Thursday, December 31, 2009

Best Books of 2009: Fiction

A Friend of the Family by Lauren Grodstein (Algonquin Books) 304 pages
Not long ago, I reviewed this book in these pages with unbridled enthusiasm, and I'm mentioning it again to drive home the fact that this is truly among the best books of the year. A searing portrait of two families in crisis, Lauren Grodstein’s novel is filled with characters as real as you are and conflicts that both define and undermine them. Her writing is crisp, insightful, and heartbreaking, particularly as we watch Pete Dizinoff, her protagonist, go over the edge of sanity to project his son and his family. What might seem like an easy, quiet, even unassuming book is anything but. You won’t soon forget A Friend of the Family. -- Tony Buchsbaum

The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (Doubleday) 470 pages
The fact that The Angel’s Game didn’t quite deliver on expectation -- due either to this author’s previous novel, the sensational The Shadow of the Wind, or to the excitement generated by the book’s flawless first half -- it was still impossibly wonderful, unforgettable and, in a way, unknowable. After it was done, I found that I adored The Angel’s Game, warts and all. In 1920s Barcelona, young hack novelist David Martin receives a compelling offer: the opportunity to write a book above and beyond anything that has come before. He is promised a fortune but that doesn’t even touch the possibilities: it is a book for which “people will live and die.” Though he initially refuses, he is ultimately worn down and sets to work on the book of a lifetime. More: the book of all lifetimes. The Angel’s Game is, in a way, more than the sum of its parts and even Barcelona is a mysterious and magical character. Zafon is the second most read Spanish author of all time (Cervantes gets the title) and it’s not difficult to see why. The Angel’s Game is intricate and intelligent, complicated yet human, magical yet somewhat grounded in reality. Another masterwork. I expected no less. -- Linda L. Richards

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick (Algonquin Books) 291 pages
I reviewed A Reliable Wife for January Magazine last March, and its magic remains with me even now. For me, that alone makes it one of the year’s best. In a world where we read constantly, bombarded by books, to have one stand out is really something. Goolrick’s fiction debut begins on a freezing Wisconsin train platform in 1907. A man receives the wife he’s advertised for, but he gets a whole lot more than he bargained for. He gets a woman with a past and a mission, neither of which he wants. Goolrick builds the suspense until your fingers almost bleed, aching to turn the pages ever faster, until the climax is released with a power that's nearly unbearable. In A Reliable Wife, the author has provided a truly reliable read, and it will leave you wondering why no one’s thought up this simple, tantalizing story before. More, please. -- Tony Buchsbaum

The Book of Fathers by Miklos Vamos (Other Press) 474 pages
Hungarian literary superstar Miklos Vamos here delivers an almost mind-bendingly complex tale. The Book of Fathers is an epic family story that spans 12 generations and almost 300 years. The whole is structured as a family saga -- and each generation’s first-born son bears the weight of the narrative. Vamos touches on almost all of the big ideas: religion and spirituality, politics, music and time. A printer, Cornelius Csillag, is murdered in 1706 and his grandson takes up the family record -- The Book of Fathers -- that Cornelius began. They are, in many ways, an unremarkable family in the way that most families are unremarkable. No royalty or wealthy industrialists among them. As the family works its way through the generations, the history of Hungary -- seldom unremarkable -- spins out around them. In a skillful way, the background becomes a more vibrant character than the humans who walk through it. The Book of Fathers was published in Hungary in 2000 where it has sold 200,000 copies and has since been translated in 13 languages. -- Aaron Blanton

The City & the City by China Miéville (Del Rey) 336 pages
When I reviewed the City & the City mid-way through the year, I honestly felt as though I hadn’t liked it as well as I should have. After all, I have nothing but admiration for author China Miéville (Perdido Street Station, Un Lun Dun) and, even when I reviewed that book I said that I was “disappointed in myself to have been disappointed by The City & the City, a book that I know is better than I think it is.” And it is. Since then, my mind has gone back to Miéville’s disturbing world again and again. In The City & the City, he pushes at the boundaries of both speculative fiction and classic 20th-century noir. Set in a somewhat recognizable world with a starkly Eastern European feel, the two cities referred to in the title are Beszel and Ul Qoma, two places that happen to be in the same place at one time. Citizens of both cities are forbidden to see each other or acknowledge each other’s presence, even though there are circumstances where denizens of both places can be seen. At those times, it is both law and etiquette to unsee the other party and never say you’ve seen anything at all. Now clearly, a murder investigation under such circumstances is going to be a challenge. For one thing, there’s a whole city of potential suspects right over there and you may not ask them where they were or what they’ve seen. Miéville writes beautifully. Few can come close to his way with both meter and metaphor. He seems to hit the dark and gritty noir tone effortlessly and -- aside from the weird circumstances of the city -- his characters are believable and even pleasantly flawed. I remain in awe of this writer. His books are consistently riveting, and he seldom lets you walk away from his work unscathed. -- Lincoln Cho

and My Father’s Tears and Other Stories by John Updike (Knopf)
The Grand Master of Suburban Lit saved the best for last. When John Updike succumbed to lung cancer early in 2009, the world lost one of its best chroniclers of marriage and infidelity. He left behind two parting gifts for his devoted readers, however: the poetry of Endpoint and the short stories of My Father’s Tears. Both are remarkable for their flawless language and portraits of men and women nervously stumbling through life. Either book would have reaped deserved praise if Updike had lived to see their publication, but coming like a literary eulogy, they are all the more resonant. In the poem “Requiem,” he writes: For life’s a shabby subterfuge/And death is real, and dark, and huge/The shock of it will register/Nowhere but where it will occur.
He was wrong, of course. We all felt the shock of his obituary. Updike’s passing, just one pebble tossed in the pond of mortality, will continue to send out its rings to the shore for centuries to come. -- David Abrams

Fugue State: Stories by Brian Evenson, art by Zak Sally (Coffee House Press) 205 pages
As I read the 19 stories that make up Fugue State I kept thinking that this is what the future of dark fiction looks like. Now. In his sixth collection (there have also been five novels) Evenson ones again probes deeply and brilliantly into the things that scare us most: madness, amnesia, paranoia. As with Stephen King’s epic novel The Stand, don’t read Fugue State’s title story if you have a cold or anything you suspect might be contagious. You won’t sleep, you won’t rest. You might not get better. Fugue State is dark fiction at its very finest and no one tells a story quite like Brian Evenson. You might not want to turn off the light. -- Lincoln Cho

Generation A by Douglas Coupland (Random House Canada) 297 pages
This is one of two important books with international implications and a strong presence of bees written by Canadian authors and published in the second half of 2009. The other is Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood. Interestingly enough, neither book received the attention it deserved at home: something I find inexplicable and, in a way, inexcusable. Both books have a lot to say and their authors manage to say it very, very well. Generation A brings the story Coupland began in 1991 with Generation X full circle. Where Generation X was completely concerned with a group of self-indulgent slackers, the five young protagonists in Generation A find themselves forced to be not only aware of the world and its problems, they must also be part of the solution. But this is Coupland, so the young people here do not sit smarmily by while hugging and singing Kumba-ya. They are sharp, acerbic and sometimes slightly homicidal: another group of magnificently drawn Coupland youths. This particular group have only one thing in common: in the not-so-distant future, in a world that is much less wonderful due to the complete absence of honey bees, each of the young people we meet have been stung by a bee. The stings are cause for consternation and study and the youths are whisked to secret facilities to be tested and evaluated. Then they are released and trouble ensues. Coupland is, once again, at his very best here. These are big ideas boiled down very tightly. He distills each thing to its very essence until we are left with a book that, on the surface of things, seems very simple: it’s easy to read, the language is uncomplicated, the chapters short, the concepts seemingly within our grasp. But Coupland is dealing -- once again and in his own distinctive and inimitable way -- with the important questions of our time. -- Linda L. Richards

Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow (Random House) 224 pages
Like many people interested in the history of New York City, I’d heard about the Collyer brothers -- Homer and Langley -- long before E.L. Doctorow decided to fictionalize the peculiar but (in his hands, anyway) poignant story of their lives. They were born to a Manhattan physician and his wife, who had deep roots in American history. Well educated (Homer trained in admiralty law, his younger brother studied engineering), the two sons moved with their family into a Harlem brownstone in 1909, back when Harlem was still an upper-class neighborhood. After their parents died, the brothers remained in that Fifth Avenue residence, becoming hoarders and paranoid recluses, with Homer slowly going blind. They eventually died in the brownstone, both of them in March 1947, but their passing took some time to confirm. And a bit of excavation. So filled was the house with newspapers and broken bicycles, specimen jars and old beds, skeletal Christmas trees and rotting food and surplus pianos, that police had to break in through a second-story window, just to see if anyone was still alive inside. (The site is now occupied by a public park.) Over the bare bones of the Collyers’ bizarre tale, Doctorow has stitched a quilt of details -- partially true, partly fictional -- that lend the brothers personalities beyond the fact of their manifest eccentricities. What’s most moving here is the love the two brothers show one another, despite their escalating mental infirmities. At one point, for instance, Langley installs a broken-down Model T under the crystal chandelier in their dining room, upsetting their cook. Homer -- who narrates this yarn, despite his blindness -- quickly rises to his sibling’s defense. “My brother is a brilliant man,” he insists. “There is some intelligent purpose behind this, I can assure you.” But then Homer addresses the reader: “At that moment of course I hadn’t the remotest idea of what it might be.” Extending the lives of his main characters well past their actual obituary dates, Doctorow takes the opportunity to revisit high and low points of the 20th century through their eyes--the rise of speakeasies and gangsters, the emergence of “hippies” (with one of whom Homer finds something approaching affection), the Vietnam War, President Richard M. Nixon’s Watergate scandal and more. Homer & Langley is an enviable achievement of fictionalized history, presented with such human warmth, humor and compassion that you’ll feel compelled to start re-reading it soon after you’ve turned its final page. -- J. Kingston Pierce

John Dies at the End by David Wong (St. Martin’s Press/Thomas Dunne) 384 pages
At a time when many writers are pushing at the edges of the novel, trying to redefine what the word means and what it is, David Wong sort of does. This comes in part from the publication history of his first novel, John Dies at the End, one of those weird Internet success stories you hear about. In fact, this might be one of the best yet. John Dies at the End started out as a Web serial in 2004. The story appeared in book form for the first time in 2007, as a paperback from “Horror and Apocalyptic Book Publisher” Permuted Press, an independent publisher whose area of specialization you can pretty well guess at. John Dies at the End would have fit right in with their line. The action in John Dies at the End all centers around soy sauce, a mysterious and fairly unstable drug that alters not only the mind, it seems to have an effect on time and eventually opens a portal to a pretty hell-like place. After you take it, Wong tells us, “You might be able to read minds, make time stop, cook pasta that’s exactly right every time. And you can see the shadowy things that share this world, the ones who are always present and always hidden.” The story is a first person narrative from the viewpoint of the author who actually isn’t David Wong, but says he is throughout the novel. In real life (and it’s not even a secret) he is National Lampoon contributor and editor-in chief Jason Pargin. That CV might make you think that John Dies at the End is hilariously funny. And sometimes it is. But sometimes it’s deeply disturbing and even horrifying. And then it’s funny again. In between there are some starkly -- and even surprisingly -- human moments. And all of that sounds like too much for one little debut novel to hold up under, but wait: this is a book that reportedly had over 70,000 downloads when it was free on the Internet. Since it was free, you might think “big deal,” but think again: try to give away 70,000 of anything on the Internet. I promise: it won’t be as easy as it sounds. And so, is John Dies at the End high art? Not exactly. Or maybe, not even. But it’s interesting, compelling, engaging, arresting and -- yes -- sometimes even horrifying. And when it’s not being any of those things, it’s funny. Very, very funny. Next stop for David Wong (or maybe he’ll be back to being Jason Pargin by then), who knows? But, whatever it is, I feel very confident that a lot of people are already waiting to see what he dreams up next. -- Lincoln Cho

The Last Will of Moira Leahy by Therese Walsh (Shaye Areheart) 294 pages
One of the really delicious things about Therese Walsh’s debut novel is that it pushes through to new ground. And even while you are swept away in Walsh’s carefully crafted and constructed story of magic and acceptance and loss, you are aware that you’ve never traveled this way before. I hadn’t realized how rare that feeling could be in fiction until I read The Last Will of Moira Leahy. Are there conventions in fiction? A path you must take in order for people to say: this is this sort of book, shelve it over here. If so, Walsh has forged ahead with no regard for these whatsoever. The result is an intelligent, thoughtful, moving -- and again -- magical, book. Moira was the less bold of a set of twins. Less daring, less spirited, less of the world. When she died in their 16th year, Moira’s twin, Maeve, must come to terms both with the part she played in her sister’s death and with her own path through the world, alone. In adulthood, now a professor of languages, Maeve comes across an antique dagger that reminds her of her childhood. The dagger will open a new chapter in Maeve’s life and lead her to a place of acceptance and understanding. None of that brief description does justice to Walsh’s wonderful creation. It is difficult -- impossible -- to capture that magic in these few words. Nor is it possible to compare it to anything else: Walsh has found her way here alone. The Last Will of Moira Leahy is a wonderful book. Well crafted, beautifully told. A star is born. -- Linda L. Richards

Love Stories in This Town by Amanda Eyre Ward (Ballantine) 224 pages
Readers familiar with Amanda Eyre Ward’s novels -- Sleep Toward Heaven, How to Be Lost and Forgive Me -- already know she can plot herself out of a paper bag with ease. With a relaxed, witty writing style, she has a way of burrowing right to the heart of her characters -- ordinary folks who find themselves caught in the turbulence of unexpected circumstances. The same holds true for her first collection of short fiction, Love Stories in This Town. These dozen tales are sharp-focused family snapshots, catching husbands, wives, children, parents, lovers and ex-lovers in moments of confusion, hope, paranoia, delight, resentment and all the other ingredients of the human stew. This is easily the most enjoyable short story collection I read all year. -- David Abrams

The Missing by Tim Gautreaux (Knopf) 384 pages
It never ceases to surprise me that, generally-speaking, the American reading public overlooks Tim Gautreaux. There are very few living novelists who can match what he does on the page and it’s a crying shame that more readers’ eyes aren’t traveling over those pages, turning instead to someone like John Grisham. Gautreaux’ newest novel, The Missing, is my pick for the best fiction of the year and is unmatched in its scope and impact. In the author’s previous masterpiece, The Clearing, he told the story of a man trying to rescue his brother from violence and corruption in the Louisiana bayou. In The Missing, the scope is wider and even deeper, ranging from the horrors of a World War I battlefield to the cinder-polluted atmosphere of a steamboat on the Mississippi. Shell-shocked Sam Simoneaux tries to put the war in France behind him as he settles down with his wife in New Orleans and takes a job as a floorwalker in a department store. After he witnesses the kidnapping of a young girl, he goes on a quest to track her down -- a journey that will take him to several dangerous ports of call along the Mississippi. No mere plot summary can do justice to the magic Gautreaux weaves on each page. This is “total immersion fiction” which gathers us in on the first page and never releases its grip until the final scene of redemption. -- David Abrams

Monstrous Affections by David Nickle (Chizine) 296 pages
The first thing that hits you is the cover. A seemingly innocuous portrait of a man with short cropped hair. But look closer and you see the real picture, something twisted, disturbing. The cover of Monstrous Affections was so compelling that I had to read it. And like the cover, the stories inside are not what they seem. But also, like the cover, the stories inside are brilliant. David Nickle has a talent for writing what, on the surface, appear to be normal stories peopled with characters you can identify with. Stories that on the surface have a feel of the everyday, but upon finer scrutiny outline things seen in a skewed miasma of real life gone horribly wrong. Ghosts, Vampires, mythical beasts and circus sideshows. You’d think that you were reading a book full of what you had always expected a horror story to be, but Nickle takes a left turn and blindsides you with tales that are not of the norm, but are all the more horrific because of surprise twists, darkness and raw emotion. -- David Middleton

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith (Quirk Books)
Though this is meant to be a round up of the books we liked best in 2009, it seems to me that some points can be added for innovation. To be perfectly honest, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies did not sweep me off my feet, but it could certainly be said that -- up until the time it was published in April, there was nothing like this book. How could there be? Honestly, how could anyone even have imagined it? To take a well-loved work of fiction -- a gentle romance, no less, beloved for gentle sighs and add... a zombie component. Early on anyway, part of the appeal had to be the image of poor old Jane spinning in her grave. And then what? Legions of also-rans and wannabes and though there have been a couple of clever contenders, none will ever compare with the weird majesty of that audacious first. -- Linda L. Richards

Raymond Carver: Collected Stories (Library of America) 906 pages
Arguably the most significant publishing event of American fiction in 2009 came with the Library of America’s release of Raymond Carver’s collected stories. Not only does the LoA edition thrust Carver into the pantheon of literary cachet (as if he wasn’t already there), but it provides a fascinating revelation of the writer-editor relationship. As Carver’s long-time editor, Gordon Lish wielded a powerful red pen; just how powerful was not entirely clear until the discovery of Carver’s earlier Lish-less drafts. In its volume, the LoA includes the complete manuscript of “Beginners,” Carver’s version of the 17 stories that were edited by Lish and published in book form as What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The comparison between the two is startling: Lish trimmed not only words, but entire scenes, characters and plot dynamics. Sometimes his cuts are for the better, but other times he reduces Carver’s plumper writing to a perplexing skeleton. The spare (some say “minimal”) versions which we’ve held in reverence as American classics are now revealed to be shadows of their intended selves. The scales fall from our eyes and we see stories like “Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit,” “Tell the Women We’re Going,” and especially “The Bath” in a new light. I’m still grappling over the question of where Carver ended and Lish began. The LoA also includes correspondence between the two, including an anguished letter from Carver after he saw the drastic cuts to his stories. He swings like a pendulum in the letter, from praising Lish as “a wonder, a genius” to saying “if the book were to be published as it is in its present edited form, I may never write another story, that’s how closely, God Forbid, some of those stories are to my sense of regaining my health and mental well-being.”-- David Abrams

The Stranger by Max Frei (Overlook) 544 pages
The Stranger is epic fantasy on a quirky philosophical level. But if those words bring Terry Pratchett to mind, just clear your head: Frei’s work is nothing like that. In The Stranger, even the author is a fictional character. It has come to light that the actual author of Max Frei’s books is a woman named Svetlana Martynchik. Max Frei, the quasi author, is also at the center of his tales, which begin in The Stranger with Book One of the Labyrinths of Echo. It took my tightly honed North American sensibilities quite a while to pick up the rhythm of Freis’ writing: the alternate universe of dreams, the fact that he is a sort of magical secret agent who must stop a murderer from our world from getting his way in the new one. North American readers will find themselves slogging through at first: this is not your grandmother’s fantasy. But stick with it: all becomes clear after a while, as well as the density of wit we’re unused to reading with English language authors. The Stranger is a fantastic book and the first of many to be published in English. If I don’t miss my guess, reading it now will put you in the vanguard. -- Lincoln Cho

Sunnyside by Glen David Gold (Knopf) 576 pages
One has to wonder what Glen David Gold (Carter Beats the Devil) really intended when he sat down to work on this novel named after a 1919 silent film. Almost certainly, he couldn’t have meant to compose this marvelous, manic carnival of fiction. Sure, he must have had some idea of where his typing fingers would take him. But Sunnyside is too wonderfully organic, too jam-packed with humorous scenes and unexpected cloudbursts of inspiration to have been tightly outlined on a bulletin board or in a succession of neatly arranged index cards. The cast itself seems ungovernable: actor-director Charlie Chaplin, at the height of his film renown but unable to come up with a brilliant next idea; U.S. Treasury Secretary William McAdoo, trying to drum up funds to fight World War I with help from still-clandestine lovers Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks; movie studio honcho Adolph Zukor; and a dog destined to make movie history. Add to those real-life players Gold’s fictional creations: Leland Wheeler (aka Leland Duncan), the son of a spectacularly failed Wild West star, who craves fame but instead finds love on the European battlefields; Detroit heir and railroad engineer Hugo Black, who volunteers for a secret and ill-fated invasion of the Soviet Union; a patently devious Girl Scout; a triple threat of Russian princesses; and a redundancy of adoring -- and sometimes delusional -- film enthusiasts. With his cast of thousands, Gold produces interconnected story lines having to do with the wonders of happenstance, the loss of American innocence, emerging new power balances in Hollywood, and the multiple gifts and frustrations women bring to the world of men. Sunnyside is cinematic in its structuring, yet (like many of the movies Chaplin left behind) so revealing of human nature and emotions that it might be worth sociologists studying. It’s an ambitious fictional undertaking that succeeds on nearly every level. Try to wait for the final credits to roll before applauding, but don’t be surprised if you can’t. -- J. Kingston Pierce

The Third Revelation by Ralph McInerny (Jove Books) 336 pages
The Third Revelation is a supremely intelligent novel with Our Lady of Fatima’s revelations as its plot vehicle. This is the first of McInerny’s Rosary Chronicle novels. Beyond the intricacies of plot line, The Third Revelation delivers the reader into the nature of evil, as few people today can imagine it. One of the things that McInerny does so well as a novelist is present the Vatican and the Catholic Church in a light that is not cheapened by the glare of book sales. While other writers and publishers have made it a cottage industry in attacking sheepish Catholics, McInerny takes the time to explain the main tenets of the faith. Ralph McInerny is a historian of the Catholic Church. He was also Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame University from 1955 to 2009. His most memorable books of non-fiction include The Defamation of Pius XII, Miracles: A Catholic View and What Went Wrong with Vatican II: The Catholic Crisis Explained. It is commendable to witness a first-rate novelist entertain and enlighten the reader without having to prostitute himself to the devilish ways of publishers, the temptations of mammon or the call to embrace timely, fashionable theories or ideology. Published later in the year but also terrific, McInerny’s The Relic of Time is a follow-up novel to The Third Revelation, but not a sequel. McInerny’s novels are a fresh substitute to other best-selling, yet highly flawed and clichéd popular novels that deal with fantastic and bogus tales of the Catholic Church. -- Pedro Blas Gonzalez

Under the Dome by Stephen King (Scribner) 1088 pages
Didn’t Stephen King retire? I know that’s probably old news, but still. Writers who retire seldom write opuses that come in at more than 1000 pages. But that’s just what King has done. Under the Dome is a brilliant conceit about what would happen to small town if a huge invisible bubble were to descend on it, cutting it off from the rest of the world. This particular small tow -- in Maine, natch -- happens to offer us readers a little microcosm of the United States during the Bush 2 administration. The bubble comes down, havoc is wreaked, and the scummy politicians see their chance to get all the booty. It’s great fun, with King in top form. This book has more characters than any book should have, and somehow King finds the perfect detail that makes you care about each one, even the ones you hate. It’s one of the best reads of the year. -- Tony Buchsbaum

Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett (Harper) 400 pages
For this latest Discworld novel, we return to the city of Ankh-Morpork. The characters are a mixture of old favorites and new ones. Each of the novels has had a theme; the theme of this one is football. The wizards of Unseen University discover they have to form a team and play under the terms of a will which supplies the money to pay for most of their meals. It’s either play of be cut back to -- shudder! -- a mere three meals a day! Meanwhile, we meet the new characters, including the head of the University’s Night Kitchen, Glenda, who makes fabulous pies, her friend Juliet, who may just become a dwarf fashion model (well, okay, she’ll have to use a false beard, since she isn’t actually a dwarf, but what-the-heck), Trevor, who could play brilliantly, as long as the football concerned is a tin can and the mysterious Mr. Nutt, who isn’t human, but isn’t sure what he is. I simply couldn’t wait for this one to come out in paperback and got the hardcover. It’s always a joy to see a new Discworld title. -- Sue Bursztynski

Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson (Tor) 592 pages
If you love SF/F and have not yet encountered Brandon Sanderson, you can forgive yourself: the whole thing has happened pretty quickly. That said, don’t stick your head in the sand on this one. He may be relatively new, but expect him to be around for a while. Sanderson is a writer with talent, vision and chutzpah, a combination that put him into awards line-ups and bestseller lists almost from before the first moment. This because Sanderson was hand-picked to write the conclusion to Robert Jordan’s epic Wheel of Time series after Jordan’s death in 2007. Being heir apparent to one of the genre’s most legendary writers did nothing to detract from Sanderson’s reputation, but when you read his work, it’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t have gotten there on his own. He is a writer that not only can write, but does. He’s so good, he makes it look effortless, to the point where Warbreaker was more or less written online. The book itself is wonderful. -- Lincoln Cho

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood (McClelland & Stewart/Nan A. Talese) 434 pages

Though The Year of the Flood is a gentler dystopic vision than 2003’s Oryx and Crake, there is a pleasantly disturbing darkness to these proceedings. Atwood’s vision of a not-too-distant future seems, in some ways, a cautionary tale. Move forward as you’ve been going, she seems to say, and this is where you might end up. It seems utterly clear that the world Atwood describes here is our own, if only we don’t take pay close enough attention and take sufficient care. But The Year of the Flood isn’t Atwood as preacher, the passionate storyteller is here, as well. In The Year of the Flood, Atwood’s voice is as vibrant and luminous as it has ever been. “The air smells faintly of burning,” we learn on page one, “a smell of caramel and tar and rancid barbecues, and the ashy but greasy smell of a garbage-dump after it’s been raining.” This is, once again, the familiar and yet utterly strange world Atwood created for Oryx and Crake, and some of the characters and creatures will be familiar, though seen with a different lens and from another place. It is striking to me that, in the year this masterful author turned 70, she would produce this violently fresh tale. This is as good, and perhaps even better, than anything she has written. No one -- no one -- writes quite like Margaret Atwood. The Year of the Flood is a masterwork: visionary, beautiful, compelling. Perfect. What a gift. -- Linda L. Richards

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Best Books of 2009: Crime Fiction, Part II

Hypothermia by Arnaldur Indridason (Harvill Secker UK)
320 pages

I speak from my status as a longtime follower of Indridason’s Icelandic police-procedural series when I say that Hypothermia is, without a doubt, this series’ best installment yet. Why? Because one of the narrative strands in this tale details the childhood tragedy that still haunts Detective Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson. What Indridason does so well in his detective novels is to offer one main story thread, plus three or four story strands in the background that may or may not collide with the main thread. The principal thread in Hypothermia is the tragic suicide of a young woman named Maria. Erlendur believes that there was more to Maria’s demise than the rope found around her neck. After her husband, Baldvin, explains that Maria was depressed following the recent loss to cancer of her mother, Leonora, and desperate enough to dabble in séances, Erlendur decides to go it alone to uncover the truth. His Reykjavik colleagues, criminology expert Sigurdur Óli and policewoman Elínborg, are skeptical of their boss’ tenacity to dig into what is apparently a family tragedy. But he’s been right many times before. During the course of this investigation, we learn more about the snowstorm death of Bergur Sveinsson, Erlendur’s younger brother, and the effects it had on the melancholic detective and their relatives. As with Indridason’s previous novels (including Voices and The Draining Lake), Hypothermia’s narrative is edged with sadness; it’s also shadowed with the paranormal. Although I miss Indridason’s original translator, the late poet Bernard Scudder, replacement Victoria Cribb does a wonderful job here in bringing Indridason’s story to life in the English language. This tale is as chilly as its title suggests. -- Ali Karim

If the Dead Rise Not by Philip Kerr (Quercus UK) 455 pages
When we last heard from Bernie Gunther, in The Quiet Flame (one of January Magazine’s favorite books of 2008), he was departing Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1950, fleeing in the night after solving the gruesome murder of a young girl and falling in love with an enchanting Jewish woman wary of his former Nazi ties. Now leap backwards in time to 1934. Germany’s indulgent old Weimar Republic has given way to Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich, and Gunther, disgusted with the new regime (“I’m not a Nazi,” he proclaims early on. “I’m a German. And a German is different from a Nazi. A German is a man who manages to overcome his worst prejudices. A Nazi is a man who turns them into laws.”), has quit the Berlin police department to become a house detective at his city’s famous Hotel Adlon. He’s also just accidentally killed a cop, which can’t be good for business. And business isn’t all that good to begin with. For starters, he’s reluctantly helping a hotel guest named Max Reles, a gangster from Chicago, retrieve a 17th-century Chinese box that was apparently lost to the light fingers of a “joy girl” turned stenographer. In addition, he’s playing escort to a woman journalist from the New York Herald Tribune, Noreen Charalambides, who’s looking for evidence of anti-Semitism to stir up an international boycott of Berlin’s 1936 Olympic Games. Gunther would love to cause trouble for Hitler’s government. However, he must move carefully, both to duck blame for that dead flatfoot and because he’s learned that he’s one-quarter Jewish, and is trying to buy himself an “Aryan transfusion” that will expunge that fact from his record. Doing his job while protecting his own ass won’t be easy, especially when he’s called to investigate a couple of homicides. Only 20 years later, though, will this story reach its conclusion, as Gunther encounters both Reles and Noreen in pre-revolutionary Cuba and seeks the justice he was unable to realize earlier. Kerr is a storyteller from whom other storytellers should steal. He has a sharp ear for clever and caustic dialogue, imbues his chief players with egos and emotions enough to make them seem genuine, is economical in incorporating real people into his fiction, and in Bernie Gunther gives us somebody we can always root for -- even when the man does things that ought to land him behind bars. If the Dead Rise Not is not a perfect book: there are too many coincidences in its underdeveloped latter section, and it reaches a too-speedy conclusion. Then again, I’m judging by the high standards Philip Kerr has set for his series over six installments. By lesser measurements, this is Best Book of the Year material. -- J. Kingston Pierce

The Last Child by John Hart (Minotaur) 384 pages
I was bowled over by John Hart’s 2006 debut novel, The King of Lies, and even more impressed with his Richard & Judy-nominated, Edgar Award-winning 2007 thriller, Down River. But as the old saying goes, good things often come in threes. So I wasn’t surprised, soon after cracking the spine of Hart’s latest book, The Last Child, to find myself entranced. When 13-year-old Johnny Merrimon’s twin sister, Alyssa, disappears from a side street in their rural North Carolina hometown, his whole world and that of his family is ruptured. Then it disintegrates, with his father leaving him and his increasingly self-destructive mother behind. While everyone else assumes Alyssa is dead, Johnny decides he will find out for sure. Armed only with his wits and the assistance of two friends -- police detective Clyde Hunt, who’s working the Alyssa Merrimon case, and a giant named Levi -- Johnny goes looking beneath the veneer and into the historical and emotional cracks of his town. A second girl’s vanishing heightens the tension. What Johnny finds as he probes these mysteries will make your skin crawl, I guarantee it. Filled with Southern angst and genuine-feeling family strife, and reminiscent in tone of Harper Lee’s fiction, The Last Child points Hart in the direction of Grisham-level fame. This book already won the Crime Writers’ Association’s Ian Fleming Steel Dagger. -- Ali Karim

The Lovers by John Connolly (Atria) 352 pages
This eighth novel in Irish writer John Connolly’s Charlie Parker private-eye series pulls together many of the strands he’s been weaving through his preceding installments. Each word, sentence, paragraph and page in The Lovers seems to have been considered, polished and refined to form a picture-perfect narrative, one that is as chilling as it is poignant. The tale starts out with Parker looking into the mysterious suicide of his father, following the latter’s shooting of two young lovers for no apparent reason. Charlie Parker’s investigation will place his own life in context and reveal why shadowy figures from his earlier adventures (The Collector, The Traveling Man, etc.) were interested in him. Making his job more difficult, journalist Mickey Wallace is writing a lurid true-crime book about Charlie Parker’s life, and a Jewish cleric knows more than he’s willing to reveal until dead bodies start to pile up. Parker has to rely on his psychopathic sidekicks, Louis and Angel, to watch his back as the secrets of The Lovers are revealed. This tale is peppered with heart-wrenching vignettes concerning the dark side of our existence. At times, I put the book down and felt my eyes moisten, due to the compassion exhibited in this yarn. On other occasions, I tossed the book aside, due to my growing sense of unease and fear about what lay ahead. Reading The Lovers felt like opening the door to a charnel house, filled with the screams of the dead. But its narrative is enriched by Connolly’s research, evident in some curious observations, historical references and insights into the darker edges of religion. When I reached the novel’s end, all the events in the previous Parker books fell into context like the numbers on a lottery wheel. A most satisfying experience, indeed. -- Ali Karim

The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry (Penguin
Press) 275 pages

It’s always raining on the dream-cityscape that’s the setting for Jedediah Berry’s unusual debut novel, The Manual of Detection, a surrealistic and symbolist book whose mean streets have as much in common with René Magritte and Salvador Dali as with Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Protagonist Charles Unwin (sic) labors at a mammoth investigative bureau called “The Agency” -- like the Pinkerton outfit as imagined by Jorge Luis Borges, maybe -- where his unexpected promotion from clerk to detective (“For better or worse, somebody has noticed you”) provokes a carnival of odd events. There are strange doings at the edge of town, and odd shifts in the time-space continuum, as Unwin searches for his illustrious missing predecessor at the Agency, the palindromic Travis Sivart. The plot (as it were) is in constant shift and rain-blurred focus, like a poem written by an automaton or a dream generated by software, in this realm where “every looking-glass is a two-way mirror.” If you’re seeking a standard-issue thriller, drop The Manual of Detection like a hot rock. But if you want an inventive, amusing, Fellini-esque dream-within-a-dream, try this somnambulistic fable. You may never get out awake. -- Tom Nolan

The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death by Charlie Huston (Ballantine) 336 pages
“Trauma scene and waste cleaning is a growth industry,” remarks Po Sin, the owner and operator of Clean Team. His observation comes early in Charlie Huston’s terrific neo-noir black comedy, The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death. It’s such a weird statement that you have to laugh; but it’s true, people die in horrible ways every single day, and someone has to clean it up -- for good money. Someone like Web Goodhue. The protagonist in these pages, he’s an asshole: he admits it, his friends know it, and his family knows it. Fine. The biggest lie about fiction writing is that your protagonist has to be likable. Why? Was Tony Soprano really a nice guy? How about serial killer Dexter Morgan from the Showtime TV series Dexter? They’re charming and charismatic, but not actually good people. They are, however, easy to relate to as humans. Web, too, is human. Fatal flaws and all. He suffered a tragedy that no one should have gone through, and paid dearly for it. Now, he loafs around his best friend’s apartment/tattoo parlor and does as little as he can. But his buddy finally gets sick of it and pushes him toward the first job available, which is cleaning up gory crime scenes. The people he works with are just ordinary folk, trying to make a buck. It isn’t long, though, before Web is summoned to clean up a mess for a woman he just met. And before you can say “trauma,” he’s involved with a bizarre smuggling operation and trying to free a kidnap victim from some very bad people. Gore lovers will find plenty of that here, but there’s also a nice and intricate crime-fiction plot for the rest of us. In the end, what makes The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death great is its searing humanity. Frankly, with such a great premise and character, I won’t be surprised if a network like Showtime or HBO picks up Web Goodhue as a series star. -- Cameron Hughes

9 Dragons by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown) 374 pages
It’s tempting to compare today’s Southern California detective novelists to their predecessors, especially to Raymond Chandler. But while it’s said that former journalist Michael Connelly, best-known as the author of several novels featuring LAPD detective Harry Bosch, was inspired to write novels in part by the work of Chandler, he has surely long since put his own distinctive stamp on Los Angeles-based crime fiction. No one would mistake 9 Dragons, Connelly’s latest Bosch book, with a Chandler effort. For one thing, much of its action takes place in Hong Kong, where the police detective’s teenage daughter lives, and where he races to save her from what seems to be imminent danger. The author’s characteristic touches are in strong evidence: current cases’ connections with past Bosch mysteries and with other Connelly series; and the sense of doom that seems to dog the detective like a hovering cloud. As fast as Harry Bosch rushes towards the light at the end of his personal tunnel, so quickly he drags his dark shadow behind -- always seeming to succeed and fail in equal measure. Some of the painful personal shocks he endures in 9 Dragons make Chandler’s mean streets look, in retrospect, almost benign. -- Tom Nolan

Nobody Move by Denis Johnson (Farrar, Straus, and
Giroux) 208 pages

Denis Johnson is the King Midas of contemporary American literature. It seems there is nothing he touches that doesn’t gleam with the burnish of gold. Carveresque short stories? Check (Jesus’ Son). Central American political thriller? Double-check (The Stars at Noon). Vietnam War magnum opus? Check, check and check (Tree of Smoke). This year, Johnson delivered a novel which could have rolled off the typewriters of Chandler, Cain or Hammett. Set in contemporary Northern California, Nobody Move stars a guy named Jimmy Luntz as a sort of Humphrey Bogart drifter who gets on the wrong side of a man named Juarez, who has sent his trusted henchman, Ernest Gambol, after Jimmy to collect a hefty debt. Meanwhile, Jimmy is ensnared by Anita Desilvera, a femme fatale who’s been framed for extortion by her louse of a husband. In the novel’s first two dozen pages, Johnson sets the stage for a tense dance of pursuit, evasion, sex, revenge and hair-trigger violence. At once a pastiche and an homage to classic noir-lit, Nobody Move is a novel that snaps its sentences like a stick on a snare drum and barrels through 200 pages with the accelerator pressed to the floor. Compared to the hefty Tree of Smoke, Nobody Move is a stiletto. But it cuts just as deep. -- David Abrams

The Professional by Robert B. Parker (Putnam) 304 pages
Robert B. Parker makes it look easy. Too easy, in a time when the pain and agony of writing has become just another marketing point, and any author who dares to be prolific runs the risk of being dismissed as somehow inferior, of being a mere entertainer, of being a hack. As though the time spent writing a book is a better indication of its literary merit than the book itself. Well, the hell with that. In 2009, while other, often more highly regarded novelists were allegedly sweating over every comma and clause (pausing only to whine publicly about the agony of writing), Parker published four books: Night and Day, another in his popular Jesse Stone series; Brimstone, the third is his acclaimed western series, featuring town tamers Hitch and Cole; and Chasing the Bear, a Young Adult novel featuring a teenage version of Spenser, Parker’s bread-and-butter private-eye hero. Chasing the Bear was a solid and effective work, dealing -- as do almost all of Parker’s books -- with matters of honor and morality, courage and compromise, and love and autonomy. And all rendered in Parker’s lean, tight prose, with little in the way of fat, and with dialogue -- Parker’s one real literary indulgence -- that’s right up there in the George V. Higgins/Elmore Leonard category. The Professional offers more of the same. The 37th installment of his long-running Spenser series, it follows the Boston gumshoe as he investigates a handsome stud who’s simultaneously bedding and putting the squeeze on four married, middle-aged women. Pro that he is, Spenser tracks down the cad fairly quickly. But then the real fun begins. Were this the work of a hack, stopping the blackmail would be the end of things; but Parker, as always, has a few buttons to push. The scoundrel turns out to be surprisingly affable, piquing Spenser’s curiosity. And the question of why, not who, becomes the point -- at least until, in a deft change of focus, we see what Parker’s really after this time: a mediation on masculinity and friendship, and its limits. Granted, anyone familiar with Steinbeck may see what’s coming, and the plot shifts and the “likable” blackmailer may throw some readers. But somehow Parker pulls it off, offering a smart, literate mystery that provokes and challenges, while never failing to entertain. And it didn’t take him 100,000 words and three years of hand-wringing to accomplish. That’s because Parker, like Spenser, is a professional. -- Kevin Burton Smith

The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown) 448 pages
After being given his pink slip at the Los Angeles Times in a downsizing move, cop-shop reporter Jack McEvoy is not about to start feeling sorry for himself. Instead, he chooses to go out with a bang. And as we see in The Scarecrow, he has just the attention-grabbing article in mind. Sixteen-year-old Alonzo Winslow stands accused of killing 23-year-old stripper Denise Babbit and stuffing her body into the trunk of her car. Los Angeles police detectives claim that Winslow confessed to the killing, and the authorities are set to charge him as an adult. Although McEvoy initially envisioned his article as a large exposé on how a young man is turned into a killer, his subsequent investigation leaves him convinced that Winslow didn’t actually do Babbit in. But very quickly, he runs into problems. First off, Angela Cook, his younger replacement on the cop beat, convinces the assistant city editor to let her co-write the article and grab a piece of McEvoy’s byline and thunder. Secondly, Babbit’s real killer -- “The Scarecrow” -- becomes aware of McEvoy and Cook’s interest in the homicide. The Scarecrow makes it his priority to stop them before they dig too deep and discover his sordid history. After things go south with deadly consequences, McEvoy calls in the one person he can trust to help: his ex-lover, current FBI agent Rachel Walling. Walling is a recurring character in many of Connelly’s Harry Bosch books, and a fan favorite. It isn’t long before she and McEvoy pick up their romance where it stalled years ago, a romance that nearly ended her law-enforcement career. Walling is a prototypical Connelly character: she has been to the dark side and back. The sublime joy of Connelly’s newest novel is watching McEvoy and Walling track down their quarry. The reader feels an increasing dread, knowing that The Scarecrow has them outwitted at almost every turn. This is a taught thriller that makes clear why Connelly’s name so often appears on bestseller lists. -- Anthony Rainone

The Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith (Grand Central) 416 pages
The bigger the first book, the harder the second. The next fence, as any jockey will tell you, is always the toughest. It’s hard to get away from adages, except to say that British writer Tom Rob Smith clears the second obstacle better than the first with another blockbuster set in the mid-20th-century Soviet Union. This time around, Joseph Stalin is dead, and Nikita Khrushchev decides it is time for a change. His “Secret Speech” is meant to herald a new era and condemn the recent past, but it brings immense chaos. Author Smith revels in it. Child 44 -- based on the true story of Andrei Chikatilo, who murdered a huge number of Russian children over many years -- was the super hit of last year’s crime list. It brought Smith the sort of success that every new writer hopes for on his or her debut. The fact is, though, that I didn’t like Child 44 very much, and was surprised so many people did. I found Smith’s fictional “solution” far-fetched and unsatisfactory. It stuck too close to the true story for much of the time, and then wandered off into adolescent fantasy at all the crucial points. I mean to say, does one man murder an army of children for no better reason than to trace the brother he hasn’t seen for ages? The strong points of Child 44 were respected secret policeman Leo Demidov, his wife, Raisa, and Smith’s tense prose. All of those elements are back in The Secret Speech, tighter and tougher than before. The story is a rollicking rollercoaster ride of a teenage adventure filled with rooftop escapes, Siberian death camps, Hungarian revolutions and hand-to-hand fighting on the high seas. It is all very Robert Louis Stevenson-esque, with hunks of Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon thrown in. Who needs a film script? Hollywood should already be hopping. -- Michael Gregorio

Shadow and Light by Jonathan Rabb (Sarah Crichton/Farrar, Straus and Giroux) 384 pages
Family and film share the spotlight in this intricately wrought sequel to Jonathan Rabb’s first historical crime thriller, Rosa (one of January’s favorite books of 2005). Again, we’re in Berlin, this time in 1927 at the height of the Weimer Republic, watching beleaguered Kriminal-Oberkommisar Nikolai Hoffner go through the paces of probing a murder. The dead man -- a supposed suicide -- is Gerhard Thyssen, a producer at the famous Universum Film AG (Ufa) studios outside the city. One expects to learn that Thyssen didn’t off himself. What’s less predictable is where Hoffner’s investigation will lead: to the disappearance of a movie starlet, the discovery of a secret room at a sex club where pornographic flicks are shown, and a criminal plot centered on technology allowing sound to be recorded synchronously with what had been silent pictures. It seems Thyssen was responsible for Ufa’s top-secret work in the “talkies” realm, and now that he’s gone, so is the device he’d sought to perfect. Everyone wants to find the thing, including Ufa’s most prominent director, the real-life Fritz Lang (Metropolis), because they can imagine how it might revolutionize entertainment (and, of course, make possible Nazi propaganda newsreels during the coming decade). Pursuing inquiries that lead him deep into Berlin’s seamier corners and expose a plot to rearm post-war Germany, Hoffner seeks assistance from one of a powerful local criminal, as well as from the captivating Helen Coyle, who may or may not be a talent agent with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in the States. At the same time, the chief inspector must contend with his two estranged sons, one of whom has gone to work for Ufa, while the other, angrier boy has fallen under the sway of Joseph Goebbels and the right-wing German Workers’ Party. Rabb does an excellent job in Shadow and Light of painting Weimer-era Berlin in all of its multifarious and corrupt hues, and does much to elaborate on the character of his protagonist, who is beset on all sides by his failures and the painful reminders of them. One can only imagine what challenges and disappointments might yet befall Nikolai Hoffner, as the author prepares what he insists is the final part of a trilogy. -- J. Kingston Pierce

The Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst (Random House) 288 pages
Alan Furst gets better, book by book. Each one reveals some new, intriguing aspect of his immense talents. When his first historical spy novel, Night Soldiers, appeared in 1988, it hardly seemed possible that his work could get any better. But Dark Star (1991), with its effortless painting of the complexity of middle-European politics, would be difficult to beat, while the ironic poignancy of The Polish Officer (1995) put him into the top bracket of contemporary spy novelists. Yet here we go again. Best books of 2009. (Yes, I know that The Spies of Warsaw came out in hardcover last year, but its publication this year in paperback makes it fair game for this listing.) Although Furst’s chosen genre is ever more clearly defined, there is nothing reductively “spy” about his storytelling. It all comes down to the solidity of the characters he creates, his consistent eye for detail and the natural vivacity of his plotting, which is the true essence of his narrative style. The Spies of Warsaw is as similar to -- and as unlike -- his other books as anything could be, though it is distinctively “Furstian.” Which is to say that it has a recognizable bouquet, like the finest of wines. Spies is the detached, understated memoir of Colonel Jean-François Mercier, a French aristocrat working in Warsaw, Poland, as a military attaché in 1937, making the embassy rounds of social events, picking up tidbits from colleagues, lovers and men who happen to work in Nazi arms factories, watching the “storm-clouds gather over Europe,” and yearning for his country estate and his favorite hunting dogs. The novel is a consummate achievement, a page-turner of astounding literary quality. In the end it all boils down to one driving impulse: Mercier wants to rescue Anna Szarbek from Warsaw and carry her off to Paris. And that is what he does. He gets the girl, despite the gathering storm clouds, knowing that it won’t be long before the Nazi’s tanks come rolling down the Champs Élysées. Was ever a plot more simple, or more satisfying? -- Michael Gregorio

Stardust by Joseph Kanon (Atria) 512 pages
Publisher-turned-novelist Joseph Kanon’s latest book -- his fifth -- is as good as any of those that have come before, including the Edgar Award-winning Los Alamos (1997). It’s about a young man, Ben Collier, the son of a famous German director, who has returned to the United States from service in Europe with the Signal Corps. Ben travels to California in 1946 after his sister-in-law, Liesl, informs him that his B-movie director brother, Danny, has suffered a serious tumble from a hotel window. Was it an accident or a suicide attempt? Ben arrives just in time to witness his brother briefly emerge from a coma, but soon afterward Danny dies. While Liesl believes the suicide theory, Ben suspects that someone pushed Danny to his early death, and he turns amateur detective in order to identify the culprit. Liesl and Ben soon begin a scorching affair, which is of course too good to last. Toss in the atmospherics of Los Angeles’ German émigré community and revelations about Danny’s role in an anti-Communist crusade launched by a congressman against the American film industry, and you’ve got all the makings of a box-office, er, bookstore hit. -- Dick Adler

Starvation Lake by Bryan Gruley (Touchstone) 370 pages
Author Gruley is the Chicago bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal, but don’t expect any business secrets to be revealed in his smashing debut thriller, Starvation Lake. Gruley has either played or been obsessed with the lower depths of amateur hockey, and he’s as familiar with the backwaters of Michigan as he is with his computer keyboard. He also knows how to drag you kicking and screaming into a story so gripping that you’ll probably devour it in one gulp -- like the heavenly sounding egg pie served at Audrey’s Diner (“Cheddar cheese and scrambled eggs bubbled up through a golden cocoon of Italian bread ... Steam billowed from the sausage, bacon, potatoes, green peppers, mushrooms and onions baked inside ...”). In this yarn, Gus Carpenter is the associate editor of the local newspaper, a man who’s been forced home to Starvation Lake (where his shrewd mother still lives) after a promising investigative reporter’s job at a Detroit broadsheet imploded. One freezing night, the remains of a snowmobile are discovered in the titular lake -- the same machine in which Carpenter’s former hockey coach died some years back after crashing through the ice on another, nearby body of water. Evidence of the coach’s murder is discovered, and the mystery of how the snowmobile got into Starvation Lake adds another baffling element. Carpenter’s efforts to solve these mysteries promise to shake up more than a few people. This one’s a definite keeper -- especially when served with egg pie from Audrey’s. -- Dick Adler

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley (Delacorte) 373 pages
Flavia de Luce, the feisty 11-year-old English girl at the heart of Canadian author Alan Bradley’s debut crime novel, may be the most engaging such precocious protagonist since Dick Lochte’s Serendipity Dahlquist or even Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew. This hectic but charming tale set in 1950 is told in Flavia’s commanding voice, and few openhearted readers will likely resist her particular combination of candor and hauteur. The youngest daughter of an aloof, tolerant, stamp-collecting widower with limited means and a colorful past, Flavia -- a resourceful loner with a bent for chemistry -- suffers (and exacerbates) the sibling frictions of living with two sisters in a dilapidated Georgian manse in the countryside. When a furtive visitor drops dead in the backyard cucumber patch, the apparent victim of a poisoned custard pie, Flavia’s singular traits and talents come into bloom. The result is an adventure that rockets (by bicycle) from village shops to college cloisters to police headquarters and back, with Flavia doing her de Lucean best to exonerate her father and save her own pre-adolescent skin. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (and its planned sequels) should delight clever 11-year-olds of all ages. -- Tom Nolan

The Taken by Inger Ash Wolfe (McClelland & Stewart) 415 pages
I have yet to read a review of The Taken that doesn’t mention, even as an aside, the mystery of the author’s identity. In truth, though, the guessing is less strident this time out than it was for Inger Ash Wolfe’s “debut” outing, The Calling, when that book was published early in 2008. Part of the reason for this has to be that both books are beyond good: they’re fantastic. And there comes a moment very early on when you realize, the who matters less than the what in this instance: The Taken is just a terrific book, no matter whose name you slap on the cover. In our second visit with rural Ontario police Detective Inspector Hazel Micallef, we find her recovering from back surgery and wallowing in pure and palatable misery, partly from pain and partly from the humiliation of having to live with and be cared for by her ex-husband and his new wife. The discovery of a body in a local lake refocuses Hazel’s attention. Not only was it not the drowning accident it first seemed, but it appears to have occurred in just the same way as a death described in their community newspaper: in a work of fiction. The deeper Hazel digs the less she feels she knows ... and the more there is to unravel. The characterizations here are brilliant and crystal clear. Like The Calling, The Taken is a novel of living, breathing beings -- though sometimes, perhaps slightly too real. DI Micallef is brilliant and perfect in her imperfections. She is grumpy, uncomfortable and impatient in her pain, and these things inevitably creep into her work. And that work is demanding and surprising. The suspense here is perfectly wrought, but not overworked. The Taken stands with the very best of contemporary crime fiction. Period. -- Linda L. Richards

Woman With Birthmark by Håkan Nesser (Pantheon) 336 pages
Are some sins unforgivable, some people unredeemable? Such are the questions attached to the brutal deeds of apparent vengeance in Woman With Birthmark, Håkan Nesser’s latest account (to reach American shores) of the cases of police Inspector Van Veeteren (as translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson). Someone is murdering certain male citizens in a grotesque way that implies an element of payback. What former wrongs are thus recalled? And where will the killer strike next? Van Veeteren imagines his quarry to be “a bit cheeky, a little bit roguish even, but at the same time, serious. And very, very determined.” And the thoughtful detective sees the murderer’s acts as emblematic of social trends destined to play out in his native land: “The veneer of civilization, or whatever you preferred to call it, could begin to crack at any moment, crumble away and expose the darkness underneath. Some people might have imagined that Europe would be a protected haven after 1945, but Van Veeteren had never been one of them.” In such a morose place and time, Håkan Nesser’s 60-something police investigator -- a solitary chess aficionado and Bach-listener -- proves a most apt, able and sympathetic character. -- Tom Nolan

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Best Books of 2009: Crime Fiction, Part I

Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell (Little, Brown) 320 pages
Peter Brown is an intern at a crappy Manhattan hospital, and he’s got a secret. A big one. He’s really a former hit man, now in the U.S. Federal Witness Protection Program. Things are going smoothly ... until he comes across an old associate who threatens to blow the whistle on him and have him killed if he doesn’t save him from the cancer that’s eating his organs. Josh Bazell’s debut novel has its flaws: the supporting cast is shockingly thin; you can predict every single plot twist in this novel if you’ve read or seen any mafia-related fiction (or, really, any crime fiction at all) over the last three decades; and the book feels weirdly short, and it’s even shorter on heart and soul. Nonetheless, I love it. I learned something this year: Books grow. They change. This time last year, I didn’t think Beat the Reaper would find a place on my Best of 2009 list. I didn’t even think I’d remember it a year from then. Yet the book stayed with me. I even re-read it, and now, understanding all the flaws it contains, I can get past them and enjoy the author’s voice. And Bazell may have the best new writer’s voice I’ve discovered in a long time. It’s quick and snappy, with a great smart-ass tone to it. And he employs footnotes to great effect: they’re funny, they’re educational (I now know that it’s really hard to murder somebody with air bubbles in a needle), and best of all, they serve the plot. The writing actually gets better as this book moves along, and toward the end, Bazell starts to show the heart that I often find lacking in this sort of book. I can’t wait to see what’s next from this author. -- Cameron Hughes

Black Friday by Alex Kava (Mira) 304 pages
Alex Kava’s newest Maggie O’Dell book, Black Friday, is a brilliantly executed page-turner. The story opens with a series of backpack bombs going off in Minnesota’s giant Mall of America on the busiest shopping day of the year. The explosives were carried by unsuspecting college students who thought they contained only computer-jamming equipment. Now, three survivors of that disaster find themselves in a race for their lives. One of them is Patrick Murphy, the stepbrother of FBI profiler and series heroine Maggie O’Dell. Assigned to track down the terrorist mastermind behind these bombings -- nicknamed The Project Manager -- is O’Dell, one of my favorite protagonists in thriller literature. She is still hurting emotionally in this book because her past supervisor, Assistant Director Kyle Cunningham, died in the previous novel. Her new boss doesn’t trust her at first, and then leads her in a strange direction: the possibility that The Project Manager is the mysterious John Doe #2 seen with Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City shortly before the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. Although many people were killed in the mall blast, significantly more are endangered as The Project Manager plans his next big attack, this time in Phoenix, Arizona. Author Kava (Exposed, Whitewash) provides plenty of intriguing complications, including the involvement of a U.S. senator, who may want to quash the truth here under the guise of national security interests. One thing is certain however: Don’t ever discount O’Dell’s tenacity and grit. This thriller should be at the top of your list. -- Anthony Rainone

Black Water Rising by Attica Locke (Amistad/
HarperCollins) 434 pages

Before I read Attica Locke’s debut novel, I was intrigued to see her compared with Dennis Lehane, Walter Mosley and Greg Iles. Would it have been possible to measure her against three more different writers? And yet, when you read this ambitious, muscular and ultimately triumphant work, you understand. In a way, protagonist Jay Porter was broken by the African-American Civil Rights Movement. In college, he was filled with passion for the cause that ultimately landed him in trouble with the law: wrongfully imprisoned and abandoned -- and perhaps even turned in -- by his white girlfriend. Ten years on, it’s 1981 and he’s a lawyer with an office in a Houston strip mall with bad carpet, a surly secretary and not enough clients to help him keep his wife and their unborn child in the style to which he would like them to become accustomed. And Porter is haunted by the circumstances that landed him in legal trouble. He sleeps with a .22 under his pillow and drives with a .38 in his glove compartment. He is paranoid and neurotic and otherwise deliciously flawed. But he is holding things together, despite the odds. One night, against his better judgment and on his wife’s insistence, he saves a woman from drowning. His act of unwilling heroism sets off a chain of events that are nearly his undoing ... or are they to be his redemption? Even when the story is entirely told, we’re not completely sure. Like all remarkable books, Black Water Rising works on every level. The portions of the story that deal with the Civil Rights era are well researched and tautly told. Those that deal with Jay’s present are suspense-filled and keep us on the edge of our seats. There are important issues in play here, but Locke is skilled enough that those lift the story; elevate it, never bogging it down. Attica Locke is a wonderful storyteller and Black Water Rising is a perfect book. -- Linda L. Richards

Blood Money by Tom Bradby (Bantam Press UK) 384 pages
Slowly but surely, British TV political editor Tom Bradby is stitching together a fictional universe of his own design. Over the last nine years, he’s seen four of his historical thrillers published: The Master of Rain (shortlisted for the 2002 Crime Writers’ Association Steel Dagger Award), The White Russian (one of January Magazine’s favorite books of 2003), The God of Chaos (another January pick, this time from 2005), and his newest book, this year’s Blood Money. What’s interesting about these novels, in addition to the fact that they’re all brimming with nefariousness and memorable characters, is that their casts tend to overlap, even though their time frames are different. For instance, one of the New York City cops in Blood Money, which is set in 1929, is the brother of a “Chicago-hardened” officer who, in The Master of Rain, helped pursue Chinese warlords and murderers in Shanghai in 1926. And this new novel’s protagonist, Joseph Quinn, was last seen in The God of Chaos, set in Cairo in 1942. These overlapping players give some continuity to Bradby’s stories, even though he isn’t committed to writing a series. Blood Money begins near the outset of America’s Great Depression, when Quinn reaches the scene of an apparent suicide: a banker has tumbled to his death from a Wall Street tower. However, the fact that he landed on his back, and that he was dressed against the day’s rainy weather (“Who puts on a coat to kill himself?”), suggest his last leap wasn’t made without assistance. Further complicating matters is the discovery in the dead man’s office of a photo showing a beautiful but under-attired woman who may or may not have been the deceased’s lover, and who may or may not know why he perished ... but who is definitely Quinn’s adopted sister and his brother’s fiancé, Martha. With Gotham’s latest mayoral race heating up, and the possibility of links being made between that “suicide” and stock market manipulations, organized criminal activities, and at least one cop on the take, Quinn’s superiors want his investigation wrapped up fast and quietly. But Quinn won’t let go, even though his determination to solve this puzzle threatens to end his own career, do further damage to his former celebrity cop father and cause Martha -- who he’s lusted after for years -- to hate him forever. Powerful storytelling, made all the more interesting by Bradby’s precise period atmospherics. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Britten and Brülightly by Hannah Berry (Metropolitan
Books) 112 pages

Write down this name and remember it: Hannah Berry. Her moody, atmospheric and astounding Britten and Brülightly may just be the best (and most unsettling) film noir since Chinatown. And it isn’t even a movie. It’s a graphic novel, a gloriously gloomy, deliciously cinematic tour de force, boasting almost-black-and-white artwork and measured, tight prose that “gets” noir in a way most current denizens of NoirLand never will. New kid on the block Berry straddles both the cinematic and the literary with her first effort. When Fernandez Britten, a dour, disillusioned 1940s London “private researcher” is hired by a woman to investigate her husband’s apparent suicide, he sees it as a chance for redemption. His long string of tawdry domestic cases has left him spiritually bruised and battered, teetering on the brink of an emotional and existential collapse, ostracized and alone. Except, that is, for his long-suffering, smart-ass partner and partner, Stewart Brülightly, a horny and rather acerbic teabag that Britten carries in his pocket. Yeah, a teabag. After all, this is England. This out-of-nowhere touch of surrealism, the occasional burst of humor and the large format of the work itself might suggest a child’s storybook, but don’t get suckered in. Britten and Brülightly’s unapologetically grim conclusion (and the deliberately beaten-down, washed-out art that makes the entire world look like it’s crying) is definitely not for kids -- or overly sensitive adults. Forget it, Jake -- it’s Lipton. -- Kevin Burton Smith

Bruno, Chief of Police by Martin Walker (Knopf) 288 pages
This scenic, sharply written series debut stars the head policeman in a small village called St. Denis on the River Vézère, in the Dordogne region of southern France (where the astounding caves of Périgord are located). Benoît Courrèges, or Bruno as his many friends known him, is a fellow of many parts and talents. A former soldier who has embraced the pleasures and slow rhythms of country life, he lives in a restored shepherd’s cottage, shops carefully at the weekly market, coaches the local children in rugby and tennis, makes excellent foie gras and pickled walnuts, and outwits bureaucrats from the European Union who try in vain to enforce their ridiculous laws governing local produce. Bruno has wit and charm that appeal to many of the local women, including a memorable character known as the Mad Englishwoman. But he also solves the occasional crime, as he must do after the peace of St. Denis is disturbed by the brutal slaying of an elderly North African who fought in the French army. The man is found with a swastika carved into his chest, leading Bruno and his friend and mentor, the Mayor, to fear that militants from the anti-immigrant National Front are responsible. -- Dick Adler

Bury Me Deep by Megan Abbott (Simon & Schuster) 240 pages
Nobody combines historical fact with bravura fiction the way that Megan Abbott does. In The Song Is You, she gave her own distinctive stamp to the true tale of a young Hollywood starlet: Jean Spangler, a sexy-longlegs who disappeared one night in 1949 and was never seen again. The papers called her the “Daughter of Black Dahlia,” connecting the mystery of her fate to another notorious case from two years before. The true parts of Bury Me Deep are based on a criminal investigation that filled the tabloids in 1931, when a young doctor’s wife from Phoenix, Arizona, Winnie Ruth Judd, gave herself up to police, saying that sexual jealousy had led her to kill two of her female friends, dismember their corpses and then pack those off in a couple of trunks to a Los Angeles railway station. Judd -- dubbed “The Trunk Murderess,” “Tiger Woman” and “The Blonde Butcher” -- was found guilty and sentenced to death. Later, though, her lawyer asked for an amended verdict of not guilty on the grounds of insanity. Judd was finally relegated to a mental hospital, from which she escaped seven times. After the final escape, she went to work as a servant for a wealthy San Francisco family. Abbott’s fictionalized version of Judd, renamed Marion Seeley, is both a scarier and more touching figure than the original. In her pared-to-the-bone prose, Abbott brings Marion to vivid life as a woman whose innocence is bared and broken after she falls in with “the wrong crowd,” but who learns from that experience how to protect herself. No matter what it takes. All four of Abbott’s novels so far have been nominated for Edgar Awards, and Queenpin picked up the 2008 Edgar for Best Paperback Original. She deserves another Edgar for Bury Me Deep, a stunning work that shows her performing a dark magic all her own. -- Dick Adler

The Dead of Winter by Rennie Airth (Viking) 416 pages
One of my favorite debut novels of the last 10 years was Rennie Airth’s River of Darkness (1999), which introduced John Madden, a thoughtful Scotland Yard detective inspector and World War I veteran. Madden went on to star in a second book, The Blood-Dimmed Tide (2003), which found him retiring from the force and settling down in Surrey, and lacked the pulse-racing suspense of his earlier adventure. Fortunately, I can report that The Dead of Winter shows Airth returning to the headlong pace he established originally. On a cold evening in 1944, a Polish girl is brutally murdered on the streets of wartime blacked-out London. Lacking clues to the identity of her assailant or a motive for her killing, the police figure it for a random crime. But as it turns out, the deceased, Rosa Nowak, had been working at Madden’s country farm. His interest in the case keeps it from being buried. And it isn’t long before there are connections realized between Nowak’s slaying and similar garrotings on the Continent. It appears that Madden and his former Scotland Yard colleagues are after a professional assassin and master of disguise, who’s been linked to anarchists and has lived under the radar in England for years, only now to risk exposure by killing Nowak. Airth does an excellent job of heightening suspense around the identification and pursuit of this hired gun. And though his sharing of viewpoints between several of the players here deprives us of the opportunity to get much inside Madden’s noggin, Airth still manages to give his protagonist an emotional presence and stake in the outcome of the investigation. Don’t be surprised to find yourself holding your breath as the denouement approaches. Airth had suggested that the Madden series would be a trilogy, but recently he’s hinted there might be at least a fourth book. I couldn’t be more happy at his change of mind. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Death Was in the Picture by Linda L. Richards
(Minotaur) 288 pages

After enjoying Death Was the Other Woman, the opening installment of Richards’ historical mystery series, and including it among my Best of 2008 crime fiction picks, I eagerly awaited the sequel, Death Was in the Picture. I wasn’t disappointed. The year is 1931, and secretary Katherine “Kitty” Pangborn -- a child of privilege who’s been forced into lesser circumstances by America’s Great Depression -- is investigating some dark dealings in Hollywood with her boss, hard-drinking Los Angeles gumshoe Dexter Theroux. Dex has been employed by mysterious parties to keep his private eyes on Laird Wyndham, a cinematic heartthrob whose moral standing may not be totally upright. When a promising young ingénue is murdered during a party (shades of the Fatty Arbuckle scandal), and Wyndham is spotted leaving the room where she died, only to be arrested, Dex smells a rat. But has Wyndham merely been framed, or does he perhaps have an agenda of his own in all of this? I love Richards’ detailed grasp of the alternately glitzy and glum era about which she writes, and the slang that goes along with it. However, my heart is most captured in this series by Kitty Pangborn. She’s modest but certainly resourceful, and she can handle herself in tight spots -- which is good, given that her boss tends to spend a bit too much time with the boys (Jim Beam, Johnnie Walker, etc.). As Death Was in the Picture enters its later reels, Kitty and Dex go poking inside the workings of the Hollywood machine and see just how power -- and the hunger for it -- can lead to abuse and corruption. There are twists and turns enough for a carnival in these pages, along with some delightfully comic scenes. And Richards leaves the door open for more Kitty adventures -- which can’t come too soon for me. -- Ali Karim

Dope Thief by Dennis Tafoya (Minotaur) 304 pages
So many among the new breed of noir writers seem to have been weaned on pulp fiction cartoons and second-rate Jim Thompson-like fireworks, that’s it’s a real rush to discover newcomer Dennis Tafoya pays as much attention to character as he does to mayhem and glib nihilism. Not that his fierce debut, Dope Thief, is all Dr. Phil or anything, but Tafoya’s idea of action aims higher than a few “cool scenes” and some penny-ante existentialism. In these pages, loser buddies Ray and Manny pose as agents with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in order to rip off Philadelphia dealers even lower on the evolutionary scale than they are for their stash and cash. At first, it seems like a sweet gig, but Ray knows better: “It couldn’t go on forever ... Everyone was high. Everyone was stupid. Everyone had guns.” And sure enough, it’s not long before these two criminal masterminds inadvertently rip off someone smarter and far more deadly than they are: members of a ruthless biker gang who want more than just their pound of flesh. Forced to flee, the two friends split up, and the story takes a deliciously wicked hop, becoming a brooding, character-driven study with a peculiarly philosophical bent, as 30-something Ray tries to make sense of both a raw, hard-scraped world of “fucked-up people” and his own wasted life. Yeah, there’s a girl, and enough of the sort of rough, brutal nastiness you’d expect; but the real pleasure in Dope Thief lies in Tafoya’s willingness to dig into the lies and sorry justifications that Ray -- and by extension, all of us -- tell ourselves. Anyone can write about a character pulling the trigger, but it takes real chops to make us care not just about where the bullet’s going but about the man who’s holding the gun. Fans of the young man blues, as played by Richard Price or George Pelecanos, take heed -- there’s a new kid in town. -- Kevin Burton Smith

The Draining Lake by Arnaldur Indridason (Thomas Dunne/Minotaur) 312 pages
The Swedish authors Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö really started something in the 1960s with their smart, socially conscious police-procedural novels involving Superintendent Martin Beck; the success of their books began a long-lasting boom in Scandinavian police crime fiction, a creative movement whose products, in translation, are this decade showing up on American bookshelves and bestseller lists. One of the most compelling Beck successors is Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson, the Icelandic police detective chronicled by Arnaldur Indridason in such works as The Draining Lake (translated by Bernard Scudder). Divorced, haunted by the childhood memory of a vanished brother, pained by the disappointing behavior of his two grown kids, the inspector brings a heightened emotional sensitivity to the investigation of his police-puzzles -- in this instance, the discovery of a decades-old skeleton at the bottom of a lake, weighted down by a Cold War-era radio transmitter. The inspector and his colleagues trace the skeleton back to East Germany and a time when that country’s citizens were encouraged by authorities to spy on their own friends, families and lovers. The dogged Inspector Sveinsson doesn’t fail to get to the heart of the matter, in this subtle and moving work in which the detective’s contemporary melancholia complements the private sorrows of postwar Europe. -- Tom Nolan

Fear the Worst by Linwood Barclay (Bantam) 416 pages
Noir hits hardest when it hits where we live. Which is why domestic noir is big right now. Mouth-breathing sociopaths, terrorists (both homegrown and foreign), serial killers and hit men are all credible bogeymen. But the loss of a child? The guilt over a failed marriage? The dashed dreams of a life gone awry? That’s what really makes us squirm. Which is why Linwood Barclay’s latest novel, Fear the Worst, is so unnerving. It’s the sheer familiarity that brings it all back home. A broken family, a good daughter, a wild friend, a fragile ex-wife, new relationships, the shards of old ones, a mopey stepbrother, bullshit office politics, a cookie-cutter subdivision -- is any of this honestly unfamiliar to anyone out there? Even the divorced couple at the story’s core, used-car salesman Tim Blake and his ex, Suzanne, aren’t the perpetually squabbling wolverines so often depicted in literature and film, but recognizable human beings simply trying to patch together their tattered lives, hoping they haven’t permanently scarred their 17-year-old daughter, Sydney. They carry on, trying to do as right as they can. But we all know where good intentions can lead. And for Tim, hell is that moment when Sydney doesn’t come home from her summer job. Tim’s increasingly frantic search (rooted in such day-to-day concerns as maxing out a credit card) eventually strips bare the safe, smug suburban banality that passes for the pursuit of happiness. Lies, hate, deceit, fraud, alcoholism, jealousy, prostitution, loneliness, rape, even murder -- none of it is quite as far away as you might think. By the time Barclay jacks up the tension to Hitchcockian levels, you’ll be peering through the shades, wondering what that car’s doing there at this time of night. Or where your child is. -- Kevin Burton Smith

Feelers by Brian M. Wiprud (Minotaur) 320 pages
New York author Brian Wiprud has been poised to be the Next Big Thing for awhile now, and if there is a God, Feelers will be his breakout hit, because it’s absolutely fantastic. It contains one of the oldest plots in fiction: A regular person comes across a large stash of money, takes it for himself and then learns why greed can be a very bad thing. Morty Martinez is a “feeler.” Officially, his job is to clean out the houses and apartments of old people who just died, in order to lessen the burden on their relatives. But his real purpose is to search around for any money hidden in coffee cans or shoeboxes, where elderly folk distrustful of banks might secret it. While on a routine job, Morty discovers the largest stash of his life, and instead of telling his employers, he keeps the dough for himself and buttons his lips. Morty is such a great character, humble yet proud of his Mexican heritage and fiercely loyal to the Brooklyn streets where he grew up. His world feels old and worn and lived in, as authentic as anything, and there isn’t a stock player among his cast of friends and associates. Even Wiprud’s baddie here seems genuine, a guy who was once a kid with a bright future, but who had some poor influences and wound up in prison, where he learned to be a killer (an unfailingly polite one). The humor and vivid players in these pages put me in mind of the Coen brothers’ film work, particularly their latest flick, Burn After Reading. The Coens might do well by Wiprud’s many creations -- the regular people, shysters, cons, killers and folks just trying to get by with their heads down, hoping not to cause a stir. -- Cameron Hughes

Get Real by Donald E. Westlake (Grand Central) 288 pages
I’m still reeling from Donald E. Westlake’s death just a year ago. There are a lot of authors whose work I loved, and who passed away in recent years, but none I idolized more than Westlake -- a novelist who, for my money, was the best plotter alive. Get Real is a very nice parting gift from the great man. Affable criminal genius John Dortmunder and his gang are feeling the squeeze of the new world. The sagging economy has made robbery less lucrative and security in most places has gone way up. Executives at a TV studio are feeling the heat, too. They have launched a string of successful reality shows (including one about a farm stand in the little town where Westlake’s 1990 novel, Drowned Hopes, took place -- just one of the many in-jokes here), but they desperately need a new hit. Perhaps up-and-coming executive Doug Fairkeep has the ticket: Why not a reality show about a real heist? At first, Dortmunder and his gang are hesitant to participate; being watched while committing theft isn’t usually a good idea, and the risk seems too high for a little reward. But details are worked out and the gang members are assured that everything will be fine, as far as legal niceties go. So they accept -- and meanwhile scheme to rob the production company of its hidden assets. There are lots of running gags in this story: the reality show’s title keeps changing; new characters (such as a gun moll) are added to “spice it up”; and Dortmunder’s gang keeps breaking into Fairkeep’s apartment to express their concerns about the show. The real comedy, though, comes straight from the world of reality television, where it seems perfectly normal to discuss at length the details of an S&M dungeon show. No doubt about it: I’m going to miss you, Mr. Westlake. -- Cameron Hughes

The Ghosts of Belfast by Stuart Neville (Soho) 336 pages
Just when you thought the invasion of excellent Irish crime writers -- a group nicknamed “Celtic Noir” -- had ended, along comes Stuart Neville with his first novel. Such impressive colleagues as John Connolly, Ken Bruen and Gene Kerrigan have joined in praising The Ghosts of Belfast (which was published last summer in the UK as The Twelve). Bruen calls it “the book when the world sits up and goes ‘WOW, the Irish really have taken over the world of crime writing.’” This novel’s central character is Gerry Fegan, a former Irish Republican Army (IRA) “hard man,” a killer in Northern Ireland, who has now been reduced by the coming of peace to a shambling drunk, haunted by the ghosts of 12 victims who follow him everywhere. The only way that Fegan can kill off his ghosts is by tracking down his IRA superiors, the people who ordered that he commit those murders. This he does with violent precision, one by one, until he is alone again. Along the way, author Neville condenses the fear and hate that troubled Ireland for so long, at the same time creating a memorable character with ease and a cool, deceptively straightforward writing style. -- Dick Adler

The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson (Knopf) 512 pages
Following the incidents described in Larsson’s debut novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2008), Lisbeth Salander, the 20-something partner of Swedish journalist-publisher Mikael Blomkvist, “inherited” a vast sum of money, so she’s decided to see something of the world. Distanced from her love interest, and feeling jealous of Blomkvist’s relationship with a business associate, the misfit Salander cuts herself off. While exploring the Caribbean island of Grenada, danger approaches, thanks to a tornado called Matilda. During that storm, Salander encounters other threats, these in human form. Afterward, she returns to Sweden and resumes a physical relationship with an old girlfriend. However, like Batman or Superman, our Ms. Salander has her own secret retreat, an expensive flat registered under one of her secret identities. Meanwhile, Blomkvist is puzzled by Salander’s disappearance and her refusal to return his calls. He plans to publish a special edition of his magazine, Millennium, to coincide with a book being written, one that exposes the illicit business of people-trafficking and the damaged women sucked into that world. Blomkvist knows that this exposé will destroy some senior people in Swedish society, but being every inch the moral crusader, he can’t see beyond his wish to shed light on the hypocrisy such individuals exhibit. Things take a turn for the worse, though, when the two journalists hired for the job are murdered, and the description of their fleeing assailant matches Lisbeth Salander. From there, we’re offered a multifarious web of dark doings that seem to originate with, or at least relate to Salander and her strange behavior. To investigate this case, Swedish police assign a motley bunch headed by the wonderfully crafted Inspector Jan Bublanski (known behind his back as “Officer Bubble”). The novel’s conclusion is truly shocking, as we learn why Lisbeth Salander became such an outcast. Despite its convoluted and violent narrative, The Girl Who Played with Fire shows why Larsson’s name will one day be spoken with the same reverence currently reserved for the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and others. -- Ali Karim

The Hidden Man by David Ellis (Putnam) 336 pages
If you’re the prosecutor who just hung Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich out to dry, what do you do for an encore? If you’re David Ellis, you write your best legal thriller yet, creating a new series hero who should be around for a long time. Jason Kolarich, a Chicago criminal defense attorney easing the pain of a personal tragedy by taking on no-brainer cases and drinking himself into a stupor most nights, has come down in the world. A college football star, he landed a good job with one of the Windy City’s most prestigious law firms after serving as a county prosecutor. Fame and fortune came his way in the wake of his second-chairing the successful defense of a state senator who had been charged by the feds with extortion and taking bribes. But then came tragedy -- the car-accident death of his wife and child. Kolarich is only just getting back on his feet, when he’s handed a nightmare of a case. It begins when a man known to him only as Mr. Smith offers the attorney a very large retainer to defend Sammy Cutler. Cutler was Kolarich’s closest boyhood friend, but he hasn’t seen him in 20 years. Now Cutler is up on a murder charge, accused of killing the sexual predator who everybody believes stole Cutler’s baby sister, Audrey, from her bed a quarter-century before. Cutler wants Kolarich to get him off, but it’s not going to be easy. The case will “require dedication, consistency and full work days,” Kolarich explains -- and the price of screwing it up will be that his old friend spends the rest of his life behind bars. -- Dick Adler

Hollywood Moon by Joseph Wambaugh (Little, Brown) 352 pages
Several years ago, I read The New Centurions (1971) and The Choirboys (1975), and declared that the latter was the best police novel ever written -- a sentiment I haven’t changed since. Both books were real, funny and mature reads. So I rejoiced when, after 10 years of semi-retirement, cop-turned-author Joseph Wambaugh returned to fiction-writing in Hollywood Station (2006). And Hollywood Moon, his third and final book in that series (after 2008’s Hollywood Crows), feels like a fitting end to the fictional world he’s created. We find Hollywood Nate still trying to break into the movie business, surfer cops Jetsam and Flotsam still searching for that perfect wave, and female cops still struggling to win respect in a male-dominated field. As in many of Wambaugh’s ensemble cop “dramadies,” Moon is told in a succession of vignettes that tie together seamlessly at the end. The main thrust of its plot is identity theft committed by a seemingly normal married couple, and how things get out of hand and deadly. The heart of this and other Wambaugh novels, though, lies with the beat cops. As much as the next guy, I like books about homicide detectives, when they are done well; but there’s a fascination to be found in reading about the wholly separate world of the boys in blue who work the grunt jobs, and the deeds they commit that only rarely win them recognition, and usually earn them derision -- and far less money than they deserve. Wambaugh’s famous dialogue skills are fully on display here, and his characters threaten to leap off the page, sweating and irritable. The author understands the culture about which he writes so well, you can’t help but become immersed in his tale. A lesser writer would have made this series a flat-out comedy. But Wambaugh is smart: he understands that there is a truth and humanity in even the funniest scenes. God, I’m glad Joe Wambaugh is back and at full speed! -- Cameron Hughes

Humpty Dumpty Was Pushed by Marc Blatte (Schaffner
Press) 275 pages

Hip hop is the music of the new and increasingly ugly world. The best of it is political and moving, with vivid characters and provocative writing. I’d like to see somebody like Jay-Z or Nas pen a crime novel. Go listen to Common’s song “Testify,” about a black man on trial: It features a beginning, a middle and a twist ending with a femme fatale. There were a lot of places in Humpty Dumpty Was Pushed, Marc Blatte’s hip-hop-related debut novel, where I wanted to check the cover to see if this wasn’t an 87th Precinct story by Ed McBain. That’s high praise, and understandable, since McBain was Blatte’s mentor for many years and is considered one of the most influential crime writers who ever lived. In Blatte’s tale, we meet Sal Messina, aka Black Sallie Blue Eyes (a hip-hop sort of a name if ever there was one), a New York City homicide cop who’s very good at his job. One night, Messina is called to investigate the gun slaying of a man outside a Manhattan nightclub -- a crime that incites a refugee from Kosovo to seek revenge. Meanwhile, Messina and his team look for the gangsters behind a music producer’s stabbing. Blatte creates a huge world in these pages, populated by young and hungry rappers and old pros in the music game, as well as immigrant thugs and a diverse cast of cops. I love it that Blatte just lets his characters talk amongst themselves, sometimes about really inane stuff. McBain was famous for his written dialogue, and Blatte follows his lead, while never actually copying his mentor. Blatte’s Manhattan is both real and on the edge of reality. A lot of the players in his yarn are outrageous, without being cartoony. By the end of the book, I knew these folks, I grieved for them when bad things happened and I laughed in joy at their victories. That is rare behavior for me when it comes to an author’s debut. My only question now: When do I get to read Blatte’s next novel? -- Cameron Hughes

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