It strikes me as the appropriate thing during this Thanksgiving week to express appreciation for some of the remarkable crime, mystery and thriller novels I read over the last 12 months. Although I certainly encountered my share of disappointments and oversold works, 2014 also brought into my hands such worthwhile reads as Walter Mosley’s Rose Gold, Ben H. Winters’ World of Trouble, Hilary Davidson’s Blood Always Tells, Benjamin Black’s The Black-Eyed Blonde, Terry Hayes’ I Am Pilgrim, Kim Cooper’s The Kept Girl, Linwood Barclay’s No Safe House, Wiley Cash’s This Dark Road to Mercy, Michael Koryta’s Those Who Wish Me Dead, and…well, let’s just say I spent more than a few gratifying hours observing laws being broken and lawbreakers apprehended (often in the most ingenious ways). Of the many dozens of new crime novels released in the States this year, the following 10 stand out—not simply because they seemed compelling at the time or unusual, but because I kept thinking about them long after I’d put them up on my shelves, and I recommended them to others without hesitation.
After I’m Gone, by Laura Lippman: Bambi Gottschalk thought she’d stumbled across her ideal future when, in 1959, she met charming Felix Brewer. But the ways Felix made his money were too often unscrupulous, and in 1976 he fled Baltimore for Canada, leaving behind his family as well as his stripper girlfriend, Julie Saxony. When Julie later disappears, it’s assumed she’s rejoined her paramour; only the subsequent unearthing of her corpse revises that conclusion. And it’s not until years afterward, when a retired police detective, Roberto “Sandy” Sanchez, starts digging into Julie’s slaying, that answers are finally paired with the profuse questions left behind in Felix’s wake. Bouncing between time periods, Lippman does a brilliant job of imagining how Felix’s desertion affects his loved ones. She further enriches that plot line with the often tender story of Sanchez rediscovering the value of his own life.
Children of the Revolution, by Peter Robinson: The body of 59-year-old ex-college lecturer Gavin Miller is found beside a desolate stretch of railroad track. Miller had reportedly been down on his luck, an alcoholic living like a hermit for several years, ever since he lost his job for alleged sexual misconduct. So how did he come by the £5,000 in his pocket? DCI Alan Banks (Watching the Dark) figures this violence is the result of a soured drug deal. Yet the more he rummages among the relics of the deceased’s miserable past, the more Banks comes to suspect this crime is the ugly outgrowth of events four decades old, dating from when Miller was a student himself, involved in protests and radical politics and friendly with a woman who has since become an A-list romance writer. By the time Banks’ bosses start to feel uneasy about where this case is heading, and tell him to back off, the DCI is too invested in the outcome to comply. Thank goodness.
The Secret Place, by Tana French: Stephen Moran, an ambitious police detective in Dublin, Ireland, thinks he may finally have found a channel to advancement in the mystery of a teenage boy, Christopher Harper, who was murdered on the grounds of an elite boarding school for girls. He already has a connection with the student, Holly Mackey, who gave this probe a boost by finding a photo of the deceased, captioned “I know who killed him,” on the girls’ school notice board. But if Moran is to prove himself, he’ll first have to impress his acerbic new partner, Det. Antoinette Conway, and untangle a web of links between Harper and two rival cliques of female students, one apparently nice, the other manifestly nasty. If you initially have trouble (as I did) relating to the manipulative, back-biting, and chatter-drowned world of teenage girls, fear not: French has much more to offer here than that claustrophobic social atmosphere.
An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris: A quarter-century after France was humiliated in the Franco-Prussian War, the 1895 conviction of Alfred Dreyfus, a young French artillery officer of Jewish descent, on charges of passing military secrets to the German Empire became an international scandal and an opportunity for French intelligence officials to claim a victory against their country’s old enemy. Col. Georges Picquart starts off as convinced of the man’s guilt as anyone else. Yet not long after Picquart is promoted to head the military’s Statistical Section—which had helped build the rather flimsy case against Dreyfus—he becomes convinced that another highly placed turncoat was actually behind those treasonous acts, a judgment that raises suspicions among his colleagues and puts him at dangerous odds with his superiors. Harris’ yarn, rooted in history, is slow to build up steam, but hard to stop once it does.
Sometimes the Wolf, by Urban Waite: Bobby Drake is a deputy sheriff in the pocket-edition town of Silver Lake, Wash. He’s also the resentful son of Patrick Drake, who had the job of local sheriff until circumstances turned him into a drug smuggler and he wound up serving a prison sentence. Patrick has now been released on parole into Bobby’s custody, but any hopes that he’ll resume a straight-and-narrow path are quickly dashed when the elder Drake suddenly goes missing and the current sheriff turns up dead bodies. It seems a couple of ruthless players from Patrick’s past are on the prowl in Silver Lake, bent on recovering hundreds of thousands of dollars in ill-gotten gains that vanished when Patrick entered the slammer—and drawing Bobby and his discontented wife into their cruel campaign. This tense thriller is a sequel to Waite’s The Terror of Living, but you needn’t have read that earlier novel to enjoy this one.
Really the Blues, by Joseph Koenig: American jazz trumpeter Eddie Piron has lived in Paris since before the outbreak of World War II, and he’s made a decent living there playing the “negermusik” clubs, despite the racist policies voiced by the now occupying Nazis. One night in 1941, though, his band’s drummer quits, and is soon found floating in the Seine. In short order the same musician’s girlfriend perishes—or does she? Eddie wants no trouble, but he can’t avoid it, as German investigators, wielding a file on the drummer that includes allegations of subversive activities, draw him into the case. Worse, his upper-crust and pregnant girlfriend learns something about him that doesn’t balance well with her right-wing views; something that could also make Eddie susceptible to blackmail. As threats build and secrets are revealed, Eddie Piron sees the peaceful existence he has carved out for himself in the City of Light disappearing into darkness. A subtle, atmospheric and delightfully edgy historical thriller.
The Devil in the Marshalsea, by Antonia Hodgson: After abandoning his destiny as a clergyman to pursue a more dissolute life, and ultimately being convicted of failure to square his multiple debts, in 1727 Tom Hawkins is tossed into the Marshalsea, an infamous, castlelike prison in London’s Southwark district. He winds up there bunking with Samuel Fleet, a most eccentric gent viewed by many fellow inmates as the devil incarnate—perhaps responsible for killing his previous roommate. Hawkins wants out, as fast as he can go. But his early release might be won only by solving the recent murder of another jailbird, Capt. John Roberts, whose attractive wife has been agitating for an investigation, and whose ghost allegedly frequents the prison grounds. Hodgson’s debut novel is generous with historical color and captivating period horrors.
Sweet Sunday, by John Lawton: Texas-born Turner Raines has found his place in late-1960s New York City as a private investigator, one who tracks down draft dodgers—not to haul them home from Canada, but to give them messages from their parents. What crime-solving skills Raines has, though, will be tested after his best friend, Village Voice journalist Mel Kissing, is murdered with an ice pick in the PI’s office. The clues suggest Kissing was croaked for what he’d learned about covered-up atrocities during the Vietnam War, but there may be more to the story than that. At the same time as he’s trying to determine the provocation of his buddy’s demise, Raines relives a personal past that found him mixed up in some of the decade’s best-remembered events and led him to ditch his oil-rich relatives back in the Lone Star State. A surprisingly satisfying combination of gumshoe yarn and study of ’60s societal upheaval.
The Lewis Man, by Peter May: In this sequel to The Blackhouse—my favorite crime novel of 2012—Fin Macleod ends his career as a police detective in Edinburgh, Scotland, and heads back north to the island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, where he grew up and where he now intends to restore his parents’ derelict croft house. Right away, though, the island’s constable asks Fin to help solve the mystery of a male corpse pulled from a peat bog. That body must have been there since the late 1950s, early ’60s. DNA testing reveals the deceased was related to Tormond MacDonald, the elderly father of Marsali, Finn’s childhood sweetheart. Yet Tormond is suffering from dementia, and he’s always claimed to be an only child. May’s narrative swings back and forth between the present day, as Fin struggles to determine why the “bog man” was killed and help Marsali understand her dad’s newly complex history, and Tormond’s memories, which offer a more poignant sequence of events than anyone anticipated.
Finally, a sentimental favorite…
Darkness, Darkness, by John Harvey: When English author John Harvey first introduced Detective Inspector Charlie Resnick in 1989’s Lonely Hearts, he could not have anticipated that the protagonist would still be working crime scenes more than two decades later. This book, however, supposedly marks the jazz-loving sleuth’s last appearance. Retired and serving as a civilian advisor to the Nottingham force, Resnick is impressed into the inquiry surrounding a murdered woman’s remains, freshly found but dating back to the turbulent U.K. miners’ strike of the mid-1980s. The inspector charged with solving the case, Catherine Njoroge, knows Resnick had a hand in police surveillance during that work stoppage, and hopes he can shed light on the victim’s fate. Harvey’s narrative leads readers back 30 years to an era when families were divided by the labor protests, but weaves into that a secondary plot involving Njoroge and her abusive boyfriend. Resnick has had a much-honored career in fiction. It’s nice to see him going out with his appeal and talents intact.