At the beginning of this year, I promised myself I would spend more time reading beyond the shelves of crime, mystery and thriller fiction. Yet as I glance back at my list of books consumed over these last 12 months, I see that—once again—I have shown myself a hopeless addict when it comes to crime fiction. I just can’t kick the habit. And there were certainly many noteworthy new releases in 2013 to keep me jacked up on the genre. Everything from Max Allan Collins’ 15th Nate Heller historical thriller, Ask Not, Anthony Quinn’s second Northern Irish mystery, Border Angels, and Lynn Shepherd’s A Fatal Likeness, to Robert Wilson’s Capital Punishment, Linwood Barclay’s A Tap on the Window, Linda Barnes’ The Perfect Ghost, James Lee Burke’s Light of the World, Jim Fusilli’s Billboard Man, Andrew Taylor’s The Scent of Death, William Boyd’s James Bond adventure, Solo and, of course, Ed Gorman’s latest fine muddle of politics and malice, Flashpoint.
There were 10 novels released this year, though, that really stuck with me. Most appeared first in the States, but two have so far seen print only in the British Isles.
Norwegian by Night, by Derek B. Miller: At 82 years 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.
Dead Man’s Land, by Robert Ryan (U.K.): Who better than Dr. John H. Watson, Sherlock Holmes’ aging chronicler, to take on a case of homicide among the battlefield trenches of World War I? He’s joined Britain’s Royal Army Medical Corps and been sent to the French front lines as “an expert in the new techniques of blood transfusion.” Following a sergeant’s bizarre demise, blame falls upon Watson’s practices. However, when other, similar deaths occur, Watson launches an inquiry that leads him to a murderer with dusty grudges to exercise and into a lethal confrontation in the worst possible place: the desolate no-man’s-land between that war’s opposing forces. A sequel, The Dead Can Wait, is due out in the U.K. in January.
Little Green, by Walter Mosley: After surviving what readers assumed was his fatal car crash at the close of Blonde Faith (2007), Los Angeles sleuth Easy Rawlins agrees to locate Evander “Little Green” Noon, a rather immature young black man who disappeared after telling his mother he’d met some girl on the Sunset Strip. Hopped up on a “voodoo elixir” supplied by a “Southern witch,” Easy swings through 1967 LA, rubbing elbows (and more intimate body parts) with free-spirited hippie chicks, running afoul of gun-wielding thugs and doing his best to conceal a small fortune in tainted cash, all while trying to determine why Evander’s mother carries such a hate for Easy’s psychotic sidekick, Mouse. Expect incisive characterizations and careful attention to historical detail, as well as commentary about the evolution of civil rights in mid-20th-century America.
A Commonplace Killing, by Siân Busby: A woman’s strangled corpse is discovered in a London bomb site in 1946. As presumptions of her having been a fast-sheet floozy—perhaps slain by a dissatisfied lover—quickly fade for absence of evidence, Divisional Det. Insp. Jim Cooper must widen his search for answers. At the same time, we’re introduced to 43-year-old Lillian Frobisher, who spent at least part of World War II entertaining lonely servicemen, and now rankles at having to go back to her old life with a middle-class hubby returned from army duty. Busby’s account of Lillian’s hard route to an untimely end, and Cooper’s unearthing of the double life she led, impart psychological complexity as well as suspense to this anything-but-commonplace literary mystery.
Perfect Hatred, by Leighton Gage: Only months before his death in July, Gage witnessed the release of his sixth novel featuring Chief Inspector Mario Silva of Brazil’s Federal Police. Perfect Hatred finds the middle-aged, notably scrupulous cop trying to get to the bottom of two knotty, violent crimes: a bombing at the American Consulate in São Paulo that left 67 people dead, and the daytime assassination of an anti-corruption candidate for governor in the state of Paraná. As Silva and his men investigate, they discover links between these outrages and a boys-only Muslim religious school that may be graduating future terrorists. Gage spices his plot mix further with smuggling operations in Paraguay and a prosperous landowner accused of murder, who’s hoping to take Silva off his case—permanently. I’m sorry that Gage’s demise leaves only one more Silva book to come: The Ways of Evil Men, due out in the States in January.
The Confessions of Al Capone, by Loren D. Estleman: Comprising more than 400 pages, this is a big book for Estleman—best known for short, fast-paced thrillers about Detroit gumshoe Amos Walker (Burning Midnight)—and one that displays his storytelling expertise most effectively. Set in 1944, Confessions imagines FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover enlisting a young agency “drone,” Peter Vasco, to pose as a Catholic priest and infiltrate the inner circle around mob boss Al Capone, who’s suffering from syphilis, is prone to impulsive rants and has retreated to a Florida estate after his release from Alcatraz. Vasco is supposed to amass as much information as he can from Capone before the gangster kicks the bucket. Estleman’s ending is a tad too neat, but his intimate, emotional portrayals of Capone and his underappreciated wife—and Vasco’s mounting discomfort with his role as a spy—mark Confessions as something special among historical crime yarns.
Tatiana, by Martin Cruz Smith: Sardonic but dogged Moscow investigator Arkady Renko (last seen in 2010’s Three Stations) tackles the case of journalist Tatiana Petrovna, whose dive from a sixth-floor window didn’t turn out at all well. And curiously, that tragedy occurred around the same time a wealthy mobster was exterminated. Are the two incidents somehow linked? Renko’s efforts to find out lead him to a “secret” Cold War city, compel him to listen to tapes left behind by Tatiana—recordings that expose hoary crimes and draw him closer to the deceased—and present him with a code-filled notebook that might decipherable only by his chess-hustling teenage associate, Zhenya. Complicated further by police in-fighting and squabbles among powerbrokers whose lives are divorced from the quotidian struggles of most New Russia residents, Tatiana is as tragic as it is seductive.
Death on Demand, by Paul Thomas: Long after the publication of Guerrilla Season (1996), his third book starring overweight and prodigiously insubordinate New Zealand Det. Sgt. Tito Ihaka, Thomas finally delivers a fourth entry in that series. Returning to Auckland after several years of exile in the countryside, Ihaka attends the confession of a dying husband, Christopher Lilywhite, who hired a hit man to kill his wife six years before. Only Lilywhite never learned the slayer’s identity, and he’s since come to suspect that others in his social circle may have ordered “hits” as well. Ihaka’s probe quickly raises questions about a prolific gigolo, an imprisoned mobster, blackmail and police corruption. Though convoluted, this tale never drags, thanks in part to Thomas’ witty dialogue and deft character depictions.
Irregulars, by Kevin McCarthy (Ireland): In this sequel to the outstanding Peeler (2010), we rejoin Séan O’Keefe, now a former sergeant with the Royal Irish Constabulary. Unemployed since the contentious 1922 partition of Ireland, he agrees—reluctantly, as a way of repaying a mysterious debt owed by his ex-cop father—to help a Dublin brothel madam find her teenage son, who may have fallen in with republican guerrillas (aka “Irregulars”) opposed to the terms of that partition. Joining him in this task is Albert, the madam’s chief leg-breaker. It’s a dangerous world through which they tread, what with the Irish Civil War escalating, and competing bank robbers and sadistic urchins prowling Dublin thoroughfares. However, with aid from a disillusioned undercover detective, they might live long enough to tell the tale. McCarthy skillfully captures the hostilities and poverty of 1920s Dublin, and he endows his main players with dimensions that frustrate their easy stereotyping.
A Man Without Breath, by Philip Kerr: Over the last 14 years, Kerr has become the king of World War II–backdropped detective fiction. This ninth entry in his Bernie Gunther series sees the cynical Berlin ex-cop attached, in 1943, to the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau and sent to Smolensk, southwest of Moscow where, reports have it that the corpses of thousands of Polish officers have been covertly interred. In the wake of Germany’s astonishing defeat at Stalingrad, Gunther is supposed to ensure that blame for these atrocities is pinned firmly on the Soviets. However, he may have discovered something more worrisome than frozen remains: a killer in the ranks of the Nazi military, who’s prepared to sacrifice Adolf Hitler’s soldiers one by one. Kerr does an exceptional job of anchoring his protagonist in history’s stream and exposing the extremes to which humans often go in order to win—or just survive—armed conflict.