Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Year in Review... Best Books Read in 2011

Not to worry-- it's just a flesh wound.
It has been an interesting year for me. At the Scene of the Crime was not officially opened until March 26th, but my blogging journey began on March 8th. I had read a book I still consider awful in every respect: George Baxt’s The Affair at Royalties. It left me incensed and I finally decided to script and write an internet video based on a rant I wrote about the book. It was flawed in nearly every way: after a promising opening, all signs of imagination were banished from the book as George Baxt engaged in “hilarious” satire about Agatha Christie that missed the entire point. I didn’t even bother stopping before the dénouement, I just ploughed through it and pointed out just how ridiculous the ending was.

I now look back at that video with horror— it seems to me nothing more than a collection of shouts instead of a thought-out review. Nevertheless, instead of getting bashed myself, I got fairly positive reception for my video. I followed it up with two articles and then decided to open up a site on Blogger. I went with a purple colour scheme that, in retrospect, must have been absolutely hideous. I later redesigned the blog entirely, giving it a background pulled from various crime scene maps to fit in with the title. And the older the blog got, the more experienced I became.

Throughout 2011, I’ve read many books but now that the year is drawing to a close, I feel it is time to look back through the year and count down the Top 10 mystery novels I’ve read this year. This list was incredibly hard to compile and I was forced to omit many titles that I’ve given an honourable mention. But at the end of the day, these ten novels were left standing as the best of the best that I’ve read in 2011. They are in alphabetical order:

10. The Case with Nine Solutions by J. J. Connington
“J. J. Connington” was the pseudonym of Alfred Walter Stewart, a chemistry professor who doubled as a mystery writer. The Case with Nine Solutions is a fine mystery novel, where the only let-down is the title, since the “nine solutions” are all the possible combinations in this mystery when you consider that every unnatural death must be the result of accident, suicide, or murder. It contains great insights into chemistry that are clearly explained, and the detective, Sir Clinton Driffield, does a spectacular job deducing the truth. In my review, I focused on just how unfair stereotypes about Golden Age fiction are, as exemplified through a supposed-Humdrum like Connington. All things considered, it’s a fine book.

9. Le Diable de Dartmoor (The Demon of Dartmoor) by Paul Halter
This just might be my favourite Paul Halter novel to date, and it will be the next one translated into English. In it, Halter manages to explain how an invisible man can murder people when up-and-coming actor Nigel Manson is pushed out of a window at his home in Dartmoor, Trerice Manor. The characters are more convincing than usual (Halter’s major weakness is characterisation) and the atmosphere is superb. Halter wrote this book after visiting England himself, and you can tell: it feels authentic through-and-through, and the various Dartmoor legends incorporated into the story are fascinating. Dr. Alan Twist and Inspector Archibald Hurst are at the top of their game.

8. Heir Presumptive by Henry Wade
I called this the best inverted murder mystery I’d ever read, and I stick to it. This is a fascinating tale of how Eustace Hendel, a greedy man who “lives by his wits”, turns to murder. There are many parallels to Macbeth: the murderer is prodded into his crimes by his lover, a young woman with no scruples whatsoever. The first victim, Captain David Hendel, is rather unpleasant, but through subtle touches, we see that the unpleasant portrait may be largely a fictionalisation invented by the killer to excuse his crimes. The stag hunt scenes alone are worth the cost of the book, and even though I saw the final twist coming, it still managed to feel like a jaw-dropping moment.

7. How Like an Angel by Margaret Millar
This novel is practically perfect. It is filled with characters I still have not forgotten, such as Brother Tongue, Brother Crown of Thorns, and Sister Blessing, and of course the detective Joe Quinn. It takes an in-depth look at what is essentially a religious cult without ridiculing them like many Golden Age novels do (at least in my reading experience). Quinn is a cynical private eye in the tradition of Phillip Marlowe, and although this book was written in the third person, it cries out for some first person narration. Although I guessed the ending, the book as a whole is truly extraordinary.

6. La Quatrième Porte (The Fourth Door) by Paul Halter
Nobody just sits down and plots anymore, right? Wrong! In Paul Halter’s first published novel, he demonstrates a brilliant ability to effortlessly juggle plot threads, explaining multiple impossibilities covering everything from bilocation to reincarnation. It’s an extraordinary read and quite a short one as well— and it comes up with a great way to introduce Dr. Alan Twist into the proceedings. “That’s not fair! Why have you included two Halter novels in this list?” some of you might ask. Well… read the book and you’ll understand why I decided it was worth having two of them on here.

I’m a fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s How Watson Learned the Trick. In it, Watson uses Holmes’ methods to deduce several things about Holmes. Holmes is delighted, but reveals to Watson that while his logic was perfect, it relied on several half-facts and as a result, his conclusions were completely wrong. That same kind of bizarre-yet-perfectly-sensible logic runs through the Schlock Homes tales of Robert L. Fish. It is one of those rare short story collections that is entirely without flaws. Every story is a pure delight for the Holmes fan, and you feel that the streets of London are so much the better with Schlock Homes and Dr. Watney patrolling them.

4. Shackles by Bill Pronzini
Bill Pronzini is an extraordinary author, and Shackles is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It covers complex themes as Pronzini’s hero, The Nameless Detective, is kidnapped, isolated from the world, and left to slowly die. The first half of the book is like one long interior monologue as Nameless finds a way to escape an apparently-perfect prison, and in the second half, he goes after his killer with the intent of murdering him. It’s not a straight mystery, but more of a thriller… and it is one hell of a book. And despite the ordeals he’s put through, Nameless remains the same character. He learns a lot through the course of the book about himself, but he always remains the hero I’ve gotten to love.

3. The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada
I’m just going to cut to the chase here— this has one of the finest red herrings of all-time. How could I not include it? While the graphic nature of the murders is disturbing, the book feels very much like a Golden Age mystery, with all the clues being given to the reader. It’s fascinating to see these elements work very well in a contemporary setting, and it proves once again that Julian Symons was wrong when he deemed the Golden Age mystery incompatible with a post-WWII world.

2. Tobie or not Tobie by René Reouven
Wit and inside jokes abound as Reouven rewrites the book of Tobit as a mystery. He even manages to center it around a fine impossible crime! It’s deliberately anachronistic in many details and has a penchant for making references to William Shakepespeare (particularly evident in the title, one of the best bilingual puns I’ve ever heard and one of my favourite titles ever). It’s a delightful read and on the strength of it alone I’m willing to call Reouven a genius. Unfortunately, he has never been translated into English…

1. Whistle up the Devil by Derek Smith
Whistle up the Devil is a masterpiece of plotting, and although its detective is very bland and forgettable, the rest of the story is not. It’s one of the best impossible crime stories ever written, with very good tricks and false solutions that are deliberately silly. Written in homage to stories by John Dickson Carr and Clayton Rawson, Derek Smith never sent it to either author, and the book was never given the chance at success it deserved, falling to obscurity. It doesn’t help that his publisher had a gimmick to ensure they got book club editions at next-to-no-cost. It’s a genuine shame— it’s worth reading for the virtuosity of its plot construction and it’s a highly enjoyable book. My review focused a lot on Derek Smith (especially in the second part), where I attempted to dig up some information about this long-neglected author.

And so those are, for me, the Top 10 books I’ve read in 2011. This list is incredibly short and so I could not possibly fit in all the books that I would have liked to. It particularly pained me to have nothing representing my favourite author, John Dickson Carr, on the list. However, here is a far more general list of “honourable mentions” that failed to make the cut. There’s 35 of them (because of course nobody else will come up with that number…) and they are arranged by alphabetical order of the author. All of these are most enjoyable.

The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov
Jumping Jenny by Anthony Berkeley
Death of Jezebel by Christianna Brand
The Bride of Newgate by John Dickson Carr
Fear is the Same by John Dickson Carr (note: I read this before the blog began)
The Nine Wrong Answers by John Dickson Carr
Love Lies Bleeding by Edmund Crispin
The Hog Murders by William DeAndrea
Killed on the Rocks by William DeAndrea
An Ancient Evil by Paul Doherty
Ghostly Murders by Paul Doherty
The Eye of Osiris by R. Austin Freeman
The Singing Bone by R. Austin Freeman
Too Many Ghosts by Paul Gallico
Le Tigre borgne (The One-Eyed Tiger) by Paul Halter
The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino
Holmes on the Range by Steve Hockensmith
Bloodhounds by Peter Lovesey
The Galton Case by Ross Macdonald
The Zebra-Striped Hearse by Ross Macdonald
Through a Glass, Darkly by Helen McCloy
The Seven-Per-Cent Solution by Nicholas Meyer
Death at the Opera by Gladys Mitchell
Strip for Murder by Richard S. Prather
Hoodwink by Bill Pronzini
Scattershot by Bill Pronzini
The Corpse in the Car by John Rhode
Home Sweet Homicide by Craig Rice
The Anagram Detectives by Norma Schier
The Silent Speaker by Rex Stout
No Friendly Drop by Henry Wade

Thank you very much to everyone who has visited this blog throughout 2011. Although I’m going to be away on vacation, I’ve prepared a series of articles that will be published during my absence. Please join me tomorrow for one final exorcism of the worst 2011 had to offer.

4 comments:

  1. The funny thing about your best-of list, is that it consists of the best works of a lot of the writers on there – which truly makes it a best-of list. You have a challenge ahead of you, my friend, to top these past twelve months in the year ahead of us.

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  2. Congrats on an excellent year, Patrick. You've given me loads of food for thought, both with your own reviews and your comments on mine. Looking forward to 2012!

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  3. I've read all but a couple of these.. Now you've made me want to go read those last few.. Enjoy the New Year Patrick!

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  4. You've done a great job on your posts, Patrick. My favorite posts of yours this year were the English translation of the Paul Halter interview and the info on Derek Smith. Things that cannot be found anywhere in the interweb. You've defintely made your mark!

    I have Henry Wade on my TBR list next year. And I'm going to read THE FOURTH DOOR on my New Year's break. TOKYO ZODIAC MURDERS is genius. All locked room/impossible crime fans need to read that book. Used to be very hard to find and was offered at outrageous prices by used book sellers. I had to resort to reading a library copy and have always wanted to own my own copy. Then this past year I finally found a copy incredibly cheap at a local used bookstore. A highlight in the many "book scores" of 2011.

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