Best Books of 2012: Crime Fiction, Part I

This is the crime, mystery and thriller fiction (part I) segment of January Magazine’s Best Books of 2012 feature; part II is scheduled for presentation tomorrow. Already posted are our picks of the Best Cookbooks of 2012. Still to come are our choices of the Best Fiction, Best Non-Fiction, Best Art & Culture, Best Biography, Best Books for Children and Young Adults, and Best Science Fiction/Fantasy. Look for them in the coming days.

Absolute Zero Cool by Declan Burke (Liberties Press)

I’ll start by repeating a statement I’ve made before: “Absolute Zero Cool is a wild, zany read, and I loved it.” I don’t intend to write a
spoiler now, but the sheer originality of this book shrieks out in various
unavoidable ways. The language is rich, the story is anarchic, the dialogue
sparkles and the laughs are frequently side-splitting. An author (Declan Burke,
perhaps?) finds himself face to face with a psychopath from a story he had
dreamt up, then failed to publish. The nutty phantom, Karlsson, has decided to
change his name to Billy, and he has kept on growing. “I’m in limbo,” Billy
complains to the man who created him, and Billy wants to be rescued. And he is
such a pushy, outrageous character that he will not be silenced. Unpublishable?
Me? “I’m not the problem,” Billy insists. “The story’s the problem.” So what,
according to Billy Karlsson, was the problem with the original unpublished
story? The subject was just too serious. Billy has a suggestion to offer in
that respect: “Make euthanasia funny,” he says. It may sound impossible, but
Declan Burke — a sometime Rap Sheet contributor — makes far worse things even
funnier. At the same time, he manages to encapsulate perfectly what crime
writers do between chatting with the wife and pandering to the baby: they
create whack jobs in the study. “These days I write comedy,” the author-star of
the novel remarks. “Life is shitty enough for people without asking them to
waste their precious reading time.” Don’t waste your own precious reading time.
Read Absolute Zero Cool today. It’s as cool and bare and original as Waiting for Godot, but it offers a lot more laughs. — Michael Gregorio

Big Maria by Johnny Shaw (Thomas & Mercer)

With two novels out, both this new one and last year’s fantastic Dove Season, I’ve decided that Johnny Shaw is the most
exciting new young writer to come along in quite some time. Why? Character. Big
is a white-trash version of The Treasure of Sierra Madre, featuring three
bumblers — Harry, Ricky, and Frank, a Native American who’s dying from cancer.
A lesser-caliber writer would have gotten to the main plot as quickly as
possible; it’s a good one, after all, involving the map to a gold mine located
across a very active artillery field in Arizona’s Chocolate Mountains. But Shaw
is a superior writer, taking his time to get to his adventure. He introduces
the reader to his three main players, showing instead of telling us about their
world and making us care and be invested in their quest. So by the time that
trio faces threats on the order of wild animals and shifty drug dealers, those
threats are more than mere obstacles in a plot — they’re genuine problems for
guys we know and like a lot, and who we want very badly to succeed. Shaw
combines the buddy novels of Joe R. Lansdale with loads of movies made over the
years, and makes his formula sing. Big Maria is also a damn funny book, with
naturalistic dialogue similar to what the Coen Brothers can deliver. I found
myself turning pages and finding gems such as “My brother’s dumb as a box of
hammers and she ain’t no rocket surgeon.” And: “You know how when you get high
and Nacho Doritos sound better than a lady hole?” Finally, you’ve got to love a
novel in which a burro explodes, causing major problems for everyone involved.
Cameron Hughes

The Blackhouse by Peter May (SilverOak)

Scottish-born author May has had a rather varied career. He started out in journalism, but switched to TV screenwriting after being asked to adapt his first novel, The Reporter (1978), as a 13-part BBC series called The Standard. In 1996 he quit television to resume his book-writing career, producing half a dozen mysteries set in China (beginning with 1999’s The
) before embarking on a second series, that one starring Enzo
Macleod, a half-Italian, half-Scottish forensic scientist turned university
biology professor with a particular aptitude for solving cold-case crimes.
(2011’s Blowback is the latest installment in the Enzo series.) The Blackhouse is the opening entry in a trilogy of books set on the Isle of Lewis, in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides archipelago. Abundant in back-story, manifest grief and corrosive fears, it introduces Detective Sergeant Fin Macleod, who grew up on that wind-savaged lump of rock but now works with the police in Edinburgh. Fleeing a crumbling marriage, and still reeling from the accidental death of his only child, Macleod comes to the Outer Hebrides to investigate a ghastly homicide that’s similar to one committed on his big-city home turf. The reader might think
Macleod could find some solace in such familiar environs. However, his boyhood
among the island’s hardened souls and fundamentalist churches was something less than thoroughly happy, and numerous ghosts — along with plenty of more tangible dangers — await him there. The solution to this tale’s mystery may dwell in a trauma Macleod
has long suppressed. — J. Kingston Pierce

Black Skies by Arnaldur Indridason, translated by
Victoria Cribb (Harvill Secker)

Following the close of Arctic Chill, the lynchpin in Indridason’s acclaimed Icelandic mystery series, Reykjavik Detective Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson has taken some time off, gone on “walkabout” to contemplate and review his childhood. This has lead the series to an interesting fork in the road. The last novel, Outrage, was told through the eyes of policewoman Elinborg,
while Black Skies is told through the eyes of her colleague, the U.S.-educated detective Sigurdur Óli. Óli often demonstrates less patience and finesse than Elinborg, and he’s often prepared to “bend the rules” a tad when squeezed for a result. Interestingly, it is those precise faults in his character that make his viewpoint perfect for Black Skies’ plot about corrupt bankers
and hidden motivations. Set in 2005, this novel (the title of which is a metaphor for the financial crisis destined to clobber Iceland) starts out along the well-worn path of a serial-killer yarn. We see an alcoholic drifter named Anders crafting a hideous killing device, the design of which comes from Iceland’s history: a leather mask fixed with a spike in its forehead. Meanwhile, Óli — suffering the slings and errors of marital strife — must deal with a case of “wife swapping.” That soon leads to the extortion of a former schoolmate’s banker relative, a woman’s savage beating and questions about Óli’s profession judgment. Before long, the reader finds himself trapped on a carousel of troubles, watching as bankers are caught up in the machinations of greed and witnessing the fractured childhood that led Anders to his present sorrowful state. There is no finer writer of literary police procedurals these days than Indridason. Black Skies proves the truth of that statement. — Ali Karim

Broken Harbor by Tana French (Viking)

This is a compelling, finely crafted tale about the horrific multiple-murder of a family in rural Ireland. In a coastal housing estate of half-vacant, jerry-built homes an hour’s drive north of Dublin a grisly crime has been unearthed: Patrick Spain and his two young children have been brutally stabbed to death. Spain’s wife, the sole surviving member of the family, has been found in critical condition, stabbed multiple times and barely clinging to life. The bodies of the children show no signs of a struggle; they seem to have been murdered in their beds while they slept. Detective Sergeant Mick Kennedy, a 10-year veteran of the Dublin Murder Squad, is handed the case. Everything points to a family member being responsible; and on the verge of poverty and trying desperately to maintain an image of middle-class respectability, the father is the odds-on favorite for the crime. But there are anomalies, and the case is proving to be far from simple. There’s also an elephant in the room. Years earlier Kennedy’s own family had taken their holidays near the scene of this crime, and his younger sister, Dina, witnessed their mother commit suicide in the coastal waters nearby. Now bipolar and off her meds, Dina’s vivid memories of that day and her out-of-control behavior threaten to jeopardize the case and even put an end to Kennedy’s career. Grabbing the reader’s attention with a first-person point of view and a driving narrative voice, French strips readers of their detachment, drawing them into the vortex of this dark but
all-too-believable tale. Perfectly paced, with nuanced characters set against a
backdrop of heart-rending conflict and dialogue that reads as though you’re a
fly on the wall, Broken Harbor shows that Tana French is one of the most talented emerging writers around. — Jim Napier

by Deryn Collier (Touchstone Canada)

There is a distinctly Canadian insouciance in Deryn Collier’s debut effort, Confined Space. The pacing feels slow, yet somehow the pages snap by, and though the action is unapologetic, there are times when you get the feeling that things could go either way. Is the beer factory locale in a sleepy hamlet in the Kootenay region of British Columbia what gives Confined Space its distinctly Canadian air? Well, yes. There’s that. But there’s so much else. Almost the whole time I spent reading this first book in what is meant to be a series, I kept thinking: Is this it? Is this, finally, the Canadian crime fiction we’ve been waiting for? The book that will snap Canuck crime into the spot those darn Swedes have been occupying for last half decade or so? I’m not sure. It might be. It’s good enough. It will just depend on who is paying attention, I guess. The
protagonist and the crime solver we are introduced to here is Bern Fortin, an
ex-Canadian Forces commander who has aborted his military career to take on the
job of coroner in the sleepy hamlet in question. Quite the plum gig. Bern
anticipates growing fat tomatoes and becoming part of a community, after stints
in Afghanistan and other war-torn areas have given him a thirst for a quieter
kind of life. And it looks as if he’ll get his wish … right until the time he
gets a call from the local brewery: a body has been found floating in the
bottle-washing tank and, not long after, the dead man’s girlfriend is found
dead in a field adjacent to the brewery. It all looks pretty accidental, but
Bern can’t help having his doubts. Collier is breathtaking here and never puts
the tiniest foot wrong. There are echoes of the type of writing and setting on
which Louise Penny has built her reputation — rural Canadian locations, a male
police-connected protagonist with a Quebecois background — but Confined Space exhibits a sharper, grittier edge. Collier has done a skillful job of setting Bern Fortin up as someone with whom we’d like to spend more time. I’m glad of that, too. It’s not a pleasure I would like to be denied. — Linda L. Richards

Creole Belle by James Lee Burke (Simon & Schuster)

Detective Dave Robicheaux lies in a New Orleans hospital,
hooked to a morphine drip that allows him to cope with the excruciating pain
caused by his taking a bullet in his back a month earlier. Drifting in and out
of reveries, his mind playing tricks on him, he is unsure about whether his
experiences are real or not. He thinks he’s been visited by a Cajun singer
named Tee Jolie Melton, who leaves him an iPod with some songs she recorded on
it (including “My Creole Belle”). The problem is, no one else can hear the
songs, and Tee Jolie disappeared weeks ago. When he learns that her sister Blue
has turned up dead, Dave decides he has to look into the matter. Robicheaux shares his tale with his ex-partner, Clete Purcel. Purcel is retired, in large
measure due to an uncontrollable temper, and because when he senses an
injustice he’s just got to deal with it, the consequences be damned. Purcell
has a new worry: a young woman named Gretchen has shown up in his life, and she
turns out to be his illegitimate daughter, although she doesn’t know it. They
say the acorn doesn’t drop far from the tree, and that’s certainly true in this
case: Gretchen is a contract killer, and her next target may just be someone
Clete loves. In an intricate, macabre dance of death, Robicheaux and Purcel
work their respective ways through the mystery that each has chosen — until,
inevitably, their paths intertwine and events come to a heart-stopping, violent
climax. Along the way they will encounter a body in a block of ice floating in
the bay, and confront villains ranging from a pair of two-bit street hoodlums
to oil-company executives and fundamentalist ministers, as well as a patriarch
with a dark past who rules his parish with an iron grip. And before this
morality tale is played out, the body count will rival that of a biblical
apocalypse. Burke’s prodigious narrative powers are the stuff of legend, and he
has lost none of his skills. There is more meat in almost any single
paragraph of Creole Belle than in an entire book by most writers. It is
a thick, rich gumbo of a tale, immensely satisfying, but not for the faint of
heart. — Jim Napier

Dare Me by Megan Abbott (Reagan Arthur)

Compared favorably to everything from The Great Gatsby and Fight Club to Richard III and East of Eden, Megan Abbott’s Dare Me is the tale of a Machiavellian struggle for power within a high-school
cheerleading squad. And if cheerleading seems like an unlikely milieu for
practitioners of Niccolò Machiavelli’s brand of cunning and duplicity, maybe
Machiavelli and Abbott have a thing or two to teach you about ambition and risk-taking. In war, politics and, as it turns out, high-school cheerleading, everyone is keeping score: you need only understand the stakes and measures of success. For Beth Cassidy, squad captain, Addy Hanlon, first lieutenant, and Collette
French, the new coach, the stakes are control of the squad. Respect, loyalty
and fear are the measures of success. Much of the power and appeal of Dare
comes from the language and voice of narrator Addy. Her interior
dialogue feels like a fever dream at points — so body-conscious, so tied to
real time, with little emotional distancing. It’s a bravura performance that
made me realize how far above the rest of the crime-writing field Abbott is now
working. Last year’s The End of Everything was in many ways a breakthrough book for her. Dare Me takes her work to a new level. — Mark Coggins

Dark Room by Steve Mosby (Orion UK)

Police detectives Andy Hicks and Laura Fellowes investigate what appears to be the slaying of a woman by her ex-husband. But when more corpses turn up in close
succession, Hicks and Fellowes have to question their original theory of a
domestic incident. The various victims seem unrelated and there’s no clear
pattern to these killings, yet talk of a serial murderer is soon in the air. Hicks is one of those characters who believes all puzzles have logical solutions, and he is therefore thrown for a loop by the randomness of the
recent homicides. Are they, however, random? Little can be taken for granted in
Mosby’s literary nest of divergent plot threads, including Hicks’ own
relationship with the killer or killers. Hicks helps raise Dark Room well above the level of cliché. He’s a detective compelled to probe the worst excesses of human nature at the same time as he contemplates the birth of his first child. The strain on Hicks as he struggles to juggle both his family life and the investigation is shadowed by secrets from his past. Adding to this novel’s sense of unease is its setting: a landscape as vague as it is dangerous, a Northern British city sometime in the near future. Dark Room is a superb thriller for those who eat with their mouths closed and relish the existential musings of people who operate on the edges of society — and must ultimately pay the price for playing at the darkest end of the street. — Ali Karim

Dominion by C. J. Sansom (Mantle UK)

Taking another detour from his Matthew Shardlake Tudor detective series — as he did with the melancholy Winter in Madrid (2008) — Sansom gives us a what-if spy adventure set in 1952. A dozen years have passed since Great Britain
surrendered to Nazi Germany, though World War II continues to rage on in
Russia. Britons are chafing under the authoritarian regulations imposed by
their new government, and they’re worried by atrocious acts taking place in
their midst. Meanwhile, Winston Churchill’s Resistance movement appears to be
expanding, and it may have discovered a way to tip the balance of power in its
favor. Much depends, though, on the daring efforts of a civil servant turned reluctant Resistance spy, David Fitzgerald, who has been assigned to help a scientist, trapped in a Birmingham mental hospital, flee the country. Fitzgerald soon
finds himself hiding from capture, together with a group of other Resistance
activists, in a London menaced by a hazardous air-pollution event, the
notorious Great Smog of ’52.
At the same time, Fitzgerald’s wife, Sarah, faces her own terrors, and one of
the Gestapo’s most notorious manhunters is hot on both their heels. Sansom’s
characters are provided with dimensions and detailed histories enough to make them
credible, and in Dominion the author has merged sufficient real
events from 1950s Britain with his own imaginings to make readers believe, if
only now and then, that the story presented in these pages might actually have
happened. Fans of Len Deighton’s own alternative thriller, SS-GB (1978), may see
similarities in Dominion, but they shouldn’t be disappointed with this new novel. — J. Kingston Pierce

The Double Game by Dan Fesperman (Knopf)

The Double Game is a sublime indulgence for lovers of spy fiction. In this cleverly executed novel, author Fesperman takes the reader back to the era of Cold War espionage and deftly reminds us that spying is all about deception and information as currency. Protagonist William Cage is a frustrated Washington, D.C., public relations guy. His writing career fell off the tracks more than 20 years earlier, after he interviewed former spook and current spy novelist Edwin Lemaster, who revealed that he’d once considered being a double agent. Now, Cage receives a
cryptic message at his Georgetown home, saying that he should follow up on what
Lemaster told him all those years ago. That pursuit of knowledge draws him back
to his old boyhood haunts in Europe — including Vienna, where his retired
diplomat father, Warfield, still lives amidst bookshelves overflowing with
first-edition spy novels. Things take a dangerous turn in Vienna and Prague,
and Cage doesn’t know who he can trust anymore. His father is suspiciously
keeping long-held CIA secrets, and even Cage’s former flame Litzi Strauss seems
to be playing him. More than just a spy novel, The Double Game is a brilliant tribute to spy literature in general. It drips with references to such giants of the genre as John le Carré and Eric Ambler and revels in the gloriousness of all things covert. You don’t need to be well-versed in spy fiction before taking up this novel, because Fesperman provides all that’s necessary. The reader merely needs to sit back and enjoy the ride. In these pages, the KGB and CIA simmer in all their paranoid glory. Cutthroat agents put bullets into the faces of their enemies. And CIA spymaster James Jesus Angleton hunts for moles. Mainly though, The Double Game is about William Cage righting his own life. Be prepared to buy a few spy novels after you’re done reading here — Fesperman’s story is infectious. And in the spirit of this novel, be sure to buy those books in print versions and from bricks-and-mortar bookstores. — Anthony Rainone

El Gavilan by Craig McDonald (Tyrus)

Earlier this year (technically, at the end of 2011), fans of author Craig
were treated to something new and different. Taking a departure
from his historical series featuring pulp writer Hector Lassiter (Print the Legend, Head Games), McDonald released El Gavilan, a present-day
saga of immigration tensions in a fictitious yet familiar-feeling town in Ohio.
In that yarn, the rape and murder of a coffee shop waitress, who was a favorite
of the county sheriff, Able Hawk, nicknamed “El Gavilan,” sets up the action
and theme of the book. Hawk teams up with new police chief (and ex-Border Patrol
agent) Tell Lyon to solve the murder, while also trying to keep the community
under control in the summer heat and amid simmering emotions over illegal
immigration and the Mexican drug trade. El Gavilan crackles with the hard-boiled action for which McDonald is known. Readers of the Lassiter series know that the characters always take center stage, and this book is no exception. The centerpiece is the character of Hawk himself. When we first meet him, he seems like a barrel-chested and bigoted law-enforcement character right out of central casting, but McDonald shrewdly and effectively colors in nuance and contradictions, making Hawk a surprisingly sympathetic and likeable character (the fact that he also has all the best lines doesn’t hurt). Fans of action will find plenty to like here, but a recent second reading of the book reminded me that El Gavilan benefits from an atmosphere of civic desperation that is new to McDonald’s work. In this respect, El Gavilan rises above noir entertainment and easily becomes McDonald’s most compelling and mature work to date. I yield to no one in my love of the Lassiter series, but El Gavilan is a cut above. 2012 was a productive year for McDonald. In addition to El Gavilan, he also released two e-books featuring supporting character Chris Lyon, Parts Unknown and Carnival Noir, with a third, Cabal, to come soon. — Stephen Miller

The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay
(Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam)

Set in New York City in 1845, Faye’s second novel (after her
2009 Sherlock Holmes tale, Dust and Shadow) traces the escapades of Timothy Wilde, a young bartender who — following a devastating downtown fire that causes his disfigurement — signs on with the city’s embryonic police force, a company of “copper stars” (as those early patrolmen were known) who are still trying to figure out the best means to curb Manhattan’s escalating crime rate. After literally running into a 10-year-old girl covered with blood, Wilde sets out — with his elder brother’s help (and sometimes his hindrance) — to determine
where she’s come from, what horrors she’s witnessed and whether her story about
a field of corpses secreted in a woodland north of 23rd Street can possibly be
true. My understanding is that Gods is the opening number in a new series.
If so, I definitely look forward to seeing the next installment. — J. Kingston

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (Crown)

Flynn’s work is very disquieting, featuring unreliable narrators who weave story lines that are as disturbing as any reader, tired of crime-fiction conventions, could hope to discover. If Patricia Highsmith were still writing today, she would have fierce competition from this fellow American, as both authors share a strand in their tales: the effort to comprehend the amorality and darkness that lie mere millimetres below the veneer of our observed reality. Gone Girl, Flynn’s third novel (after 2009’s Dark Places) is a fairly tough work to review, since it reads like a bad drug experience, or perhaps a lucid dream from which one wakes in sodden sheets and with the fervent desire to record the night’s reverie before it evaporates. Told from the viewpoints of Missouri couple Nick and Amy Dunne, it’s a haunting romance, simmering with menace and illustrating that when two lovers find their lives changing, the circumstances can sometimes lead to a dangerous conclusion. The backdrop to this yarn is the all-too-recent worldwide economic crisis, which has forced the Dunnes to downsize and move out of New York. Nick now looks after his sick mother, and for income he uses a chunk of Amy’s inheritance to open a bar with his twin sister, Margo. There is subtle subtext behind the couple’s relocation to the Midwest, as the narrative mentions how tough the economy is for people who used to make a reasonable living from writing, including Amy’s parents. The plot of Gone Girl is simple enough, kicked off by Amy’s disappearance on the couple’s fifth wedding anniversary. The shadow of suspicion quickly falls on husband Nick. In the absence of any hard evidence, suspicions become whispers, and those whispers find their way into the press. The local police then hound Nick, hoping to bring down the façade of innocence he seems to have raised around him. But just when the reader thinks he or she knows what became of Amy, a divergence between Nick’s recollections of his relationship with his wife and Amy’s diary entries throws everything up in the air once more. This thriller will appeal to anyone looking into the dark side of human relationships, and if you are looking for the heir to Patricia Highsmith, crack the spine of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and be prepared to be disturbed. It’s unsettling
entertainment sure to be a contender for one or more 2012 book awards. — Ali Karim

House of the Hunted by Mark Mills (Random House)

Former British special agent Tom Nash is enjoying a rather idyllic life with his privileged friends on France’s Côte d’Azur in 1935, hiding the pains and horrors of his past, when he’s suddenly attacked in the middle of a quiet night. He succeeds in doing away with the hit man, but the incident leaves Nash uneasy. It’s unlikely that this molestation is linked to his present travel-writing career, so it must have to do with his history in the intelligence services. Clearly, Nash hasn’t covered his tracks — or protected himself — as well as he’d hoped. Somebody knows who he was and what he’s done. Now this flawed but fascinating man must fall back on his espionage instincts, distrust everybody around him, and relive the memories of a woman executed 16 years before by Russia’s Bolsheviks if he’s to save himself and the
other people he loves. There’s studied unhurriedness to this story that plays
well against its moments of high drama. Readers tired of being dragged bodily
through rapid-clip adventures, over one cliffhanger after the next, with only
workmanlike prose to lubricate their passage, should find House
of the Hunted
to be a refreshing change. — J. Kingston Pierce

(Part II of this feature can be found here.)

News Reporter

1 thought on “Best Books of 2012: Crime Fiction, Part I

  1. Yes it is best book. But my life turning point is a Book name as Turning point which is written by Dr. Kevin Williams. He is a noted minister, acclaimed motivational speaker, author and media personality.
    Williams speaks to audiences around the world about subjects ranging from life's turning points and the challenges of being single in today's world, to reinvention of oneself and the role of religion and spirituality in a person's life. In recent years, he has become a media personality and is regularly quoted in magazines and newspapers, and appears on television shows, as an expert resource on a variety of topics.
    As the Pastor of the New Jerusalem Cathedral in Greensboro, North Carolina, Williams oversees a congregation of more than 4,000 members who rely on him for spiritual guidance, inspiration and motivation. Williams' sermons are also broadcast every week on the ABC and Fox affiliates in the Carolinas as well as radio stations from Alabama to Pennsylvania, reaching an audience of millions throughout the South and into the Northeast. Williams is also the house Pastor at Monument of Praise Ministries in High Point, North Carolina.
    Williams is the author of "Turning Point," a manual filled with advice and guidance for business-minded people. Williams provides historical, political and personal success stories that aim to change the mindset of readers. The book received rave reviews for its ability to teach individuals how to use life experiences and key moments, whether positive or negative, as a form of motivation to live a more positive lifestyle.

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