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Wednesday, December 14, 2016

2016 MBTB's Year's Best Crime Novels

Yes, in fact Murder by the Book has been closed for three and a half years. But, yes, we still provide you with a list of the best mystery books released during the year (with a few exceptions, duly noted).

Here they are, in no rational order.


A Song for the Brokenhearted by William Shaw: This is the last volume in the Breen/Tozer trilogy, set (for the most part) in 1960s London. Policeman Paddy Breen was injured at the end of the second book, and ex-cop Helen Tozer has taken him to her family’s farm to recuperate. While he recovers, Paddy investigates the long-ago murder of Helen’s sixteen-year-old sister. This is a grisly, bloody, heart-wrenching end to an outstanding series.

The Verdict by Nick Stone: Celebrity businessman Vernon James (“VJ”) has been accused of strangling a woman in a London hotel. Terry Flynt is a clerk at the law firm which draws Vernon’s defense. The twists and turns start right at the beginning. Terry and VJ were childhood mates, but they have not met or spoken for twenty years. Stone has created a wonderfully complex drama about the men’s past, the current murder case, and the tangled web in which both are now caught.

The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney (c2015): This is a captivating and intense novel about long-harbored grief. Oklahoma City provides the background and Wyatt Rivers, a private detective in Las Vegas, and Julianna Rosales, a nurse whose older sister disappeared years ago, provide the drama. This book was nominated for many awards and won many of them!


Before the Fall by Noah Hawley: Scott Burroughs is a little known painter living on Martha’s Vineyard and managing to make ends meet. It is Scott’s misfortune to be aboard the plane of fabulously wealthy media mogul David Bateman when it crashes into the ocean. This is not much of a spoiler alert: Scott survives. He then commits to finding out what happened. Hawley shows us that crafting a good book is not just about the techniques of plotting or the technical details to show authenticity; it’s most definitely about character and morality.

The Drifter by Nicholas Petrie: This is a thriller with a big heart. Lt. Peter Ash returned to the U.S. after several years in the Middle East. He has come back with problems, such that he initially lives like a hermit in the woods. When an old friend commits suicide, Peter puts aside his own problems to help his friend’s family. For some reason unknown to them, they are in danger. Petrie writes of veterans’ difficulties with passion and care.

Lesser Evils by Joe Flanagan: Lt. Bill Warren is a mess. His wife left him, his seven-year-old son has been diagnosed with “the mental capacity of a three-year-old,” he’s lonely, his emotions come to a fast boil, and he is the temporary chief of the Barnstable, Masschusetts police force. Oh, and there’s a serial killer wandering around doing despicable things to young boys before killing them. Besides a great, shifting plot, Joe Flanagan’s writing often rises to a level above.


End of Watch by Stephen King: This book is the end of the road for the marvelous and touching Bill Hodges trilogy by a master storyteller. What started with “Mr. Mercedes” ends here. This is good versus pure evil in the form of sociopath Brady Hartsfield. King slowly builds his story and at the midpoint begins to unleash his thrilling revelations and clever resolutions that tumble down to a poignant ending. His attention to detail and ability to neatly pull everything together is legendary.

Willnot by James Sallis: What if James Sallis wrote a long poem (for he is a poet) and called it “Willnot." He did and this is it. This is one of the most beautiful crime stories we’ve ever read. To be honest, it isn’t a traditional crime story. Dr. Lamar Hale is a small-town doc in Willnot. He knows everyone, and everyone knows him. What does the doctor know about the mass grave recently discovered? What does he know of a military assassin? When something of a violent nature does happen, it is secondary to the philosophical discursion and observations of other lives. Here’s to Sallis’ shining prose and the questions he never answers.

Ping Pong Heart by Martin Limón: This is the eleventh book in the George Sueño and Ernie Bascom series set in South Korea in the 1970s. These CID agents are assigned to investigate when a major is robbed by a prostitute. Just what is the real story? Before they can figure it out, the major is murdered. In the end it is Limón’s compassion in the face of the clash of cultures that brings us back time and again. Besides it contains the best line written in 2016: “You slicky my ping-pong heart.”


The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock: If you forced us to pick one book as our favorite, it would have to be this one. Once again, here is an unconventional crime book. Set in 1917, in the U.S. South, Pollock writes with humor, compassion, and fierceness. He can put us within the impoverished world of the mostly illiterate southern tenant farmer and the middle class one of a college-educated military man. He can describe the daily humiliation of being black and poor. He can show us big and small examples of the devil’s work, demon rum, and godforsaken poverty.

Dead Souls by J. Lincoln Fenn: This is a captivating, well-written novel of horror. Yes, horror. The Devil (old Red Suit himself) insinuates himself into our modern world and reels in needy souls. J. Lincoln Fenn’s premise is simple, but her handling of it is complex and stylish. Fenn’s writing is dark, modern, swift, quirky, twisted, creepy, grisly, heartless and heartfelt, romantic, and deadly.

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney: This book is almost Shakespearean in its coincidences and accidentally interrelated characters. It begins when Jimmy Phelan is tasked with disposing of the body of a man (who has been hit on the head with a holy stone, begorra). McInerney’s look is about the underclass of Cork (Ireland) society. There are alcoholics, drug dealers, prostitutes, fixers, and people out to find some comfort in a cold world that has mostly abandoned them. And the writing is glorious.


The Trespasser by Tana French: French is one of the most creative writers around. Her plots twist, her characters always have quirks and flaws, and her writing shines. Detectives Antoinette Conway and Stephen Moran return (after “A Secret Place” told from Moran’s point of view) to solve the murder of a young woman. The catch — and there’s always a catch with French — is that the story is told from Conway’s view this time. French flawlessly switches tone, slang, and gender.

IQ by Joe Ide: Here’s another astonishingly creative book. IQ is set in the gang/drug/non-white scene of Long Beach, California. Although it deals with gangs, drugs, and non-white stuff, it is primarily a book about characters and universally understood motivations. “IQ” is Isaiah Quintabe, a brilliant young man who is also the neighborhood private investigator. His scammer friend, Juanell Dodson, is not brilliant, but he has connections and big ideas. Not quite Sherlock and Dr. Watson, they are just as interesting. This is a stunning combination of poignancy and absurdity.

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters: Picture an alternate United States in which slavery is still legal in some states. What would people do to escape slavery? How brave would others need to be to help them? The underground airlines is the nickname given to a system that spirits slaves to Canada, where slavery is rightfully outlawed. “Victor” is a black man. On behalf of the government, it is his job to hunt down escaped slaves and return them to their owners. This is a thriller and a detective novel, but it is in no way typical. It is a social statement, an invective against racism, a plea for humanity. And it’s well-written.


The Cipher by Nick Slosser: If the name of the author rings a bell, it’s because Nick worked for Murder by the Book for many years. He is a fan of noir and dark, stylish tales, so we were surprised that his first novel was a play-fair, almost-cozy mystery set in 1955 Portland, Oregon. His characters are eccentric, colorful, and remind us of the heyday of Agatha Christie-type drawing room murders. Nick is smart and so is his book. (This book was released at the end of 2015 and did not make it on to our 2015 list.)

Freedom’s Child by Jax Miller: Here’s another 2015 book that was released too late to make it on to our 2015 list. Freedom Oliver is unique, her persona like quicksilver, her flaws and strengths many, and her determination the backbone of this book. Someone is out to kill her and to harm people she loves. Fueled by guilt, alcohol, a kick-ass mentality, and nothing to lose, Freedom decides to get back at him/her/them. This book is a tear-jerker without being maudlin, sentimental without being mawkish, philosophical without being condescending.


After Atlas by Emma Newman: This is sci-fi but it’s also a murder mystery, set so far in the future it’s hard to tell just when. There are brain implants for almost everyone. Governments of the big societies are hybrids of what we have in the present time and big corporations. Big business rules. Indentured servitude exists in what used to be Great Britain. Carlos Moreno was captured when he was a teenager, brainwashed, and for the last twenty years has been a police detective. He has the misfortune to catch a big case. Alejandro Casales, the leader of a cult group in the United States, has been murdered in an upscale hotel in the English countryside. Casales was also a pseudo-father to Carlos when he was young and a member of Casales’ cult. What a coincidence! (Or is it?) Carlos doesn’t let the bad blood of their parting detract him from his job. Not that he would dare to refuse the case.

Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil by Melina Marchetta: Here is a true thriller with big space given to a clash of cultures. Bashir “Bish” Ortley is a detective chief inspector in England who has been suspended from his job. He is busy feeling sorry for himself when he gets the worst news possible for a parent: A bomb has gone off in his teenage daughter’s tour bus. Bish rushes to France, where the bombing occurred, and becomes the nexus of the bombing investigation. Is it terrorism or revenge, or is there a sociopath running loose?

Too many books, too little time ...

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