When I began assembling a list of the best books I read in 2012, I ran into a problem. What would be the limit on the number of titles? Last year, I listed 45 books in total, but I read plenty of good books this year (which will come as a shock to anyone who has only read my review of the worst books of 2012). I finally decided to do something a bit different this year – start with a hangman’s dozen of books – thirteen, in case you’re wondering – and then list “honourable mentions” of books that I felt were equally deserving to be among the hangman's dozen, the ones that I felt were among the best of 2012. (I couldn't come up with a catchy name for this award, but I have a feeling nobody will be putting it on their curriculum vitae.) If I really and truly felt that a book deserved a spot on the list, I placed it there, although for the initial hangman’s dozen I gave preference to any novel I haven’t recapped over the last few days.
Best Books Read in 2012
Mischief by Charlotte Armstrong
This one is really damn good. I thought The Dream Walker was a minor masterpiece, but Mischief made it look like kids’ stuff. This is a taut novel of suspense, as two parents leave their child in a hotel suite with a strange babysitter, who then begins to do increasingly dangerous things. Soon enough, a man is lured to the suite and thus begins a deadly game of cat-and-mouse, with one of the most thrilling climaxes I’ve ever read. Everything slowly builds up to it, as misunderstandings, delays, and bad timing all contribute to help load the dice squarely against the main characters. One of the best-written books I’ve read this year and one of the finest plots as well.
The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov
I thought this book was even better than the classic The Caves of Steel, where Asimov blended sci-fi with the traditional detective story, even creating an impossible crime. But he truly outdoes himself in this one, proposing an impossible crime that is even more complex and which is far harder to solve. In addition, we get to explore some more of the universe in which these stories are set, travelling to another planet and seeing what exactly has happened to the inhabitants of this distant world, who are (frighteningly) not all that different from us here on Earth in 2012. A terrific detective story, it also serves some interesting social commentary and plenty of sci-fi material to keep fans of both genres happy, striking a balance between the two genres instead of letting them battle it out.
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
Honestly, I can’t say more about this one than I already have. It’s an absolute classic, and Curt Evans of The Passing Tramp joined me for a series of ten articles describing each of the main characters of this novel. You can find plenty of my opinions throughout the articles, and I think we each did a pretty good job covering these characters. Briefly put, one of the finest murder stories ever written, and it only gets better and better each time I give it a re-read!
True Detective by Max Allan Collins
This is an extraordinary piece of fiction. It’s got to be one of the all-time great debuts in the mystery field. Max Allan Collins writes a terrific story based on real events—indeed, the cases that Nate Heller investigates are true crimes, so that he’s investigating real crimes while rubbing shoulders with historical figures. The book triumphs at constructing a complex plot out of these events while making Heller into a very sympathetic character, one whose backstory is genuinely interesting. Heller can be tough when he has to be, taking some pages out of the Phillip Marlowe and Mike Hammer playbooks, but he isn’t a knight in shining armour. Instead, he’s the best we can hope for in a corrupt world. Either way it’s a very well-done novel and one of my favourites from 2012. (Also, check out my review for a very nice comment left by Collins!)
The Castleford Conundrum by J. J. Connington
One of the best detective stories I read in 2012, this book was reissued by Coachwhip Publications in a highly attractive paperback. And investing in a copy is well worth your while; this is a complex mystery full of twist, turns, red herrings, and clues, and it is all tied together very well by Sir Clinton Driffield by the end. It contains some terrific characters, although most of them are rather nasty sorts, especially a brutish child who enjoys tormenting cats as a hobby. But Connington effortlessly sustains your interest and the clues are very, very neat.
Smallbone Deceased by Michael Gilbert
Another masterpiece of the genre, Smallbone Deceased is a fine detective story with a genuinely surprising twist ending that is also well-clued. Readers will have every chance to solve the crime before the solution is revealed in Chapter 16, and Gilbert sets two detectives to work, one representing the amateur squad and the other from the police. They slowly hammer out the solution between themselves, and their interactions form one of the book’s most delightful elements, as Gilbert muses on the clichés of poor detective stories. One of the most delightful, albeit small, touches is how characters always refer to the solution of a detective story as being revealed in Chapter 16 after [insert excuses for delays here]… and Chapter 16 is the point when all is revealed in this novel.
The Man Who Would Be F. Scott Fitzgerald by David Handler
David Handler genuinely took me aback this year with this Edgar-winning novel, now an e-book thanks to the Mysterious Press. It’s one of the genre’s small masterpieces, a book that quite simply tells a good story, but also populates it with memorable characters and manages to genuinely surprise you with the ending. It’s a terrific story about the cutthroat world of publishing, and the main characters of Hoagy and his dog Lulu are a very memorable team. And when the solution was unveiled, I couldn’t help but gasp, and read in amazement as Handler showed me how the clues were there all along—I was just too thick-headed to realize their importance.
Murder in Pastiche by Marion Mainwaring
One of the all-time great parodies, Murder in Pastiche is simply hilarious. Nine detectives are on a ship when a murder occurs, and they each take turns investigating the crime. Parodies of Hercule Poirot, Nero Wolfe, Mike Hammer, and others all make appearances, and all of these are terrific. Many of the parodies are simply spot-on, and Mainwaring even manages to capture the voice of Archie Goodwin when writing as Ernie Woodbin, assistant to Trajan Beare. But the most hilarious parody has got to be of Mike Hammer, here rendered as Spike Bludgeon, which is a scathing yet accurate parody of I, The Jury, and tremendous fun to read. This is an affectionate homage and excellent parody; in short, it’s a must-read for fans of the genre.
Les Passe-temps de Sherlock Holmes (The Pastimes of Sherlock Holmes) by René Reouven
Hands-down one of the all-time best Sherlock Holmes pastiches I ever read. The book includes three adventures, and its masterpiece has simply got to be the second adventure, revolving around the mysterious death of Cardinal Tosca. A notorious anti-Semite, the Cardinal’s corpse was discovered in a Jewish library… with a locked door separating the corpse from the rest of the world, and a look of terror on the dead man’s face. It’s one of the most interesting impossible crime stories I’ve ever come across, with a solution that could only work in these specific circumstances. The other two stories are also excellent, but you can read my review again (assuming anyone read it the first time) for a full recap of those.
Death in Harley Street by John Rhode
Surely one of the most ingenious solutions of all-time. Although I can’t agree with Barzun and Taylor, who call it Rhode’s finest, I give Rhode full marks for the ingenious plot, which describes how a man can die an unnatural death, and yet not have it brought about by either accident, suicide, or murder. It’s one of my favourites. That being said, it’s not a book for everyone. You have to be willing to trudge through some relatively tedious conversations, and nothing really exciting happens until the climax, which isn’t some climactic gun showdown but an intellectual climax where Dr. Priestley reveals the truth. Me, I can take my share of tedium – after all, I am studying science – but it really paid off in the end, so that in the end, I was more than willing to forgive the book’s shortcomings as a story and to celebrate its ingenuity as a detective story.
L’Assassin habite au 21 (The Murderer Lives at No. 21) by S. A. Steeman
Hands-down the best detective story I read in 2012. It’s a brilliant story about a serial killer striking in London, signing off on his crimes by literally leaving his calling card. He calls himself Mr. Smith, and after one of his crimes he is followed home, where it is discovered that the murderer lives at number 21, Russell Square! Here’s the catch: no. 21 Russell Square is a guest house, and we have no way of knowing which of the guests is responsible… until Mr. Smith kills a fellow guest and contacts the police, challenging them to figure out who he is. With such a good setup, you might think Steeman would fail to follow through, but no, he succeeds brilliantly, delivering one of the most tense finales I’ve ever witnessed before unmasking Mr. Smith in one of the most unforgettable moments of detective fiction. An all-time classic that deserves to be translated into English.
The Death of Laurence Vining by Alan Thomas
Another ingenious impossible crime novel, this one taking place on an elevator when the eccentric amateur detective Laurence Vining walks into an elevator alone and comes out of it dead, stabbed, and no murderer in sight. Although you’d think this situation should be played for laughs, it’s played dead serious. I felt this was the one serious misstep; it’s a major missed opportunity for poking light-hearted fun at the genre. But that doesn’t take anything away from the story’s ingenuity as an impossible crime – indeed, the author even explains all the alternative plans should something have gone wrong, and that’s also part of the solution’s beauty. Overall a terrific read and a classic in the impossible crime subgenre.
God Save the Mark by Donald E. Westlake
A fantastic story that deservedly won the Edgar Award for best novel. This is a mad comic caper, plenty of fun to keep track of, but at the same time it manages to weave a mystery into the plot, complete with good clues and an unexpected, ingenious solution. If the Dortmunder novels were “fair play” mysteries, the result might not be entirely unlike God Save the Mark. Highly recommended for mystery fans, as well as anyone with a sense of humour.
Special Mention: Shane by Jack Schaefer
Not a mystery, but a Western… but still one of the best novels I’ve ever read, period. You can look forward to more Westerns popping up at intervals in 2013.
Flowers for the Judge by Margery Allingham
The Case of the Weird Sisters by Charlotte Armstrong
The Dream Walker by Charlotte Armstrong
Six crimes sans assassin (Six Crimes Without a Murderer) by Pierre Boileau
Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie
Lady, Go Die! by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins
The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
All the Lonely People by Martin Edwards
The John Riddell Murder Case by Corey Ford
Bryant and May and the Invisible Code by Christopher Fowler
Bryant and May and the Memory of Blood by Christopher Fowler
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
La Balle de Nausicaa (Nausicaa’s Ball) by Paul Halter
La Septième Hypothèse (The Seventh Hypothesis) by Paul Halter
The Woman Who Fell From Grace by David Handler
Salvation of a Saint by Keigo Higashino
Le Onzième Petit Nègre (The Eleventh Little Indian) by Jacquemard-Sénécal
Friday the Rabbi Slept Late by Harry Kemelman
The False Inspector Dew by Peter Lovesey
Beast in View by Margaret Millar
Fire Will Freeze by Margaret Millar
The Rising of the Moon by Gladys Mitchell
The Hound of the D’Urbervilles by Kim Newman
Cat of Many Tails by Ellery Queen
The Hunter by Richard Stark
The Outfit by Richard Stark
The Mourner by Richard Stark
And Be A Villain by Rex Stout
The Riddle of Monte Verita by Jean-Paul Török
The Duke of York’s Steps by Henry Wade
The Hot Rock by Donald E. Westlake
Bank Shot by Donald E. Westlake
Jimmy the Kid by Donald E. Westlake
And an honorary award goes to Curt Evans for Masters of the “Humdrum” Mystery, a terrific work of non-fiction that examines John Rhode, Freeman Wills Crofts, and J. J. Connington and their roles in the Golden Age of mysteries. It’s a terrific read and if you haven’t read it yet, by all means do. If I could, I would give it the Edgar right now. This is a book that should help change the way the Golden Age is examined by academia—change for the better.