Favorite paperbacks of 2013

Favorite Paperbacks of 2013

It is time once again for

Murder by the Book’s annual

Best Paperbacks of the Year list.

Contributors to this year’s list are Barbara Tom, Carolyn Lane, Jean May, Nick Slosser and Chuck Caruso and our selections reflect the broad range of mysteries and crime fiction that is being published today.We still enjoy the thrill of discovering a new author, revisiting a favorite series and sharing our recommendations. Although we can no longer physically place a book in your hand and say “You’ve got to read this!” it is hoped that this list will accompany you on trips to your local bookstore and /or library.

Recommended by Barbara:

Ghostman ($14.95) by Roger Hobbs

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. 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. 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 and Jack himself is enigmatic and haunted. (MBTB star)

Talking to the Dead ($14.99) by Harry Bingham

Fiona Griffith is a bottom-of-the-ladder detective constable on the Welsh police force. You know there's something different about her from the get-go. The book begins with her interview to join the police. That section ends with, "And just five years ago, I was dead." Later she talks about being on "Planet Normal" when things go well. Hmm…

Obviously there is a gimmick to this book. Fiona has something psychologically off kilter, and we don't learn what it is for quite a while. Fiona, "Fi," is a more accessible Welsh version of the tough women heroes created by Carol O'Connell (Kathy Mallory) and Stieg Larsson (Lisbeth Salander). Fi is smart (philosophy degree from Cambridge), meticulous ("I like things orderly. I's dotted, T's crossed."), and has some hidden yee-haw attributes, which are revealed periodically.

After Fi manages to insert a toe in the doorway of a big case, the rest of her uncaged personality soon follows. A prostitute and her young daughter are found murdered. It would be a more mundane case, except a bank card bearing the name of a local magnate is found with the body, too bad that man is also dead. Like a dental tool probing a cavity, Fi chips away to find the decay within the community.

Bingham achieves a great balance between character and plot. It's easy to be intrigued by Fiona's mysterious past and admire how she comes up with insights into the case. I want this to be a series. I want the next book in the series. I want it now. (MBTB star)

The 500 ($14.95) by Matthew Quirk.

This is a smart, clever, well-written book. It's a horror story of sorts because it hypothesizes (or reveals?) the inner workings of how influence is peddled and how the real decision-making process works in the hollow (certainly not hallowed, according to this book) halls of government.Michael Ford is a young go-getter with a shady past. It reminds me of one of the best books I've read over the past couple of years, The Lock Artist, by Steve Hamilton. In that book the young narrator begins by admitting that he is telling his tale from jail. In a similar fashion, The 500 begins with Michael in tremendous trouble of some sort, and both stories proceed backwards in time from there.

In short, the story is that Ford, fresh out of Harvard Law, is recruited by the best influence-peddling firm in DC. Callow in the ways of politics and idealistic, Michael sets out to show his bosses he can bring in the goods. The goods being ways to get the people in power to do what the firm's clients want.

There is a well-balanced amount of action and cerebral stuff. As the main story proceeds, stories from Michael's past surface. His relationship with his imprisoned father, his dead mother, and his wayward brother are all blended into the mix to provide the explanation to who Michael was and what he has become. In the best hero fashion, Michael must decide where his loyalties, interests, and ideals lie, and once having decided, how to make sure he survives the fall-out of his choices.

As captivating and moving as Matthew Quirk's writing makes his characters, it is the addition of the insights into the grift, the con, the soft spots in our structured and fortified society and its elected representatives, and the nuts and bolts of being a burglar and thief that produce an extraordinary book. (MBTB star)

The following hard covers received Barbara’s star this past year:

Visitation Street ($25.99) by Ivy Pochoda

The author re-creates the spit of land that is Red Hook, Brooklyn, by her own lights, in the same way John Steinbeck could bring a neighborhood to life, with all its tragedies and comedies, odd characters, interwoven relationships, and grace.

Cuckoo’s Calling ($26.00) by

Robert Galbraith

*What a great debut novel! It's hard to believe that this is in fact the first novel by the pseudonymous Robert Galbraith; it's so polished and offers the complete literary package. The characters are well-rounded, the plot is intriguing, the back stories are interesting.

*As it turns out, this is not a debut novel after all. “Robert Galbraith” is a pseudonym of J.K. Rowling.

Norwegian by Night ($26.00) by

Derek Miller

I was sad when this book was over. It had all the elements that I love: comedy, tragedy, quirkiness. Norwegian by Night is not a true mystery because you know who the victim is and who killed her. This is a story of people on the run from the bad guys, but it's not like any other on-the-run story you've ever read.

Barbara also recommends:

The Rage ($17.00) by Gene Kerrigan

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.

Trust your Eyes ($9.99) by Linwood Barclay

A fast paced thriller with twists a plenty. Thomas Kilbride believes he witnessed a crime while using a computer program very much like Google maps. A map-obsessed schizophrenic who rarely leaves his house, Thomas enlists the aid of his brother to determine what really happened.

Recommended by Carolyn:

The Last Kind Words ($14.95) by Tom Piccirilli

This series debut begins the chronicles of Terrier Rand, youngest son in a family of grifters whose names are all those of dog breeds, who is returning home after a long absence. Eldest brother Collie will be executed soon, convicted of a mass killing. Although Collie can’t explain his actions then, he swears that one of the victims was not his doing and pleads for Terry to investigate.

This is the story of a family, dysfunctional to be sure, but with long ties that bind across time and space. In large part, the story’s appeal is in its characterizations. Piccarilli keeps up the pace throughout, and his writing is terrific. And the answer as to who killed that lone victim hinges on a somewhat unlikely family characteristic – but so what!

Phantom ($14.95) by Jo Nesbo

Harry Hole, in the wake of a wrenching case (The Leopard) involving his father, followed by the breakup of his long-time relationship with Rakel and her son Oleg, emigrated to Thailand. Now Oleg has been arrested for murder, accused of killing a friend and fellow addict to the new wonder drug “violin,” and Harry returns at Rakel’s request to help prove her son innocent of the crime. To do so, of course, Harry must discover the guilty party. Nesbo’s elaborate, beautifully constructed plot centers around a ruthless man who controls the distribution of violin—while hovering over all is the imminent death of an unidentified boy who alternates between clinging to hope for his life and preparing to offer it up for peace. Phantom is another splendid achievement in Nesbo’s series, with another mystifying conclusion.

Carolyn also recommends:

The Jaguar ($15.00) by T. Jefferson Parker

The latest in the Charlie Hood series finds the L.A. County sheriff’s deputy on the trail of a kidnapper in Mexico.

Kill You Twice ($7.99) by Chelsea Cain:

Portland police detective Archie Sheridan’s life seems to be getting back on track now that serial killer Gretchen Lowell is behind bars. Oh, if things were only that simple…

Recommended by Jean:

The Royal Wulff Murders ($15.00)

by Keith McCafferty

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 that 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.

Broken Harbor ($16.00) by Tana French

The fourth book by Tana French came out in paperback this year and I couldn’t be happier. I’ve been recommending her atmospheric Irish mysteries since 2007’s In the Woods. Although not a series in the traditional sense, her stories are connected by her use of a character who may have been on the sidelines in a previous book and now moves to the center of the action. French must love the Faulkner quote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” because alongside whatever character she chooses to put front and center, the past is always right there, waiting to step into the spotlight.In Broken Harbor Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy takes center stage. Readers first met him in French’s previous book Faithful Place. “Scorcher” of the Dublin Murder Squad has been assigned a high profile triple homicide but he’s not worried, he’s got the highest solve rate on the squad.

The case proves challenging for many reasons, especially because it centers on an area known to him from his troubled childhood. The victims are members of a family that was under a tremendous amount of strain only partially brought on by their increasing financial problems and their house is full of secrets. It is up to “Scorcher” to solve the perplexing case and discover the truth about what went on behind closed doors.

Jean also recommends the following:

Dead Scared ($14.99) by S.J. Bolton: DC Lacey Flint investigates a rash of suicides in Cambridge. This is the 2nd in a series.

A Land More Kind Than Home ($14.99) by Wiley Cash: A powerful debut set in Appalachia involving secrets kept by members of a faith healing congregation.

Hit Me ($16.00) by Lawrence Block: The latest in a decidedly quirky series with a stamp collecting hit-man trying to lead a “normal” life.

Leader of the Pack ($15.99) by David Rosenfelt: Always entertaining, this series features lawyer Andy Carpenter and his golden retriever Tara.

How the Light Gets In ($25.99) by Louise Penny: My only criticism is that she makes readers wait a year to read her next book. Haven’t read her yet? Start with Still Life, the first in the series.

A Serpent’s Tooth ($24.99) by Craig Johnson: A new book with Walt Longmire heading the cast of characters is always a delight and I can’t wait for the next season of Longmire to start.

Sandrine’s Case ($24.00) by Thomas H. Cook: A favorite author once more delivers a powerful story that keeps you guessing right up until the last page.

Recommended by Nick:

Raylan ($14.99): by Elmore Leonard

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 ($14.99) by Tricia Fields

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 US 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, 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 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.

Recommended by Chuck:

A Wanted Man ($9.99) by Lee Child

Crime novels don't get much slicker than Lee Child's Jack Reacher books. A Wanted Man, this year's addition to the franchise, is as lean and muscular as anything else published this year and then some. This novel proves yet again why Child has become such a literary juggernaut. His prose is lean and muscular. His plotting seamless.

A Wanted Man is the type of novel you don't pick up unless you've got a few hours. Just like his formidable hero, Child doesn't let up. That makes A Wanted Man my pick of the year.

The seventeenth in the series, this novel finds Reacher yet again the right man in the wrong place at the right time. Written in third-person, like the best of the these books are, A Wanted Man begins by toggling back and forth between an interstate manhunt for the suspects in a mysterious small-town murder and Reacher's innocently accepting a ride with an odd trio of travelers.

Along with Reacher, we puzzle through what's happening as the ever-wandering ex-MP puts his superhuman powers of observation to good use. It doesn't take long for him to figure out that he's in the middle of a crime in progress. As the story accelerates, Reacher finds himself teamed up with a sharp FBI agent named Julia Sorenson. Their excellent detective work ratchets up the tension and leads to one of the best action-adventure climaxes in this already stellar series.

The prolific Child once again gives readers everything they've learned to expect from a Jack Reacher novel. If you're looking for a brisk and immersing read, A Wanted Man delivers.

Chuck also recommends:

Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives ($16.00) edited by Sarah Weinman:

A well-researched treasure trove of short stories by the brilliant women who defined the psychological thriller during the mid-century. This collection features fourteen gems of suspense.


There you have it, enough reading to keep you busy throughout the long winter months ahead.