My 2015 Top Ten and a 2016 Resolution

January 1, 2016

I’ll start with the resolution. Let’s get the craziness out of the way.

I’ve been working on a young adult novel that I like, but which isn’t the kind of thing that people in publishing call “commercial fiction.” It’s not literary fiction, either. It’s just this . . . thing about a young person whose brother has been unjustly accused of planning a terrorist attack and about the surveillance state we live in. On new year’s eve I took a deep breath and told Twitter:

tweet1In case you’re not a librarian or academic (or an academic librarian) OA stands for open access. All of my scholarship is available in some flavor of open access – all available for free online and most under a Creative Commons license. I’ve decided for a  couple of reasons to go that route with fiction, too.

Reason One: You have to be really good and really lucky to make it in traditional publishing. I read a lot of books and I’m grateful to the authors and publishers who feed my reading addiction, but I haven’t been good and lucky enough to break out, except in hives. Turns out I’m severely allergic to the business end of publishing. Why try to do something that makes you miserable?

Reason Two: You have to be really good and really lucky and willing to produce like crazy to make it in self-publishing. I can’t write that way. My muse is like a toddler taken for a walk. Forget about getting anywhere fast. Besides, I think our fetish for productivity is irreparably harming ourselves and the planet. So that’s out for me.

Combine my slacker tendencies and an allergy to the business of publishing with serious reservations about Amazon, the leading platform for self-published books, it makes sense for me to try something that fits my personal values better. More like the zine world – hand-made and imperfect and shared for love, not money. To be honest, most fiction writers are motivated more by love than money because hardly any make a living at it. But even so, productivity, sales, and frantic marketing efforts infuse the writing world and that’s what I want to leave behind. It’s inconsistent with my anarchist tendencies and my own mental health.

“Would anyone want to read it?” That was a silly question! Some of my Twitter pals said they would, because they are sweeties, but a piece of that new year’s resolution that I didn’t express properly is that I’d be happy if someone reads this story, but I don’t want to fall into the trap of actively competing for their attention. That’s part of the doomed economic model that’s making such a mess of things, including culture and the internet.

Here’s a bit more of my Twitter stream . . .




Happy new year to all. I’ll be using Pressbooks to serialize this thing and will be blogging more about it here later. I just solved a gnarly problem with the ending this morning! Now I just have to sort out all the other gnarls. All in good time . . .

But now without further navel-gazing, here are my top ten crime fiction reads from 2015. I read a lot of good stuff, but these stood out to me at the end of the year. The list could be much longer.

Kristina Ohlsson / HOSTAGE1476734038-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_
Don’t read this on a transatlantic flight. Swedish detectives team with intelligence officers to find out if a threat found aboard a full jet headed for New York is real and, if so, how to deal with it. They only have as long as the jet’s fuel lasts. The author worked in European counter-intelligence and her take on Swedish versus American intelligence practices was engrossing. I also was happy to have some police procedural aspects mixed in with the thriller aspects of the story.

0802123961-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_Belinda Bauer / RUBBERNECKER
My mystery pals at 4MA chose this book for discussion, and I’m glad because I found it deeply entertaining. A young man with Asperger’s and a troubling fascination with dead things takes an anatomy lab course. Meanwhile, we follow the fate of a man gradually coming out of a coma after a car accident who unluckily witnesses the murder of a fellow patient. Nicely assembled puzzle that combines humor and emotion quite satisfyingly.

Jari Jarvela / THE GIRL AND THE BOMB1503946355-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_
An engrossing psychological thriller involving a black teenager in Finland who wants revenge when her good friend, a street artist, is pushed by a security guard to his death from a building after he has been “bombing” train cars with brilliantly-executed graffiti. The story is told in two voices – that of the disaffected girl and of her chosen enemy, who wasn’t actually responsible, but who grows increasingly angry and defensive. Full of ethical issues and vivid characters – really good story, well translated.

1616954469-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_Timothy Hallinan / THE HOT COUNTRIES
Yeah, I know. This series is always on my top ten. So sue me for being predictable. Visitors to Tim Hallinan’s Bangkok have previously met a group of aging ex-adventurers who hang out at an expat bar. They’ve been there long enough to know their way around the glittering city, but now getting around is getting more difficult. One of them, Wallace Palmer, is becoming increasingly vague and likely to misplace himself, forgetting where he lives and chasing after glimpses of a woman he loved who disappeared from his life many years ago. When a new expat joins them, flashing white teeth and an encyclopedia of factoids that he shares without a pause, they grow a little uncomfortable. Not only will he never shut up, he seems terribly interested in the whereabouts of their friend, travel writer and family man, Poke Rafferty. He seems to think Poke is hiding a treasure that he’s come to Bangkok to claim. My full review is at Reviewing the Evidence.

Martin Cruz Smith / HAVANA BAY0345502981-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_
Another 4MA group discussion book. Arkady Renko, with little left to lose, tries to find out what happened to an old enemy found dead in Havana Bay. Wonderful juxtaposition of a post-Soviet Russian’s experiences with its former ally, now struggling to manage on its own. Really fine. I dithered between this and TATIANA, which I also enjoyed, though not quite as much as the earlier book which, somehow, I had missed reading.

0062197738-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_Laura Lippman / AND WHEN SHE WAS GOOD
Fascinating story about a woman who decides to open her own business – as a “madam” providing services to D.C.’s elite after things go badly wrong with her pimp. When her cover story as a lobbyist for women’s employment is threatened, she has a problem, particularly because she doesn’t want her son to know what she really does. Lippman does a great job creating a character who is both vulnerable and tough as nails as well as brilliant at business.

Lisa Brackmann / DRAGON DAY754aa9e539cbb42597046596b67437641414141
The third and final Ellie McEnroe story in which the veteran of a confused and pointless war tries to find her feet in a confused and confusing China. Her cheerful, scary billionaire acquaintance, Sidney Cao, has a job for her. He wants her to find out what’s going on with his three kids (the one child policy is optional for the powerful) and in particular whether the American adventurer who’s hanging out with his youngest son is bad news. Readers of this trilogy will guess fairly soon: they’re all bad news. There are two strengths in this trilogy.One is the fascinating picture it provides of the New China, a place that’s aggressively under construction and chaotic after a seismic cultural shift toward consumerism. The other is Ellie’s voice – casual, unsettled, constantly searching for something she can’t identify, faced at every turn with a need to figure out the least bad of terrible options. She’s a fascinating woman and a nifty guide to a place that has changed beyond recognition. I’ll miss her (but I won’t write whatever Brackmann writes next).

125004474x-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_Julia Keller / LAST RAGGED BREATH
A fine entry in the series featuring a tough, vulnerable prosecutor who wages war on the problems facing her beloved West Virginia county. This one asks us to remember the unnatural disaster of Buffalo Creek, when a mining company’s dam broke and their toxic sludge swept away a town, killing over a hundred people in minutes, but also to appreciate the work of miners made redundant by machines. I wrote a more detailed review for Reviewing the Evidence.

John Scalzi / LOCK IN0765375869-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_
After an epidemic leaves millions “locked in,” conscious but unable to move, scientists develop a way to link their brains to “threeps” (androids); others affected are “integrators,” able to host locked in people who want to borrow a human body. Our locked-in hero joins the FBI (getting around with a threep) and is quickly involved in strange murder case in which it appears a murderer was an integrator hosting someone else when committing the murder. Sounds preposterous but it worked for me – the scene-setting was handled so efficiently it had a great pace. Scalzi primarily writes SF, but handled the crime aspects of this near-future story very well. Inventive and compelling. There’s also a highly-intelligent handling of gender issues that . . . well, I didn’t even realize until after I finished the book which is the whole point. It would be a spoiler, but there’s a great analysis of it here. Scalzi is not only good fun, he’s wonderfully wise about the world.

0312621280-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_Alan Glynn / BLOODLAND
This is a terrific conspiracy novel that is a bit challenging in that there are lots of characters and multiple points of view, but sharp writing, excellent plotting, and an appealing young Irish out-of-work journalist as a protagonist. He has a commission to write a biography of a silly celebrity but stumbles upon a multinational scheme to make money off a mine in Congo run by people who will dispose of anyone who gets in the way. Cracking read. Excellent narrative skill. Loads and loads of rage burbling under tasty ethical dilemmas. Yvonne Klein wrote a review at Reviewing the Evidence that explains why it’s far more than the bog-standard globetrotting conspiracy thriller. In fact, it’s very nearly its opposite.

Here’s to good reading (and, for me, more stress-free just-for-fun writing) in the new year.




my crime fiction top ten for 2014

January 2, 2015


Thanks to my gang at 4MA (an online mystery discussion group) I have made a habit of sorting through my notes and choosing ten books that stick with me in some way. Here are the mysteries and thrillers I enjoyed most in 2014 – a hard choice, as there were others that could have made the list.

This book, coming off of a reading slump, totally blew my socks off. I had avoided it because it sounded formulaic (crazy serial killer, weirdly mutilated bodies, yawn) but it was a complete surprise. Beukes is a seriously fine novelsit and I agree with a the reviewer who finally got me to read it, that she has things in common with Richard Price – and, I would say, Tana French. Both novelists probe deeply into a place and the people who are shaped by it, and (like French) Beukes is willing to depart from the must-be-rationally-explainable rules of crime fiction to stretch our assumptions about reality. In this case,  Beukes (a South African writer who is unafraid of writing about race in America) weaves stories together that all touch at points and give a multifaceted portrait of a very messed-up Detroit. One of the characters is a cop; her daughter is another; a third is a failed journalist trying to make money with social media; a fourth is a man who works at a church and makes his way by selling off items from abandoned houses; a fifth is a psychotic artist (and perhaps a sixth is his illness, which becomes more and more powerful, an entity breaking free of the body it inhabits). It’s a stunningly good and daring book that combines elements of crime fiction, fantasy, horror, and sharp observations of contemporary life in a compelling narrative. The cover, alas, is a great example of the way marketing departments segregate women’s fiction – salmon pink and a pretty white girl with golden tresses paint on her face. Puhleez.

Dahl (Jan Arnold) continues exploring Sweden in a globalized Europe through the cases of the A Team, and ensemble cast of detectives remeniscent of Maj Sjowäl and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series (and with its dry sense of sad amusement). A simple bar fight turns out to be far more complicated. A pornography investigation unexpectedly offers a glimpse into unrelated crimes. Things that seem trivial hold layers within layers, and it’s only the intuition and the stubborn curiosity of the reassembled A Team that can tease out the meaning behind run-of-the-mill violence. Just as you think you’ve come to last layer of the onion, you discover something even more deeply hidden.Full review.

Though not perfect, I really enjoyed this debut novel by an Irish journalist that explores the potential for creepy surveillance that comes with seeking community online. Set in Ireland after the property boom went bust, Crowley’s first novel focuses on a virtual community of isolated new mums and the investigation into the murder of a single mother found in a flat at a mostly-vacant ghost estate, led by a driven (and pregnant) detective. he title, which seems a tacky and melodramatic hook, turns out to be a clever play on the seemingly trivial questions posted to an online forum. Full review.

Third in the Edie Kiglatuk series set in the arctic among an Inuit community relocated from Hudson’s Bay to Ellesmere Island for political reasons, the roots of which contribute to this mystery. This is a thoroughly fascinating book that gives readers a glimpse into a part of the world that very few people know about, a place that has the austere beauty of nature when it’s bigger than its human inhabitants. Full review.

Margie Orford WATER MUSIC
Another South African woman writer in this list – this one, author of a series that explores the social roots of crime in post-Apartheid SA and confronts sexism through the perspective of a journalist and researcher who heads a unit of the Capetown police department that focuses on violence against women. A young musician goes missing from a conservatory, a small, half-starved child is found nearly frozen, tied to a tree in a wooded area outside Cape Town, and Claire Hart finds that both cases are rooted in a society that looks the other way as women are sexually exploited. The climax uses the local geography to cinematic effect. In many ways, Clare inherits the driven competence and compassion of the 1990s feminist detectives in contemporary and very interesting setting. I’m glad this series is finally being published in the U.S.

An exceptionally good novel about a journalist uncovering the story behind the assassinations of men working on Wall Street, a father ruined by the crash who is trying to find ouw why his daughter is missing, and the devious history of a secretive financial baron. I’m not sure why irish writers are so good at this stuff, but Glynn is among the best.

Timothy Hallinan FOR THE DEAD
Books in this series set in Thailand are regulars on my top ten lists. Poke Rafferty has created a family in Bangkok with Rose, who runs a cleaning business, hiring women who, like her, are refugees from the sex trade and Miaow, who spent her early years as one of the many street children in the beautiful and terrible city. When Miaow helps her nerdy boyfriend, who is terrified of his strict father, replace a lost iPhone by buying one on the black market, they discover some photos have not been thoroughly deleted. Soon the pair realize someone wants them and anyone who knows about the photos deleted permanently. That’s when the buried memories she has of the alleys and hidden passageways of Bangkok and the survival instincts she left behind resurface, along with the visceral knowledge of what it’s like to be hungry, frightened, and alone. Full review.

Dan Fesperman UNMANNED
Dan Fesperman burst on the crime fiction scene with riveting stories from the front lines and underground tunnels of Sarajevo. His latest book tackles a new kind of war – remote precision killing conducted by drone pilots who see their targets close up from thousands of miles away. A burned-out drone pilot, haunted by an image of children who weren’t supposed to be at a target as the bomb he placed falls on their house, pairs up with a trio of journalists tracking the coverup of a botched raid and the contractor who is trying to cover it up. Timely and unnerving. Full review.

Another repeat visitor to my top ten list. This (overlong yet exhileratingly written) novel brings two detectives to a posh boarding school for girls when a boy at a neighboring school is found murdered on the grounds. The narrative is in layers, with the 24-hour period of the invesitgation ticking away in one strand and in the other, everything that led up to the murder. It’s a virtuoso exploration of the pressure girls feel in adolescence, the intensity of friendship, and the ways that closeness between girls is threatened by the gender roles they are required to play. Full review.

Non-fiction tops
I avoid true crime, which makes me feel like a ghoulish voyeur, but this book was mentioned on a radio program (probably On the Media, my favorite) and I was intrigued. This is a compelling and thorough investigation of a case in which a man was falsely convicted of murder – three times! – before a committed advocat took on the case. It’s so well written that you are anxious by the end to know whether she finally succeeded in getting the man justice. It’s also a good dissection of how racism influences the criminal justice system and seems particularly relevant in the year of #Ferguson and the national debate about race and police practices.

image courtesy of Daniel Go

crime fiction top ten for 2009

January 1, 2010

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

crime fiction top ten for 2008

December 30, 2008


As I did last year (and as I do annually at 4MA) I have gone through the crime fiction that I read in 2008 and (not without difficulty) picked ten top reads. To come up with this list, I scrolled back through my LibraryThing account and chose ones that, in retrospect, have stayed with me as memorable, original, moving, or just plain good.

Do you have some top reads to share? Kerrie is collecting them at Mysteries in Paradise. A stroll through the comments will give you plenty to read in 2009!

Sean Doolittle / THE CLEANUP
A good cop who’s on the outs at work is stationed in a grocery store providing security and finds himself drawn to a checkout clerk who is obviously abused by a no-good boyfriend. His protective instincts get him into big trouble when she kills the abuser. As always, Doolittle crafts a fine mystery with all-too-human characters who you care about in spite of yourself. Doolittle should be at the top of the charts. He’s just a fine, fine writer.

Loren Estelman / GAS CITY
Amazing book – not so much for the plot or the characters as for the whole package. Set in a mythical city, presumably in the Midwest, this story involves two major plotlines – the police chief, who has just buried his wife, has decided to buck the system he’s supported for years and actually enforce the law, even in “the circle,” the part of town ruled by criminals. And someone is butchering women and leaving their parts in garbage bags around the city. Both of these plotlines intersect in a hotel detective and erstwhile alcoholic pimp, who comes out of his haze when he has a chance to do some real detecting. Estelman has always had a yen for the past (in books like Retro) but here the world of Gas City is hermetically sealed, a world unto itself, where people occasionally use phrases that are from the 1930s and yet the police has a son who died years ago in Vietnam. Though it’s somewhat disorienting, it’s a richly detailed, internally consistent, and lavishly described world, full of lyrical passages and sometimes hilarious throwaway lines. This is one of those books you have to give yourself to. Adapt to its pace, savor the lines, and don’t worry about what time it is.

A very good book about a mixed-race American writer putting together a family in Bangkok that includes a former dancer who wants to run a cleaning business and a child who was abused and on the streets but is coming to trust her would-be parents. When another street kid enters the picture, a hard case who is rumored to have killed people, Rafferty is reluctant to bring him into a fragile home and risk the adoption process he’s going through. He also is looking for a man who stole something from a very unpleasant woman and for the uncle of a distraught Australian. The ethical poles reverse in the course of the investigation. Good sense of place, tender depiction of relationships, excellent writing. I’m looking forward to reading more in this series.

A ticking clock plays in the background of this tightly-wound book in which a man takes a roomful of children at a daycare hostage. But this is no ordinary breathless thriller – we are party to each character’s thoughts with the kind of detail that comes when the senses are attenuated by a crisis. If Ian McEwan wrote an episode of Spooks, it might turn out like this. Full review at Mystery Scene.

A walk on the mean streets of Toronto, seen from the perspective of cops and criminals (though at times it’s hard to tell the difference). A couple of homicide detectives try to figure out whether the man who took a dive off the roof of a highrise was suicidal or was pushed – and then wonder why cops in the narcotics squad are so eager to have them call it a suicide and close the case. A resident of the highrise is waiting for the end of her house arrest and is trying to figure out whether to throw in her lot with the man who wants to move massive amounts of dope and doesn’t seem to know what he’s getting into. Both cops and criminals are on edge, sensing there’s a big shakeup in organized crime about to happen. McFetridge has the deadpan and often funny dialogue sense of mid-career Elmore Leonard, and the twists he ties things off with at the end are both cynical and satisfying. At least we can rest assured that McFetridge isn’t going to run out of material anytime soon. My review can be found at Reviewing the Evidence.

Absolutely brilliant, weaving together the involvement of some Norwegians in a German military unit in the past, neo-Nazis in present-day Norway, and assassination plot, and (perhaps the best part of all) the life of detective Harry Hole, There are bits that are a bit contemplative, bits that are wild thriller scenes, and bits that are incredibly moving. I’m happy that more of this series is being translated into English. Highly recommended.

Reaves is one of the best in the business. Here he puts a man of honor, an Iraq veteran from Kentucky who’s trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life, into a classic noir story, where things start out bad and get worse and worse – but the honorable hero refuses to lie down and take it. He resourcefully deals with every setback and never loses his grip on his moral compass. A full review is at Reviewing the Evidence.

Michael Robotham / SHATTER
Joe O’Loughlin, the psychologist narrator of Lost – the first in a loosely-linked series in which the characters take turns on the main stage – returns in this book about a man who convinces women to take their own lives in order to save the lives of their children. Though it seems impossible that he could make women follow his cruel instructions, he’s as skilled in the psychological arts as Joe, but he’s been warped by his experiences as a military interrogator. Robotham does an amazing job of taking a story that would be total rubbish in the wrong hands and making it nuanced, chilling, and real. A review is forthcoming in Mystery Scene.

Since I’ve just read this one, time will tell how well it sticks. But I was impressed by this book, which won the Swedish award for best debut crime novel and has been getting high praise in Europe. A woman who is living in a state of suspended animation in the two decades since her child disappeared is called back to the island of Oland, where her father thinks he may have new evidence in the case. She gradually comes out of her deadened state as they try to find out what really happened in the fog the day Jens disappeared. While their story is told, we flash back to the life of Nils Kant, a man who is both simple-minded and cold-hearted, capable as a child of eating his brother’s toffees right after he’s slipped off a rock and drowned. Though he disappeared after killing a policeman, his body shipped home from Brazil years later, many islanders think he lived on and was responsible for the child’s abduction. Most vivid is the setting – an island off the coast of Sweden that has an unusal biosystem, the Alvar where a thin layer of soil over bedrock supports plants that are delicate and tough enough to survive the Baltic winds. Altogether an absorbing, unusual story. A review is forthcoming at Reviewing the Evidence.

Though there were many other contenders for my top ten, I couldn’t resist including this one.  It’s a fun romp of a book written with a sure hand. A con who is facing death at the hand of other disgruntled cons jumps at the chance to escape prison when a DEA agent asks him to impersonate a drug dealer. At least this way he has a chance of staying alive, if a slim one. What follows is exciting, violent, hilarious, and touching, with many double and triple crosses. Though this doesn’t have the scope and emotional heft of Winslow’s masterpiece, Power of the Dog, it seems to combine the best of his tough side and the tenderness found in his first book, A Cool Breeze on the Underground.

crime fiction top ten for 2007

December 30, 2007


What a good year for reading! It wasn’t easy to trim my list down to ten, (having to leave out some good ones) but these were the ones that, for one reason or another, rise to the top.

David Corbett / BLOOD OF PARADISE – I have loved all of Corbett’s novels – complex, beautifully written, and with a tough and complicated ethical core. This one, set in El Salvador, involves a naive young American who has gone into the “executive protection” business. He gradually realizes that the country he has fallen in love with is threatened by American interests that he protects, ones that will go to great lengths to protect a soft drink company’s access to an aquifer. The banality of greed is carefully and artfully exposed – with the author saving his anger for a searing and informative afterword.

Denise Mina / THE DEAD HOUR – Mina’s Garnethill trilogy was tough, truthful, and heartbreaking, with a damaged but strong woman at its center. In this book, the second of a projected 5-volume series, the tone reflects the softer, more uncertain, but fundamentally sturdy character of Paddy Meehan, a young reporter making her way in a male-dominated newsroom. Paddy follows police to a house where a man bribes them to ignore what appears to be a scene of domestic violence. When the woman is found murdered, Paddy realizes she’s made a terrible mistake. The book offers a richly detailed picture of Glasgow in the 1980s.

Carol O’Connell / FIND ME – A ragtag caravan of bereaved parents follows clues to their missing children along the legendary Route 66; Kathy Mallory, a missing child herself, circles protectively around them as she eludes Riker (who wonders why there’s a body in Mallory’s apartment) and races toward her past. Mallory is getting more human with every installment of this original and astonishing series.

Ian Rankin / THE NAMING OF THE DEAD – John Rebus and Siobhan Clarke investigate when a man’s body is found by a well near the site of the G8 summit, and when a government official falls to his death suspiciously. In the midst of mass protests (with Siobhan’s parents in the middle of them) and hobbled by intelligence officers who are set on covering things up, the two untangle a number of crimes. As usual, Rankin does a brilliant job of capturing the moment in a complicated and ambiguous mystery.

Sam Reaves / HOMICIDE 69 – In 1969, a dogged Chicago detective sets out to uncover the truth after finding the tortured body of a girl on Chicago’s West Side. He has his hands full – there are signs the Outfit is involved, and the CPD brass is a wholly-owned subsidiary. But he persists in a story that is told with deceptive simplicity. A real tour de force.

Matt Beynon Rees / THE COLLABORATOR OF BETHLEHEM – This book will break your heart, but it will also give you hope. Omar Yussef is an unlikely hero – a crotchety middle-aged schoolteacher who puts everything he values on the line to defend the life and reputation of a friend accused of being a collaborator. This portrayal of a claustrophobic, dysfunctional world sheds light on daily life in the occupied territories.

Michael Robotham / THE NIGHT FERRY – a rousing good read, told from the refreshingly funny and forthright perspective of Ali Barba, a police officer first portrayed in the author’s Lost, now starring in a story about surrogate motherhood, human traffficking, and prostitution, with lots of action but nary a cliche in sight. Really excellent.

Martin Cruz Smith / STALIN’S GHOST – the most recent Arkady Renko story describes the current Russian scene with a poetic, tender, insightful irony as Renko looks into the mysterious apparitions of Stalin showing up on Moscow’s subway platforms. The idealized past is being reconstructed in Tver, where a hero of the Chechen war is having his political campaign burnished by American consultants. Meanwhile, a more confused past is being unearthed from mass grave dating from the Great Patriotic War. Absolutely brilliant.

Jess Walter / CITIZEN VINCE – Vince is a New Yorker who is living in Spokane, and the place has grown on him. He leads a quiet life, managing a donut shop, doing a little credit card fraud on the side, and staying out of trouble – until someone out of his pre-Witness Protection past decides to kill him. He heads back to the city to sort things out, pursued by a rookie detective (who, all grown up, appears in Over Tumbled Graves). This tale of small-time criminality is played out during the Carter – Reagan election of 1980, and Vince becomes obsessed with something he’s never done before – vote in an election. As a felon, he’s outta luck, but with his government-created false identity he can register and vote for the first and probably only time in his life. There’s an optimism and sweetness in this book that’s hard to describe. Really well done.

Thomas Zigal / THE WHITE LEAGUE – a wonderfully rich portrait of a man in New Orleans caught up in a secretive racist past. Zigal takes a risk in focusing on a hero who seems paralyzed by the choices he faces, but pulls it off with panache, evoking a time, a place, and a wrenching ethical dilemma rooted in historical events.


threaten the little children

June 20, 2007

Another sad commentary on intolerance.

A South Carolina library system has closed down its summer programs for young adults after receiving threats and allegations that it was trying to promote “witchcraft” and “drug use.”

The Pickens County Library System’s half-hour summer programs for middle and high school students were supposed to take a light-hearted look at the topics “Secrets and Spies: How to Keep a Secret by Writing in Code or Making Invisible Ink” and “What’s Your Sign?” Another program was to examine astrology, palmistry, and numerology; and others were to feature tarot cards, tie-dying t-shirts, how to make a Zen garden, and yoga.

Now the programs are cancelled in the wake of phone and e-mail threats from the community, believed to emanate from a single local Baptist church. The astrology program was labeled as “witchcraft” by callers, while the Zen garden and yoga programs were objected to as “promoting other religions.” The t-shirts workshop? “Promotes the hippie culture and drug use,” callers said.

A Good Year for Mysteries

December 30, 2013


I read some really terrific mysteries this year. Two are by new-to-me authors and several are by authors who have been on my top ten list in the past. The nationality of authors is fairly varied: two Swedes, two Danes, two South Africans, three Brits, one Irish, one book by a Norwegian set in the US and one Norwegian-set novel by an American. It’s not well balanced in terms of gender – eight male authors, four female (with two men and two women writing together). A new year’s resolution is to get around to reading more of the fine women writers in the genre in the coming year.

Here they are, in no particular order, with links to reviews . . .

Sundstol, Vidar – THE LAND OF DREAMS
A moody story about a Norwegian murdered in Minnesota and a forest ranger who finds connections between the murder and his family’s immigrant past. A touch a woo-woo, an occasional info-dump, but a book I really enjoyed. First in a trilogy.

Faye, Lyndsay – SEVEN FOR A SECRET
Second in a historical series starring Timothy Wilde, who (with his dangerous brother Valentine) try to help a mixed-race woman recover her family when they are abducted by slave traders. Evocative language and gripping history that we shouldn’t forget.

le Carre, John – A DELICATE TRUTH
A rather silly diplomat is called to Gibraltar to oversee a dodgy terrorism task force operation which goes wrong. Later he joins forces with an energetic young officer and a Welsh soldier to find the truth. At times parodic and bitter, but also impassioned and thrilling.

Kaaberbol, Lene, and Agnete Friis – DEATH OF A NIGHTINGALE
A young mother who has sought asylum in Denmark is caught up in violence that has its roots in the famine Stalin caused in Ukraine in the 1930s. Difficult reading at times, but unforgettable.

Stanley, Michael – DEADLY HARVEST
The amiable and principled detective Kubu investigates crimes that may be “muti murders” – in which young people are killed so that wealthy believers can gain power. The Botswana setting is, as always, a main attraction.

An elderly New York Jew whose granddaughter has brought him to Norway finds himself in charge of a small Balkan immigrant, pursued by violent men and his own regrets about war. Reminded me of Kate Atkinson.

An imposing, kind, and socially awkward detective in Hull investigates some brutal drug murders and a suicide of a young man with a peacock tattoo that perhaps isn’t. Brilliant writing.

Dahl, Arne – BAD BLOOD
Don’t let the gruesome opening put you off. This is an interesting take on the tired serial killer story, originally published in 1999 but strangely topical.

Herron, Mick – DEAD LIONS
Charming, oddball, busy, entertaining espionage story featuring an office full of losers. Herron is a terrific writer.

French, Tana – BROKEN HARBOR
A creepy, slow-burning fuse of a novel about a family attacked in their falling-down house in one of Ireland’s “ghost estates” but really about the trauma caused by the sudden death of the Celtic Tiger economy and the values it embodied.



June Pick: Norwegian by Night

June 30, 2013

At 4MA, my reading addiction support group, we are collecting our mid-year “tops and bottoms” – the five top reads of the first half of the month and the five that were at the bottom. Most of us have trouble stopping with only five tops and have fewer than five at the bottom, because we’re pretty good at choosing what to read next. My tops so far this year are

  • Mick Herron DEAD LIONS
  • Tana French BROKEN HARBOR
  • David Mark ORIGINAL SKIN
  • Anre Dahl BAD BLOOD

Though I’ve already reviewed Norwegian by Night on another blog, I thought I would repost it here with minor changes as I adopt the practice of some other book bloggers of posting a review every month of the book that made the strongest impression. So, here goes . . .

Norwegian by Night by Derek B. Miller
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013

Though this book isn’t the usual Scandinavian crime fiction that I track on a blog, Derek Miller is an American (though currently a resident of Oslo) and his novel is not exactly crime fiction (though there is a crime). It’s one of those books that defies classification. But I recommend it wholeheartedly. 

Sheldon Horowitz is a New York Jew, a man who has repaired watches all his life but can’t quite keep time any longer. He’s in his eighties and his memory is . . . well, let’s say it’s Norwegian by Nightinventive. He has reluctantly gone to live with his granddaughter and her Norwegian husband in Oslo. The stories he tells about his experiences as a sniper in the Korean War don’t seem to match historical fact and his granddaughter thinks it’s a symptom of dementia. Either that, or he’s seeking attention with weirdly logical illogic – or possibly both.

One afternoon, after his granddaughter and her husband have left the house, Sheldon hears  a commotion in the apartment upstairs. This is not unusual; the Balkan immigrants living upstairs have had their arguments before, but this time it’s different – more violent, more ominous. When he hears the woman come down the stairs, Shelden looks through the peephole and sees her hesitate on the landing, trapped between the rage of her husband and a suspicious car idling outside.

They did this with us, too, he thinks, looking through the peephole. And then the pity vanishes and is replaced by the indignation that lives just beneath the surface of his daily routines and quick retorts.

The Europeans. Almost all of them, at one time or another. They looked out their peepholes – their little fishy eyes staring out through bulging lenses, watching someone else’s flight – as their neighbors clutched their children to their chests while armed thugs chased them through buildings as though humanity itself was being extinguished. Behind the glass, some were afraid, some felt pity, others felt murderous and delighted.

All were safe because of what they were not. They were not, for example, Jews.

(There’s something wonderfully dry and disarming about that “for example” that somehow pulls the pin on the whole passage.) He opens the door and sees she has a child clinging to her. He motions them inside. When the man starts to break down the door, the woman pushes the boy toward him and he hides with him in a closet as the violence continues. When it grows quiet, he finds the woman dead; the suspicious car prowls by as he thinks about what to do. He’s afraid that if he goes to the authorities, they will think he’s a doddering old fool and hand the boy over to his father. So he takes it upon himself to protect the child, leaving behind a quote from Huckleberry Finn, setting off on a journey while the police and his granddaughter try to figure out what’s going on.

I was reminded of Kate Atkinson’s Started Early, Took My Dog, though only after the fact. Both Atkinson and Miller are able to take some aspects of crime fiction – violence and the ripple effect is has on the people around it, the balance between causality and sheer randomness, the way that past and present are layered together in a single identity, the narrative skill to keep momentum as the story weaves back and forth in time, the clarity of characters fully imagined. Like Atkinson, Miller is funny and touching and irreverent and yet respectful of his characters and his readers. He considers age and the toll that grief and guilt can take on a life, on the cultural differences between Norway and New York, the stresses that immigration brings to Scandinavian countries that have both a sense of social duty and inexperience with cultural difference; he writes about masculinity and the scars inflicted by war and even touches on Norway’s treatment of Jews during the occupation and how much we erase from history.

Did I mention it’s incredibly funny? It is – in a gentle, sardonic, life-affirming way. And when it takes off at a gallop you can’t turn the pages fast enough. I suspect this will be on my top ten list for the year.

The publisher provided me with a copy of this book. I’m very glad I read it.

My Mysterious Year

January 2, 2013

I didn’t read nearly as many books as Bernadette did in a bad year, but I can’t say I suffered from lack of books to read. I participated in quite a few of the discussion at 4MA, including three series discussions, a record for me. I read some non-mystery fiction (including Neal Stephenson’s Reamde, which slowed me down because of its length, but in an entertaining way). The following are my top ten reads of the year.

Whispering Death by Garry Disher
He does such a good job of weaving together a lot of plot threads, all of them very believable.

The Gods of Gotham by Linsday Faye
Wins the “socks blown off” award from me. Loved her use of language and how she conveyed the zeitgeist of NYC when much of Manhattan was farmland.

Invisible Muder by Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis
I enjoy the way these co-authors pull together multiple points of view. Also enjoy the not-totally-likeable protagonist.

Lake Country by Sean Doolittle
This guy writes so well and has such a tender heart for people in trouble. Loved this book.

Wolves and Angels by Seppo Jokinen
A Finnish police procedural that gave me what I want from a procedural: a realistic workplace and a nice mix of characters.

The Dark Winter by David Mark
My dark horse. I especially loved the writing style; plot was pretty dandy, too.

The Fear Artist by Timothy Hallinan
A different take on fathers and daughters; great setting, as always.

A Killing in the Hills by Julia Keller
I had to slow down and enjoy the scenery for this one. Very vivid sense of place.

The End of the Wasp Season by Denise Mina
How does she do it? How does she knock one wonderful book out after another? Loved it.

Paradise City by Archer Mayor
Another nicely done procedural series with multiple POVs, this one including a Chinese artisan looking for her own Workers Paradise (in western Massachusetts)

If I had a top eleven, it would include Michael Stanley’s Death of the Mantis, which I enjoyed very much (another 4MA discussion book which I’m very happy I read).

Four of the ten were new-to-me authors. Four were by women authors. I am not doing charts, much as I like a nice colored chart, but thought I would map my reading in the past year. This doesn’t include all the books I read, but most of them. In some cases I had to pick one place to drop a pin though the book moved around (as was the case in Reamde, a real globe-trotter of a book).

Here’s hoping for a great new reading year for everyone!

have books, will travel

July 3, 2010

I haven’t been keeping good track of my reading this year, so I haven’t checked my passport stamps as I progress through the Global Reading Challenge or the Scandinavian Challenge. But it seems like a good time to take stock, halfway through the year. I signed up for the medium challenge – to read two books from these regions:


Set in the 1950s, just after apartheid laws have gone into effect, this novel takes an “English” South African police officer into a rural area to investigate the murder of a white Afrikaner police chief and patriarch of a patriotic Afrikaners-on-a-mission-from-God family. It does a good job of exploring the creeping sense of a noose tightening around the country as black, “colored,” and white citizens are separated and isolated into legally-constricted groups. Quite good.

Jassy Mackenzie / RANDOM VIOLENCE
In modern-day Johannesburg a woman is set up and murdered at the dysfunctional gate to her house. A woman who chose to be a PI because she’s too independent to follow her father into the police gets involved in the investigation. Two plot lines – her anxiety about a murder she committed to avenge her father’s death and the present case – are nicely woven together, though the plausibility of a PI being invited to solve a crime was a bit of a stretch for me. Does a good job of evoking the siege mentality of wealthy South Africans barricaded behind their gates, but doesn’t deal much with the majority of the population.


I’ve just finished reading three of Tim Hallinan’s Poke Rafferty series – set in Bangkok, where the author lives. These are wonderfully-written thrillers that are particularly noteworthy for the depiction of the relationships of three people who have formed an ad hoc family. Quite a while ago I read the first, A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART; this month I gorged on the rest: THE FOURTH WATCHER, BREATHING WATER, and the soon-to-be-published fourth book in the series, THE QUEEN OF PATPONG – which I loved, loved, loved; it definitely will be on my top ten this year. I’ll post a review here shortly.


I have just got my hands on Adrian Hyland’s GUNSHOT ROAD and have sipped from the first pages, in which aboriginal boys are leaving camp to become men. The scene is wonderful, intoxicating. “It was the songs that did it; the women didn’t so much sing them as pick them up like radio receivers. You could imagine those great song cycles rolling across the country, taking their shape from what they encountered: scraps of language, minerals and dreams, a hawk’s flight, a feather’s fall, the flash of a meteorite.” I’m forcing myself to hold off until I deal with some books I’m reviewing, but I’m really looking forward to it. I’m not sure what else I’ll read from Australia, but it might be Peter Temple’s TRUTH.


I’ve read far more than enough for this challenge. I’ll go with these two:

which I reviewed at my Scandinavian Crime Fiction blog, as I also did

Johan Theorin / THE DARKEST ROOM
reviewed there; an excellent book, I thought, and very different. Where Larsson has a bold, large scale and busy canvas, slapping on the paint a little sloppily, Theorin works with a fine-nibbed pen, drawing in the detail with a delicate touch.

To catch up on the Scandinavian challenge of reading six books, I can add these:

Karin Fossum / DON’T LOOK BACK
Conrad Sejer and his young sidekick Skarre are called to a small community to find a missing child, but instead the child finds a dead teenager. As usual, Fossum strips away the layers of social convention surrounding the characters with a delicate touch, showing that things are never what they seem and that nobody is immune from evil. Fossum doesn’t ‘do’ suspense like other writers. She just lets it emerge as she quietly goes about her archaeology, brushing away the mystery until the truth is showing, like bones. And she doesn’t let you leave the story congratulating yourself that justice has been done and order has been restored. She gives any comfort you might be feeling a sharp tug in the last pages, leaving the reader a little off-balance.

Henning Mankell / THE MAN FROM BEIJING
An ambitious and frustrating book that positions the slaughter of every person in a small, remote Swedish village in a web of colonialism, exploitation, and revenge spanning centuries and continents. A naive judge finds a clue – a red ribbon dropped at the scene was taken from a lamp at a nearby Chinese restaurant – and with that sense that things are not what they seem begins to investigate. A section of the book is told from the perspective of a Chinese man who was put to work on the brutal labor of building the Trans-Continental railroad in the American west and was mistreated by a Swedish immigrant. Fast-forward to the present, where the Chinese man’s ancestors fight over the future of China, a conflict that plays out when a Chinese delegation visits Africa, intending to exploit it as China becomes a world power.  In this case, I think the author’s reach was not matched by his grasp.

Jarkko Sipila / VENGEANCE
…which seems to be theme of the day, though this book is the polar opposite of Mankell’s. It is a stripped-down, unadorned crime novel about a biker gang, an undercover cop, and an informant in Finland, with no sweeping moral dilemmas or insights on globalization (though the Russian and Baltic connections actually do give it a globalized twist). Reviewed at my Scandinavian Crime Fiction blog.

Yrsa Sigurdardottir / LAST RITUALS
a surprisingly light-hearted look at satanic rituals, obsessions with the occult, and murder in Iceland – also written up for my other blog.

So it looks as if I may have actually completed the Scandinavian challenge. I have library holds on Nesbo’s THE SNOWMAN and Arnaldur Indridason’s HYPOTHERMIA as well.

North America

John McFetridge / LET IT RIDE
Reviewed at Reviewing the Evidence – a complex story about police and criminals in Toronto, both of them involved in their own power struggles. It’s an ambitious book, teaming with characters, creating a map of Toronto that would startle those who think Canada is the kingdom of nice. If Balzac moved to Toronto in the early 21st century and read a lot of Elmore Leonard, this might be his human comedy.

also at Reviewing the Evidence – a spot-on snapshot of the zeitgeist of the moment and very well-written besides, funny in a manic, crazed, and touching way. Walter is one of our greatest and most underappreciated writers, or so say I.

South America

Leighton Gage / DYING GASP
Another one submitted to Reviewing the Evidence, part of the Mario Silva series that travels the country, this time offering a criminal profile of a part of Brazil – steamy, seamy Manaus. The books in this series are quite brutal examinations of the impact of Brazil’s inequalities.

I’m not sure what I’ll read to complete this part of the challenge, but there’s plenty of choice.