Thursday, December 27, 2012

Year in Review: A Review of the New Books of 2012

A few weeks ago, I surprised myself with the thought that I had read quite a bit of new books this year. At the time, I quickly looked over the English ones and found that there were 15 of them, certainly a step up from last year, when I probably read less than five. Now that the time of lists is upon us, what better way to recap 2012 than by looking back at the new books I read in 2012? After all, you never know what might happen in retrospect. Some books get more and more memorable over time; others fade away from memory. You get to like some more than others once you’ve had some time to think it all over. Generally speaking, I found that most of my opinions were still along the same lines, but there were one or two surprises along the way.

So, what exactly constitutes a “new” book? For the purposes of this blog post, a new book is one that was published in 2012 and which I read in 2012. In addition, I decided to include translations, even if the original book was written years ago, as long as the English translation was published and read by me in 2012. I decided not to include novels that were brought back into print. And finally, I decided to include novels in other languages – which in this case boiled down to the two Paul Halter novels published in 2012. Well, there’s no time like the present, so let’s get started on a review of BOOKS PUBLISHED IN 2012 THAT I READ IN 2012.

A Fatal Winter by G M Malliet
Not a terrible book by any stretch, but Malliet has some atrocious luck when it comes to being read by me. I had just finished reading a novel by Belgian author S. A. Steeman, which used Malliet’s solution as just half of its solution. I was able to recognize this quite quickly and thus won the author-reader game very early on in the story. Although the mystery is decently constructed, it was almost ruined for me by a cheesy romantic element. I’m afraid I’m as immature as the child in The Princess Bride who suspiciously asks if grandfather Peter Falk is about to read him “a kissing book”. I don’t like romance. Well, I like it just fine in small doses, but I don’t like a romance to intermittently interrupt the mystery I’m reading, and then to spend an additional 40 minutes after the book’s story is over wrapping up that angle. But it’s okay, I suppose. I give it a grade of B-.

Archie Meets Nero Wolfe by Robert Goldsborough
This is a superb prequel to the Nero Wolfe saga, in which Wolfe and Archie Goodwin meet for the very first time. As a result, there are several touches that may seem odd to Wolfe fans: Archie’s narrative voice, for instance, slowly develops throughout the novel until we get to the voice we know and love at the end. There’s an absence of Archie/Wolfe banter, thanks to the fact that they have only just met and Archie is not yet working for Wolfe, but I thought that Goldsborough did a fine job capturing the essence of Nero Wolfe (and also Inspector Cramer!). What I most enjoyed about this book was spotting the references it makes to the official Corpus. For instance, references that Archie makes in Fer-de-Lance and The Second Confession are expanded upon in this book, and it’s a delight to spot these. It’s also a good story, but one that a fan of Nero Wolfe will enjoy far more readily than a casual reader. I give this a grade of B+.

Bloodstone by Paul Doherty
The return of Brother Athelstan after a brief hiatus, Bloodstone doesn’t disappoint. It contains a few impossible crimes and plenty of murders to keep your interest. I really liked the solution to the first impossible crime, and then there’s an impossible piece of arson with a terrific solution, rooted in history, which shows you just how you can get away with things in historical fiction that you could never do otherwise. The characterization is quite good. However, you could divide the solution into roughly two parts. One of them is excellent, the other is far more easily solved. Despite the relatively minor flaw, it’s a highly entertaining, fast-paced read, and I give it a grade of A-.

An excellent novel in the Peculiar Crimes Unit series, where Bryant and May are hired by their long-time nemesis to find out why his wife is behaving so strangely. In another case, a woman dies alone in a church in mysterious circumstances, a case that Bryant is refused access to. There seems to be a connection, but what could it be? Fowler picks up some loose plot threads from The Victoria Vanishes and The Memory of Blood and wraps them up neatly. Although the novel is long, it never sags, and there’s plenty of exciting stuff going on that makes it well worth the read. Also, a satisfying, if somewhat pedestrian, solution to an impossible crime. I give this a grade of A-.

City of Saints by Andrew Hunt
An excellent debut novel set in the Salt Lake City area – an unusual location for a detective story – where Deputy Art Oveson is confronted with the brutal murder of an attractive woman, wife of a prominent local doctor. The characters are memorable and the portrait of 1930s Salt Lake City is fascinating, with a huge divide between the Mormons and non-Mormons. Plenty of interesting stuff occurs, and there are some nice moments of characterization. Art’s partner Roscoe is plenty of fun, and the two form an “odd couple” of sorts. An exciting climax. Some small nitpicks here and there, but overall a very well-written, well-plotted, and satisfying mystery novel, especially when you factor in the book’s status as a debut work of fiction. I give it an A.

Cop to Corpse by Peter Lovesey
A terrific hunt for a sniper who is picking off police officers left and right. Lovesey is at his finest when describing thrilling scenes—when officers close in on the sniper, who time and time again outwits them and escapes by the one route they hadn’t thought of. The story is also “interrupted” by blog posts from a young woman, which slowly become more and more relevant to the plot. Although while reading the novel I had one major complaint that I kept spotting, Lovesey neatly turned the tables on me and it turned out that what I was noticing was actually a major clue to the ending. Well-written, thrilling, and satisfying—what more can you ask? This one gets an A.

Death on a Longship by Marsali Taylor
Another outstanding debut novel, this time a very traditional work of detective fiction complete with clues. A puzzle for the reader to solve, and a well-constructed puzzle. The solution is excellent and satisfying, and the author managed to lead me up the garden path, giving me ending Y when I was convinced I would be getting ending X. I’m ashamed of this failure in retrospect because I really should have known better. Comparisons could be made to Agatha Christie, but it would do a disservice to both Christie and Taylor. She has her own unique writing style, and even manages to incorporate a very fairly-assessed environmental angle into the novel, all without damaging the book as a detective story. Cat Marsala is also a delightful main character – I hope we’ll be seeing more! I give this one an A.

Disappeared by Anthony Quinn
An excellently-written novel, it suffers from some of the flaws of debut novels, for the excellent reason that it is a debut novel. Mainly, this has to do with the ending, as a random villain is introduced into the proceedings for no reason other than he’s British and that accent alone makes for a more intimidating villain. However, the quality of the writing is superb—some of the descriptions are just terrific, and there’s a haunting scene midway through involving a meeting with kidnappers. It’s an interesting plot, rooted in the infamous Irish Troubles, and the investigating police officer, Celcius Daly, is a likeable, hard-working sort in a world that seems dead-set against him. Quinn shows plenty of promise and I look forward to reading more. The book would have been a shoo-in for an A rating if not for those debut-related flaws, and as a debut novel it gets that score… but when you factor those flaws into the rating, I think B+ is more appropriate.

Hellbox by Bill Pronzini
A bit of a departure for Pronzini’s Nameless Detective series, abandoning the format of many of the most recent entries. We get only one storyline throughout the book, Jake Runyon joins us only mid-way through, and it’s more of a thriller than a mystery. Parallels are drawn to the brilliant Shackles (itself also a thriller), but the book doesn’t quite attain that height. But that’s mainly because Shackles is one of the all-time greatest crime novels. Hellbox is a solid, tense thriller and I enjoyed reading it very much. I give this one a grade of A-.

Hope Road by John Barlow
An e-book exclusive, Hope Road is the start of a new series and a bit of an oddity, in that it is written in the present tense. After I got used to the tense, I really got into the book. It’s very well-written and has plenty of plot twists, and for much of the book the main character is morally ambiguous. He claims to have left his family’s criminal past behind him, yet he enjoys his experience so much that doubts are slowly cast on this statement. Overall a terrific read – I give it an A-.

Lady, Go Die! by Mickey Spillane/Max Allan Collins
Readers know by now that I was less-than-kind to Spillane’s I, The Jury, but Lady, Go Die! has got me convinced that Spillane had some talent after all. This is a terrific novel, a really tough-as-nails story in which opens on Mike Hammer rescuing a man from a beating before doling out the same punishment on the aggressors. And then the corpse is discovered—a nude woman draped over the statue of a horse in a park. After the gruesome discovery, Mike Hammer goes on a quest to discover the truth, and the villains he faces are so nasty that his violence somehow feels justified. He enjoys violence a bit too much for me to entirely like him (even if the targets this time deserved every bit of it), but this novel isn’t some Mindless Macho Man yarn; it’s also a well-crafted detective story. Clues point to the truth all along, although I have no idea who planted them – Spillane or Collins – and it’s nice to see them, even if I solved the case more or less by instinct. The prose is very memorable, and by God, Mike Hammer can be tough! And honestly, it made for one helluva entertaining read. Much to my surprise, this was one of the most memorable “new” books I had the pleasure of reading in 2012. It gets an A+ from me.

Salvation of a Saint by Keigo Higashino
Quite possibly the best detective story of the bunch, Salvation of a Saint takes a simple poisoning scenario and creates a maddeningly complex impossible crime. Solution after solution is proposed, and each is debunked as impossible, to the point where I began wondering whether Keigo Higashino had written himself into a corner. But no, he got himself out of there beautifully, and although my initial reaction to the solution was sceptical, the author seemed to realise that the reader might react this way. The final few chapters of the novel play on this theme, and at the end of the day I bought Higashino’s solution. It’s maddeningly simple yet complex, and just plain elegant. But not only is this a well-crafted detective story, it’s an excellent novel with memorable characters who really come to life. And it tackles some very big moral questions, such as when one character is pressured to have an abortion yet she feels that she wants the child. It all weaves into a marvellous tapestry of crime. This one deserves an A+, hands down!

Spiral by Paul Halter
A bit of a mixed bag from Halter. A good young adult novel, with plenty of in-jokes for mystery fans, the impossible crime is a bit underwhelming. This is mainly because Halter proposes a solution that would require the victim to have the IQ of a Ritz cracker. So stupid would this solution be that I didn’t buy it for a second, and then instantly saw what the real solution was. This novel really needed a better fake solution, because it kind-of spoils the real solution to the impossible crime. Also, the male lead is a bit of a jackass. These are the two main flaws, and although the book is quite a good read, the flaws are rather serious this time around. Spiral gets a B-.




The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny
This one gets an F, for reasons I’ve covered enough times and which I refuse to go into once again. Read my review for more. Ahem. Carrying on now…

The Midnight Man by Paul Doherty
A terrific story. Doherty is one of the most imaginative authors ever, and that’s why I positively love the Canterbury Tales series. He just lets his imagination soar, and the resulting ghost story is a chilling one. The series assumes that the supernatural exists, and then constructs a very good mystery around it. Here, there’s a human cause for the supernatural activity in question, and it’s a very well-told tale. It also helps that the pilgrim telling this story is very difficult to identify among the characters, which in turn for a good part of the book makes it nearly impossible to guess whether one of these likeable characters will get killed. A solid entry in a terrific series by a master storyteller. I give it an A-.

The Riddle of Monte Verita by Jean-Paul Török
A terrific homage to the work of John Dickson Carr, John Pugmire’s translation does a fantastic job of capturing the book’s spirit of fun. There are plenty of references to impossible crime novels, both French and English, and so I advise anyone who hasn’t at least read Pierre Boileau’s Six crimes sans assassin (Six Crimes Without a Murderer) or John Dickson Carr’s The Burning Court to read those books before coming to this one. It’s a delightful intellectual game between author and reader, and the detective figure of this novel seems like he could be related to Sir Henry Merrivale. A delightful treat to read, I give this one an A- rating.

La Septième Hypothèse (The Seventh Hypothesis) by Paul Halter
All right, I’m kind-of cheating with the inclusion of this one, but I did read the translation in this case, so I think it’s fair game to include this one. This was undoubtedly the best Halter I read in 2012. It’s got a terrific plot that keeps twisting and turning, and Halter essentially gives you a case with only two suspects… but you still end up guessing incorrectly! It’s an ingenious story, and it was excellently translated by John Pugmire. I don’t want to say more for fear of spoilers, but I can give this much away: I give it a grade of A+.

The Seventh Woman by Frederique Molay
A solid thriller in which I couldn’t help but envisioning Steven Seagal as the main character, even though I don’t particularly like Seagal but liked the character in question. The identity of the seventh woman is almost laughably obvious, and there are other flaws that I covered in my review, but at the end of the day it made for a readable, entertaining, and diverting work of fiction. I liked it quite a bit, and also found that the author did a good job of conveying the horror of the situation. Overall, I give this one a solid B grade.

Target Lancer by Max Allan Collins
A terrific thriller that uses reality to construct its plot, and it’s done so well that I had a hard time figuring out where reality ended and where fiction began. It turns on a plot to assassinate JFK in Chicago a few weeks before the actual assassination in Dallas. Detective Nate Heller has some suspicions that it might be tied into some other suspicious deeds, including the murder of a friend. The character of Nate Heller works just as well in the 1960s as he does in the 1930s, and he’s such a likeable character that it’s fun to spend so much time with his narrative voice. This is a book well-worth reading, and I give it an A- grade.

Le Voyageur du Passé (The Traveller from the Past) by Paul Halter
A huge improvement over Spiral. The solution is centered on one farfetched idea, but swallow that and the rest of the solution is quite satisfying. I really liked the premise, which is centered on the idea of a man disappearing only to reappear 50 years later, having apparently time travelled, and yet a masquerade seems impossible for reasons covered in my review and in the novel. There’s also a solid impossible disappearance, but it is somewhat guessable. But there are so many unique scenarios, such as the time traveller’s disappearing face (yes, you read that correctly), and there’s a death in a locked shed and plenty of other impossibilities. Although not Halter’s finest, it stands solidly on its own. I’d give it a grade somewhere between a B+ and an A-, but I can’t quite settle on which one describes the book best.

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Well, that’s all for today! Thanks for joining me, and please join me next time when I post my top “discoveries” of 2012!

12 comments:

  1. I haven't read the new Mallet yet. I liked the first quite a bit, but the personal back story and the budding romance of the prime marriage material detective didn't interest me much. But then I realize I'm not the target audience for that sort of thing!

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    1. Neither am I, I suppose, but at least I can admit my immaturity and get back to the manly bits with Peter Falk. :)

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  2. I picked up Salvation Of A Saint after reading about the impossible crime scenario on the front flap - halfway through, I was sceptical. What with just 2 suspects(whodunit is never really a question here) and 330 pages to figure out the howdunit - I must agree that the solution though a little hard to accept is a pretty elegant one! When I do read the contemporary novels, my complaint is always about the unnecessary length it lasts and here I must give the author credit who not only made me accept the solution as quite ingenious but also left me with a feeling that the 330 pages were worth it!

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    1. I'm so glad you agree with me on this novel. I agree with your criticism of contemporary novels -- it's a bit of a miracle I avoided them almost entirely with the class of 2012 -- but I also agree with you that SAINT tries to do something more, plot-wise, and gets away with it. A neat coup, to be sure. I thought THE DEVOTION OF SUSPECT X, published last year, was very good but SAINT is far better.

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  3. I got the Goldsborough for Christmas and plan on starting it this weekend. Can't wait.

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    1. I hope you like it as much as I did-- the most fun was finding all the references!

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  4. I'm eagerly anticipating the arrival of my copy of Paul Halter's The Seventh Hypothesis, and I really have to get back on track with the Bryant and May series.

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    1. TomCat, you really missed out on a lot with THE MEMORY OF BLOOD. I think it's the best of the series, and THE INVISIBLE CODE is almost as good.

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  5. Fantastic list Patrick and I admire your sheer dedication and industry mate! I am definitely going to be reading some Paul Halter in 2013 so thanks again for the reminder of what I've been missing.

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    1. For all things Halter, I believe my tab on his work is one of the best sources of information in English, although John Pugmire's article is far better than I could ever hope to write. I hope you are just as happy with his work as I am!

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  6. Thanks for sparing us yet another rehash of your Louise Penny tirade in this post. Surprised by the A+ rating for the Spillane/Collins collaboration. Maybe reading is better than listening to Spillane. You listened to an auido verison of I, THE JURY didn't you? I nearly bought a copy of A FATAL WINTER when it first came out, but I am opting to read a library copy now.

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    1. John, I know you're a fan and I hope my recent tirades haven't alienated you too much. Until recently, I would have sided with you in defending Penny, but with two clunkers in a row I think it's best to set her aside for 2013 and read other stuff, have a good long rest before trying to come back again.

      Re: Spillane, I actually listened to an audiobook of LADY, GO DIE! and I think in this case it improved the experience somewhat. The audiobook reader for I, THE JURY did a solid job as well, but my problems were with the book itself-- unlike Bill Pronzini, I can't see it as an "alternative" classic in any way. Trust me, I'm just as surprised by the A+ rating, but it's one of the few books I read this year where, long after finishing it, I remember almost the entire plot, the characters, and the more I think back on it the better it seems. When it came to the rating, I hesitated. I knew it was going to get an A at the very least, but did it deserve that +? In the end, I decided that it did, although maybe reading it immediately after CITY OF GLASS had something to do with my fond memories of the book.

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