Best of 2011

Every year, one of my favorite tasks is assembling my Top 10 List, which usually (actually always) involves winnowing and eliminating –  at the end of the list, there are even more titles I really enjoyed.  This year I’m moving two perennials to the “Emeritus” category – Louise Penny and William Kent Krueger – they are almost always on the list so, while including the wonderful book each of them wrote this year, I’ve left room for 10 other titles as well.  Happy reading!

Now You See Me, S.J. Bolton, Minotaur, $25.99.

“We lie to dying people, I realized that evening, just as the first sirens sounded in the distance.”

Bolton goes from strength to strength, delivering an original read every time.  While her first three books were set in remote British locations, this one takes place in London, and is a straight up police procedural – or is it?  As the cops working what quickly become obvious are copies of Jack the Ripper’s killings, it’s also obvious that the killer is fixated on one of the policewomen, who the rest of the squad keeps under close watch.  What isn’t clear is – is she being watched because they think she’s connected to the killer, or because they’re worried about her?  Or both?  Bolton keeps you guessing, and this is a wonderfully twisty thriller with her trademark wonderful use of setting.  What also sets this book apart is her look at the crimes, and at the work of the policewomen involved, through a gender lens.  It’s not a polemic, but it gives the reader a female-centric view of crime, not only the murder cases, but also some rape cases in a correlated thread.  You could also just read this book because it’s a terrific thriller.  Either way, this is not an author to be missed.

Killed at the Whim of a Hat, Colin Cotterill, Minotaur, $24.99.

“A number of lands around the globe have what they refer to as a southern temperament.  Thailand is no exception.  Old Mel could surely have gone running off screaming for help…But he was a southerner.  He broke off a stem of sweet grass to chew while he sat on the concrete segment and gazed into the abyss.”

Colin Cotterill has transplanted the charm and humor of his Dr. Siri series to his now native Thailand, and created an entirely new family of eccentrics for readers to love.  His gentle and ironic touch is unchanged, though his new central character, Jimm Juree, is a young woman instead of a 70-something man like Dr. Siri. Jimm lives with her family in crowded Chang Mai, and as the story opens she discovers her mother has sold the family business and bought a resort in the middle of nowhere.  The photos of the Gulf Bay Lovely Resort and Restaurant made it look beautiful; the reality is slightly different.  A former crime beat reporter, Jimm is bored by the tiny fishing village where the resort is located.  However, she is delighted when two skeletons are discovered buried in a VW bus, and as she explores the mystery, she also begins to love her new town.  She shares the stage with her eccentric and strong willed mother, her grandfather, who rarely speaks, and her brother, Arny, a sensitive 31 year old virgin and bodybuilder.  The story is clever and surprisingly complicated, tied together with chapter epigraphs taken directly from the lips of George W. Bush, whose malapropisms are somehow wildly appropriate to Jimm’s new life in the provinces.  The gentle interplay of the family – the grandfather who starts to speak; the mother who appears to be getting forgetful and is sneaking around in some kind of Ninja costume, and the changing love fortunes of the shy and awkward Arny – are the true heart of the book.  This is one of the reads of the year.

Murder Season, Robert Ellis, Minotaur, $25.99.

“She could smell it in the pillow as she pulled it closer.  On the sheets as she rolled over in the darkness and searched out cool spots that were not there.  Murder Season.  She was floating, drifting.  Cruising through an open seam between sleep and consciousness.”

If there is a writer to resemble, it might be a good idea to resemble Michael Connelly. It is no disrespect to say that Robert Ellis’ tightly plotted police procedurals set in LA and featuring homicide detective Lena Gamble resemble Connelly’s Harrry Bosch novels. However, the gender change up makes the whole enterprise fresh. Ellis happily also shares Connelly’s sharp plotting and ability to give the reader a twist that has been fairly laid out for the reader, yet is still a surprise.  I think police novels are the modern equivalent of the private eye novel – the police in contemporary mysteries often think and operate somewhat outside the box, much like an old school private eye – so using the old P.I. tropes are a natural fit. Ellis embellishes the tropes and makes them his own, and one of the ways he does this is with evocative prose.  In this tricky story involving a notorious Hollywood murder case, Lena has much territory to navigate, with the help/hindrance of an old cop on the way down.  In true noir fashion, she’s never sure who to trust, but the reader can easily trust Lena, whose smarts never lead her in the wrong direction.  Beautifully written and plotted, it would truly be a shame to miss this wonderful novel.

The Janus Stone, Elly Griffiths, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25.00.

“Love is always a force for good…Your love for your wife and daughters, for this woman and her unborn baby.  Even your wife’s kindness toward her.  These are all good things…love is always a blessing.”

So many people I respected told me to check out Elly Griffiths I finally did, and boy, am I hooked on Ruth Galloway.  She’s fabulous.  Unapologetically overweight, with no interest in clothes, Ruth instead focuses on her fascinating job as an archaeologist.  Set on the coast of England, Ruth lives in a remote location, and she’s a convenient expert whenever bones are discovered – in this novel, some are Roman, some are more recent.  When I read the first book, The Crossing Places, I liked it so much that I ordered 25 copies right away and proceeded to hand sell them.  I can safely say every reader I’ve introduced to Ruth is looking forward to the January publication of The House by the Sea. These books, aside from featuring a great character – in fact many great characters – also have a good, complex story and a lovely setting and background.  I think I’m a life time fan.

Buffalo West Wing, Julie Hyzy, Berkley Prime Crime, $7.99 (paperback original).

“Two hours later, I had rehashed every moment of the kids’ disastrous first visit to the kitchen a hundred times.  No matter how you cut the cheesecake, there was no way I could have served those wings.”

I always like to include a book on this list that’s simply the most fun I had “between the covers” all year.  For me, it was this book, the 4th in Hyzy’s wildly entertaining series set in the White House Kitchen.  In this one, executive Chef Olivia Paras gets a new boss in the form of a new first family, and the new first lady is skeptical, as are her children.  Olivia tries her hardest to please her new bosses, big and small,  but an incident early on sours things, and it takes a kidnaping toward the end of the book to get the first family on Olivia’s side.  I found this entry as funny and fast paced as the others but also surprisingly moving. Hyzy really seems to have hit her storytelling stride.

Season of Darkness, Maureen Jennings, McClelland & Stewart, $22.95.

“Dawn was starting to seep through the trees and the exercise was getting the blood flowing.  She kicked her feet off the pedals and did a little swoop from side to side just for fun.  Whoopee!  There was something to be said about this war.  She’d never have this experience stuck in the filthy London back-to-back housing where she’d grown up.”

Maureen Jennings hits the ball out of the park with this first book in a planned trilogy set during WWII England, and helmed by local policeman Tom Tyler.  This tiny Shropshire town is populated not only by an interment camp for Germans – mainly intellectuals, one of them a student of Freud – but it’s also full of Land Girls, the young women who helped to bring the crops in all over Britain during the war.  When a body of a Land Girl is found with a mysterious bunch of white poppies, it takes all of Tom Tyler’s instincts and some help from the Freudian to help unravel what becomes a series of killings.  The killing are tied in a complex way to the town, with emotional repercussions for many of its citizens.  A master at complex plotting, wonderful characters, and a vibrant setting, it’s wonderful to see the talented Jennings at work on a new series.

Northwest Angle, William Kent Krueger, Atria, $24.99.

“He woke long before it was necessary, had wakened in this way for weeks, troubled and afraid.  A dull illumination came through the houseboat window into the cabin he shared with his son.  Not light exactly.  More the promise of light.  False dawn…”

Krueger uses one of his trademarks – a high drama weather event, tied to an emotional one – to great effect here.  As Cork O’Connor’s family is enjoying a vacation in a secluded area called the Northwest Angle, a storm comes up and Cork and his daughter Jenny are separated from the rest of the group, and for a time, from each other.  While alone, Jenny finds both a dead body and a baby, and the first half of the novel is a bravura chase sequence, with Cork and Jenny’s main goal keeping the foundling safe.  Skillfully balancing a complex story, some deep emotional threads, and a beautiful rendering of the north woods and waters, Krueger’s book is also simply a wonderful, well written thriller.  It’s another great read from one of our top notch contemporary crime writers.

The Girl in the Green Raincoat, Laura Lippman, William Morrow, $11.99.

“Overdo a slow waddle to the bathroom!  This made no sense to Tess.  Raucous fun could be overdone.  Drinking could be overdone.  High-fat food could be overdone, even exercise.  But a ten-foot walk to the bathroom?”

This slender paperback, culled from a serial that appeared first in the New York Times, is such a perfect book in its own way that I had to include it.  In this book Tess is pregnant and on forced bed rest (something she’s not taking well), and with a bravura nod to Hitchcock’s Rear Window, the bedridden Tess uncovers a mystery as she watches the action unfold outside her front window.  At the same time it allows Lippman to have almost every important-to-Tess character come through the door, and she gives them each their own chapter, so as a reader you learn more about series stalwarts like Mrs. Blossom, Whitney, Lloyd, her Dad, and Crow. While Lippman works with very familiar tropes, she makes them fresh, sometimes through originality of character, sometimes through humor, and always with a snap of her crisp plotting skills. Moving, fast paced, and clever, this is a purely delightful read, and if you are a Tess Monaghan fan, one not to be missed.

A Trick of the Light, Louise Penny, Minotaur, $25.99.

“Was this how dreadful things started? Peter wondered.  Not with a thunder clap.  Not with a shriek.  Not with sirens, but with a smile?  Something horrible come calling, wrapped in civility and good manners.”

Penny’s latest novel is a long awaited look at the marriage and careers of series characters Peter and Clara, both artists.  As the book opens, most of Three Pines is headed to Clara’s gallery opening in Montreal.  When one of Clara’s old frenemies (and former art critic) Lillian Dyson turned up dead in Clara’s garden the day after the art opening, all hell breaks loose.  While Penny hews to almost golden age conventions in some ways (her story set ups) her emotional truths and revelations are far more contemporary, and this novel is a mediation on jealousy and it’s destructiveness in any kind of relationship.  The mystery part is as skillful as ever, but here is also the trademark beautiful prose and memorable characterizations Penny’s readers have come to expect, as well as her ultimately optimistic viewpoint. Long may she write.

Children of the Street, Kwei Quartey, Random House, $15.00.

“Every time he came home, Dawson felt a surge of thankfulness, like the swell of a wave. The little house was a sanctuary, armor against the wickedness of the crime he dealt with every day.  A bit of a fortress too.  His police sense had led him to burglarproof the house to the extreme.”

I hear Kwei’s series hasn’t been picked up, and that’s a real shame because both his novels, set in Ghana and featuring Detective Darko, are knockouts.  This book moves him to the head of the class as Darko is in his home city of Accra, dealing with the deaths of the some of the incredible number of street children there.  While giving the reader a heartbreaking picture of the city, he also gives a balanced one, as Darko’s own family life, while not uncomplicated, is far from bleak, and he loves his wife and son.  Darko is one of my favorite new mystery characters, as he’s not uncomplicated himself – he has anger issues, a little problem with pot, a bit of a wandering eye, and he can “hear” a lie in someone’s voice – and at the same time he’s a very smart and capable policeman.  The novel moves at a fast pace with lots of clues scattered throughout, as Quartey is also a devotee of the classic mystery.  I’m truly hoping Detective Darko and his creator find a new publishing home, as I was looking forward to many more outings.

The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayes, Marcus Sakey, Dutton, $25.95.

“A blurry week ago he had woken on one coast.  It had been cold and gray and lonely, beautiful in a desolate sort of way.  It had nearly killed him, and maybe he had wanted it to.”

This book, like all of Sakey’s novels, was impossible to put down, and like the best of them, it also carries some emotional heft.  Daniel Hayes wakes up on one side of the country with no memory (or clothes) – but finds a convenient BMW nearby, with clothes that fit – and he drives the car back to Los Angeles, which feels like home to him.  As his memory comes back to him in bits and pieces he starts to remember that he was married to a fairly well known television star, she’s dead, and he’s the main suspect.  As Sakey teases out Daniel’s memories, as a reader, you’re working as hard as Daniel, since what you’re working with is no different from what Daniel is working with.  Daniel is a writer, and Sakey uses that skill to help him figure out what’s going on. The thoughtfulness that Sakey brings to his explication of memory, desire, love and loyalty as a part of Daniel’s quest adds to the book’s depth. Sakey is also a gifted prose stylist.  He makes his prose simple but it’s crisp and memorable, with never a misplaced word.  A Sakey novel is always something worth celebrating, especially when it’s as good as this one.

One Was a Soldier, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Minotaur, $24.99

“Are you kidding?”  She looked around with lively interest.  “I’ve never been in the Dew Drop Inn before.”  “For a very good reason.  This piss-hole is no place for a- a – “ ”Officer?  Lady? Priest?”  “A nice Episcopalian.”

I think I can safely say there was no more anticipated return to the mystery reading community than that of Clare Fergusson and her creator, Julia Spencer-Fleming.  Happily, this book is not a disappointment, but a great, sprawling, complex read, one that finds Clare back from Iraq, planning her wedding to Russ.  Her return is complicated by her struggles with addiction. Her membership in a returning vets support group illuminates different folks in town as Spencer-Fleming skillfully weaves her story to include a wide swath of Miller’s Kill, New York.  The emotional wallop of this novel is huge, as Spencer-Fleming spares heartbreak neither in her stories of the veterans, nor in her depiction of Clare’s struggle.  When there’s a murder in town, with ties to the vet’s group, Clare of course gets involved, more or less shutting Russ out, in classic addict behavior.  Things are coming right by the end of the novel, but not before a lot of emotional struggle and heartbreak.  The narrative is complex and tricky, as Spencer-Fleming continues to proves that she’s also a devotee of the traditional mystery structure.  I’m already looking forward to Clare’s next appearance.

Also recommended:

Wicked Autumn (Minotaur), G.M. Malliett’s sly take on the village cozy; Dogs Don’t Lie (Poisoned Pen), Clea Simon’s original story about a woman who “hears” what animals are thinking; Motor City Shakedown (Minotaur), D.E. Johnson’s sophomore effort set in 1911 Detroit; Winged Obsession (William Morrow), Jessica Speart’s compulsive read about the world of butterfly collecting; and Killing Kate (Atria), Julie Kramer’s latest and scariest Riley Spartz outing.

Customer & Staff Picks

A few commonalities here – Alan Bradley, Louise Penny, Jacqueline Winspear, and Elly Griffiths.

Linda Kimmel, Ann Arbor: Alan Bradley, I am Half-Sick of Shadows; Jacqueline Winspear, A Lesson in Secrets; Tasha Alexander, A Crimson Warning; Deanna Raybourn, The Dark Enquiry; Rhys Bowen, Naughty in Nice; Louise Penny, A Trick of the Light; Elly Griffiths, The Janus Stone.

Vicki Kondelik, Ann Arbor: Susanne Allyen, The Cavalier of the Apocalypse, Alan Bradley, A Red Herring Without Mustard; Casey Donis, Crying Blood; Elly Griffiths, The Crossing Places; David Hewson, The Fallen Angel; Camilla Lackburg, The Ice Princess; Elizabeth Loupas, The Second Duchess; Louise Penny, A Trick of the Light; Judith Rock, The Rhetoric of Death; Jeri Westerson, Troubled Bones.

David Andrew Speer, via facebook: Starvation Lake, Bryan Gruley.

Becky Felan Frieseman, via facebook: Now You See Me, S.J. Bolton.

Mary Treusch, via facebook: Cypress House, Michael Koryta.

Lisa Arnsdorf, Ann Arbor: The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag, Alan Bradley; The Janus Stone, Elly Griffiths.

Tori Booker, Ann Arbor: The Brutal Telling, Louise Penny; Still Missing, C. Stevens; Hellhound on His Trail, Hampton Sides.

Maria Parker, North Carolina: Alastair Sim, The Unbelievers; Ruth Rendell, Portobello; Reginald Hill, Midnight Fugue & The Woodcutter; Jacqueline Winspear, A Lesson in Secrets; Kate Atkinson, When Will There be Good News; Mark Billingham, Death Message; Ruth Rendell, Tigerlily’s Orchids; Anne Perry, Treason at Lisson Grove; Peter Lovesey, Stage Struck; Anne Perry, Acceptable Loss; Kate Atkinson, Case Histories.