Sunday, December 30, 2012

Year in Review: Best Books Read in 2012

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.

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?

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-.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Year in Review: Worst Reading Moments of 2012

Last year, when I posted my Worst Reading Moments of 2011 list, I was criticised for including good books that were ruined by, say, spoiling the solution on the cover or terrible editing, with people pointing out that that was no reason for condemning the book or author in question. I absolutely agree, and that was why I made a list of the worst reading moments. This year, I am doing the same. Not all of these books are terrible (though most of them just aren’t good), but this is a list of my own personal worst reading moments. I decided to start with this list because it will purge some poison from my system, and then I can go on to talk about the stuff I actually liked. So without further ado, below are the worst reading moments of 2012 in order of severity:

11. How to Cynically Rake in Money… or, Ask a Policeman by The Detection Club
As much as I like this book, it was nearly ruined for me by HarperCollins. This is the most cynically produced Kindle book I think I’ve read this year. The editing is absolutely atrocious and just plain lazy—the worst being how the calibre of a bullet is consistently printed as ?22 instead of .22!!! But what really gets my blood boiling is how, even though she contributed nothing to the book, Agatha Christie gets top billing because an essay of hers with no connection to the book is used as an introduction!!! As much as I recommend Ask a Policeman, I also advise staying away from the HarperCollins edition.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Chamber of Horrors

Hellbox is the newest novel in the Nameless Detective series of mysteries written by Bill Pronzini. It was published earlier in 2012 but I’ve only just gotten around to reading it. And the book is a bit of a departure for the series, largely doing away with the format of the more recent novels. For starters, this is more of a thriller than a mystery. Not only that, instead of getting two or three cases/storylines, we got only one and we focus on this one, which means that the focus is largely on Pronzini’s Nameless Detective and his wife Kerry. Jake Runyon joins the storyline about halfway through and Tamara makes what amounts to a cameo appearance. In addition, the novel makes many references to a previous entry in the series, Shackles, with which it bears some similarities.

Nameless and Kerry are in the Sierra foothills looking for a second home, and they absolutely love Green Valley, the area in which they have found an excellent potential home. It seems like a perfect vacation… that is, until Kerry disappears. She has been abducted by the psychotic Pete Balfour, a man with a grudge against the entire world. He finally decided to give into his psychotic tendencies and rigged a man’s house to blow up “accidentally”, when Kerry stumbled over him. As a result, she gets kidnapped and imprisoned by Balfour, who then decides he might as well extend his revenge to all of Green Valley…

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Amazing Adventures of Shell Scott

The opening to Take a Murder, Darling is one of the most memorable ones I’ve encountered this year. Shell Scott has already been on the case for a while, but he opens on a glimpse of the action yet to come. First he describes an alluring woman… which turns out to be merely the statue of an alluring woman. And then comes the description of the corpse:

He was dead, all right. He had been shot, poisoned, stabbed, and strangled. Either somebody had really had it in for him or four people had killed him. Or else it was the cleverest suicide I’d ever heard of.

Sounds like just the kind of crazy case Shell Scott would get himself involved in! And so we find out how Shell Scott got to be standing by a deader-than-dead corpse: the whole thing started when Shell was hired to take care of a few jobs for Mamzel’s. Mamzel’s is starting to turn into quite the large chain—it’s something like a women’s physical fitness centre, but the object of the program is basically to make women’s bodies perfect through exercises and other such things. So poor old Shell must suffer the sight of hundreds of women bouncing around in minimal clothing, getting their bodies into shape.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Why Couldn't They Make it Better?

Although the excitement I had initially felt upon viewing the trailer was gone, I was simply too interested to not see Hitchcock, a new movie starring Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren as legendary director Alfred Hitchcock and his wife Alma Reville. I had major fears about this film, having read the book on which it is supposedly based, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho by Stephen Rebello. Yes, you read that right. Supposedly based. Because I did not see a film equivalent of Rebello’s book. What I saw was speculative fiction that didn’t even have the guts to be entertaining enough to justify my $10.

But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. What I just wrote is unkind and unfair to the movie, and I could give it a humiliating review, but what good will that do? It’ll make me seem like an immature loser, and I’m sure Anthony Hopkins won’t lose any sleep over it. The above sums up my overall opinion for those of you who have never read Robert Bloch’s Psycho or who have never seen the Hitchcock film. If you are one of those people, I have two things to say to you:

(1) Shame on you! Go watch it now!
(2) Turn away now, because the rest of this review will assume you are familiar with the story. It’s too good for me to spoil it to anyone unfamiliar with it.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Great News for DeAndrea Fans!

One of my all-time favourite authors is William DeAndrea. That’s hardly a secret – the man combined a perfect amount of tricky plotting with characterization and style, and consistently turned out high-quality stuff until his all-too premature death in 1996. I’ve enjoyed reading his stuff so much that I’ve even created a page dedicated to his work, to keep track of all my reviews. Imagine my delight, then, when I found out that The Mysterious Press was planning to reissue DeAndrea’s stuff as e-books! This release will introduce DeAndrea to a wide audience of readers. Among the releases are all three of his Niccolo Benedetti novels – including the Edgar-winning The Hog Murders – and the short-lived Lobo Blacke/Quinn Booker series – which read like Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin in the Wild West. But there’s another series character who will be making his way to the e-reader screen for the first time, and that is Matt Cobb.

Cobb was introduced to readers in DeAndrea’s Edgar-winning debut novel, Killed in the Ratings. (He won a grand total of three Edgar Awards—the third for his excellent non-fiction work Encyclopedia Mysteriosa). Cobb works at a media conglomerate known as The Network – a telecommunications giant like ABC or CNN back in the days when television was king and didn’t have to worry about the Internet. He is Vice-President of Special Projects, a job that basically entails his making sure that The Network stays out of trouble. But in some cases where trouble already has occurred, it’s up to Cobb to initiate Damage Control mode.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Western Thought

I like Westerns.

I don’t know anything about the genre, but I like it. Something about it really appeals to me. I consider John Wayne to be the ultimate model of manliness. If one of his movies is on TV, I’ll watch it. I count The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Magnificent Seven among my favourite films. I’ve read at least one book by Zane Grey, Karl May, and Louis L’Amour. You have now exhausted all my knowledge about Western history.

But that’s hardly an excuse, is it? I’ve taken many professionals to task for their ignorance about detective fiction history, but I’m not much different when it comes to Westerns. When they come up in conversation, I’m forced to admit that I like them before staring at my feet and shuffling around awkwardly for the rest of the conversation. I simply know nothing about ‘em. And so I’ve decided to rectify that mistake. Every once in a while I will read and review a Western purely for the pleasure of reading and reviewing one. I won’t expect a mystery and won’t review it with the same criteria I use for mysteries. (All those opposed may use the provided space-time continuum to skip ahead to my next review.) And so without further ado, I give you Shane by Jack Schaefer.

Friday, December 14, 2012


On a night in August of 1938, police constable Edward Watkins is walking his beat when he comes across some strange sights. It seems that somebody is walking around the streets of London in the garb of a seventeenth-century plague doctor. Soon afterwards, Watkins has a conversation with an odd character calling himself Doctor Marcus, a doctor of crime. Suspicious, the officer is convinced that the doctor has hidden a body inside a nearby trash can—a suspicion that Doctor Marcus confirms! Watkins looks into them and finds they are all empty, much to Marcus’ apparent surprise. So the mad doctor skips off, but as a parting shot he tells the officer to look into the trash cans once again just in case. When Watkins does this, he discovers to his horror that there’s a dead body inside after all.

But how did it get there? And where did Doctor Marcus disappear to? All this seems like it is nonsense, but a few months later, Dr. Alan Twist and Inspector Archibald Hurst are visited by a man named Peter Moore, secretary to Sir Gordon Miller, a prolific author of mystery plays. According to Moore, Sir Gordon received a visitor in his study and the two men had a verbal duel of sorts, which ended in a murder challenge. The two men toss a coin, and the result will determine which man will commit a murder. That man must try and pin the blame on the other, and under no circumstances are the two players allowed to refer to the “game”. Unfortunately, Moore could not see what the coin landed on...

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Rock and Roll

Bubba Mabry is a Mississippi-born private eye working in Albuquerque, just trying to scrape together a living and trying to avoid the family penchant for infamy. His mother, for instance, became famous as “the Jesus Lady in Nazareth, Mississippi”.  You see, in 1967, Eloise Cutwaller Mabry claimed that Jesus Christ himself would visit her kitchen… only it eventually turned out that Jesus was a crazy hippie living in the woods, although he answered only to the name of Jesus Christ and was confused about which Nazareth he found himself in.

With that kind of reputation running in the family, it’s understandable why Bubba would hesitate about relating this adventure to readers. You see, he was hired by a fat man named Buddy to act as a security guard for a famous celebrity, who is apparently being harassed by a fan. “Mr. Aaron” cherishes his privacy, Buddy tells him, and the pay will be excellent: $30 an hour. So Bubba gladly waltzes off to meet this Mr. Aaron… but he does a double-take when he finds out that Mr. Aaron is none other than Elvis Presley!

Thursday, December 06, 2012

It Feels So Good to Be Bad!

Anyone who reads my blog regularly has, by now, noticed two things about me. First off, I’m positively insane. Second, whenever I get introduced to a new author and am very impressed with the book in question, I tend to go on a reading binge. I did this earlier in 2012 with Donald E. Westlake, devouring Dortmunder and Parker novels as though they were potato chips until I realized that I would soon run out of my supplies if I kept at it. But I just can’t learn my lesson, and I’m at serious risk of doing it again with the work of Charlotte Armstrong. The symptoms are all there, and I just got finished reading Armstrong’s novel Mischief.

In Mischief, Mr. and Mrs. Peter O. Jones are on their way to an important social function, where Mr. Jones is due to deliver a speech. They have to leave their daughter Bunny behind, and they planned to leave her at the hotel with Mr. Jones’ sister. But at the last moment, she cancels on them, and they’re forced to scramble around to find a replacement. Fortunately, an elevator operator named Eddie Munro hears of their plight and volunteers the services of his niece, Nell Munro. The Joneses are only too happy to accept Eddie’s offer, but something feels odd the instant Nell steps into room 807…

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

A Second Read

Long-time readers may recall that about a year ago, I sat down here and wrote a review of P. D. James’ An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. That was quite possibly the most difficult review I’ve ever written in my blogging tenure. I realized at the time that I was probably being very unfair to the book, which was ruined by an inept audiobook recording that cast Cordelia Gray as a mystery-solving Care Bear on drugs, doing its very best to suck out anything interesting or exciting about the book.

Well, I’ve now read the book for myself, in order to give it a fair assessment. And the jury is back with a surprising verdict. An Unsuitable Job for a Woman is… quite good! The story revolves around Cordelia Gray, who inherits a private detective agency when her partner Bernie commits suicide. Before long, she is hired by Sir Ronald Callender, the microbiologist, to look into the suicide of his son Mark Callender. The scientist doesn’t doubt the coroner’s verdict that it was suicide, but he wishes to find out why his son committed suicide.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Marked for Murder

In Target Lancer, we once again meet up with Nate Heller, who has managed to soldier on well into 1963. In fact, it’s almost November of 1963, and there’s a conspiracy in the works. The people involved intend to kill President John F. Kennedy, and they have enough firepower to do just that. Here’s the thing: they’re planning to do it in Chicago, about three weeks before the assassination that took place in Dallas.

It’s a good thing, then, that Nate Heller is brought onto the case. And before long, Nate links up the assassination plot with some other mysterious occurences, including the murder of a friend of his. But who is involved in this conspiracy? What do they hope to gain by it? And will they succeed? The answers can be found in Target Lancer.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Fair and Foul Play

Hello everybody; welcome back to the blog. You’re just in time for me to reveal a brand-new feature, something that (I hope) will begin to make a regular appearance on this blog: a brand-new podcast entitled Fair and Foul Play.

What is Fair and Foul Play? The way I envision it, it’ll be a series of one-on-one conversations with other bloggers, mystery fans, and anyone else I can lure to the programme. These conversations will revolve around a specific topic within the mystery genre. For example, today I’m joined by Sergio, the blogger at the excellent site Tipping My Fedora. As it happens, both Sergio and I are big fans of audio productions, although we tend to specialize in different types of productions. The idea suddenly came: why not get together and talk about mysteries in audio? Audiobooks, radio plays, adaptations, dramatizations, original stuff: the complete package.

And so you’re looking at the result below, with Part 1 of our conversation forming episode 1a of Fair and Foul Play. Part 2 won’t be uploaded for a while, for the excellent reason that (a) I haven’t edited it yet and (b) the result would be over an hour long and that would be overwhelming all at once.

Please let us know what you think of the podcast, and if you’ve any interest in appearing in the future, feel free to let me know!