Robin Blake. An historical series of superior quality in which Blake narrates the exploits of Titus Cragg, coroner, and Luke Fidelis, a physician in 18th century Lancashire, England. People need to discover these marvelous novels!

Robin Blake

Stone Coffin by Kjell Eriksson. This Swedish series featuring Detectives Ann Lindell and Ola Haver is exceptionally well written and at times, genuinely moving. (Although Stone Coffin is the most recently published book in this series, it’s actually the earliest that’s been translated into English and is therefore a good place to begin.)

Kjell Erikkson

A Fine Line by Gianrico Carofiglio. I continue to champion this little-known high quality series set in Bari, Italy, and featuring the extremely appealing ‘avvocato’ Guido Guerrieri. (Carofiglio’s nonseries novel The Silence of the Waves is also very much worth reading.)

Gianrico Carofiglio

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz. For sheer delicious enjoyment, this one was the big winner.

Trace by Archer Mayor. This is number twenty-eight in a series I’ve been following for years. Also I’ve felt a special bond with this author ever since I stood right next to him while ostensibly browsing the magazines at Onsite News in BWI  Thurgood Marshall Airport several years ago. (Sighting was later confirmed by means of a subsequent email exchange with the ever congenial Mayor.)

Archer Mayor

Fast Falls the Night by Julia Keller. I was deeply touched by the sufferings, both noble and ignominious, of the people of Acker’s Gap, West Virginia. I can do no better than  to quote the Kirkus Review of this novel: “Keller’s prose is so pure that her exploration of the desperate scourge of drugs and poverty and her forecast of a grim future for her heroine are a joy to read.”

Julia Keller

Paganini’s Ghost by Paul Adam. Recently reviewed by me in this space.

 

 

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Best books of 2017: Contemporary crime fiction, Part One

December 26, 2017 at 1:37 pm (Best of 2017, books, Mystery fiction)

A Legacy of Spies. What wonderful work from John LeCarre, a living demonstration that his gifts as a  storyteller and his uncanny feeling for the shadowy world of espionage remain undiminished.

The Girl in the Ice and The Night Stalker – Bryndza. After The Girl in the Ice, I knew I’d be coming back for more – the second is, if anything,  better than the first.

A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny

The Crow Trap and The Seagull by Ann Cleeves. I’m now happily working my way through the Vera Stanhope series. What an original and oddly appealing protagonist she is.

The Templars’ Last Secret – Walker. I read each new Bruno Chief of Police novel as it comes out, not waiting on the reviews – I know I want to spend time with Bruno and the other denizens of the village of St. Denis. And I always want to be updated on his never-quite-successful love life. (Bruno earnestly desires a wife and children:  I’m rooting for you, Bruno!)

Nine Lessons by Nicola Upson. Ordinarily I’m not drawn to mysteries featuring real historical personages as protagonists, but I’d been hearing and reading good things about this series; this is especially true of Jessica Mann’s review of this novel (among others) in the October issue of Literary Review Magazine. Being a staunch fan of Josephine Tey’s mysteries, I decided to give it a try. I liked it a great deal, for its depiction of the interwar years, the Cambridge setting, and the portrayal of Tey as a resourceful, courageous woman of great integrity. (This is precisely  how I prefer to think of her factual counterpart.)

The Grave Tattoo by Val McDermid. A rich mixture of history and literature made this somewhat lengthy mystery well worth the effort.

Dance Hall of the Dead. What a pleasure it was to return to the works of Tony Hillerman; his mysteries brought the Native American culture of New Mexico to such vivid life. In fact, he and Judith Van Gieson both made the state itself seem so special and exotic that I felt I had to go there. I did – twice – and I fell in love with the place. It is truly the Land of Enchantment.

Earthly Remains by Donna Leon. Not my absolute  favorite from the Guido Brunetti series, but being in the company of the urbane and compassionate Commissario  always results in time well spent.

The Crossing and The Late Show by Michael Connelly. As good as The Crossing was – it was voted best ‘read’ of 2017 by the Usual SuspectsThe Late Show was even better. Michael Connelly has given us a terrific new protagonist – Detective Renee Ballard – provided her with an intriguing back story, and then summoned up a rich brew of murder, departmental backstabbing, and fiendishly complicated criminal enterprise with which to contend. And boy, does she contend!

When I started reading The Late Show three days ago, I was  daunted by its length – 400 pages. I’m hopping on a plane next week and can’t possibly schlepp such a weighty tome along with me. As it turns out – no worries; I finished it this morning. Among its many other virtues, it is quite the page turner.

(A slightly altered version of my blog post on the Suspects’ discussion of The Crossing appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of the Mystery Readers Journal.)

 

 

 

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Best Books of 2017, Part Two: Crime fiction and suspense: older and classic titles

December 24, 2017 at 9:25 pm (Best of 2017, books, Mystery fiction)

I’ve already written a post on the classic mysteries I’ve consumed with gusto this year. I’ve also read other older mysteries that might not rightly be termed classics but that nevertheless made for enjoyable reading.

Envious Casca by Georgette Heyer (1941)

 

Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, a landmark story collection edited by Sarah Weinman

The Hours Before Dawn – Celia Fremlin’s 1958 Edgar Award winner is a novel of domestic suspense well ahead of its time. An exhausted mother of three demanding children takes in a lodger and comes to wish she hadn’t.

The Mystery of a Hansom Cab. Fergus Hume’s 1886 runaway bestseller set in Melbourne, Australia. (This is a book about which a book has been written: Blockbuster! by Lucy Sussex.)

 

Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham (1931). Thanks to a perceptive article by A.S. Byatt, I finally “get” Albert Campion and Company – even Magersfontein Lugg! This one was a twist on the country  house murder trope: elegantly plotted and witty to boot.

Dead Letter and The Figure Eight (1866 and 1869 respectively) by Metta  Fuller Victor. If you’re going to read one, make it The Dead Letter.

Madame Maigret’s Friend by Georges Simenon (1950). Read this during insomniac moments in London. Good, but not , methinks, the best of the Maigret novels.

 

The DA Cooks a Goose and The DA Goes To Trial (1942 and 1940 respectively). Still working my way through the hugely enjoyable (for this reader, at least) Doug Selby novels.

 

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Best Reading in 2017, Part One: Fiction and Nonfiction

December 21, 2017 at 3:07 pm (Best of 2017, books)

We’ve already had the lists from the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR, the Guardian, the Wall Street Journal, Kirkus…. And now the one you’ve all been waiting for breathlessly:

Roberta’s Favorite Reads for 2017, Part One

Fiction

Improvement by Joan Silber. A terrific writer hits it out of the ball park yet again.

Do Not Become Alarmed by Maile Meloy. Suspense? ‘Literary’ fiction? However you categorize it, a gripping, unputdownable novel.

The Past, and Bad Dreams and Other Stories by Tessa Hadley. The only author this year to appear twice on my list. She’s officially one of my absolute favorite writers.

Trajectory by Richard Russo. Four long stories – more like novellas – comprise this slender and powerful collection. I haven’t read anything by Russo since Empire Falls; I’d forgotten what delight his work can provide.

Conclave by Robert Harris. I couldn’t imagine how this novel set in the claustrophobic environs of the Vatican could possibly interest me. But how, after the Cicero Trilogy, The Fear Index, Pompeii, An Officer and a Spy, and The Ghost, could I ever have doubted this gifted novelist’s transfixing powers?

One thing I really appreciated about Conclave as the way in which the intense faith of the priests and cardinals was bodied forth in prayer, both in formal occasions and in moments of private urgency.

The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble

Reservoir 13 by Jon MacGregor. I am somewhat ambivalent about listing this novel.  Yes, the writing is lyrical, the evocation of rural Britain is striking, the critics mostly raved – and yet….Maureen Corrigan’s review summed it up for me exactly:

….as admirable as McGregor’s achievement is, I frequently found myself looking for excuses to stop admiring it and read something else.

And finally, News of the World by Paulette Jiles, a slim triumph of a novel. I don’t often finish a work of fiction with a feeling of such deep gratitude for  the gifts it bestowed.

Nonfiction

 

I had great reading in this category  this year, as you will see:

 

Death in the Air: The True Story of a Serial Killer, the Great London Smog, and the Strangling of a City, by Kate Winkler Dawson. I never go a chance to blog about this book, but trust  me – it’s a terrific story.

Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards. This book is responsible for greatly enriching my reading of crime fiction this year.

Henry David Thoreau: A Life, by Laura Dassow Walls. And what a life it was: edifying and enriching, and way too short.

American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land, by Monica Hesse

The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape, by James Rebanks. Okay, so for a while, I got kind of obsessed with Mr. Rebanks and his pastoral life in the north of England. Blame it mostly on those wonderful border collies.

The Opium Eater: A Life of Thomas de Quincey, By Grevel Lindop

The Witness Tree: Seasons of Change with a Century-Old Oak, by Lynda V. Mapes

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, by David Grann

Mrs. Sherlock Holmes: The True Story of New York City’s Greatest Female Detective and the 1917 Missing Girl Case That Captivated a Nation,  by Brad Ricca

Incendiary: The Psychiatrist, the Mad Bomber, and the Invention of Criminal Profiling, by Michael Cannell

A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies, and a Murder Plot at the Heart of the Establishment, by John Preston

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson. What can I say? I felt a need for a change of pace. And yes, I did read every word of it. How much I actually understood is open to question, but Neil deGrasse Tyson is such an entertaining raconteur, it didn’t really matter:

   As the universe continued to cool, the amount of energy available for the spontaneous creation of basic particles dropped. During the hadron era, ambient photons could no longer invoke E=mc^2 to manufacture quark-antiquark pairs. Not only that, the photons that emerged from all the remaining annihilations lost energy to the ever-expanding universe, dropping below the threshold  required to create hadron-antihadron pairs. For every billion annihilations–leaving a billion photons in their wake–a single hadron survived. Those loners would get to have all the fun: serving as the ultimate source of matter to create galaxies, stars, planets, and petunias.

At this point I find I must give a shout-out to the Wall Street Journal for its selection of the Ten “Books of the Year.”  In Fiction, the editors included, among others, Joan Silber’s Improvement; in Nonfiction, both Laura Dassow Walls’s biography of Thoreau and Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann made the cut. (To access the full text of Wall Street Journal articles, use the Proquest database. It can be accessed on the Howard County Library site, and at other academic and public libraries.)

Part Two of this post will be forthcoming – but first I must return to London….

 

 

 

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Best Reading in 2017: Classic Crime

December 1, 2017 at 10:44 pm (Best of 2017, books, Mystery fiction)

Before I blast off for London town, here’s a shout-out for the year’s most rewarding reading experience; namely, my immersion in vintage and classic works of crime fiction, facilitated by this singularly excellent volume by Martin Edwards:

I’ve already written about several titles suggested therein, but here  are the are again, with new ones added to the mix.

These three were highly enjoyable:

  

  

These, even more so:

features a wonderfully atmospheric setting in the Scottish Highlands

Wonderful turn of the century setting on the continent, with a plot inspired by an actual crime

Click here for my review of this title.

If I had to choose my absolute favorites thus far, it would be these three:

Egyptian mysteries, terrific writing, a cunning plot, and a love story – The Eye of Osiris has all of these elements, and more.

Where Israel Rank is concerned, it’s a classic case of being amazed not to have heard of this book before now. Israel Rank is a young man on the make – and then some. His father is Jewish, and so he is set apart, to a certain degree, at the outset. The accusation of anti-Semitism is frequently made in regard to this novel. Certainly, as the narrative unfolds, the fact of Rank’s Jewish heritage is alluded to from time to time, by himself and by others. Certain unwarranted generalizations are made. I personally was made slightly uneasy at times, but I was never offended. My verdict: the author skates close to the territory, but never actually goes in.

Martin Edwards describes the novel as “edgy and provocative.” I agree with that assessment.

Israel Rank has been adapted both as a film and a Broadway show. The film is from 1949 and is entitled Kind Hearts and Coronets. In it, Alec Guinness  portrays no fewer than nine different characters! The name ‘Israel Rank’ is changed to ‘Louis Mazzini;’ accordingly, he became half Italian rather than half Jewish. I’ve not had a chance to see the film yet, but I hope to soon.   The Broadway musical is entitled A Gentleman’s Guide To Love and Murder. I’ve not seen that either, though my cousin Stephany, a Broadway aficionado par excellence, has seen it and declares it to be quite wonderful.

It’s one of the most recognized name in all of crime fiction. Yet I’d never read a single book by Ellery Queen before now.

What was I waiting for?

I loved Calamity Town. It has everything I look for in a mystery: ingenious plotting, believable and often sympathetic characters, excellent writing, a love story – or a hint of the possibility of one – it’s all here, in abundance. The novel is set in the small New England town of Wrightsville – there are, I believe, several others with the same setting.

The Ellery Queen novels were authored jointly by two men professionally known as Frederic Dannay and Manfred B.Lee.

Manfred B. Lee, left, and Frederic Dannay

Lee and Dannay were two cousins straight out of Brooklyn, that cauldron of American talent (or in a few cases, notoriety).    In addition to writing their own novels and short stories, they anthologized the work of other notable writers.  And of course there’s Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, launched by the Mercury Press in 1941 and still going strong today more than 70 years later. Frederic Dannay was editor-in-chief up until his death in 1982. According to Wikipedia, “It is now the longest-running mystery fiction magazine in existence.”

Michael Grost of A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection has a lengthy and detailed entry for Ellery Queen. In it, he states bluntly: “They are the most important American detective writers of the Twentieth Century.”

So thanks, Martin Edwards. It’s good to know that I have lots more reading pleasure awaiting me, courtesy of your splendidly curated list!

Martin Edwards

 

 

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