Thursday, December 19, 2013

Best Books of 2013: Crime Fiction

Editor’s note: This is the first segment of January Magazine’s Best Books of 2013 feature. Still to come are our choices of the Best Non-Fiction, Best Fiction, Best Books for Children and Young Adults, and Best Cookbooks. Look for them in the coming days. -- LLR

Ali Karim is The Rap Sheet’s always-too-busy British correspondent, a contributing editor of January Magazine and the assistant editor of Shots. In addition, he writes for Deadly Pleasures and Crimespree.

Bear Is Broken by Lachlan Smith (Mysterious Press):
A debut legal thriller, reminiscent in tone of early works by John Grisham and late ones concocted by Michael Connelly, Bear Is Broken reeks with the cynical authenticity of the games cops and lawyers play. At its core, this is a compassionate tale of two attorney brothers in San Francisco, with the younger one, Leo Maxwell, seeking to discover who shot his elder sibling, Teddy (that name explaining this book’s title). It seems star defense lawyer Teddy was preparing to wind up the case of Ellis Bradley, a man accused of marital rape, when over lunch with Leo one day in a crowded restaurant, he suddenly takes a headshot from an unidentified assailant. With Teddy left in a coma and fighting for his life, Leo finds himself alone. The local police aren’t going out of their way to solve this crime, as Teddy, in the past, had often come into conflict with the boys in blue as well as his fellow legal representatives. That means Leo, who’s only recently passed his bar exams, must do what he can to piece together the mystery of who wants his brother dead -- an effort that will expose family secrets and some uncomfortable truths.

Dead Lions by Mick Herron
(Soho Press):

A surreal, cynical, yet amusing look at the world of British intelligence, Herron’s latest novel picked up the Crime Writers’ Association’s Goldsboro Gold Dagger Award this last fall. Its narrative focuses on the losers at Slough House, a group of misfits or “slow horses” who have been transferred from active MI5 operations due to internal politics, their messing up, outright incompetence, alcoholism, et al. Things take a curious turn when slow horse and legendary slob Jackson Lamb decides to delve into a lackluster case -- the death, by heart attack, of retired cold warrior Dickie Bow. Lamb worked with Dickie in Berlin, and starts to suspect something more sinister than a natural death. Lamb and his colleagues soon find themselves back in action, embroiled in a looking-glass world that features KGB undercover agents, a Russian oligarch, a text message on a mobile phone and the ghost of a fabled Soviet spymaster who may not be real. Told through shifting points of view, Dead Lions boasts an amusing, serpentine plot that takes readers as far from the glamorous world of Ian Fleming’s tuxedo-wearing spy as could be imagined.

Deadly Harvest by Michael Stanley (Harper):
This fourth novel featuring modern Botswana police detective David “Kubu” Bengu opens with two ostensibly unrelated and disturbing incidents, both of them kidnappings of schoolgirls from two different places; each “snatch” leaving a vacuum within the families left behind. Local cops, struggling through a combination of a lack of will and a lack of resources, are unable to locate the perpetrators. Then, months later, Detective Kubu -- while chomping his biscuits and singing along to The Barber of Seville -- watches politicians battle for supremacy in the upcoming elections with disdain and cynicism. Kubu is especially troubled by the corruption endemic in a country ruled by superstition and violence; and he thinks he spots links between all of this and those schoolgirl abductions. The divergent plot strands here slowly start to weave together, though it is sometimes hard to anticipate and identify where they join. South African writers Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, who pen this series as “Michael Stanley,” offer short and surgically edited chapters, suffusing their twisted plot with valuable social commentary.

Joyland by Stephen King (Hard Case Crime):
Joyland is a shining example (pardon the pun) of King’s skill as a short-fiction author. Set in 1973, in North Carolina, it’s a coming-of-age tale based around college student Devin Jones, who is working at an amusement arcade for the summer in order to help fund his education. In the back story we learn of Devlin’s emotional attachment to a girlfriend in New England, who seems to be wearying of the young student. There aren’t many things that could be sadder than the hopeless desperation of a boy’s first love. But in tandem with this, Devin must deal with leaving his widowed father, who also clings to the love of his life -- Devin’s mother, now long gone -- and finds himself bewildered and confused by the uncaring hand of fate. King’s narrative details Devin’s summer doings -- not only his entertaining escapades and encounters with quirky characters, but also his investigation of the legendary “Funhouse Killer.” For it seems that, along with the sounds of the carnival beat, the sawdust underfoot, and the aroma of candy floss and hot dogs, there lurk dark and terrible secrets in Joyland. This is accomplished storytelling by a writer who, after decades of publication, can still produce a work that stops you dead in your tracks and forces you to question what it means to be human.

Sandrine’s Case by Thomas H. Cook (Mysterious Press):
A husband-and-wife pair of academics, Samuel and Sandrine Madison, work at Georgia’s Coburn College and share what to all outward appearances is a successful marriage, one that has resulted in a grown-up daughter and seeming happiness. However, that tranquility is shattered when the beautiful Sandrine is found dead, an evident victim of suicide, brought down by vodka and Demerol. Members of the local community are shocked by the professor’s passing, which rapidly spawns a murder investigation as the police -- and later an overzealous prosecutor -- zero in on Sam Madison as the prime suspect in his wife’s demise. The cloud of the death penalty casts an understandably dark shadow over both the defendant and his legal team. Cook constructs his narrative like a courtroom drama, but this novel offers a much more compelling tale about what actually led to the death of Sandrine, a woman as enigmatic as the ancient history she taught and brooded upon. Cook deftly explores the question of what we truly know about the people we love -- and, in reflection, what we truly know about ourselves. This novel was published in Britain as Sandrine (Head of Zeus).

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Jim Napier is a crime-fiction reviewer based in Quebec. His book reviews and author interviews have been featured in several Canadian papers as well as on such websites as Spinetingler Magazine, The Rap Sheet, Shots, Reviewing the Evidence and Type M for Murder. Napier also maintains an award-winning crime-fiction site, Deadly Diversions.

The Good Father by Noah Hawley (Anchor):
Dr. Paul Martin is living a nightmare. His son, Daniel, has dropped out of college and disappeared for months at a time, only touching base occasionally. Then one afternoon the family is having a casual conversation when the TV news intrudes: a U.S. senator and leading presidential candidate has been shot and killed at a political rally in Los Angeles. Within minutes Secret Service officers appear at Martin’s door and demand that he come with them. The assassin has been arrested and identified. It’s his son. Eloquent in its depiction of a father’s agony, The Good Father is a powerful and insightful psychological thriller. Author Hawley skillfully explores the impact of a tragedy with historical proportions that no one in the family saw coming, and that turned them, overnight, into national pariahs. Unable to accept his son’s guilt, and desperately wanting to believe that he had been at worst a patsy for others, Paul Martin begins a cross-country odyssey to prove his son’s innocence. It is a journey that will cost him his job and test the strength of his marriage, and before it is over the New York-based rheumatologist will prowl the backlands of America where Daniel spent his final months in search of answers that his son is unwilling to give.

The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian (Doubleday):
Ten years after the end of the Second World War, someone is targeting members of an aristocratic Tuscan family. One victim has already been viciously killed, her heart carved from her chest. Detective Serafina Bettini will struggle to understand the events that have lead to a series of brutal slayings, and to prevent the killer from striking again; and in the process she will be forced to relive her own past during those turbulent times. This is an atmospheric historical thriller that skillfully explores the conflicting tensions of an occupied people trying to come to terms with events they cannot control, at a point where their actions can literally mean the difference between life and death.

Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin (Orion, UK):
Edinburgh Detective Inspector John Rebus is back in harness and investigating a cold case, when he’s called to the scene of a car crash. Something about it doesn’t add up, and Rebus finds himself at odds with the driver’s (if she was driving) overprotective father, a man with both powerful connections and a short fuse. Complicating matters, Rebus’ old nemesis, Complaints Inspector Malcolm Fox, is investigating him -- or at least his old team. He’s been tasked with reviewing a prosecution that went wrong 30 years earlier, and as the only copper from the team still serving, Rebus is caught in the middle, with both his loyalties and his own head on the line. Fine, nuanced writing by a master of his craft.

The Scent of Death by Andrew Taylor (HarperCollins, UK):
Diamond Dagger Award winner Andrew Taylor has applied his formidable research and writing talents to serve up a compelling tale of greed and violence during the turbulent years of the American Revolution. London clerk Edward Savill travels to New York City to verify the claims of dispossessed Loyalists who find themselves on the wrong side during the American War of Independence. After a member of a family he’s staying with disappears behind rebel lines, and a body is discovered in the notorious slums of Canvas Town, Savill becomes involved. A fascinating take on ordinary people caught up in the sweep of events that will shape a new nation.

The Whisper of Legends by Barbara Fradkin (Dundurn):
Police Inspector Michael Green finds himself completely out of his element when he learns that his teenage daughter has gone missing in the northern Canadian wilderness. When the local head of the RCMP refuses to launch a search, Green takes matters into his own hands. His decision forces him to confront several of his own demons, including fear of flying and trying to cope in a hostile environment the Ottawa-based officer knows absolutely nothing about. Enlisting help from sympathetic locals, Green stumbles on one man’s quest that reaches back decades -- an obsession that will cost people’s lives. Well-researched, well-crafted and utterly convincing.

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J. Kingston Pierce is the editor of The Rap Sheet, the senior editor of January Magazine and the lead crime-fiction blogger for Kirkus Reviews.

A Commonplace Killing by Siân Busby (Atria/Marble Arch Press):
Inspired by an actual post-World War II crime, this yarn focuses first on the strangled corpse of a woman, discovered at a London bomb site in 1946. Busby then backtracks to explore the life of 43-year-old Lillian Frobisher, who spent part of the recent conflict entertaining forlorn servicemen, and isn’t happy to see her comparatively dull, middle-class husband return from army duty. Busby’s account of Lillian’s hard route to an untimely end, and her report of the efforts by a police inspector to unearth Lillian’s double life, lend complexity to this literary mystery. It is further enriched by its portrayal of the weary lives of Londoners suffering through postwar economic austerity.

Dead Man’s Land by Robert Ryan (Simon & Schuster, UK):
It’s 1914 and Dr. John H. Watson -- having fallen out with his storied comrade in crime-solving, Sherlock Holmes -- returns to army duty, re-commissioned as a major in the medical corps, and dispatched to the front lines of World War I as “an expert in the new techniques of blood transfusion.” But after a sergeant’s peculiar demise raises doubts about Watson’s practices, and then other similar deaths occur, Watson begins digging for answers, only to discover a killer with some longstanding grievances to exercise. Ryan does a superior job of capturing Watson’s voice, and the physician’s association with an unconventional volunteer nurse is well constructed. I hope this pair will be rejoined in Ryan’s sequel, The Dead Can Wait, which is due out in the UK in January.

Irregulars by Kevin McCarthy (New Island, Ireland):
From the author of 2010’s Peeler comes this sequel featuring now former Royal Irish Constabulary sergeant Séan O’Keefe. Unemployed since the 1922 partition of Ireland, he agrees to help a Dublin brothel madam, Ginny Dolan, locate her teenage son, who may have joined the ranks of republican guerrillas (aka “Irregulars”) opposed to the terms of that partition. O’Keefe’s original motive for taking the case is to pay back a vague debt his father owes Dolan, but as the ex-peeler -- aided by both the madam’s chief leg-breaker and an increasingly disillusioned undercover detective -- goes about his investigation, he gains a front-row view of Ireland’s escalating civil war and discovers he hasn’t completely lost interest either in exacting justice or recovering his hope for a better life.

Little Green by Walter Mosley (Doubleday):
After barely surviving a car accident at the end of his last adventure, 2007’s Blonde Faith, Los Angeles private eye Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins takes on a new assignment: locating Evander “Little Green” Noon, a man of 19 or 20 (“but he’s immature for his age”) who disappeared after calling his mother to tell her that he’d met some girl on the Sunset Strip. Jacked up on a “voodoo elixir,” Easy sets off in a bright red 1965 Plymouth Barracuda to bring Evander home -- and in the meantime, protect the young man from folks who would rather he ceased breathing immediately. As the case unfolds, Easy will rub elbows (and more intimate body parts) with free-spirited hippie chicks, run afoul of gun-wielding thugs and do his best to hide a small fortune in tainted cash. Little Green reminds me why I fell in love with Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series many moons ago.

Norwegian by Night by Derek B. Miller (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt):
Eighty-two-year-old Sheldon “Donny” Horowitz is a retired, widowed, and Jewish watch repairman living well out of his element. His beloved granddaughter, Rhea, has moved him from New York City to Oslo to be with her and her new Norwegian husband, Lars. She fears that Sheldon -- congenitally insolent and cranky in often comic measures -- is fast slipping into dementia, since he claims to have been a sniper in the Korean War, rather than a mere file clerk. But after a Kosovar war criminal murders Sheldon’s neighbor and tries to take her son, it falls to our octogenarian philosopher-hero to flee with that boy, dodging cops and killers and, if disaster doesn’t intervene, finally deliver himself from the guilt he’s borne for his own son’s death. Ripe with memories of wars long ago fought and regrets insurmountable, this is a remarkably moving, memorable debut thriller.

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Mike Ripley is an award-winning British mystery writer and, for 10 years, was the crime-fiction critic for The Daily Telegraph. He has devised and taught a course in Creative Crime Writing for Cambridge University and writes the scurrilous “Getting Away with Murder” column for Shots. (The books below were published in the UK in 2013 and are listed here with their British publishers.)

Dead Man’s Land by Robert Ryan (Simon & Schuster):
What better place for a psychopathic killer to get away with murder than on one of the greatest murder sites in history: the Western Front in the middle of World War I? Enter Dr. John Watson, flying solo (almost) as an army doctor, to take up the case. Along the way there’s a subplot involving an attempt to assassinate a well-known public figure (who became even more well-known during World War II) and much illuminating material about the role and status of women, especially those who worked as nurses. An intelligent, atmospheric thriller of which Arthur Conan Doyle would surely have approved.

Death on Demand by Paul Thomas (Bitter Lemon Press):
Proving that there’s far more to New Zealand than Hobbits, Dwarves and Dragons, that godfather of Kiwi crime brings back his wonderful, anarchic Maori cop, Tito Ihaka, after far too long away. And he has the chops to defy Elmore Leonard’s basic rule of writing by having a 25-page prologue! This is a frenetic, action-packed, highly convoluted tale of crime and skullduggery, red in tooth and claw. Ihaka is a wonderful creation and the plot, which meanders through police politics, gangsters and blackmail, comes together with the satisfying click of a new round being chambered.

Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin (Orion):
Edinburgh’s Detective Inspector John Rebus (now technically back from retirement as a sergeant) is something of a National Treasure in Britain, though of course that may change if Scotland votes for independence next year. For the moment, however, he’s back doing what he does best: shaking things up. It’s good to see such a brilliant character getting older, but no wiser; raging against the machine of injustice wherever it confronts him. And in this book, it’s a case from Rebus’ past -- in which he just might be a suspect -- that comes back to haunt him.

Tatiana by Martin Cruz Smith (Simon & Schuster):
How does Martin Cruz Smith do it? Not only has he created one of the great fictional detectives of the last 30 years in Russian investigator Arkady Renko, but he keeps his hero abreast of (and usually fighting) the changing face of modern Russia. His latest novel tackles whistle-blowing, political corruption on a mega-scale, police in-fighting and the jockeying for position by oligarchs and gangsters, who are often indistinguishable. Gripping stuff and so slick Cruz Smith makes it look easy.

The Windsor Faction by D.J. Taylor (Chatto & Windus):
A very “literary” novel about ... well, I suppose about apathy, boredom and powerlessness, masquerading as a what-if historical thriller set in a 1939, when we find Edward VIII (minus Mrs. Simpson) sitting on the throne. This work will not satisfy the reader looking for an alternative history of Britain in World War II. (Len Deighton claimed that high ground years ago.) But, though its short on thrills and action, this is a novel ripe with fascinating characters and beautifully -- in parts, very beautifully -- written.

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Kevin Burton Smith is a Montreal-born crime writer and critic currently looking for an honest glass of beer in Southern California’s High Desert. In the meantime, he’s working on the Great Canadian Detective Novel, writing features for Mystery Scene magazine and contributing too infrequently to The Rap Sheet. Not incidentally, Smith is also the founder and editor of that invaluable resource, The Thrilling Detective Web Site.

American Death Songs by Jordan Harper (Beautiful Trash):
Television writer (for The Mentalist) Harper shows he’s capable of more than air-brushed crime stories for mass consumption. He tears into the guts of something in the night, darker and more alive, in this astounding collection of mostly crime-based short stories featuring people ruining other people’s lives -- and their own. There’s no Vaseline on the lens here; just the unflinching, hard-edged poetry of bad luck and bad choices, be it a fat girl’s desperate dreams of romance or a loser’s last shot at some kind of redemption on a lonely stretch of back road, set to a rock ’n’ roll soundtrack. Turn it up.

The Creep by John Arcudi
(Dark Horse):

This moving graphic novel is more -- much more -- than a cheap riff on the old “defective detectives” gimmick. Big Apple gumshoe Oxel Kärnhaus is the eponymous creep of the title, a big, hulking brute with a face only a mother could love; the victim of a debilitating, disfiguring disease. A lifetime of insults, pain and loneliness have left Oxel a brooding, desolate man, but the chance for salvation -- and maybe even love -- comes when an old girlfriend begs him to help her find out why her teenage son committed suicide. Was it grief? Guilt? Shame? This book’s clean, sensitive artwork, by Jonathan Case, brings the emotional wallop of the answer down with a hammer.

The Double by George Pelecanos (Little, Brown):
Pelecanos’ game plan may not have changed much over the years: some taut, diamond-hard prose, careful attention to clothes, cars and music as social and cultural indicators, men doing what they gotta do -- all leading to an inevitable (and inevitably violent) showdown worthy of a spaghetti western. But this time Pelecanos digs deeper, rocks harder and let’s the hellhounds howl louder. Hip young Iraq vet-turned-freelance investigator, Spero Lucas, hot on the trail of a stolen painting, may think the war’s over, but the war’s not over with him. Men do what they’ve gotta do, but Pelecanos dares to ask why.

Hour of the Rat by Lisa Brackman (Soho Crime):
Improved medical technology and body armor mean more American military troops come home alive, if not necessarily whole, and Brackman’s poignant novel tears right into it; it’s the perfect companion piece to George Pelecanos’ PTSD-laced The Double. At least in Brackman’s yarn, Ellie McEnroe, who left a big chunk of her leg back in Iraq, knows she’s damaged. An ex-pat living in China, she agrees to look for an old army buddy’s missing brother. But China’s a big country, and as the foul-mouthed, pill-popping vet travels from tourist trap to toxic wasteland and back, her journey becomes one of disenchantment, frustration and anger, even as she admits that she likes “having something to do. Something that matters.” This book -- and the fingers it points -- matter.

Kinsey and Me: Stories by Sue Grafton (Marian Wood Book/Putnam):
With “Z” looming at the end of her particular fiction-writing road, Grafton hangs a left, unleashing this collection of Kinsey Millhone short stories. That’d be noteworthy enough: they’re tough, polished P.I. gems, with not a loser in the bunch. But it’s the “and Me” half of this work, consisting of 13 loosely connected vignettes tracing the author’s own troubled childhood, written in the years following her mother’s death, that will keep you reading into the night. Grafton knows that not all crimes involve guns or bodies, and it’s the author’s acknowledgement of “all that rage, all that pain” that has made the Millhone series one of the greatest in American detective fiction.

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