Selecting our top ten is an annual custom at 4MA, and winnowing down the list is a good way to revisit the year in books – before I replenish my To Be Read list by browsing others’ tops. I read a lot of good books this year, but these are the ones that had the most awesomeness. Two of the ten are on my list because they were discussed at 4MA and I found myself liking them better after the discussion; serving as a witness for the defense can make you find all kinds of worthy points you might otherwise overlook. I should also note (waves to the FTC) that six of these books were provided to me by publishers because I am a card-carrying book reviewer, but that didn’t influence my opinion of the books. I was sent lots of free books that could easily make a bottom ten, but I don’t keep track of those (nor do I review them; life’s too short to spend time reading books I don’t like).
Without further ado, my choice books of 2009, from seven different countries:
Arnaldur Indridason – ARCTIC CHILL
A young boy is found stabbed, frozen to the ground in his own blood. His Thai mother was brought to Iceland by a man who no longer lives with her; her older son has never completely adjusted to life on a small cold island on the other side of the world from his home. Erlendur and his team methodically work out what happened and in the process encounter various levels of discomfort with immigrants and the usual sad, human reasons for violence. Another fine book in an excellent series.
Kate Atkinson – WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS?
A 4MA discussion book, and one that met with varied reactions. I loved it. I remember when reading her first Brodie book being amazed at the coincidences, then coming to terms with what it seems to me she’s doing. She’s not writing crime fiction, and she’s not mocking it or transcending anything. She’s reacting, though (I think) to what crime fiction does, which is take a group of people and a terrible thing (a murder, usually), explore how those people react to the terrible thing, the reason for which or the resolution of which is unknown, then pull it all together into a solution – both of the crime and of the sense that crimes or other terrible things (like sudden death or betrayal or deviant behavior or jealousy or greed) have the potential to challenge the ways we organize our belief (in God, in the police, in the basic goodness of most people in a crisis, in our own untested morality). That’s one of the reasons mysteries are satisfying. They give us dramatic discord and they involve us in resolution, and they do it entertainingly, whether dark or light, take your pick. It seems to me that Atkinson (at least in the Brodie books) is taking all the incident and drama we expect in a mystery, but instead of logic and those social organizations that are there to protect us driving the story line and the weaving together of plot strands, coincidence is what makes things go forward. And it’s not just randomness; Its as if randomness has a strange quality that charges all the particles in the book so they’ll be drawn together. What she’s doing is both giving us the ripping good story we crave, but giving a completely different reason for how the story will move along. Where in other mysteries there would be reasons for every connection that’s made (even if the reasons were a strain, and not reasonable, really, there’d be reasons) here there are no reasons. Just loads of points of connection. As if to say: What if that connectedness and meaning we crave were there, but not as usual? What if they were connected in some other way, an almost opposite way to reason. I find these such joyful books – and I feel the same uplift as when a really good crime fiction writer is in a really generous mood and lets things click satisfyingly into place, though it might be more realistic or more modern to let them stay broken. These books wouldn’t work at all if a) she were not as good a writer as she is – she’s funny and touching and wise and just plain good – and b) she were smirking at her cleverness; look, I’m taking a genre and bending it and aren’t I doing something amazing? She doesn’t smirk at all, at the genre or the reader or the characters. Okay, so she’s messed with the rules of nature, but I like the way she’s done it. Very much.
Karin Fossum – THE WATER’S EDGE
The Water’s Edge is a skillful novel that concerns a particularly vile crime: pedophilia. It also marks the return of Fossum’s austere detective Konrad Sejer and his youthful sidekick, Jacob Skarre, who investigate the psychology of small-town Norwegians as crime interrupts the ordinary rhythms of their quiet communities. The surfaces of Fossum’s mysteries are always deceptively placid; underneath, disturbing things churn in the dark. More at Mystery Scene. This is the best handling of a sensational topic in a way that is totally honest that I can think of. “Integrity” is the word that comes to mind.
Stieg Larsson – The GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE
When I read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I enjoyed it but did find myself wondering what all the fuss was about. Now I agree with Norm – I found this book to be a much stronger, more focused, more engaging book all around than the first in the series. More at Scandinavian Crime Fiction.
Val Mcdermid – A DARKER DOMAIN
A very good book about the lingering effects of a crime committed during the Miner’s strike in 1i984. The plot is twisty, the characters are well developed, and the subject matter heartfelt. These kinds of standalones are my favorite of Mcdermid’s books by a long shot.
Deon Meyer – BLOOD SAFARI
Deon Meyer is known for his muscular, intelligent, and psychologically probing police procedurals set in a complicated post-apartheid South Africa. In Blood Safari, Meyer introduces a new hero, one reminiscent of Jack Reacher, if Reacher had a conscience and fewer super-powers. Lemmer works as a bodyguard, and he’s good at his job, even though his parole status following a stint in prison means he can’t carry a weapon. He lives by simple laws. Lemmer’s First Law: Don’t get involved. Lemmers Second Law: Trust nobody. When Emma Le Roux becomes his client, he isn’t sure her life really is at risk. But he protects her as she tries to find out how her brother, who disappeared into the wilderness twenty years ago, could now be on the news with a new name, accused of murdering three poachers and a traditional healer near the national park where he had disappeared. It doesn’t take long for Lemmer to conclude that someone really does want Emma dead, including a harrowing attempt on her life involving a cobra. As always, Meyer roots his well-paced story in the South African soil, from veld to the Karoo, from the high society of Cape Town to environmental activists fighting to preserve endangered species in the face of tribal land claims. Wealth and poverty, the old South Africa and the new – Meyer brings it all to life in a gripping thriller, seasoned with equal measures of fondness and frustration with his countrymen. The high-energy ending confronts conflicts between nature and development and shows that the bones of ugly apartheid policies lie in a shallow grave.
Reggie Nadelson – LONDONGRAD
Artie Cohen is trying to detach himself from his job as a NYPD detective to take a low-key vacation when his friend Tolya Sverdloff asks him a favor in a way typical for the larger-than-life Russian businessman with a generous spirit and a shady side: “Artie, good morning, how are you, have something to drink, or maybe a cup of good coffee, and we’ll talk, I need a little favor, maybe you can help me out?” Helping Tolya becomes complicated when Artie is flagged down by a small girl who leads him to a desolate fenced-off playground overgrown with weeds where a strange shape wrapped in duct tape is tied to a swing that creaks in the wind. The shape is a dead woman, a young prostitute from Russia who Artie belatedly realizes has a strong resemblance to Tolya’s daughter, Valentina. . . . More at Reviewing the Evidence. I loved this book.
Jo Nesbø- NEMESIS
Revenge is symmetrical by its very nature: tit for tat, an eye for an eye. It’s an elemental form of justice, simple, brutal, and unforgiving. There is a lot of symmetry in the construction of NEMESIS, the third of Jo Nesbø’s novels to be translated into English. But there is nothing simple about justice in Nesbø’s world. . . More at Reviewing the Evidence. I also liked The Redeemer – and everything else in this great series.
George Pelecanos – THE WAY HOME
George Pelecanos has been exploring the nature of masculinity since his first novel, A Firing Offense, was published in 1992. One way or another, all of his books are about what it takes to be a man, and how men negotiate the minefield that lies between violence and honor. That path toward manhood often is illuminated by the relationship between fathers and sons, a theme that is front and center in The Way Home. More at Mystery Scene.
Richard Price – LUSH LIFE
A 4MA discussion book. The minute I picked it up, I thought ‘ahhhh…..’ The dialogue feels so real to me, and I love the way Price writes. The initial pages spent with the absurd Quality of Life Task Force (four plain clothes cops, who in their thirties are the ‘oldest white men on the Lower East Side,’ whose job it is to harass people who might be doing something illegal) just took me right into it. Like Lawrence Block there’s a nice sense of the variety of humanity you meet in some neighborhoods of the city, and some of his affection for the city. Like Jim Fusilli, there’s a lot of detail that gives people a real sense of the place and arouses lots of nostalgia for those who know those blocks of the city. But Richard Price is more involved in the different characters’ perspectives than either Block or Fusilli is. The Scudder and Terry Orr books are first person, and that person’s journey is very much where the center of gravity is. In LUSH LIFE the point of view shifts quite a bit, so we see that section of the lower east side from the POV of a kid who lives in the projects, a failed restaurateur/bartender, and cops. It’s much more psychological than Block, much more sociological than Fusilli. All in all, a less feverishly realized novel than FREEDOMLAND which remains my favorite of Price’s books but it’s still as real and as in-depth as it gets.