Favorite Books of 2013

(Includes an additional title, not found in the emailed and snail-mailed copies: The Rage, by Gene Kerrigan!)

It is traditional for us to issue an end-of-the-year favorites list. Well, this year April is the end of our year, so we’ve chosen some commendable books we read during the first four months. Some of them weren’t written in 2013, but 2013 is when we read or re-read them. It’s always hard to choose the best books because so many catch our eye, and for all kinds of reasons—see Jean’s review of The Royal Wulff Murders, for instance. There were no parameters, as you can see by the wide-ranging selections. (Chuck is busy finishing his Ph.D., so we’ll have to post his online when the thesis dust settles.) Recommending books, you should know, is one of our favorite things to do at the bookstore. We’ll miss that part. Words on a website or blog sometimes don’t adequately convey our enthusiasm for a book. We hope that during our thirty years we’ve helped you to drink deeply of what this wonderful genre has to offer.

Carolyn’s picks:

A Bitch Called Hope, by Lily Gardner (e-published by Diversion Books at amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, kobobooks.com and the iTunes store, $13.95): Yowzah, what a great mystery!! Gardner joins the growing list of top-notch Portland crime writers with this debut mystery novel. She has created a modern private eye in time-honored tradition, and the result is both fresh and grounded.

Lennox Cooper, her protagonist, is crafty, intelligent, resourceful, bold, and tenacious, as she hunts the killer of a local magnate. Gardner’s prose has no excess baggage—it sticks with her hero—and her dialog zings. The Portland locale and ambiance are detailed to perfection. Cheers in anticipation of Gardner’s next outing! And here’s hoping it will soon be in print also. (Contact her at www.lilygardner.net.)

Capital Punishment, by Robert Wilson (hardcover, $28): The start of a promising new series for Wilson, with Charles Boxer, ex-army, ex-police, who has found his niche in private security as a specialist in kidnap recovery.

Here, he works for an Indian/English tycoon to bring back the family’s daughter from kidnappers who turn out not to want cash but revenge for an unknown offense by her father. With his usual flair for complex plots and idiosyncratic characters, Wilson weaves a compelling and satisfying thriller, down to the last line, and a terrific lead-in for the next Boxer adventure.

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, by Sara Gran ($13.95, trade): A 2010 novel, somehow overlooked at the time, easily wins my gold star and a rave review. (Others who also liked it are Sue Grafton and Laura Lippman.) It’s the story of an unusual private investigator named Claire Dewitt, who has returned to New Orleans, where she learned the craft of detection with the help of a mentor and a French detection manual, to undertake a missing persons case—a well-known attorney who disappeared during the Katrina floods. Her view of detection, indeed, of the world at large, is existential to say the least, but it also includes the reality of dreams, memories, drug-based musings, advice from the I Ching, and conversations with the dead.

Working backwards to her solution, Claire examines the attorney’s last known sightings through the lens of the witnesses who simultaneously were living through the catastrophe of Katrina. Her reporting is sprinkled with advice from her detection manual: “simplicity is the refuge of fools,” for example. And it is laden with unforgettable scenes from a city under siege—bravery, cowardice, greed, loyalty, and hopelessness all on display—and what we now call the “post-traumatic stress” that followed. As one of its many memorable characters summarizes: New Orleans is a beautiful story, but it has no happy endings.

Except in this extraordinary novel, there are actually three happy endings, all based on exceptional kindness and tempered by an uncertain future. What more could a reader want?!?!

Barbara picks:

Rage Against the Dying, by Becky Masterman (hardcover, $24.99): Brigid Quinn has all the qualities I find compelling in a character: She’s quirky, headstrong, socially awkward, intelligent, and brave. She also has a dark past she keeps hidden from her new husband, a warped sense of humor, and years of experience hunting down and exposing the most depraved killers. She is under-appreciated, of course.

Becky Masterman’s debut novel is noteworthy. She gives us great character development, strong storytelling, and clever twists.

Brigid is 59 years old and retired from the FBI. Actually, because of an incident involving the death of an unarmed suspect, she was exiled and effectively forced into retirement. She then tried many activities that she had never had time for before, but, in her own words, “[I]t felt like I was still undercover, temporarily posing as a Southwestern Woman of a Certain Age.” Besides, “No one likes a woman who knows how to kill with her bare hands.” Nothing suited her until she took a class in Buddhism at the local university. She and the “Perfesser,” as she refers to Carlo DiForenza, hit it off and were soon married.

Into Brigid’s new life comes news about the biggest case of her FBI career. She never caught “The Route 66 Killer” and, worse yet, lost a young agent as a result. Now, someone has confessed to the serial murders. The agent in charge, Laura Coleman, suspects it is a false confession, but the higher-ups want it to stand. Laura needs Brigid’s help. What will Brigid tell Carlo, who thinks she investigated copyright infringement for the FBI?

The Artful Egg, by James McClure ($14.95), reissued in 2013: I think the last time I read this book was when it came out in the 1980s. James McClure’s eight-book Kramer and Zondi series was written during apartheid in South Africa. That ignominious period lasted from 1948 to its abolition in 1994. (Racism, however, doesn’t require government permission to exist.)

McClure’s stories were shocking to the outside world, mostly naive to the day-to-day manifestations of apartheid. Although he grew up in South Africa and worked briefly as a reporter there, McClure fled to England when his criticisms of the government drew scrutiny. He lived a multi-faceted professional life and brought an international awareness to the horror of institutionalized racism.

Tromp Kramer is an Afrikanner police detective and Mickey Zondi is his Bantu detective partner. It is implied that Zondi is smarter and a better detective than Tromp, having more restraint and better analytical skills. Both are victims of their time.

There are the whites and the blacks, but there are also the coloreds, the Asians. One such second-class citizen, Ramjut Pillay, is the unfortunate postal worker who delivers the mail to the home of Naomi Stride, a rich and famous white author. He discovers her dead body and spends the rest of the book discombobulated and running from one outrageous situation to another. He is at first delighted that he may hold the key to her murder and become famous for solving the crime, then aghast that he may hold the key to the murder and will be punished for withholding it from the police.

Navigating the sticky politics of the police department, Kramer and Zondi fight not only the criminal forces but also their fellow detectives, some of whom are brutal, corrupt, or incompetent. There is a lot of dark humor throughout the book, much of it provided by the police.

It’s easy to be morally stunned by the careless disregard whites had for non-whites during that period of time. McClure gives us dialogue rather than diatribe to show us how insidiously racism infected the culture. If McClure could have a punchline it would be, “Now discuss among yourselves.”

Grandad, There’s a Head on the Beach, by Colin Cotterill (hardcover, $24.99): Colin Cotterill is a rare author who can combine humor and tragedy and not make it sound awkward or forced. Following the superb Killed at the Whim of a Hat, the first Jimm Juree adventure, Grandad is even better. Funnier, sadder, wiser.

This will catch you up with the story so far. Jimm Juree’s mother got it into her noggin to uproot the family from Chiang Mai, where Jimm was a nop-notch reporter, to a backwater coastal village. Jimm’s brother Arny, the bodybuilder, and Grandpa Jah, a retired traffic police officer, were also forced into exile. Only her oldest brother/sister, Sissi, managed to stand her ground and remains in Chiang Mai.

However tenuous the accomplishment, Grandpa Jah and Jimm seem to have cornered the market on the family’s claim to normalcy. And after Sissi, a transgendered computer geek and beauty queen, talks Jimm into taking a pharmaceutical trial course of anti-depressants for money, Grandpa seems to stand alone. Nevertheless it is up to them to solve the mystery of why the head of a Burmese man has washed ashore on their beach.

Although Grandad veers off into Wackyville on every page, Cotterill retains a very human and warm sensibility. He doesn’t tangle the story up in fancy language and never obfuscates when he needs to elucidate. Jimm is the narrator and her voice is clear as a slightly-cracked bell.

Dying in the Wool, by Frances Brody ($14.99): This is a surprisingly tart book about post-WWI England, with a peek into the world of wool textile mills of the time. Despite the bucolic picture on the book cover, the Yorkshire area depicted in the book is more “Hound of the Baskervilles” than Agatha Christie. There’s a sense of desolation and dark, eddying village connections, covered by the miasma thrown up by a thundering mill.

In many ways this new series is like the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear. Kate Shackleton, like Maisie, has lost the man she loved in the war. Each becomes a private investigator. Each knows the upstairs-downstairs elements of a stratified society. Frances Brody’s Kate is less angelic than Winspear’s Maisie, however. Kate seems more human and a little more bumbling, sometimes blurting out a discovery to the discomfort of her listeners. Each author creates a whole, believable post-war England very well.

A friend from her war days with the VAD — volunteers who helped as nurses and medical staff — has asked for help locating her father, who has been missing, presumed dead, for many years. Tabitha Braithwaite is soon to be married and she wants her father to walk her down the aisle. That is a big problem, since Joshua Braithwaite ran away from the psychiatric hospital in which he was confined, after the police arrested him for attempting suicide, and was never seen again.

Ratlines by Stuart Neville (hardcover, $26.95): The setting is 1963 Ireland, just before President Kennedy’s historic visit. The visit is merely a reference point; Kennedy doesn’t make an appearance, nor is his visit part of the story. Neville captures the complicated political and social structure of the time, and the unsettled lines of authority. Neville’s signature scenes of graphic violence and noirish essence are present in full force.

Lt. Albert Ryan is a “G2 fella,” the Irish equivalent of an FBI/CIA agent. Against his personal wishes, he is assigned to protect an escaped Austrian Nazi, SS Obersturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny. Several other Nazis and sympathizers escaped to Ireland after “The Emergency,” a rather quaint sobriquet for World War II. “The enemies of my enemy are my friends” appears to be the operating dictum, since Ireland’s great foe, England, was an Axis enemy. Thus, many unsavory characters have come to roost near Dublin. Ryan is unusual in that he ran away from home to join the British Army during World War II. Although his homecoming was almost as unsettling as his war experience, he found a place for himself back in a regimented setting with military intelligence. The irony doesn’t escape Ryan that Ireland would rather harbor Nazis than an Irishman who fought with the British.

As morally repugnant as his assignment is, Ryan does his best to find out who has murdered three war fugitives and who is threatening Skorzeny. In the process, we see the fine lines the various political and intelligence organizations must tread, and the crosses and double-crosses that ensue.

Ratlines superbly and cleverly tells the story of a street-smart man who must find justice for those without voices, while playing various agencies against each other. Above all, Ryan must survive being cast as a scapegoat and pawn.

Ghostman, by Roger Hobbs (hardcover, $24.95): This book got good, gooder, goodest as I read along and its promise was fulfilled by the end. What’s extraordinary about the book is that Roger Hobbs was a junior in college on his summer break when he wrote most of this book. (And, no, he wasn’t a 58-year-old freshman.) Ghostman reads as though an expert in bank robbing, safe cracking, international banking, and the art of the con wrote this book, enough knowledge for several lifetimes. So Hobbs was, what, 21, 22 years old? No. Way.

We never learn what the main character’s real name is. Most of the time he is called “Jack.” He is a bank robber, a con artist, a master of disguise, a disappearing act. He is in his mid-thirties but can blithely assume the shape and articulation of older men. For fun and relaxation, he translates books from Latin. (A little Aeneid, anyone?) When we meet him, he is holed up in an unremarkable apartment, living an unremarkable life in Seattle. Then he gets a phone call that makes him face his past and endangers his future.

Ghostman tells the tale of two capers, one five years ago and the other a present-day casino robbery gone awry. The common denominator is Marcus. He designed the caper that blew up in Kuala Lumpur five years ago, and he is the man who has hired Jack to fix the current problem.

Hobbs is the master of leaving one story hanging at an interesting point to pick up the other story. The details of the heists are intricate and clever. Jack himself is enigmatic and haunted.

The Rage, by Gene Kerrigan ($17): This is a perfect novel. It won the British Crime Writers Association's 2012 Gold Dagger Award for Best Crime Novel of the Year. And well it should. Irish journalist Gene Kerrigan's fourth crime novel is beautifully constructed, with sharp and relevant dialogue, and not a superfluous word to be found.

The Dublin worlds of Detective Sergeant Bob Tidey and small-time crook Vincent Naylor are about to collide. Tidey is a morally upright but practical police detective. He will probably never rise above his current designation because he doesn't play office politics very well. Vincent has just gotten out of jail for beating a stranger who had cursed at him. His brother, Noel, has an idea for a grand score. He's found a security company employee who can give them information about armored car deliveries. (Okay, I have only one nagging thought and it has to do with this robbery storyline. How could an armored car driver, who says he's an underpaid little cog in the wheel, know so much about the big boss' routine and passwords? Not important, but nagging nevertheless.)

At first, a reader will assume the rage of the title refers to Vincent's flash temper and manic violent streak. An example of that is one of the first scenes in the book. Tidey's temper isn't obvious. It's slow to rise and the rest of the book is an example of what happens when it's finally engaged.

Cold rage dominates the last third of the book. Pay-back and justice serve both good and bad masters. Moral ambiguity and shaky rationalization are their lackeys. Kerrigan impeccably draws together all the storylines he has created into a surprising and thought-provoking denouement. Although the plotting is complex, Kerrigan takes great pains not to lose his readers. He draws and re-draws the connections by making use of his subsidiary characters in multiple contexts. The Rage is Kerrigan's master class in plotting and clarity.

Jean picks:

The Royal Wulff Murders by Keith McCafferty ($15.00): I admit that I picked up this book because of the way it looked; an eye-catching cover on a shelf full of books never fails to grab me. That is one of the reasons bookstores are such great places; you might go in looking for a specific title and then you see something shelved right next to it that just begs to be read.

Set in Montana, the mystery revolves around fishing; specifically fly fishing for trout, a subject I knew very little about. It didn’t matter, because along the way I learned a bit about trout, about conservation, and about the pull that rivers can have on people. I never felt that the information got in the way of the storytelling, which is a challenging trick for an author to pull off. McCafferty, an editor for Field and Stream, also gives his readers a set of engaging characters who have unusual mysteries to solve.

When an unidentified body is found in the Madison River with a Royal Wulff lure stuck in his lip, Sheriff Martha Ettinger thinks it might be a simple case of a novice fisherman slipping in the water and drowning. But something doesn’t add up because the angler isn’t outfitted in fancy fishing gear, and it looks like he was injured downstream from where his body was found. While Martha and her deputies investigate, landscape painter/private investigator Sean Stanahan is hired by a lounge singer to find a special spot on the river to scatter her father’s ashes.

Sean has recently moved to Montana to paint and to fish and to do a little work as a PI. He is the character who spends the most time on the river and it is through his eyes that the scenery comes alive. As a local and a sheriff, Martha presents a less romanticized view of the land and its inhabitants but both characters share the page with Montana, the third main character in the story. It comes as no surprise that Martha and Sean’s cases will intersect, but they do so in surprising ways.

I confessed to being drawn to The Royal Wulff Murders because of its cover and now I’m owning up to rereading books, which seems crazy when you think that I see so many new titles each and every month. What can I say? I read what I want to, and can you blame me? Great characters, clever dialogue and a tightly written plot are traits shared by my recent rereads.

First published in 1930 and reissued last year, Dorothy L. Sayer’s Strong Poison ($14.99) is truly a satisfying read. Although not the first book in her series, it provides an excellent introduction to Lord Peter Wimsey, the embodiment of the gentleman detective.

I read The Monkey’s Raincoat when it first came out in 1987 and wondered if it would stand up to rereading. I wasn’t disappointed; Elvis Cole is still a smarty pants private eye who has a partner he can count on named Joe Pike. If you’ve read some of the more recent Robert Crais mysteries you know that Joe Pike eventually takes center stage but in their first outing, it is Elvis who gets to shine. FYI, The Monkey’s Raincoat was chosen by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association as one of the century’s 100 favorite mysteries.

Nick picks:

Raylan by Elmore Leonard ($14.99): At a shop populated by smart-asses, shysters, brooders, liars, cheats, thieves, drunks, low-lifes, and the occasional psychopath—don’t even get me started on the people who work there—it’s hard to find a detective worth knowing in real life, even if his latest adventure kept you up all night or caused you to miss your bus stop. From Dave Robicheaux to Agatha Raisin, life with these folks promises to be much more difficult (and sometimes deadly) than life without. There are, however, exceptions: Archie Goodwin, Travis McGee, Kinsey Millhone, and Chet the dog immediately come to mind. U.S. Deputy Marshal Raylan Givens is one of these exceptions.

First appearing in Pronto (1993), then Riding the Rap (1995), and eventually Fire in the Hole (2002), Raylan Givens is a lawman from an earlier age. Frequently underestimated due to his relaxed, soft-spoken manner, Raylan has an easy sense of humor and never pulls his sidearm unless he intends to use it. He also sympathizes with both victims and criminals, making him simultaneously more reasonable and more dangerous. Raylan is also the #1 detective I’d invite for a beer. And the same goes for Raylan’s creator (beer-wise), who at age 87 still has the chops: the signature prose, stylish dialogue, and eccentric but thoroughly believable characters that make Elmore Leonard one-of-a-kind.

When asked by Graham Yost and Timothy Olyphant, the creator and star of the hit series “Justified,” to write another story about the laid-back lawman, Leonard happily picked up the pen. Intending to write a short story, the author enjoyed it so much he wrote several linked stories that eventually became his 45th novel, simply called Raylan. Although bits of the book have been seen in the show, Raylan should be read by anyone who watches “Justified”—the book will not disappoint—and anyone who enjoys Westlake, Willeford, Winslow, or any writer of lean, unusual, even comical crime stories.

The Territory by Tricia Fields ($14.99): Josie Gray is police chief of Artemis, Texas, a small town just off the U.S.-Mexico border where people would rather take the law into their own hands than seek help from either Josie or her two deputies. Even so, Josie has her hands full. First, there’s the private cache of 300-plus guns gone missing after their owner, a staunch defender of the Second Amendment, is found shot to death in his neighbor’s trailer. Then, there’s the cow, bloated with about ten bricks of cocaine, found straddling the border, floating down the Rio Grande. And finally, there’s the head of the Medrano cartel, the largest in Mexico, whose bullet-riddled body has been rushed to the Artemis hospital for emergency treatment, putting Josie and one of her deputies directly into the path of a cartel hit squad.

While the United States blames corruption within the Mexican government and their failure to control the drug cartels for the deteriorating situation, Mexico blames a lust for drugs on the U.S. side and the total lack of gun control. Either way, Josie can watch, literally, through long-range binoculars, the violent power struggle playing out between the Medrano cartel and its challenger La Bestia. But even if she can see her Mexican counterparts—fellow law officers—walking into an ambush, she’s powerless to help—she has no jurisdiction there. And now, the cartels seem to be spreading north, using Artemis as their port-of-entry into the U.S. So, finding her town caught in a no-man’s-land between separate governments, conflicting agencies, and warring cartels—a 100-mile strip locals call “The Territory”—Chief Gray vows to stop the traffickers and keep little Artemis from turning into another cartel ghost town.

That’s it, folks! Stay tuned for information from Jean about “Murder by the Book, The Next Chapter.” She’ll be keeping the website, Facebook, and Twitter pages active.

Thanks for the memories!

With fond regards,

Your community at MBTB —

Carolyn, Barbara, Jean, Nick, Jackie & Chuck