Sunday, December 30, 2012

Best Books of 2012: Crime Fiction, Part II

This is the crime, mystery and thriller fiction (part II) segment of January Magazine’s Best Books of 2012 feature; part I was posted yesterday. Also available are our picks of the Best Cookbooks of 2012. Still to come: our contributors’ selections of the Best Fiction, Best Non-Fiction, Best Art & Culture, Best Biography, Best Books for Children and Young Adults and Best Science Fiction/Fantasy. Look for them in the coming days.

The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen L. Carter (Knopf)
In Carter’s fascinating “what-if” construction of history, Abraham Lincoln doesn’t die in April 1865 after being shot by actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth. Instead, he survives. Two years later, Lincoln’s growing contingent of enemies -- led by radicals within his own Republican Party -- work to oust him from the Executive Mansion. They charge Lincoln with, among other offenses, trying to usurp congressional authority. As the case against the 16th president builds, one of Lincoln’s lawyers is murdered and a brilliant young African-American law clerk, Abigail Canner, persists in yanking at the loose threads of political conspiracy long after her boss tells her to desist -- only to find that her connection with those schemes is closer than she’d imagined. The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln offers not only an American government in crisis and a capital riddled with rumor, “machination and double dealing,” but a mystery of history-changing proportions. Although its denouement features a turn that’s too convenient by half, Carter’s novel remains one of the finest historical thrillers I’ve read this year. -- J. Kingston Pierce

The Kings of Cool by Don Winslow (Simon & Schuster)
Nobody would have blamed Don Winslow, author of 2010’s awesome Savages, for concocting a prequel to that novel simply for a large paycheck. The book transformed him being from a fairly obscure writer with a dedicated cult following into a Serious Name among wordsmiths. Hollywood soon came calling; Oliver Stone turned Savages into a pretty good (and beautifully shot) 2012 movie that seemed to excite and reinvigorate the filmmaker himself. As I said, Winslow could’ve written The Kings of Cool strictly for the money; I would have been disappointed, but I wouldn’t have blamed him. Fortunately, however, that’s not the path he took. Although I don’t love Kings in the way I did Savages, it’s a solid home run in comparison to the latter’s World Series-winning grand slam. It’s becomes very clear, very fast that this prequel was as much a product of Winslow’s passion as Savages. A good prequel should build on the world we know from its predecessor; Kings does that in spades. We are witness here to the beginnings of Elena Sánchez’s career as a drug cartel kingpin (Salma Hayek brought just the right amount of femme fatale sexiness and toughness to her film portrayal of Sánchez). We also see the first steps taken by DEA agent Dennis (portrayed in the film Savages by John Travolta) toward playing on all sides of the law. while trying to keep his soul. Best of all, Winslow explains the origins of Paqu, who goes from rags to social-climbing queen with an almost ferocious, feral zeal. Her tragic climb is almost Shakespearean in nature; Paqu is not a bad person, she’s just white trash who sees an easy way out. I grieved for her and wished that her daughter, the comely O, could have met her mother before she became the fake-boob airhead who has half a dozen meaningless marriages under her belt. Ben, Chon, and O -- the major characters from Savages -- are secondary characters in this novel. Curiously, I didn’t miss them the way I had expected to. The Kings of Cool is really about their parents and other elders. It’s about how beach bums, harmlessly dealing and smoking pot, became a force to be reckoned with. Savages was an angry book, focusing on people my age living in a world that can no longer be saved, but The Kings of Cool is bitter. Boomers here talk about the 1960s with an almost reverent tone (conveniently glossing over such high-profile tragedies as the murders of John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X). The players in Kings know they had a chance to make a different and better world, but fucked it all up out of greed and apathy. Winslow grew up in that era, and when his man Ben asks his father what happened to make everything so bad, the ensuing rant feels like one Winslow has had inside his head for awhile. Unlike so many other thriller novelists, who produce tedious, seen-it-all tales that barely reach B-level, Winslow writes novels about actual crimes and the people involved. He’s like the Martin Scorsese or Michael Mann of the written word, turning sleaziness into an art form. Don Winslow clearly likes the robbers more than the cops (and sometimes the cops are robbers) in his fiction, and I say bravo. Pray at his altar, people. -- Cameron Hughes

The Lost Daughter by Lucretia Grindle (Pan UK)
When 17-year-old American schoolgirl Kristen Carson is given the opportunity to study for a year in Florence, Italy, it seems too good to be true -- and it is. Just as her parents arrive for a visit, Kristen suddenly disappears. Her influential father pulls out all the stops in an effort to find her, but there isn’t a lot to go on. Gradually, however, a picture emerges, and it’s not pretty: just before vanishing Kristen left a note for her flatmate, saying she’d be away for a few days; then she spent a wad of money on new clothing. It sure looks like she did a bunk. It falls on Italian detectives Enzo Saenz and his partner to track her down. The one clue they have is a cell phone photo of her getting into a car with a man, not identifiable, but clearly older than Kristen. The missing girl’s father doesn’t recognize him, but Saenz believes that Kristen’s stepmother, Anna, does. When he confronts her privately, though, she denies it. Before long Anna too has disappeared, and in an ominously similar way, drawing out a large sum of money and leaving all her personal identification behind. What common link would drive two apparently ordinary women to turn their backs on their comfortable and seemingly happy lives, and melt into a foreign country? The quest to find the missing women will take the detectives back more than 30 years, to the turmoil surrounding the kidnapping -- and, ultimately, murder -- of Aldo Moro, Italy’s president at the time. It will unearth old betrayals and build on new deceptions, and before it is over both careers and lives will be lost. Lucretia Grindle reminds us that the “war on terror” did not begin with the events of September 11, 2001. Moving easily between Ferrara in 1965, Rome in 1978 and Florence in 2012, The Lost Daughter is a layered thriller based in historical fact and rich in suspense. Grindle expertly mines actual events and intersperses them with nuanced characters that lend credibility to her tale, and she perfectly captures the mendacity of politics and the making of young radicals. This is a book that will earn her many new fans. -- Jim Napier

The Messenger by Stephen Miller (Delacorte Press)
When I first heard that Stephen Miller’s newest book was a contemporary thriller, I was a little disappointed. I’ve so loved his historical fiction featuring the investigator Pyotr Ryzhkov in pre-Communist Russia. The Messenger is a whole different ballgame. So different, in fact, that at times it feels almost like a different planet. What isn’t different: Miller is a writer’s writer and under his hand this tightly wound and very 21st-century thriller resonates with the true wordsmith’s sense of time, place and rhythm. Daria Vermiglio has lost everything and seen too much. She is released from a refugee camp with a ticket to New York and a deadly mission. Dr. Sam Watterman is charged with stopping Daria and averting what for a time seems like an inevitable outcome. Miller hits many contemporary thriller tropes here, but manages to bring something to his tale that is both fresh and worthwhile. We tangle here with biological warfare bearing international implications and threats: terrorism at the highest level. What’s most interesting, however, is Miller’s delivery on two very different sides of the terror coin. Both Daria and Sam are human and very flawed, and before the (terribly exciting) conclusion, there will come times when we wonder just who’s side each really is on. Although he’s now several novels into his second career, it is his first career for which Miller is better known. As an actor of stage and screen, his face is familiar to many, even if his name is not. That might do something to explain the very visceral feeling to Miller’s writing, which is not in the least bit absent in this latest entry. I never read anything by this writer without being left with deep visual and emotional impressions. Miller has that kind of power and he’s not been cheap with it here. The Messenger takes place over 16 taut days. I read it much, much more quickly than that but took longer to catch my breath. -- Linda L. Richards

Niceville by Carsten Stroud (Knopf)
It’s funny, but in 1990, no one would have thought that David Lynch’s foray into episodic television with Twin Peaks would have created such a passionate cult fan base. It’s more common and exasperating now with TV series such as Joss Whedon’s western in space, Firefly, and it’s box-office follow-up, Serenity. (Don’t get me wrong: I love both of those, but the uber-fans can be so annoying). But in 1990? No way. Twin Peaks has had a lot of imitators since, all of which failed for various reasons. So maybe it’s a good thing that Carsten Stroud’s Niceville is a book first, so he doesn’t have to worry about viewer ratings and nitpicking notes from network bosses. For David Lynch, who was known for quirky dramas, it was odd seeing him doing something on a very mainstream network, and Stroud comes from an unusual place too. He’s been known for penning tough political thrillers as well as one great true-crime work, Close Pursuit: A Week in the Life of an NYPD Homicide Cop. Niceville reminds me a lot of Twin Peaks, with its eccentric small town (this time in the Deep South), its oddball characters who reveal more layers as you read on (even the cop with a dark side and the crusading lawyer), and a large-scope story with so many twists, it left me gasping for breath; I kept expecting it all to go off the rails every 50 pages or so, and while it comes dangerously close a few times, Stroud always manages to save it with the introduction of a new character, or perhaps a wonderful quip or a great action scene. (Truly, there is a chase and shoot-out near the beginning that is so well choreographed and written, I felt like cheering.) Hell, there’s even a ghost in these pages. I don’t want to say too much about the plot, because the fun a reader can have in discovering its every turn and back-stabbing shouldn’t be missed. However, there are two big story lines that drive many smaller plots in Niceville: a bank robbery and the case of a missing child named Rainy. The town’s centuries-old history and local family feuds are simply icing and decorations on a delicious cake. Needless to say, I loved Niceville. It’s big and ambitious and never boring, and best of all, it’s different. I want more stories about Niceville, Mr. Stroud. Past or present, I don’t care; just give me more. -- Cameron Hughes

Not Dead Yet by Peter James (Minotaur)
James’ eighth Detective Superintendent Roy Grace police procedural (following Dead Man’s Grip) finds the coastal town of Brighton, England, becoming the location for a huge Hollywood blockbuster, featuring the diva Gaia Lafayette (a combination of Madonna and Lady Gaga). Although she’s now a U.S. resident, Lafayette grew up in the more humble quarters of Brighton. She has come back to film a historical thriller that she hopes will win her an Oscar, and Grace is under pressure to ensure that nothing goes wrong while the film crew are in town. This is especially critical when they discover that Lafayette has some obsessive fans, including a stalker. Grace’s attention and that of his partner, Glenn Branson, is caught when a corpse -- actually, just a torso -- is discovered on a chicken farm, and there are connections made to Ms. Lafayette. Despite the density of James’ plot, which includes his trademarked multiple viewpoints, Not Dead Yet is a remarkably fast read, due to the shortness of its chapters, all of which lead to a frightening finale in Brighton’s Royal Pavilion. -- Ali Karim

The Paris Deadline by Max Byrd (Turner)
Set in the fabled City of Light, beginning in 1926, Byrd’s colorful, often clever tale spotlights Toby Keats, a still-traumatized veteran of the so-called Great War, who now works as a rewrite man for the Chicago Tribune. Keats is accustomed to a fairly peaceful, near-monkish existence, sampling Paris’ gourmet wares as he observes girls herding goats through the streets and mutilated French ex-soldiers trying to survive without too obviously begging. But then into his life falls what could be Vaucanson’s Duck, a “somewhat scandalous” 18th-century automaton that’s coveted by an American banker and a delightful, resourceful young woman named Elsie Short of the Thomas Edison Doll Company, as well as by criminals who may desire the phony fowl for its interior mechanism -- technology that might further advance weapons development. Byrd won a Shamus Award for California Thriller (1981), the first in a trio of novels starring San Francisco private eye Mike Haller. During the 1990s he penned historical fiction about a trio of U.S. presidents: Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Ulysses S. Grant. Now, in The Paris Deadline, he delivers a sparkling and suspenseful caper with a mystery plot well-rooted in a loving re-creation of Jazz Age Paris. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Prague Fatale by Philip Kerr (Marian Wood/Putnam)
One of the finest entries yet in Kerr’s series of Bernie Gunther historical thrillers, Prague Fatale begins with his ever-cynical protagonist back in harness as a Berlin police detective, investigating the 1941 stabbing death of a Dutch worker. The case acquaints him with a fetching good-time girl, Arianne Tauber, but brings few other satisfactions, so he only mildly resists being called away to Prague by his old boss, Reinhard Heydrich, the new Nazi Reichsprotector of Bohemia and Moravia. Heydrich fears he’s been targeted by one of the colleagues he has gathered in a country house to celebrate his promotion, and wants Gunther’s protection. But instead, one of Heydrich’s aides is found shot dead in a locked room, Agatha Christie-style. To solve this crime -- and also, in the course of it, the Dutch worker’s demise -- Gunther must defy his Nazi superiors and endanger Arianne, knowing all the while that the murderer’s rank may ultimately protect him from prosecution. -- J. Kingston Pierce

The Professionals by Owen Laukkanen (Putnam)
When we did a signing event together midway through 2012, Owen Laukkanen confessed to me that he thought Putnam had given him a publishing contract because of his distinctly Scandinavian name. He had the feeling that fate had helped him choose his moment, and an industry hungry for the newest Stieg Larsson was ready to jump on the first thing that walked in the door with the right kind of name. In this regard, Laukkanen is full of crap. His debut novel, The Professionals, is sharp, hot, edgy and compelling -- quite everything a thriller should be. The fact that the not-quite-30-year-old Canadian of Finnish descent is tall, good-looking and swims in buckets of charm has nothing to do with that other, all-important thing. What else does Laukkanen have going for him? Dude can write. In tone and pacing and even a bit in content, for me The Professionals called to mind Danny Boyle’s brilliant 1994 film Shallow Grave. In Laukkanen’s take, though, it’s a whole new financial crisis and four recent college grads, unable to land the jobs they feel they deserve, who start joking about a kidnapping. It isn’t long before the joke turns into something more substantial and, from there, it’s only a matter of time before they’ve worked out all of the details of their master plan. What could go wrong, right? They’re brilliant, confident, even a bit cocky. But the whole thing goes to hell in a handbasket when they pinch the wrong guy and end up as targets of both the FBI and the mob. Is Laukkanen’s name new to you? It won’t be for long. A film version of The Professionals is already in the works. Word is that Twilight lead Robert Pattinson has been tapped to star. -- Linda L. Richards

Sailor by Tom Epperson (Forge)
I greatly anticipated Tom Epperson’s second novel. I have a lot of love for the 1992 neo-noir movie One False Move, which Epperson co-wrote with star Billy Bob Thornton, and I liked his 2008 “gangster noir” tale, The Kind One. Thankfully, Sailor doesn’t disappoint. It reads like one of Elmore Leonard’s leaner and meaner novels from the 1970s and ’80s, classics such as Cat Chaser, Gold Coast, Unknown Man #89 and his Edgar Award-winning LaBrava. Fifty pages in to Sailor, we find single mother Gina -- a refugee from the Witness Protection Program -- on the run with her son, Luke, and pursued by her mobster father-in-law as well as the marshal on the take who is supposed to be protecting her. Like Leonard’s best work, Epperson’s novel is full of character without sacrificing characters. The bad guys are certainly bad, but they are also recognizably human; indeed, the killers hired to take Gina down provide much of this story’s humor, having memorable conversations that are funny without the writing looking as if it’s trying to be funny. And Gina’s father-in-law has a shockingly sweet relationship with his wife, who’s suffering from a stroke. His part is so well-written, you almost forget that he’s a dangerous psychopath. At the center of this story, though, is a man named Gray, who meets Gina and Luke in Los Angeles and claims to be a sailor (thus, the book’s title). He’s a figure straight out of a Western novel such as Shane, and we slowly learn of his tragic past. He’s a terrific hero, and Gina, while needing help, is no damsel in distress. I loved each character that Epperson introduced, and since he’s a screenwriter, this book felt cinematic in the best ways possible. Sailor is a wonderful novel that feels very 21st century, while being old-fashioned noir. -- Cameron Hughes

Siege by Simon Kernick (Bantam Press UK)
Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Terrorists storm and take a hotel hostage. They have mysterious motives that are revealed as the story moves along. Only one man in the hotel can stop them, with the police outside trying to get control of the situation. Oh yes, it is very definitely Die Hard in a London hotel. What’s different about this latest thriller from British author Kernick, is that it’s inspired by the best parts of Die Hard. Smart characters, a unique and increasingly claustrophobic setting that’s used well and a story that moves like a bullet as revelations and twists are rolled out. Scope, the hero trapped in the hotel with the other guests and staff, is instantly iconic, being tough but over his head and having to use his brains in order to survive. The rest of this novel’s cast is well-drawn too, with the threatened guests all bearing distinctive voices and personalities. The staff you are invited to follow are so well-formed that you constantly fret for their safety. I loved the European setting and seeing how a Metropolitan Police squad would handle such a crisis. Kernick uses his regular character, Detective Inspector Tina Boyd (The Payback), to splendid effect, but he also introduces several other cops, all of whom are good at their jobs and well-realized. Siege is the rarest of animals -- a thriller that thrills. It’s written with adults in mind and is great entertainment for those of us who want a terrific read but expect more from books than the endless stream of cookie-cutter thrillers being churned out these days. A U.S. edition of Siege is due for release in June of next year. -- Cameron Hughes

Standing in Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin (Orion UK)
Here’s welcome news for fans of Detective Inspector John Rebus: the iconic bad boy of Britain’s Lothian and Borders Police is back in harness and working for his old force, this time as a civilian in a cold-case unit. His boss, Detective Sergeant Daniel Cowen, resents having to supervise a bunch of over-the-hill ex-cops, and predictably, Rebus gives him plenty of attitude, further nursing the man’s aggravation. When Rebus is approached by a woman seeking information about her long-missing daughter, Rebus isn’t sure he has anything to work with; she was 18, and a dozen years have passed since her disappearance and the original investigation. There was little enough to go on at the time, and since then the original case officers have either died or retired. But several other women have dropped out of sight over the ensuing years, all in roughly the same region of rural Scotland, suggesting there might be a serial killer at work. His curiosity piqued, Rebus decides to look into the case; but with no real support from Cowan, and lacking even a warrant card, he’s very much on his own. So what else is new? Meanwhile, Rebus is unaware that he’s in the crosshairs of another cop in Lothian and Borders. DI Malcolm Fox (The Impossible Dead) heads Ethics and Standards, the current incarnation of Internal Affairs, and he’s convinced that John Rebus is dirty. So he sets out to investigate the maverick copper, and it isn’t long before he learns that Rebus has a more-or-less regular drinking partner, an ex-con known as Big Ger Cafferty. Is Fox after Rebus because he thinks Rebus is corrupt, or because Rebus reminds him all too much of his own failings? Long a leader in the contemporary noir field, Rankin’s appeal lies to a great extent in his masterful use of layered subplots, including here Rebus’ nuanced relationship with onetime partner Siobhan Clarke, his taut alliance with ex-crime boss Cafferty, and the tension between Rebus and Malcolm Fox. These elements are every bit as compelling as the main story line, and raise Ian Rankin to the very pinnacle of crime writers, contemporary or otherwise. Standing in Another Man’s Grave will be released in the States next month by Reagan Arthur Books. -- Jim Napier

Stray Bullets by Robert Rotenberg (Touchstone Canada)
This is the compelling tale of a spontaneous shooting at a Tim Hortons restaurant in Toronto, Ontario -- a firefight that leaves a 4-year-old boy dead and a crucial eyewitness, an illegal alien, vanished into the night. Detective Ari Greene struggles to separate the facts of this case from the many conflicting eyewitness accounts. How many shots were fired, and from how many guns? Which witnesses are reliable, if any? And how does he go about tracking down the shooter, who melted into the cold November darkness? Greene only wants to bring a killer to justice and give the grieving parents of the young victim some solace, but he soon finds there are people involved in this case who have other agendas than solving the crime. Building on the time-tested format of the TV series Law & Order (begin with the crime, move to the investigation, conclude with the trial), Robert Rotenberg expertly mines his considerable experience as a Toronto criminal lawyer to spin a story that’s long on colorful detail but carries the reader along effortlessly. With a cast of believable characters cutting across the social spectrum, a layered plot and convincing dialogue, Stray Bullets has all the qualities of a Michael Connelly novel married to a courtroom drama by John Grisham. It’s a well-crafted, compelling tale that will send readers back to look at Rotenberg’s previous works, Old City Hall and The Guilty Plea. -- Jim Napier

Trust Your Eyes by Linwood Barclay (New American Library)
Put simply, Trust Your Eyes is a digital-age reworking of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. The main story is relayed from the perspective of Ray Kilbride, a freelance cartoonist in a changing modern market. His younger brother, Thomas -- who suffers from a mild form of schizophrenia -- witnesses these changes too, but from the point of view of cartography. After widower Adam Kilbride dies in a tragic accident while mowing his lawn, his lawyer, Harry Peyton, contacts Kilbride’s elder son, Ray, and urgently summons him back to the family home in Promise Falls. This return is most troubling. He finds that Thomas, who was living with their father, has developed a mania about mapping the world. He hears voices, claims to receive calls from former U.S. President Bill Clinton and says he’s been working on a clandestine mission for the CIA. That mission calls for Thomas to memorize all of the world’s maps, using an online computer program called Whirl360 (a fictionalized Google Street View). Thomas believes those digital illustrations are all in danger of being wiped out. Now, this seems perfectly innocent to a troubled and deluded mind -- until the day that Thomas, using his Whirl360 program, sees in the window of a New York City apartment what he’s convinced is the face of a woman being murdered by suffocation. From there, Barclay’s new novel assembles a chess game involving flawed people, driven people and other people with their own agendas, all in need of forwarding. As the plot strands converge, and the bodies start to pile up, we see there may be more to Thomas’ delusions than his brother understood. The closing sections of Trust Your Eyes drew to my mind images of Russian nesting dolls: every time you open one up, you find another complication inside. These revelations mount toward a shocking resolution on the book’s last page. -- Ali Karim

What It Was by George Pelecanos (Reagan Arthur)
This feels like the ultimate Pelecanos novel. All of the things he seems to love are included: talk of clothes and funk music, and a story that feels like a Western told in an urban 1970s setting. The story takes place in 1972 and focuses on a small-time criminal named Red Fury (named after the red Plymouth Fury that he and his girl CoCo ride around in). Red is blazing his way through Washington, D.C., killing and making money. He knows it’s not a smart way to live, but he’s making a name for himself that’ll be whispered reverently in the neighborhoods for years to come. For Red, that’s better than being a hard-working chump who lives his life without making a mark. Meanwhile, Derek Strange, fresh off the local police force and trying to make it as a fledgling private eye, has taken the case of a missing piece of costume jewelry. Soon enough, that investigation and Red’s rampage intersect, provoking the literary resurrection of Frank “Hound Dog” Vaughn, a cop from Pelecanos’ Hard Revolution (2004) -- and my personal favorite among Pelecanos’ secondary characters. What It Was is everything you could ask for in a Pelecanos novel. I sometimes forget how fun and slick this novelist can be, and his talents are in full force here, as he builds a period yarn that’s also a blaxploitation tall-tale played out on the mean streets of America’s capital. I’d love to see a director like Craig Brewer or Martin Scorsese make a movie out of What It Was. It’s not totally light; Pelecanos does talk here about race and being a good man, but he’s not heavy-handed about it. I loved it. You will too. -- Cameron Hughes

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