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February 1, 2016 BOOKLIST
Find more Great Reads
When I think back over 17 years of Booklist Mystery Showcase issues, I naturally remember first all the wonderful, one-of-a-kind features we’ve published: Daniel Kraus’ moving, real-life literary mystery, “Desperately Seeking DeSario” (2011); Frank Sennett’s fascinating investigative report, “Stalking Charles Willeford’s Elusive Grimhaven” (2007); and, of course, Keir Graff’s short story “Reading Is My Business” (2011), a spot-on hard-boiled homage set at a magazine just a wee bit like Booklist. But what about the reviews? In those 17 years, we’ve published nearly 2,000 reviews of new mysteries in our May 1 issues, and my byline has appeared on at least 125 of them. I decided recently it might be fun to look over my personal cross section of Showcase reviews and see what titles lingered in my ever-more-addled mind.
The books I happen to have reviewed in our May 1 issues represent, of course, a random sample, as we review mysteries throughout the year, but it’s remarkable how many of the year’s best arrive on our desks in time for the Showcase issue. (I know, I know, it’s the silliest of illusions to presume that publishers are scheduling their publication dates to coincide with our Mystery Showcase, but, please, allow this aging editor his fantasy life.) Over the years, I’ve written Showcase reviews of many outstanding crime novels by the genre’s best—James Lee Burke, Alan Furst, Lee Child, and more—but what struck me as I scanned the list was the number of writers I came to for the first time in these issues—and how many of them I’ve continued to read with great pleasure.
For this month’s Great Reads, I’ve picked one of my Showcase discoveries for each year from 1997 through 2013. The list appears below, arranged chronologically. If you don’t know these books, you have some reading to do.
Smalltime, by Jerry Raine
I didn’t star this haunting story of frustrated ambitions and shrunken dreams, but I didn’t know then how it would stick with me. Three young men in lower middle-class suburban London come together around an impulsive, silly crime and watch helplessly as their lives swirl ever downward toward a violent finale. In documentary-style prose, Raine establishes the humanity of his characters by sharing the often-pathetic details of their daily lives. There is no preaching here, no using crime as the stuff of adventure; instead, there is only gritty, gray, suffocating reality.
The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, by Richard Zimler
This hypnotic novel tells the horrific story of the the Lisbon massacre of 1506, when Christian fanatics, led by a group of monks, killed and burned hundreds of Jews in the city’s square. Mixing meditation on the mystical tradition of Kabbalah with the surrealistic nightmare of the massacre, Zimler follows young Berekiah Zarko as he attempts to to solve the murder of his uncle, Kabbalist master Abraham. The fever pitch of intensity Zimler maintains throughout Berekiah’s Dante-like journey is at times overwhelming but never less than appropriate to the Hieronymous Bosch–like landscape he describes. Simultaneously, though, he is able to capture, within the bedlam, quiet moments of tenderness and love between Berekiah, his friends and fellow Kabbalists, and his family.
City of Ice, by John Farrow
Farrow, the pseudonym for Canadian literary novelist Trevor Ferguson, wrote two crime novels starring Montreal cop Emile Cinq-Mars. This was the first, and it’s a stunner, begging the question of why he hasn’t written more. There’s something about ice and snow as a backdrop for crime fiction. Like Martin Cruz Smith in Gorky Park and Peter Høeg in Smilla’s Sense of Snow, Farrow uses the frigid atmosphere (lethal in itself) both to suggest all-encompassing menace (an international criminal conspiracy) and to parallel his troubled hero’s struggle with himself.
Hot Springs, by Stephen Hunter
Hunter was an established thriller writer (and movie critic) when I first read him back in 2000, but after Hot Springs, I immediately got up to speed and have eagerly devoured every new Hunter novel as it appeared. Hot Springs, a reimagining of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest set in 1946, in which a WWII hero is hired to help clean up the Mob-run Arkansas resort town, remains a favorite. This is a violent book about the allure of violence, and it pulls all the archetypal strings that Hammett pulled and that the best westerns have always pulled. Hunter’s uncluttered prose, like Hammett’s, draws power from the no-nonsense precision with which it describes the action and the hardware that propels it.
Open Season, by C. J. Box
Today, Box is one of the crime genre’s established A-listers, but when I picked up Open Season 12 years ago, he was just another first novelist with some nice jacket blurbs. It was quickly apparent, however, that this was no ordinary first novel. The palpable presence of the Wyoming high country in the story, and the airtight precision with which the plot (involving oil profiteering) is constructed immediately grab the reader’s attention, but it’s game-warden hero Joe Pickett who closes the deal. A soft-spoken Gary Cooper for our time, he is flawed and insecure but a stand-up guy when it counts—the perfect mix of dream and reality.
The Dream of Scipio, by Iain Pears
OK, I’m cheating here. I discovered Iain Pears not with this book but with An Instance of the Fingerpost (1998) a few years earlier. But Scipio, I believe, never quite garnered the intention it deserves, so I’m horseshoeing it into this column’s “discoveries” premise. Like Fingerpost, it’s a grand-scale historical thriller, juggling three different periods, united by a setting—Provence—and by the presence of a siege. Questions of engagement versus retreat, the contemplative life versus the active one, and the individual good versus the greater good come into play in stunning, three-part harmony.
Haunted Ground, by Erin Hart
Two brothers “cutting turf” from a peat bog in the Irish countryside discover the head of a beautiful red-haired woman, decapitated and perfectly preserved in the decay-resistant bog. Who is she, and how long has her head been in the ground? Hart follows her gripping set-piece opening with an utterly beguiling mix of village mystery, gothic suspense, and psychological thriller. Atmosphere is all in this detail-rich novel, from the traditional Irish music that not only plays in the background but also helps drive the plot to the fascinating snippets of history concerning peat bogs and archaeological methodology. One of the most memorable first novels I’ve ever read at Booklist.
While I Disappear, by Edward Wright
John Ray Horn was a B-movie western star before WWII; now it’s the late 1940s, and he works as a debt collector for a casino, a job that has a way of drifting into amateur sleuthing. Horn is an immensely likable character—Roy Rogers as a noir hero—and the Sunset Boulevard atmospherics are irresistible. But Wright’s novel is not just another costume-heavy tribute to Hollywood’s golden age. Wright’s characters evoke an era, but they also feel pain, the timeless kind, and their problems don’t go away when the credits roll. There are only three titles in this series (this is the second), and none since 2006. More please.
Adios Hemingway, by Leonardo Padura Fuentes
If you only want to read one crime novel in which Hemingway plays a role, make it this one. Mario Conde is retired Havana cop obsessed with Hemingway, so when the skeletal remains of a man killed on Papa’s Cuban estate 40 years earlier are unearthed, it’s only natural that the police ask Conde to work the case. A celebrated mystery writer in Cuba, Fuentes offers a fascinating mix of fact and fiction, jumping between present and past, and vividly dramatizing Hemingway’s last days in Cuba. And best of all is the priceless anecdote about Ava Gardner’s black silk knickers, a souvenir to die for.
Night Bus, by Giampiero Rigosi
An accomplished Italian novelist makes his crime-fiction debut with this spot-on caper tale. Evoking 1940s film noir, the novel pairs Francesco, a Bologna bus driver and compulsive gambler, and the savvy Leila, a hustler who robs the men she picks up in Bologna’s bars. Both are on the run and in way over their heads with 50 million stolen lira in their pocket and the Mob on their tail. Superb snippets of character building combine with a breakneck pace and a palpable noir sensibility.
Ghostwalk, by Rebecca Stout
“If moments in time become entangled in the same way that photons become entangled, then there might be strange connections between the past and the present.” Stott’s compelling, intellectually challenging first novel explores one of these entanglements. Can a series of Cambridge murders in the present, all apparently connected to a scholar’s scientific research, be linked to a similar series of deaths in the seventeenth century that helped launch Isaac Newton’s career? This daring novel works on multiple levels: as thriller, as love story, as ghost story, as historical speculation.
The Bad News Bible, by Anna Blundy
British journalist Faith Zanetti is a classic foreign correspondent: tough talking, cynical to the bone, and capable of ingesting prodigious amounts of booze and cigarettes. Her adventures have been published in the UK for the last several years, but curiously, they have only appeared sporadically here. In this one, Faith is posted to Jerusalem, where she happily reconnects with a gang of comrades-in-khakis, settling into a comfortable, vodka-fueled routine. Then her best friend is murdered, and Faith has a new story. Like Matt Beynon Rees, in his wonderful Omar Yussef series, Blundy, a journalist herself, puts a distinctly human face on the headlines while telling a corker of a story.
Dark Paradise, by Lono Waiwaiole
I was aware of Waiwaiole’s Wiley series, starring a Portland, Oregon, poker player, but my first reading of his work came with this gripping, pitch-dark stand-alone set on Hawaii’s Big Island. Geronimo Souza is a cop who gets caught in the middle of a meth war between native islanders (all childhood pals), Mexicans representing a cartel, and the Japanese Mob. Waiwaiole injects his lowlifes with plenty of humanizing quirks, but these guys never seem unrealistically lovable; they’re loose cannons careening about a confined space: it’s big, but it’s still an island, and in the end, there’s no place to run. Noir fans need to know about Waiwaiole right now.
Nobody’s Angel, by Jack Clark
You want interesting backstory? This one has it in spades. Clark is a Chicago cab driver who sold this book—about a Chicago cabbie who investigates the murder of his best friend—out of his cab before Hard Case Crime agreed to publish it. Wise move: Clark nails the melancholy, cynical cab driver point of view, and the result is a deliciously moody neon-lit, noir-tinged, saxophone-scored prose poem.
Iron House, by John Hart
I came way, way late to Hart. Two of his first three stand-alone thrillers won Edgars, so I have no excuse, but I’m glad, in a way, that I started with Iron House, which is a flat-out masterpiece. It’s about two brothers who spend their formative years in a Dickensian orphanage in North Carolina but then go very different ways: Michael becomes a New York hitman, and his younger brother, Julian, a children’s-book writer. Merging a present-time thriller (Michael on the run) with the orphanage backstory, Hart produces a multitextured novel of rare beauty and nuance. But don’t forget the magnificently choreographed fight scenes, including a High Noon–like finale.
East of Denver, by Gregory Hill
Stacey “Shakespeare” Williams returns to the family farm in eastern Colorado to bury his cat and winds up planning a bank robbery with “a paralyzed asshole, an anorexic fatso, and my prematurely senile father.” A little country noir and a lot of black humor equal a terrific opening salvo from a very talented writer. I’m eager to watch Hill’s career develop.
Night Film, by Marisha Pessl
When the daughter of a notorious film director is found dead in New York, an apparent suicide, investigative reporter Scott McGrath throws himself back into a story that almost ended his career. Like Pessl’s first novel, the acclaimed Special Topics in Calamity Physics, this one expands from a seemingly straightforward mystery into a multifaceted, densely byzantine exploration of much larger issues, in this case, the nature of truth and illusion. Gripping, even mesmerizing, this maelstrom of a story draws the reader into its vortex and disgorges us at the end, reeling with exhilaration.
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