Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Year in Review: Best Reads of 2013

Well, another year has come and gone, and with it, some excellent reads. And so today I’d like to close out my “year in review” series with a recap of the best books I read in 2013. My usual procedure would be to choose an initial hangman’s dozen of books, and then write a brief bit on each of them. But 2013 was a bit different for me, and so before I do this I’d like to give a brief word of explanation.

I read far more of Ian Fleming than any other author, (re)reading the entire James Bond series in order, and this time getting to read You Only Live Twice (which I had skipped when I read these books years ago). The only character who even came close to matching Bond was Sherlock Holmes, who kept popping up and doing battle with other characters from English literature – but various authors were trying their hand there, and the results varied. I have a very high opinion of Ian Fleming, and a hangman’s dozen would probably result in multiple James Bond books being chosen. But this would be unfair to the rest of the crew from this year, so I have resolved to choose only one James Bond novel for this hangman’s dozen. It’s a rule that applies to everyone else also—each author this year can only be represented by one book. This is to make the hangman’s dozen a bit more diverse and to make my job (writing a really quick blurb) easier.

With that being said, here is the hangman’s dozen of the best books I read in 2013 (ordered by author’s name)

As a big fan of Margery Allingham, the only thing I regret about her books is that she wasn’t more ingenious with her stories. She’s often at her finest coming up with lovably loony characters, but the plotting department just isn’t her forte. The strongest of her plots I’d read to date was Police at the Funeral, which had a plot that Allingham nicked from Sherlock Holmes. But in Death of a Ghost, she comes up with her own plot, and a beauty it is at that. It’s not so much a whodunit as much as it a how-will-he-get-caught novel. Campion knows whodunit instinctively, but he must find proof of his suspicions, and this leads to a very memorable conclusion in which Campion’s life itself is at stake.

Nicholas Blake is criminally forgotten in this day and age, and I just don’t get it. The Beast Must Die showcases his strengths as a mystery writer admirably. It’s about a detective story writer named Frank Cairnes, but who writes under the pseudonym of Felix Lane. And he’s going to kill the man who ran over his son Martie. When he does find the careless motorist, he turns out to be a positive beast of a man, a man who terrorizes his family and makes enemies wherever he goes. It’s not long before a murder takes place… Not only does this book have excellent characterization, it’s also well-plotted. There are plenty of clues and red herrings, and multiple garden paths for you to stray on. The ending is also an ingenious one. I honestly cannot think of a single criticism to give to this book; it’s just that good.

Psycho is a masterpiece, and it made for an equally-good film. It’s interesting to contrast the adaptation with the novel, because for once Alfred Hitchcock remained faithful to the source material, yet there are a few differences. I’m a big fan of the novel and always have been – although it deals with some really disturbing subject matter, it does so in a subtle way which doesn’t lessen the impact of its blows. There’s even a sense of humour running through the book, which plays all sorts of sneaky games with your mind and its expectations. This is psychological suspense at its finest. It’s difficult to talk about the plot without using spoilers, but let me say that it’s just as relevant today as it was in 1959, and I admire Robert Bloch for the imagination it took to create this book.

This is a tremendously funny book, a comedy of murders where everything you could possibly imagine goes wrong. It starts with a wrongly-acquitted murderer being recruited to join the Asterisk Club, a group of murderers who have gotten off scot-free. But he’s then murdered himself, and hijinx ensues as the homeowners, neighbours to the Asterisk Club, try covering up the murder. Fortunately, the members of the club are experts in this particular field, and they decide to lend their expertise, whether it’s wanted or not! I laughed my way merrily through this book, and it’s made me hungry to read more by Pamela Branch. Unfortunately, I must control my urges, because Branch died after writing only a handful of books…

It started as a conventional mystery. Two young boys had been discovered dead together, apparently a murder-suicide pact between two young gay lovers. But one of the victims’ relatives insists that his younger brother was no “fag”, and asks dwarf detective Mongo to investigate. It seems like the start to another conventional crime novel, but if you approach this book with such expectations, they will be completely subverted. Before I was at the 1/3 mark, the book had completely changed its style, tone, etc. and had morphed into a wild fantasy/sci-fi/thriller/epic with plenty of parallels to The Lord of the Rings. Full of unforgettable touches (like a foul-mouthed gorilla named Gollum), this was one of my favourite reading experiences in 2013.

The third Nate Heller novel, and third in the so-called “Frank Nitti Trilogy”, it was the most ambitious undertaking of the trilogy, skipping back and forth through time and experimenting with its storytelling structure (as Nate Heller begins the book with a bad case of amnesia). The Million-Dollar Wound, like other Nate Heller books, was an excellent read, balancing plot and character development perfectly. The most interesting thing about this particular instalment is seeing Nate Heller go to the battlefront during WWII, a horrifying experience which drastically changes him. Yet throughout it all, he’s the same Nate Heller I’ve come to know and love throughout the series. An excellent read, and my favourite of the Nate Hellers I read in 2013.

For once, somebody kept the promise of their title. Michael Dibdin’s The Last Sherlock Holmes Story is indeed the very last Sherlock Holmes story. No more are possible after you’ve turned the book’s final page. There’s nowhere to build on from here, no “to be continued” sign, no teaser of upcoming adventures, nothing. And as much as I love Sherlock Holmes, I liked seeing this. I wanted someone to feel bold enough to do something different with Holmes without having him battling Martians or Dracula or anything like that. None of this Holmes-seems-to-be-dead nonsense only to have him come back 15 pages later – Sir Arthur already covered that ground, we don’t need more of Watson’s sentimentalism. And even though this is a Holmes-vs.-the-Ripper story (and I’ve seen that done to death), this has an original take on the Ripper case, and it’s a good take.

Of all the James Bond novels I read in 2013, I decided to showcase Goldfinger for this hangman’s dozen. Why? Because there’s a good reason Goldfinger is the most-loved and best-remembered of the Bond stories. It’s just that good. It’s a wild adventure, one escapade after the other, and it sucks you in from the very beginning. It’s a damn good story, with a great villain (with a great sidekick!) and a plot so crazy it seems like it just might work. (Although there is a problem with Goldfinger’s scheme which the film adaptation corrected.) It’s a book so good that it even Anthony Boucher, who positively despised Fleming’s work, seemed to enjoy it. He gave the book this backhanded compliment: “the whole preposterous fantasy strikes me as highly entertaining”.

This was my favourite English-language detective story of 2013. It’s just phenomenal; it can stand proudly beside the classics of detective fiction, like The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or The Mystery of the Yellow Room. It’s about a serial killer who writes stories based on his murders and submits them to a competition. The victims have no apparent connection to one another, and it seems impossible to catch the “Wordman”. There’s an emphasis on games, especially word games, throughout the novel, and with it comes a sense of fun. Make no mistake, this is a detective story, and not a thinly-veiled drama. I particularly loved the surprising solution, but the ending itself is positively brilliant: it’s one of the most interesting ways I’ve ever seen a solution unveiled.

When I was asked to review Tomorrow City, I agreed to do so because of its short length. In this day and age of bloated 500-page epics where 200 pages could easily be chucked out without losing anything, I was intrigued to see a book that didn’t even get to 200 pages. I’m glad I read it, because Tomorrow City turned out to be one of my favourite books of 2013, and certainly my favourite of the new books (i.e. books published in 2013) I read. It’s not a detective story but a crime drama about a man trying to escape his past. But old sins cast long shadows, and it isn’t long before the past catches up to him. This was a riveting, exciting read, and it made the most of its page count – not a single word felt extraneous or wasted. It’s hard to believe that this was a debut novel – it feels like the work of a seasoned professional. If this is a preview of what’s to come from Kjeldsen’s pen, I’m excited for the next book!

Margaret Millar is one of my all-time favourites, and if anyone is looking for a solid introduction to her work, A Stranger in My Grave is a good place to start. It’s one of her most ambitious books, with a twist ending that is only fully revealed in the final sentence. It’s also got terrific characters, who almost seem to jump off the page. And it’s concerned with many of the same themes that Millar and her husband, “Ross Macdonald”, concerned themselves with, such as a family falling apart. I had the pleasure of reading two books of Millar’s in 2013, and had a very hard time choosing which of the two to feature on this list. They are just that good.

Hands-down my favourite book I read in any language in 2013. This is another Holmes vs. the Ripper yarn, but one of the most unconventional ones I’ve ever read. Holmes himself doesn’t appear, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle only pops up in a cameo near the end. Instead, Holmes is a fictional character who inspires regular people to do great things. This was a complex yarn, with three mysteries being woven neatly together, one of them being the Jack the Ripper case. And the Ripper’s identity is brilliantly ingenious, the kind of solution that could only work in fiction, and is all the better for it.

I didn’t intend to leave the non-mystery novel for last, but that’s somehow how it happened. The Shootist is a classic Western novel about the last of the shootist, J. B. Books, and his battle with cancer, a battle that he is already losing and which he cannot possibly win. It’s a tragedy about a man whose prime has come and gone, and who must come to terms with his inevitable death, while those around him try to profit off of his predicament. It’s a beautifully written book, and it examines serious issues like any piece of quality fiction. It made for fine reading, and I think I may have even enjoyed it more than the classic film adaptation, which was (appropriately enough) John Wayne’s swan song. Definitely recommended to anyone who enjoys Westerns, be it in book form or on the silver screen.

***

There were plenty of other terrific reads in 2013. Why didn’t they make the hangman’s dozen? Because if I had to write a brief piece for each of them, we’d be here all day… plus, I wouldn’t be able to think of a catchy phrase like “hangman’s dozen”. Also, some of the authors are already represented on the list and I’m just trying to be fair here, mac. So here are the honourable mentions, books that I felt were just as worthy as being on the hangman’s dozen, but for one reason or another I didn’t want to write a blurb about them.

1 comment:

  1. A very varied and interesting list, Patrick. I was especially interested in The Shootist, even though I primarily read mysteries.

    ReplyDelete

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