Four-Star Books Read in 2016: Mystery

Strong Poison (Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries #6) by Dorothy Sayers: Mystery novelist Harriet Vane knew all about poisons, and when her fiancé died in the manner prescribed in one of her books, a jury of her peers had a hangman's noose in mind. But Lord Peter Wimsey was determined to find her innocent as determined as he was to make her his wife.

I don't generally read cozy mysteries, drawing room mysteries, or old-fashioned mysteries - I like my murders modern and I get frustrated reading about casual sexism even though I know denial isn't the answer. But I've had a vague notion that I should read Dorothy Sayers for some time, and this was recommended to me by my friend Maggie (HI MAGGIE!) and I'm really glad I read it. It's so well-written, and I loved the leisurely pace and attention to detail given to the woman investigating on Lord Peter's behalf (I've forgotten her name). I often think murders would be much easier to solve these days if more people still rented out rooms in their houses - it seems much the best way to crack a case.

The Reckoning by Jane Casey: Described by The Irish Times as "a well-crafted mystery," The Reckoning sees Detective Constable Maeve Kerrigan hunting the killer who tortured two paedophiles to death.
To the public, a killer who targets paedophiles is a hero. And even the police don't regard the murders as a priority. Maeve Kerrigan is shocked by the violence inflicted during these kills – the victims were made to suffer. She believes no-one should be allowed to take the law into their own hands. However, as this serial killer's violence begins to escalate, she is forced to decide how far she's prepared to go to ensure justice is served.

Really like this series. The main character is flawed but not a complete wreck like many series protagonists, and there seems to be room for her to grow and evolve. Good depiction of relationships, interesting plot. 

The Wrath of Angels (Charlie Parker #11) by John Connolly: In the depths of the Maine woods, the wreckage of an aeroplane is discovered. There are no bodies, and no such plane has ever been reported missing, but men both good and evil have been seeking it for a long, long time. What the wreckage conceals is more important than money: it is power. Hidden in the plane is a list of names, a record of those who have struck a deal with the Devil. Now a battle is about to commence between those who want the list to remain secret and those who believe that it represents a crucial weapon in the struggle against the forces of darkness.
The race to secure the prize draws in private detective Charlie Parker, a man who knows more than most about the nature of the terrible evil that seeks to impose itself on the world, and who fears that his own name may be on the list. It lures others too: a beautiful, scarred woman with a taste for killing; a silent child who remembers his own death; and the serial killer known as the Collector, who sees in the list new lambs for his slaughter.
But as the rival forces descend upon this northern state, the woods prepare to meet them, for the forest depths hide other secrets.
Someone has survived the crash.
Some thing has survived the crash.
And it is waiting.

This is a detective series unlike almost any other. It's magical realism more than fantasy or horror, and I always like fiction that is grounded in reality and yet allows for the possibility of extreme weirdness. 

The Wolf in Winter (Charlie Parker #12) by John Connolly: The next pulse-pounding thriller in John Connolly's internationally bestselling Charlie Parker series.
The community of Prosperous, Maine has always thrived when others have suffered. Its inhabitants are wealthy, its children’s future secure. It shuns outsiders. It guards its own. And at the heart of Prosperous lie the ruins of an ancient church, transported stone by stone from England centuries earlier by the founders of the town…
But the death of a homeless man and the disappearance of his daughter draw the haunted, lethal private investigator Charlie Parker to Prosperous. Parker is a dangerous man, driven by compassion, by rage, and by the desire for vengeance. In him the town and its protectors sense a threat graver than any they have faced in their long history, and in the comfortable, sheltered inhabitants of a small Maine town, Parker will encounter his most vicious opponents yet.
Charlie Parker has been marked to die so that Prosperous may survive.
Prosperous, and the secret that it hides beneath its ruins…

Riffs compellingly on the ancient concept of sacrifice for godly beneficence. I felt really bad for the wolf. 

The Secret Place by Tana French: The photo on the card shows a boy who was found murdered, a year ago, on the grounds of a girls’ boarding school in the leafy suburbs of Dublin. The caption says, I KNOW WHO KILLED HIM.
Detective Stephen Moran has been waiting for his chance to get a foot in the door of Dublin’s Murder Squad—and one morning, sixteen-year-old Holly Mackey brings him this photo. The Secret Place, a board where the girls at St. Kilda’s School can pin up their secrets anonymously, is normally a mishmash of gossip and covert cruelty, but today someone has used it to reignite the stalled investigation into the murder of handsome, popular Chris Harper. Stephen joins forces with the abrasive Detective Antoinette Conway to find out who and why.
But everything they discover leads them back to Holly’s close-knit group of friends and their fierce enemies, a rival clique—and to the tangled web of relationships that bound all the girls to Chris Harper. Every step in their direction turns up the pressure. Antoinette Conway is already suspicious of Stephen’s links to the Mackey family. St. Kilda’s will go a long way to keep murder outside their walls. Holly’s father, Detective Frank Mackey, is circling, ready to pounce if any of the new evidence points toward his daughter. And the private underworld of teenage girls can be more mysterious and more dangerous than either of the detectives imagined.

This is another series that lets weirdness leak in. I loved how adolescent female friendships and politics were captured, the intensity and terror and depth of feeling. The detectives are always fully realized characters as well. Her books are often wrenchingly sad, but worth it. 

The Cuckoo's Calling (Cormoran Strike #1) by Robert Galbraith: The Cuckoo's Calling is a 2013 crime fiction novel by J. K. Rowling, published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.
A brilliant mystery in a classic vein: Detective Cormoran Strike investigates a supermodel's suicide.
After losing his leg to a land mine in Afghanistan, Cormoran Strike is barely scraping by as a private investigator. Strike is down to one client, and creditors are calling. He has also just broken up with his longtime girlfriend and is living in his office.
Then John Bristow walks through his door with an amazing story: His sister, the legendary supermodel Lula Landry, known to her friends as the Cuckoo, famously fell to her death a few months earlier. The police ruled it a suicide, but John refuses to believe that. The case plunges Strike into the world of multimillionaire beauties, rock-star boyfriends, and desperate designers, and it introduces him to every variety of pleasure, enticement, seduction, and delusion known to man.
You may think you know detectives, but you've never met one quite like Strike. You may think you know about the wealthy and famous, but you've never seen them under an investigation like this.

Considering that Harry Potter relied, in my opinion, much more on narrative energy than great writing, it's nice to see that Rowling does, in fact, have some really solid writing chops. This is an interesting mystery but it's also a really great novel without the mystery, with deft characterization, keen insights on class differences, and sly humour. It went ever-so-slightly into overly-complicated explanations of the crime near the end, but I was easily able to forgive that. I will definitely continue following the series.

The Butterfly Garden by Dot Hutchison: Near an isolated mansion lies a beautiful garden.
In this garden grow luscious flowers, shady trees…and a collection of precious “butterflies”—young women who have been kidnapped and intricately tattooed to resemble their namesakes. Overseeing it all is the Gardener, a brutal, twisted man obsessed with capturing and preserving his lovely specimens.
When the garden is discovered, a survivor is brought in for questioning. FBI agents Victor Hanoverian and Brandon Eddison are tasked with piecing together one of the most stomach-churning cases of their careers. But the girl, known only as Maya, proves to be a puzzle herself.
As her story twists and turns, slowly shedding light on life in the Butterfly Garden, Maya reveals old grudges, new saviors, and horrific tales of a man who’d go to any length to hold beauty captive. But the more she shares, the more the agents have to wonder what she’s still hiding.

I signed up for a free trial of Kindle Unlimited and in general found that the books on offer were dreck. This was a notable exception, featuring a very different kidnapping victim. Maya is an uncommonly self-possessed and resourceful character, and I found the entire story captivating, from the events before her captivity to the aftermath. 

Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner: Mid-December, and Cambridgeshire is blanketed with snow. Detective Sergeant Manon Bradshaw tries to sleep after yet another soul-destroying Internet date – the low murmuring of her police radio her only solace.
Over the airwaves come reports of a missing woman – door ajar, keys and phone left behind, a spatter of blood on the kitchen floor. Manon knows the first 72 hours are critical: you find her, or you look for a body. And as soon as she sees a picture of Edith Hind, a Cambridge post-graduate from a well-connected family, she knows this case will be big.
Is Edith alive or dead? Was her ‘complex love life’ at the heart of her disappearance, as a senior officer tells the increasingly hungry press? And when a body is found, is it the end or only the beginning?

I was perfectly satisfied with the mystery I read just before this one, but this is really a cut above - the writing style isn't overly laboured, but the characters are so much more fully realized, and the story is about relationships and introspection more than it is about crime. Very good.

Redemption Road by John Hart: Now after five years, John Hart is back with a stunning literary thriller.
A boy with a gun waits for the man who killed his mother.
A troubled detective confronts her past in the aftermath of a brutal shooting.
After thirteen years in prison, a good cop walks free. But for how long?
And deep in the forest, on the altar of an abandoned church, the unthinkable has just happened…
This is a town on the brink. This is a road with no mercy.
After five years, John Hart returns with Redemption Road, his most powerful story yet.

There are times when characters who are self-destructive are kind of annoying, because it reads as purposeful martyrdom without an honest cause. That's not the case here, although many characters are near or at rock-bottom. I felt completely submerged in this world - the sense of place, the deep familial and political connections, the conflict between tradition and one's sense of self. I haven't hit a disappointing John Hart read yet (there's a good reason he's one of those authors who gets to have his name in larger font than the title), and this was as dramatic, absorbing and affecting as the others. 

A Climate of Fear by Fred Vargas: A woman is found murdered in her bathtub, and the murder has been made to look like a suicide. But a strange symbol found at the crime scene leads the local police to call Commissaire Adamsberg and his team. When the symbol is found near the body of a second disguised suicide, a pattern begins to emerge: both victims were part of a disastrous expedition to Iceland over ten years ago where a group of tourists found themselves trapped on a deserted island for two weeks, surrounded by a thick, impenetrable fog rumored to be summoned by an ancient local demon. Two of them didn't make it back alive. But how are the deaths linked to the secretive Association for the Study of the Writings of Maximilien Robespierre? And what does the mysterious symbol signify?

Okay, after what I said about the last Louise Penny book, it is almost unconscionable of me to give this such a high review, because it was nearly every bit as bad for being completely ridiculous as a police procedural and had all the same issues with a near-psychic mystic figure policeman as a protagonist and tending more towards philosophical investigations and spiritual events bordering on the supernatural than to a straightforward crime novel. And yet? I still adored it. I dunno. Maybe it's because they're French? No, wait, so is Gamache. I stand unrepentant. 

All the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda: Like the spellbinding psychological suspense in The Girl on the Train and Luckiest Girl Alive, Megan Miranda’s novel is a nail-biting, breathtaking story about the disappearances of two young women—a decade apart—told in reverse.
It’s been ten years since Nicolette Farrell left her rural hometown after her best friend, Corinne, disappeared from Cooley Ridge without a trace. Back again to tie up loose ends and care for her ailing father, Nic is soon plunged into a shocking drama that reawakens Corinne’s case and breaks open old wounds long since stitched.
The decade-old investigation focused on Nic, her brother Daniel, boyfriend Tyler, and Corinne’s boyfriend Jackson. Since then, only Nic has left Cooley Ridge. Daniel and his wife, Laura, are expecting a baby; Jackson works at the town bar; and Tyler is dating Annaleise Carter, Nic’s younger neighbor and the group’s alibi the night Corinne disappeared. Then, within days of Nic’s return, Annaleise goes missing.
Told backwards—Day 15 to Day 1—from the time Annaleise goes missing, Nic works to unravel the truth about her younger neighbor’s disappearance, revealing shocking truths about her friends, her family, and what really happened to Corinne that night ten years ago.
Like nothing you’ve ever read before, All the Missing Girls delivers in all the right ways. With twists and turns that lead down dark alleys and dead ends, you may think you’re walking a familiar path, but then Megan Miranda turns it all upside down and inside out and leaves us wondering just how far we would be willing to go to protect those we love.

Good characterization and interesting narrative technique, telling the story backwards. 

The Shut Eye by Belinda Bauer: Five footprints are the only sign that Daniel Buck was ever here.
And now they are all his mother has left.
Every day, Anna Buck guards the little prints in the cement. Polishing them to a shine. Keeping them safe. Spiralling towards insanity.
When a psychic offers hope, Anna grasps it. Who wouldn't? Maybe he can tell her what happened to her son...
But is this man what he claims to be? Is he a visionary? A shut eye? Or a cruel fake, preying on the vulnerable?
Or is he something far, far worse?

I had a total Baader-Meinhof experience with this title - I'd never been aware of the expression shut eye referring to fortune telling before, and right after I read this I came across a tv series with the same name on the same subject. Interestingly, this falls in line with the other books on this list where the mystery is twisted up with supernatural elements, even though this isn't the norm with Belinda Bauer's work. The reader has no clue until the very end whether we are in fact dealing with the supernatural or the psychological. I wouldn't say I love this quite as much as her Exmoor Trilogy, but I still really liked it.

Humber Boy B by Ruth Dugdall: A child is killed after falling from the Humber Bridge. Despite fleeing the scene, two young brothers are found guilty and sent to prison. Upon their release they are granted one privilege only, their anonymity. Probation officer Cate Austin is responsible for Humber Boy B’s reintegration into society. But the general public’s anger is steadily growing, and those around her are wondering if the secret of his identity is one he actually deserves to keep. Cate’s loyalty is challenged when she begins to discover the truth of the crime. She must ask herself if a child is capable of premeditated murder—or if there is a greater evil at play.

Really good illustration of the effects of crime on those left behind, and how those who commit crimes are so often not evil, but only caught up in circumstances beyond their control. The description of Humber Boy B's childhood is heartbreaking - the whole story is,  really. I jumped into this series in the middle, but I think I'll probably continue it. 


Nicole said…
I'm not generally a huge fan of mysteries, but I think I might look up Missing, Presumed because it looks good.
Anonymous said…
Re: Sayers: Miss Climpson?
StephLove said…
I read a Dorothy Sayers mystery a few years ago, thinking it was strange I never had, but it didn't do much for me.

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