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.
Lauren Beukes BROKEN MONSTERS
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.
Arne Dahl TO THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN
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.
Sinead Crowley CAN ANYBODY HELP ME?
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.
MJ McGrath THE BONE SEEKER
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.
Alan Glynn GRAVELAND
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.
Tana French THE SECRET PLACE
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.
Raymond Bonner, ANATOMY OF INJUSTICE
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