I read 62 books this year; four more were started, but not finished. It was a good year, so I’m not going to bother with naming the ten best, or five best, or twelve best. These are the books I’d be happy to recommend to anyone looking for a good read. (Books are listed in each category in the order in which I read them. No qualitative ranking should be implied.)
Tumblin’ Dice, John Mcfetridge – The Saints of Hell play more of a supporting role in this entry in the continuing saga of the biker gang gradually taking over organized crime in Canada, but their presence looms over everything that happens. A rock band gets together for a reunion tour on the casino circuit and proves you can’t always get what you want. (It’s not only Mcfetridge who can quote Stones’s titles.)
Falling Glass, Adrian McKinty – Michael Forsythe makes a cameo here, though, as above, his presence affects everything that gets done. The most Irish of McKinty’s crime fiction, Falling Glass probes a little deeper and lingers a little longer on societal and interpersonal relationships without losing any of its momentum.
Wolf Tickets, Ray Banks – Now he’s showing off. Tells the story in first person, from the points of view of two alternating characters. Far from taking the reader out of the story, the technique gives insights into both characters, foreshadowing issues in the flow of thoughts instead of hitting you over the head with them. A fast and fascinating read.
The Bone Polisher, Timothy Hallinan – The more I read of Hallinan’s Simeon Grist novels, the more I like them; maybe I picked the wrong entry point. Here Grist fills in the gaps far-flung small town cops would never be able to coordinate to solve Los Angeles murders.
Cleansing Eden, Ben Sobieck – I don’t like serial killer novels, and generally avoid them. Sobieck adds a twist to make this psycho far more believable—and thereby creepier—in a story with overtones of the Washington sniper killings of ten years ago. An exceptional debut.
Mafiya, Charlie Stella – The poet laureate of mob fiction brings in the Russians, both the mob and an OC cop, in what might be Stella’s most compelling story.
Breaking Cover, J.D. Rhoades – The twist comes early, so I can’t say what makes Breaking Cover different from most “hunted man” thrillers. Rhoades has a knack for redneck noir, and never have the necks been redder in one of his stories. He also stays away from the pat and expected ending, which earns major points.
The Fear Artist, Timothy Hallinan – The latest Poke Rafferty thriller involves Poke in Thai terrorism and a ghost from the Vietnam War’s Phoenix program. Uses the broadest cast of all the Rafferty stories to good effect, and needs them all. I spent a day of my summer vacation reading the whole thing in virtually one sitting. Had my bladder been twenty years younger, one sitting would have done it.
Fire Season, Jon Loomis – Let’s hope some publisher figures out how to market Loomis. He’s writing a series of what should be borderline best sellers and hardly anyone knows about it. Provincetown MA detective Frank Coffin and the usual crew of LGBT accomplices combine for another tale that will keep a smile on your face until you laugh out loud, but never trivializes the violence.
Rough Riders, Charlie Stella – A bit of a change, moving away from New York to North Dakota. Rough Riders picks up the story from Eddie’s World but is not really a sequel, as a retired NYPD detective follows a trail looking for the man Eddie Senta disfigured in self-defense, who now wants revenge. Throw in some local and federal law enforcement, and a heroin ring operating out an air force base and you have Stella’s most complex and multi-layered story.
A Choice of Nightmares, Lynn Kostoff – The story of a second-rate actor and third-rate person who allows himself to be drawn into a drug smuggling conspiracy thanks to his own lack of introspection and impulse control. The fact this could happen to a lot of people if they don’t pay attention makes the story even more compelling.
Slaughter’s Hound, Declan Burke – Burke goes Ray Banks and Allan Guthrie one better in this maniacal story of what happens when Eightball Boogie’s Harry Rigby gets out of prison and goes straight. Funny, terrifying, and disturbing, this is Burke’s most accomplished work to date, though definitely not for the faint of heart.
Skin Deep, Timothy Hallinan – The first Simeon Grist book, published third (this is the strangest business in the world, except for movies), and the best. Grist is hired to babysit a thoroughly contemptible TV star long enough not to queer a syndication deal. None of the characters live in the American mainstream, but you’ll feel like you know them all by the time you’re finished reading. Nice twist to the ending, where payback is a bitch.
Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut – Yes, it took me over fifty years to read Player Piano. It’s just as well. Vonnegut was either remarkable prescient or things haven’t changed as much in this country as we like to think, as his dystopian idea of the logical consequences of mechanical efficiency may be even more disturbing now than when he wrote it in the 50s.
Perfect Hatred, Leighton Gage – Ha! The rest of you won’t get to red this until February, when I’ll have a full review to accompany release. The electronic ARC I read shows Gage taking his game up a notch, weaving together stories that pull Chief Inspector Silva in different directions while pushing him between them at the same time. All the things that make the Silva series so good are here, plus a new level of complexity and danger.
The Adjustment, Scott Phillips – Talk about books that aren’t for everyone. Wayne Ogden may be the most selfish character ever written, yet I couldn’t stop reading about him. Only Phillips can get me to read about such a person and like it.
Sacrifice Fly, Tim O’Mara – Excellent debut about a former New York cop turned schoolteacher who treads the line between cops and civilians in the search for a missing student. Well-drawn characters, great dialog, and an unexpected plot direction make this a book that will get O’Mara another contract if there is any justice.
The Last Good Kiss, James Crumley – I didn’t like it much when I read it the first time, but continued to hear so much good about it I gave it another chance. What can I say? I was bedridden with mononucleosis the first time, not in the best condition to render objective reading opinions. It’s as good as they say.
Dead I Well May Be, Adrian McKinty – Another book I gave short shrift when I read it the first time, though without illness as an excuse. The best of the McKinty’s Forsythe books, getting inside Michael’s head as he evolves from criminal gofer to bad motherfucker.
The Guards, Ken Bruen – Originally read the same week as The Last Good Kiss, with the same original results and re-evaluation after the re-reading.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle, George V. Higgins – I don’t have anything to add to what I and others have said before. Quite possibly the greatest piece of crime fiction ever written.
Non-Fiction (since it’s not really fair to compare it directly with fiction):
Making Story, edited by Timothy Hallinan – Essays from twenty-some published authors on how they put their books together. Includes plotters and pantsers and everything in between. Highly recommended for all writers, if only to show you can’t be doing it wrong if there is no right way.
Books to Die For, edited by John Connolly and Declan Burke – Over a hundred authors pick books they think are important in the crime fiction oeuvre, writing essays on each. A must have for any serious reader or writer of crime fiction. I guarantee you’ll find something, or someone, new here.
Gang Leader For a Day, Sudhir Venkatesh – Graduate thesis research takes a SoCal boy to the most notorious housing project in the country, Chicago’s late Robert Taylor homes. A fascinating story, not unlike David Simon’s The Corner, but more from the gang’s point of view.