Friday, December 28, 2012

Year in Review: Top 10 Discoveries of 2012

2012 was another year full of great discoveries for me. I’ve “met” new authors via their books, and some of them are now among my very favourites. When I find a new author that I really like, I feel the thrill of discovery anew, and it’s one of the most delightful feelings in the world. It helps to fuel my fascination with the genre. Some of the authors below were, sadly, neglected by me despite my discovery of them, and I can only profusely apologise. I’ll try to balance the books better in 2013.

I’m sure you’re all on the edge of your seats, waiting for me to unveil the list, so without further ado, let’s get to the Top 10 Discoveries of 2012.

Charlotte Armstrong
Wow! What a talent! What a superb writer! Charlotte Armstrong could do it all. She could plot right up there with the masters, and her climaxes are packed to the brim with tension. She can create atmosphere at the drop of a hat. She can create memorable characters, such as the three “weird sisters” or the mischievous babysitter Nell Munro. And every page makes for compulsive reading—you want to get to the end ASAP and find out just what happens, and the tension is slowly ratcheted up more and more until finally all hell breaks loose. I thought The Case of the Weird Sisters was pretty good. I thought The Dream Walker was a masterpiece. Mischief completely blew me away. If you’ve never read an Armstrong novel, have no fear—The Mysterious Press is your friend, having reissued several of her novels in e-book form. What time could be better than the present for catching up on your Armstrong?

Max Allan Collins
I already had a great deal of respect for Max Allan Collins, one of the few writers who knows his stuff about mysteries and their storied past. But when I read True Detective for myself, I was taken aback. Collins created one of the most memorable PIs I’ve ever come across, and I happily spent 400 pages with the guy, as he talked to me about growing up, becoming a police officer on the corrupt Chicago force, and how his father took this career choice so roughly that he took his own life. And then he went out onto the streets of 1930s Chicago and solved a few mysteries, based on true events, such as the botched assassination of FDR. And the ending was simply marvellous – I can’t say more without spoiling things. As if that wasn’t enough, the guy turns around and gets me to re-evaluate my tough stance on Mickey Spillane with Lady, Go Die!, which much to my surprise was one of the most memorable and entertaining novels I read in 2012. You can bet that Collins’ books will be making regular appearances on this blog come 2013.

Martin Edwards
Can I count Martin Edwards as a “discovery”? After all, I was familiar with his excellent blog before now. But when The Puzzle Doctor favourably reviewed All the Lonely People, I became much more interested in Edwards the author. So I read All the Lonely People for myself, and I too absolutely loved it! Not only was it a well-constructed mystery, it was a terrific story with a hugely likeable protagonist trying to discover the truth about his wife’s murder. I then moved on to a reconstruction of the Crippen case, Dancing for the Hangman, which I thought was very good and certainly made for a fascinating read. And then, for some reason, I stopped and haven’t come back yet. Something must be done at once! Hurry, to the Kindle store at once! [60s Batman transition]

Michael Gilbert
I’ve only read one Gilbert novel, but I’m already a convert. Smallbone Deceased has got to be one of the all-time great detective stories, with just the right balance of detection, characterisation, and humour. Gilbert shows plenty of wit and damn it all, it’s just such fun to read! I’ve already bought several Gilberts, but haven’t gotten around to reading them yet. Happily, he is somewhat available in the Kindle store.

Joe Gores
Spade and Archer was a prequel to The Maltese Falcon, and I don’t know what exactly it was about the novel but I really loved it. Gores didn’t fool me into thinking this was a lost Hammett novel, but he did propose an interesting theory as to how Sam Spade became the Sam Spade we meet in Hammett’s classic novel. It’s a terrific story, more of a complex plot web than anything else, and everything is explained nicely by the end, although the third act contains a lot more exposition than the rest of the book. Gores interests me very much, which is why I bought a Crippen & Landru collection of his stories, and look forward to reading them very much indeed!

David Handler
I was asked to review The Man Who Would Be F. Scott Fitzgerald, and I liked it so much that I went out and bought a few more entries in the series. Then, when Cyber Monday came upon us, I descended upon the Kindle store like a ton of bricks, greedily snapping up the rest of the series. David Handler gets it, to put it simply. If you’re a mystery fan like myself, you’ll probably grasp what I’m trying to say by that, but let me try again: Handler captures that special something that many contemporary mystery authors seem to have lost in their Quest To Be Taken Seriously As Real Novelists. He writes an excellent mystery full of humour and then manages to fool you while planting the clues in plain sight. IMO, Handler is one of the few contemporary authors who have that skill, and although I try to avoid them, the best comparison I can think of is with the late, great William DeAndrea. Handler can be just as good.

Reginald Hill
With a delightful title like Killing the Lawyers, how could anyone go wrong, let alone Reginald Hill? I read that one book and absolutely loved it, but for some odd reason I haven’t been back for more yet. I don’t know why – I have some more Reginald Hills on my shelf, and I really liked the ending of Killing the Lawyers, which was every bit as tricky as a Golden Age detective novel. The main character, Joe Sixsmith, was an absolute blast. I guess I’ll have to make it up to Hill in 2013.

Harry Kemelman
Rabbi David Small was introduced to the world in Friday the Rabbi Slept Late, a book that won the Edgar Award. And what an accomplishment it was! Kemelman managed to construct a terrific mystery, giving you all the clues yet surprising you with his revelation. Rabbi Small is one of the best clerical detectives I’ve ever come across, and Kemelman takes the time to talk to readers about Judaism and its traditions through this characters, some of the book’s best scenes. Rabbi Small forges a friendship with the Catholic chief of police despite being suspected of murder, a crime of which he must clear his name. And he also must struggle with the politics of his parish, as some people welcome the new Rabbi and others can’t wait to see him walk out the door. The second novel in the series is not quite as good, but makes for just as good a read, and I think the book’s first act was every bit as good as the first novel. Either way, Rabbi Small is a terrific detective and I can’t wait to read more!

Stanislas-André Steeman
All it took was one novel for me to fall in love with the work of Steeman. Granted, that novel was L’Assassin habite au 21 (The Murderer Lives at No. 21)—one of the all-time great masterpieces of detective fiction and the best detective story I read in 2012. It’s got everything a mystery fan could possibly want, complete with a sense of humour, and got me to search for more Steeman books. I now have four omnibuses of his work, including two of the hardest-volumes-to-find. That gives me plenty of reading material for 2013, and you can look forward to my Steeman tab filling up with new reviews in the future!

Donald E. Westlake
And here at last we find the culprit, the man that I will blame for keeping me from so many other authors! But why should I do such a judgmental thing? Let me try to explain. Something about Donald E. Westlake’s work is simply addictive. Maybe it’s because he wrote so much and it was of such high quality. He can just as easily write a tough noir novel – see The Hunter – as a spoof the same – see Jimmy the Kid. He can construct a terrific fair-play mystery – see God Save the Mark. His comic crime capers are uproariously funny – see The Hot Rock. His dark capers are every bit as dark as their comic counterparts are funny – see The Mourner. He can write action – see The Outfit. He can even find the time try his hand at a novel with no crime in it – see Memory. Donald E. Westlake was a genius, and I can only kick myself for not coming to his work sooner. Mystery or thriller, noir or not, he could tell a damn good story, and that is an achievement to which I can only tip my hat in admiration.


Well, folks, thanks for joining me once again, and I hope we can meet again tomorrow, same time, same place, for the final list(s) of the year. That’s right, it’s the Best Novels of 2012, although I’m telling you right now that I refuse to place them in any numerical order according to their worth.


  1. I'll have to reread Smallbone Deceased someday. Wish I didn't remember the identity of the culprit....