You should see my office! Actually, it looks very much like it usually does at this time of year—wonderfully, beautifully out of control. Piled along one side of the room, beneath already stuffed wooden bookcases, are crime, mystery and thriller works I enjoyed reading during the last 12 months, some of which I wrote about in my recent year-end wrap-up. Tucked into an adjacent alcove are other genre entries from 2014, most of which I found time to enjoy, but a few (such as Laura McHugh’s The Weight of Blood, Phillip Margolin’s Woman with a Gun and Thomas H. Cook’s A Dancer in the Dust) that will have to wait until the new year for my attention. And then there’s what looks like a bar graph of novels—finished copies stacked among advance reader’s proofs—that aren’t scheduled for release in the United States until January, February or March of 2015. Of late, I’ve spent many hours with those last stacks, culling books I think will be particularly worth your attention. Below, I briefly describe eight such promising efforts and then list another 20 titles that also belong on your radar.
A Pleasure and a Calling, by Paul Hogan (January):
William Heming, the first-person narrator of this psychological thriller, seems at first to be both forgettable and inoffensive. In fact, the opposite is true. A successful real-estate agent in a leafy English community, Heming keeps copies of the keys to every house he sells, and he delights in later visiting those abodes on the Q.T., making himself comfortable among the possessions of occupants, acquainting himself with their private habits and spying on them as he sees fit. He assures the reader that this illegal snooping is merely “an obsessive sport,” and that it makes him a neighborhood-watch superhero, prepared to correct wrongs and dole out punishments in order to keep things just so. The more we learn about Heming’s history, though, the more doubt is shed upon his reliability as a narrator. The respect he enjoys among his fellow villagers is about to take a hit, too, as one misstep—made for what he believed in his arrogance was the right reason—threatens to expose his sociopathic eccentricities. A creepy but compelling story.
The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins (January):
The tedium of daily train commuting invites idle speculation, so it’s no wonder Rachel Watson—a divorced, blackout-level drunk who continues to ride the rails each day in to London, even though she’s been fired from her job—should begin to fantasize about a young couple she watches share breakfast together each morning on their roof deck. They appear to be blissfully happy, living not far from where Rachel previously resided with her ex-hubby, Tom. Yet, one day Rachel spots the female half of this couple, Megan Hipwell, in an intimate embrace with another man. Soon afterward, Megan vanishes and Rachel comes forward to share her knowledge of the evident betrayal. When the cops question Rachel’s credibility as a witness, both because of her alcoholism and her recent odd behavior toward Tom and his new wife, she determines to probe Megan’s disappearance on her own. Is she doing so, though, to find a missing wife…or to protect the fantasy she’s created around her? Rachel Watson is a splendidly complex protagonist, and Hawkins’ story offers more than a few surprises.
A Fine Summer’s Day, by Charles Todd (January):
Add the mother and son who write together as “Charles Todd” to my list of longtime mystery fictionists whose work I haven’t sampled in a while. I’ve found joy in a number of their Inspector Ian Rutledge stories, yet the last one I remember reading was probably The Red Door (2009), so it’s time to reacquaint myself with their shell-shocked Scotland Yard detective. A Fine Summer’s Day is a prequel to A Test of Wills (1996), the opening entry in the Rutledge series. Set in 1914, on the eve of World War I, it imagines the young inspector trying to connect the case of a man who ostensibly hanged himself in his own home with a rash of equally suspicious deaths spreading across England. Could all of these tragedies have been set in motion by some invisible hand? Meanwhile, the woman Rutledge proposes to marry—despite warnings from friends and family who fear she’s not right for him—pesters him to join the military and become her hero. How long can Rutledge stick with his investigation while his mates trot off to war?
Nobody Walks, by Mick Herron (February):
Old spies may die, but they never stop being suspicious. At least that’s the message in Nobody Walks, Herron’s first novel since he won the 2013 Gold Dagger Award for Dead Lions. We’re introduced here to Tom Bettany, a former British intelligence officer who, following the loss of his wife to cancer seven years ago, fled to France, abandoning his son, Liam, in order to find calm obscurity laboring in a meat-processing plant. But now a stranger informs him that 26-year-old Liam has perished from a balcony fall, after smoking pot. Returning to London, Bettany quickly raises doubts about Liam’s fate, attracting the attention of some very dangerous players as he tries to purge his guilt through analytical activity. Bettany’s instincts tell him Liam was murdered; they don’t do as good a job of warning him that the slaying was intended to lure him out of the shadows and into waiting gun-sights. Can this ex-MI5 agent stay alive long enough to win retribution for his estranged son’s killing? If ever a novel could be described as a taut revenge thriller, it’s this one.
Hush Hush, by Laura Lippman (February):
I admit to being a sucker for Lippman’s tales, which customarily provide complicated plots, but also—equally important—characters bearing genuine emotional and psychological depth. Her recent stand-alones (including last year’s remarkable After I’m Gone) have won her the greatest attention, but Lippman’s original mystery series, featuring Baltimore reporter-turned-private investigator Tess Monaghan, is nothing to sneeze at either. Hush Hush finds the PI, already busy with a tantrum-prone young daughter, agreeing to appraise security risks facing Melisandre Harris Dawes, a wealthy former attorney who, 12 years ago, left her infant child to die in an overheated car. Dawes was eventually found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity, but nonetheless relinquished custody of her older children to her ex-spouse and relocated abroad. Now she’s returned to Charm City, hoping to reunite with her offspring and produce a documentary about the insanity defense. Opposition to such prospects turns ugly and vicious, and leaves Tess having to protect Dawes as well as reflect on her own inadequacies as a mother.
Inspector of the Dead, by David Morrell (March):
Following closely on the heels of Morrell’s much-lauded 2013 historical grabber, Murder as a Fine Art, this dramatically paced detective yarn returns us to the company of English essayist and notorious opium eater Thomas de Quincey. The year is now 1855, and as a continuing war in far-off Crimea undermines the stability of the U.K. government, members of Britain’s fashionable class are falling before the predations of a vengeful and elusive villain. Each corpse is left with the name of a person (and there were several) who sought at one point or another to end Queen Victoria’s life prematurely. Clues suggest the doughy monarch herself will be the ultimate victim of these slayings. It falls to De Quincey, his headstrong daughter and a pair of Scotland Yard sleuths to diagnosis the psychology of the marauder and end his nefarious schemes before further disasters strike. Morrell expertly captures in prose the economic and political divisions of Victorian society, but he leavens his social commentary with moments of high adventure.
Gun Street Girl, by Adrian McKinty (March):
I was disappointed with McKinty’s last novel, a stand-alone historical whodunit titled The Sun Is God (2014), because while it was plump with oddball suspects, the story dwindled off into an inconclusive ending. This Ned Kelly Award-winning author is on firmer ground with Gun Street Girl, the unexpected fourth entry to his Troubles Trilogy (after last year’s In the Morning I’ll Be Gone). It’s 1985 and Detective Inspector Sean Duffy, a young Catholic officer in the predominately Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary, must contend not only with the political and ethnic strife fueling Northern Ireland’s Troubles, but also the murder of a wealthy couple. In that crime’s aftermath, the couple’s son, Michael Kelly, apparently takes his own life, leaving behind a message in which he seems also to take responsibility for his parents’ demise. An open-and-shut case, right? Duffy isn’t convinced. His probing leads him to arms dealers and a loose-cannon American operative, and reveals that Kelly had attended a boisterous bash during which drugs claimed the life of a government minister’s daughter. By the time MI5 agents try to recruit Duffy and take him off this investigation, it’s clear the DI has stepped on all the wrong toes. A grim, gritty but ever-captivating yarn.
Leaving Berlin, by Joseph Kanon (March):
Returning to the setting of his 2001 novel, The Good German, Kanon pitches us into post-World War II Berlin at the height of a Western campaign to airlift food and supplies into that USSR-blockaded city. Alex Meier, a successful novelist and German Jew, had fled to the United States before the war, but his political sympathies put him afoul of U.S. anti-Communist zealots, and he’s now returned to Berlin—a development Russian authorities interpret as a coup. What they don’t realize is that Meier has become a spy, hoping to earn his way back into America by gathering intelligence for the CIA. Naturally, carefully laid plans go awry, leading to a botched kidnapping, bloodshed and Meier becoming a wanted man. He is no happier to discover that his real role in all this is to snoop on the love of his youth, a woman who still holds tender feelings for him, but is now the mistress of a senior Russian officer. The ample action in Kanon’s story helps gloss over several plot and character weaknesses, but what’s most memorable here is the re-creation of a devastated East Berlin, where even the Nazis look good in comparison to brutal Soviet occupiers.
Also worth checking out: A String of Beads, by Thomas Perry (January); The Kings of London, by William Shaw (January); The Devil You Know, by Elisabeth de Mariaffi (January); The Martini Shot, by George Pelecanos (January); Ostland, by David Thomas (January); The Carrier, by Sophie Hannah (January); Dead Red, by Tim O’Mara (January); Lamentation, by C.J. Sansom (February); The Kind Worth Killing, by Peter Swanson (February); Dreamless, by Jørgen Brekke (February); Harm’s Reach, by Alex Barclay (February); Devils and Dust, by J.D. Rhoades (February); The Killing Season, by Mason Cross (February); The Pocket Wife, by Susan Crawford (March); World Gone By, by Dennis Lehane (March); Kill Me, Darling, by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins (March); Canary, by Duane Swierczynski (March); Suitcase City, by Sterling Watson (March); All the Old Knives, by Olen Steinhauer (March); and Night Night, Sleep Tight, by Hallie Ephron (March).