Best of 2017

As always I read so many great books, it was hard to choose just 10 (so I chose 11!). In their own category are William Kent Krueger and Louise Penny, both of whom write such consistently wonderful novels I started to feel they were beyond the top 10 list! Never the less both writers turned in beautiful books this year – Krueger’s Sulfur Springs takes Cork to Arizona on the hunt for his new wife’s son in a great novel that also takes a look at immigration issues and the border wall; Penny’s Glass Houses, also typically excellent, finds Gamache back as head of the Surete and investigating matters of conscience as well as a look at the drug problems rife in Western society at the moment (adding to a number of novels I read this year addressing the drug crisis). Both of these writers, with their beloved characters, gorgeous prose, and timely themes only continue to get better. But on to the list, which includes new writers as well as old friends. Happy reading!

The Murder Book, Jane A. Adams

He was an outsider here in an even deeper sense that in the market town. He had come to realize that Elijah Hanson had called him in only for the look of things… had there been a way of taking care of this business themselves, the community would have done so. He found it unsettling – not their suspicion, which was really commonplace enough – but the sense that he was not really needed, that his version of the law was a mere veneer. Civilization applied as a thin whitewash to the village walls.

I loved this look at the countryside of 1928 Britain, where the “murder detectives” from Scotland Yard are called in to investigate a case that seems to tread on too many tricky toes for the locals to handle. Adams gives a nuanced look at both her main character – who is portrayed in the beginning as a capable officer, as observed by his coworker, as well as an arrogant presence by the townspeople he’s investigating. This is truly a slice of British life not often examined, and well worth a look.

Death in St. Petersburg, Tasha Alexander

From a distance, the crimson spray coloring the snow looked more like scattered rose petals than evidence of a grisly murder… Perhaps St. Petersburg required elegance even in death.

I love Tasha Alexander, but this may be my favorite of all her books. Lady Emily is in Russia merely as a companion to Colin as he works on a case, but after a night at the ballet and the discovery of a dead ballerina in the snow, Emily is inevitably asked to investigate. Filled with detail about ballet culture as well as depicting Tsarist Russia, this book, which even includes a “ghost ballerina” is so much fun it’s swoon-worthy.

The Marsh King’s Daughter, Karen Dionne

…while I did learn to read thanks to a stack of National Geographic magazines from the 1950s and a yellowed edition of the collected poems of Robert Frost, I never went to school, never rode a bicycle, never knew electricity or running water. The only people I spoke to during those twelve years were my mother and father. That I didn’t know we were captives until we were not.

The standout, breakout novel of 2017 is certainly Dionne’s heartfelt masterpiece about a young girl, Helena, who lives in a remote spot of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where her father, it turns out, has been keeping her mother captive for years. Living without electricity of running water, the little family survives on what they make and hunt; and as the book is structured, the young girl who worships her father grows into a young woman who begins to question his cruelty and ultimately escapes his clutches. This novel is beautifully structured and beautifully written, and with the character of Helena, Dionne has created an indelible classic.

The Trickster’s Lullaby, Barbara Fradkin

The woman, and her son, needed help, and Amanda hated to turn her back. Had always hated to turn her back on need.

This novel, set during the brutal Canadian winter, is the second novel featuring former international aid worker Amanda Doucette. She’s organized a winter camping trip aiming to help acclimate marginalized high school students, many of them Muslim, to their new Canadian cultural home. When one of them disappears, the book becomes a bravura chase novel, but it’s also speaking to Fradkin’s central question of how a young person growing up in comfortable Canada becomes an extremist. Both a pure detective novel and a bravura slice of nature writing, this is also a thoughtful social novel populated with memorable characters.

The Dry, Jane Harper

The late afternoon heat draped itself around him like a blanket. He snatched open the backseat door to grab his jacket, searing his hand in the process. After the briefest hesitation, he grabbed his hat from the seat. Wide-brimmed in stiff brown canvas, it didn’t go with his funeral suit. But with skin the blue hue of skim milk and a cancerous-looking cluster of freckles the rest, Falk was prepared to risk the fashion faux-pas.

Set during a recent Australian draught, The Dry features Melbourne financial detective Aaron Falk, who has returned to his tiny hometown to attend the funeral of his best friend, who has apparently slaughtered both his family and himself. The setting, hot and relentless, informs every paragraph of this stunning and unforgettable story. Falk works lone wolf style to try and figure out if his former friend was really capable of the ultimate horror, digging up his painful backstory as he goes. You won’t be able to stop reading this incredible debut.

Give the Devil His Due, Steve Hockensmith

I believe it was the noted paranormal researcher Ray Parker Jr. who best summed up my feelings about hauntings: “I ain’t afraid of no ghost,” as he so sagely put it… I am, like him, not afraid of any ghosts. Because I don’t believe in them. Which is why, when I found myself talking to a dead man recently, I didn’t scream, didn’t faint, didn’t reach for the phone… I just tried to do a little mental recalibration.

I’ve enjoyed all Hockensmith’s novels set in a tarot reader’s store front in tiny Berdache, Arizona, as central character Alanis tries to right the wrongs of her con artist mother along with her half sister, the teenaged, blue-haired Clarice. This one is my favorite, though, as Alanis sees someone she thought was long dead and winds up in a Westlake-style caper involving a painting of Elvis on velvet, an elderly hit woman, and an assortment of suitors. In tone, style, humor, character and plot, this novel is simply perfection. 

Let Darkness Bury the Dead, Maureen Jennings

The grey November day had seemed endless, filled with trivial pieces of police officialdom: a variety of fines, numerous licenses, several detectives’ schedules. Murdoch had to sign off on all of them. On days like this he wondered if his position as senior detective was really worth it.

Maureen Jennings returns to Detective Murdoch after a 10 year hiatus, finding Murdoch older (mid-50s) and dealing with an estranged son back from the war. It’s 1917, and Jack has been gassed at the front; it’s obvious to Murdoch he is not himself. As Murdoch tries to re-adjust to his son, he’s also investigating an apparently unrelated string of murders of young men. As always, Jennings casts a wide net, and her picture of wartime Toronto is incredibly vivid; the portrait of Murdoch and his son is unforgettable. Another bravura turn from a great writer.

August Snow, Stephen Mack Jones

Of course, in our house, these poets had to share shelf space with classic noir gumshoes, who stood shoulder-to-hardbound-shoulder with the interminably boring and occasionally grotesque: weighty tomes on police procedure and criminal law… there were mysteries by Dashiell Hammett, Arthur Conan Doyle and Raymond Chandler and first-edition signed copies of Rudolph Fisher and Chester Himes. And there were programs from the five August Wilson plays we had seen as a family at the Fisher Theater in downtown Detroit.

I love a great debut novel, and when it’s a P.I. novel set in Detroit, it can hardly be improved upon. August Snow is the central character in Jones’ deft private eye novel, a welcome addition to the dearth of characters of color in the mystery universe. Happily it’s also simply a great read, with former cop August re-acclimating to life in Mexican town and solving a case that reaches into the upper echelons of society. What could be more classic? August is a worthy companion to Estleman’s Amos Walker in every way, including a lovely prose style that indicates Jones’ other identity as a poet.

Fast Falls the Night, Julia Keller

It had been a strange summer. The heat never really settled in. Throughout June and July and the first two weeks of August the weather seemed to be in a sort of trance, a holding pattern, as if it was waiting for a secret signal to let loose and intensify… this year, though, things were different, temperatures remained moderate. And yet people could not quite trust this moderation.

Julia Keller goes from strength to strength, and her books are almost always informed by contemporary social issues. This novel looks at a 24-hour period in tiny Acker’s Gap, West Virginia, when the overwhelmed police department, health services, and over all community are dealing with a record number of heroin overdoses, some of them fatal. Keller crafts a tight story as well as a heartbreaking and unforgettable one, and it could not be more timely. Recommended: Kleenex at the ready.

Dying to Live, Michael Stanley

Detective Sergeant Segodi looked down at the dead Bushman and frowned. He didn’t have much time for the diminutive people of the Kalahari. Somehow they always caused trouble, whether they meant to or not, and this was a case in point.

One of the strongest entries in the enjoyable Detective Kubu series set in Botswana, this one finds Kubu investigating the death of an elderly bushman who, on examination, appears to have the organs of a young man. The trail takes him on the hunt for witch doctors selling a plant that’s supposed to grant a very long life. As always this is a nice balance of Kubu’s mostly happy home life (he’s dealing with a sick child in this outing) and a really hard edged story, while at the same time delving deeply into African culture. A bravura effort.

Never Let You Go, Chevy Stevens

I stared into the mirror. Tried to remember how to arrange my lips so I didn’t look so scared, softened the muscles around my eyes, rubbed at the smeared mascara. It didn’t matter how many times I told him I hadn’t been flirting with the man. I might as well have been shouting into the ocean.

Chevy Stevens is always good, frequently disturbing, and never forgettable. This novel focuses on Lindsey and her daughter, with a thread illustrating Lindsay’s life as an abused wife, and one illustrating her present life as she and her daughter live free of the abusive husband. As the novel opens he’s just gotten out of prison and wants to know his daughter better. Lindsey is terrified; her daughter, more naïve, not so much. Stevens in an incredible empath who really gets inside the heads of her characters, and this suspenseful novel is also a penetrating look at the way women are all too often treated. It’s also a twisty mystery novel with a plot turn you won’t see coming. Good luck trying to stop reading.

Also recommended: Lee Child’s knockout Reacher novel, The Midnight Line; Elly Griffiths’ excellent The Chalk Pit; the long anticipated and spectacular return of Deborah Crombie, with The Garden of Lamentations; Rhys Bowen’s too much fun On Her Majesty’s Frightfully Secret Service; Sharon Bolton’s tightly knit thriller, Dead Woman Walking, that will surely put you off hot air balloon rides; and yet another great cozy from E.J. Copperman, The Dog Dish of Death.

Authors recommend: I always like to ask authors what they enjoyed in the past year. This year we heard from Lori Rader-Day. She recommends House, Tree, Person, by Catriona McPherson and A Negro and an Ofay by Danny Gardner.

Readers recommend: Roxie Weaver, Ann Arbor: The Woman in Cabin 10, Ruth Ware; The Wrong Side of Goodbye, Michael Connelly; Redemption Road, John Hart; Camino Island, John Grisham; The Fix, David Baldacci; Sulfur Springs, William Kent Krueger; Night School, Lee Child; You Will Know Me, Megan Abbott; The Day I Died, Lori Rader-Day; and The Expats, Chris Pavone.

Joyce Simowski, Canton: Hunting Hour, Margaret Mizushima.

Linda Kimmel, Ann Arbor: Death in St. Petersburg, Tasha Alexander; A Conspiracy in Belgravia, Sherry Thomas; The Essence of Malice, Ashley Weaver; The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes, Leonard Goldberg; The Case of the Counterfeit Criminals, Jordan Stafford (Young Adult); A Perilous Undertaking, Deanna Raybourn; No Living Soul, Julie Moffett and This Side of Murder, Anna Lee Huber.

Rob Weaver, Ann Arbor: The Kind Worth Killing, Peter Swanson; The Redbreast, Jo Nesbo; The Obsidian Chamber, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child; The Drifter, Nicholas Petrie; Mississippi Blood, Greg Iles; Iron Horse, John Hart; The Wrong Side of Goodbye, Michael Connelly; The Lost City of the Monkey God, Douglas Preston; The Marsh King’s Daughter, Karen Dionne and A Legacy of Spies, John LeCarre.

Emily Milner, Ann Arbor: The Marsh King’s Daughter, Karen Dionne,

Tori Booker, Ann Arbor: Missing, Presumed, Susie Steiner; The Drifter, Nicholas Petrie; The Girl Before, JP Delaney; Behind Her Eyes, Sarah Pinborough and Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie.

Mimi Cunningham, East Lansing: Rhys Bowen, “just fun to read”; Patricia Wentworth, Harlan Coben.

Lizzie Solway, Cincinnati: “Always Kent (Krueger)’s are at the top of my list. And his newest (Sulfur Springs) is no exception.”

Sue Trowbridge, California: The Long Firm, Jake Arnott; The Widow, Fiona Barton; Rubbernecker, Belinda Bauer; The Marsh King’s Daughter, Karen Dionne; The Night Bird, Brian Freeman; The Dry, Jane Harper; Before the Fall, Noah Hawley; Celine, Peter Heller; Magpie Murders, Anthony Horowitz; The Secrets She Keeps, Michael Robotham.

Vicki Kondelik, Ann Arbor: Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, Alan Bradley; Buried in the Country, Carola Dunn; The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes, Leonard Goldberg; The Flood, David Hewson; This Side of Murder, Anna Lee Huber; The Paris Spy, Susan Elia MacNeal; Devil’s Breath, G.M. Malliet; Glass Houses, Louise Penny; Forgotten City, Carrie Smith and Murder on Morningside Heights, Victoria Thompson.