Hey, I made a list! Here is Aunt Agatha's list of favorite mysteries of 2010. (Make sure you read all the way down.) I've read a few of the others--The Left Handed Dollar, The Lock Artist, and A Curtain Falls. All three were excellent. Now I've got to read the rest!
Danse Macabre, Gerald Elias, Minotaur, $24.99.
This was a surprise. When I went backward through some old Independent Mystery Bookseller bestseller lists, I noticed Elias’ first book, Devil’s Trill, appeared on many of them. Reading this one was pure chance - he was scheduled to come to the store, so I read the book, expecting a book about a blind violin teacher to be a tad on the gimmicky side. Far from it. Elias’ central character, Daniel Jacobus, is indeed a blind, cranky violin teacher (and violinist) but his blindness serves to hone his detective skills. This is introduced into the stories in various subtle ways, but I think not since Sherlock Holmes has someone been able to deduce so much from a smell. The bonus is that the classical music background is absolutely authentic - Elias’ other job is concert master of the Utah Symphony. When he visited the store all who came to the event were lucky enough to hear him play his violin. The classical music setting - though this is set in New York city, it feels exotic - helps make this series a standout. Both volumes are excellent; the second one seems to have ramped up Elias’ narrative skills, but if you enjoy classical music at all (or simply excellent traditional mysteries) this book should not be missed.
The Left-Handed Dollar, Loren D. Estleman, Forge, $24.99.
Even before Robert Parker passed from the scene it was my firm belief that Loren Estleman’s Amos Walker series was the finest continuing Private Eye series in the universe and The Left-Handed Dollar only confirms that belief. Private Eye books are always better when the protagonist has a personal stake in the case at hand, and in this book that’s true in spades, as Amos is hired by hot shot lawyer “Lefty Lucy” Lettermore to exonerate an mobster for an old conviction. The only problem is that the crime was attempting to blow up reporter Barry Stackpole, the guy Amos calls “the” friend. Since the attempt caused Barry to lose a leg, feelings run high, but when Amos starts taking a closer look at the case, yesterday’s witnesses start getting killed in the here and now. The plot spins smoothly with the right element of surprise, but Estleman always provides the total package, with memorable characters from major to minor, razor sharp sketches of Detroit and environs, and punchy prose, all delivered with a strong shot of sheer wit. It’s all so effortlessly done that Estleman’s mastery can be underestimated – that is until you read a book by anybody else who has a hand in the P.I. writing game and realize how Loren trumps them all.
The End Game, Gerrie Ferris-Finger, Minotaur, $24.99.
This is the winner of the annual St. Martin’s Malice Domestic prize, and it’s a worthy victor. While that prize is given to the best “traditional” mystery, sometimes called a cozy, Ferris Finger uses a traditional structure to tell a decidedly un-cozy story. Her main character, Moriah Dru, works with the police to find missing children. In this outing Dru is looking for two missing sisters whose foster parents were killed in a fire. The author uses the traditional form to the extent that she has Dru interview all the characters in the tiny Atlanta community where the girls were living, but she also uses this device to give the reader a real picture of the community and the people who live in it. Halfway through she throws in what is basically a locked room mystery, and she winds up this tour de force using train whistles as a clue, which is very Dorothy Sayers of her. Her narrative skills are wonderful - this book really moves - and Ferris Finger’s unsentimental writing style helps you as a reader to get through some of the darker elements of her story. All in all, a terrific read.
The Lock Artist, Steve Hamilton, Minotaur, $24.99.
At first I was a little sad this wasn’t an Alex McKnight book, but this story completely won me over. Hamilton is such a total pro he makes this complicated and detailed story look easy (in that he resembles another master, Michael Connelly). His main character, Mike, doesn’t speak, thanks to a childhood trauma, one that’s unknown until the end of the book. What he’s really good at is picking locks and drawing. Hamilton skillfully maneuvers the story back and forth through time, at once creating the character’s Milford childhood and then showing what his life as a successful “box man” is like. The lock picking details make the book much more interesting and memorable, but it’s the unforgettable character of Mike who will probably stay with you. Hamilton delivers a fast paced, well crafted story that will also break your heart.
False Mermaid, Erin Hart, Scribner, $26.00.
If I were pressed, I would have to say this was my favorite book of the year - in my initial review I said that the best books are read with a lump in your throat, thanks to a combination of emotion, narrative and character. The third in Hart’s fine Nora Gavin series, this is just such a book. Hart’s time off has matured and deepened her writing even more - which is saying a lot. In this one she weaves together myth and metaphor to tell the surface-simple story of Nora returning home to Minnesota from Ireland to find out who was responsible for her sister’s five year old murder. Grief and distance have created an estrangement between Nora and her parents; she’s coming home to old family entanglements that have to be dealt with as well. Hart is a writer who has many similarities to Elizabeth George, P.D. James, Louise Penny and Deborah Crombie, with a similar skill set of complex character development and a story that accumulates more depth as the book progresses. She also shares some of Penny’s poetry. This is a compelling and well crafted story of grief and attachment, highlighted by lovely writing. Welcome back to a major talent.
Snakes Can’t Run, Ed Lin, Minotaur, $24.99.
For me, Ed Lin wins points for originality, but he’s also a flat out terrific writer. There are layers of thoughtful storytelling here, all drawing a richly detailed picture of life in New York City’s Chinatown in the late 70's as Vietnam Vet Robert Chow works his beat as a cop. Robert, an ABC (American Born Chinese), is pulled in all sorts of directions, and it’s partly this difficult journey of self discovery that makes this book so rich. But also excellent is Lin’s detailed look at the different classes of Chinese society; his story, centering on snakeheads smuggling illegal immigrants illuminating his theme perfectly. The book is noir in that almost everyone in it is corrupt or untrustworthy. The matter of fact way Lin tells his story belies the richness of character and setting that make this book a standout. You won’t forget Robert Chow anytime soon.
Slow Fire, Ken Mercer, Minotaur, $25.99.
While I’m not a huge noir fan, I admit it’s power. This book is pretty noir, though it’s central character, Will Magowan, taking a last ditch job as sheriff of a tiny California town, is a very appealingly flawed and heartbroken one. Will has come to town to help solve a persistent meth problem, about the most noirish problem there could be in the modern storytelling lexicon. One of the things I really liked about this book is that it could have gone the way of a more literary type thriller - and Mercer has the writing chops to head that direction - but by full heartedly embracing the genre, he soars into the stratosphere with his story, which is full of classic noir elements and mystery tropes (ex-wife, powerful bad guy, newbie detective partner, doubtful city official). He soars by making Will so indelible, and by the sheer force of his storytelling. I guess that’s called passion, and it’s great to see no matter what form it takes.
Bury Your Dead, Louise Penny, Minotaur, $24.99.
So far Louise hasn’t made a misstep, but far from being just “not a misstep”, this now (probably) mid series novel is instead a knockout. It’s set in beautiful Quebec city at the Literary and Historical library there. Gamache has come to Quebec to recover from a trauma that’s teased out throughout the novel, and along the way he literally comes across a body in the basement when one is discovered in the library. Weaving together several plot lines, one about the missing Samuel de Champlain - Quebec’s founder, about whom surprisingly little is known - one about Gamache’s grief and another involving Three Pines, Penny’s now well established skills are all on display. She is really wonderful at making a complicated interweaving of plots completely compelling and moving, and as always, her prose simply sparkles. She is one of the most beautiful writers of just plain prose, in my opinion, in all of contemporary mystery fiction. There’s not much not to like here, and this far into the series, there are lots of other readers who agree with me. Gamache and Three Pines have seduced many a reader, and this one is another love letter from his creator.
A Curtain Falls, Stefanie Pintoff, Minotaur, $24.99.
I flat out love Stefanie Pintoff’s books. People compare her turn of the century New York City books to Caleb Carr’s, but I think it won’t be long before that’s the other way around. She certainly has a more concise way of telling a story. She’s terrific at character, she’s terrific at plot, and she’s got a great sense of narrative drive. The details of 19th century New York are simply a bonus - this is a good book that also happens to be an historical. She is also able to take that most overused of tropes, the serial killer, and make it fresh. In this one, the killer, who is plucking Broadway beauties and arranging them artfully after death, leaves notes and letters for the newspapers. Along the way she explores the new science of hand writing analysis, as well as the burgeoning growth of the Great White Way. Even better, her series character, Detective Simon Ziele, is so well drawn and likeable he’s bound to make the series stronger.
On the Line, S.J. Rozan, Minotaur, $24.99.
While I enjoy S.J. Rozan in general, one of the things I truly enjoy about her is the fact that each of her books are so different. One of the ways she does this is her unique shifting narrator concept, which allows her a different voice in each book. In this one, a Bill Smith entry, Lydia has been kidnaped and Bill has 12 hours to find her. Rozan’s deft mix of humor, suspense and great characters tied to an always surprising plotline make this book not only a stand out read, but an absolute blast. Absolute blasts are rare - so I also owe Rozan a thank you. There were few books I plain enjoyed so much all year.
The Detroit Electric Scheme, D.E. Johnson, Minotaur, $24.99.
This book was a delightful surprise. Johnson’s historical novel set in 1910 Detroit takes place as the car business was being born. He really captures the creativity and vitality of what was going on as the automobile was being refined and invented, and I say this as someone whose main interest in cars is getting in one, turning a key, and having it start. He’s also a good, dark storyteller, whose main character, Will Anderson, is the somewhat troubled son of the owner of an electric car company. It’s of course ironic to read about the decline of electric cars back in 1910 as they now seem like the future. When the main problem with gasoline cars -starting them - was resolved, this left electric cars, with their mileage limitations, in the dust. The story starts when Will find the dead body of his ex-fiancee’s fiancee horribly mutilated in a hydraulic press on the floor of his father’s company. His clumsy attempts to cover this up end up making him the prime suspect. While this isn’t a true noir - Will has some good qualities - it’s pretty darn close. Will’s journey of self discovery and detection is a very compelling one. I liked that Johnson’s history lesson concerns not the ways people lived (though of course that’s included to some degree), but the ways business was done in 1910. It’s fascinating. Will is an interesting enough character to carry many installments. Johnson is especially deft at creating not just his main character, but an array of characters, and he really makes you feel like you are back in 1910. This is a wonderful first effort.
Did you ever wonder why we call one of the rooms in our homes a "Living Room?" It always seemed strange to me. The room's not alive. Yes, we live in it, but we live in all the other rooms as well. The story behind the name is an interesting one:
Traditionally, when a family member died the family would display the body in the parlor for services. In Detroit in the early Twentieth Century, if you were rich enough or well-connected enough, you could get the Detroit United Railways Funeral Train, via the streetcar rails, to pick up the body at your house to transport it to the cemetery. If you were like most of us, you would have your mortician provide a wagon or carriage to do the job.
But on to the Living Room.
"Professional Mourners" had been around for a long time, but they really became popular in the early 1900's. By 1910, the year in which The Detroit Electric Scheme is set, these "Funeral Parlors" were popping up all over the place. People wanted the bodies out of the house. As the funeral parlors grew in popularity, the word "parlor" became associated with funerals. Since "parlor" was associated with death, a new name caught on for the parlor that was everything "parlor" was not. It was . . wait for it . . . wait for it . . . the "Living Room." (This one turned on a light bulb over my head.)