Best Books of 2017 – Mystery!
As Arthur Conan Doyle discovered a century ago, the sticky part about creating a great detective or sleuthing team is that your readers are going to want their adventures to continue indefinitely, and in all but a tiny handful of instances, your readers pay the bills. So murder mystery authors tend to end up writing a series of adventures starring, increasingly improbably, the same cast of characters – aging with glacial slowness (again, with a few exceptions), trotting out their catch-phrases on cue, surviving nightmarish plots, and living to sleuth another day. The natural expectation is that such books-in-series will rapidly diminish in quality, and for most of them, hoo-boy, that’s true. But over and over, this year was the exception that proved the rule – these are the ten best mysteries of the year, and virtually all of them are books-in-series:
10 The Whole Art of Detection by Lyndsay Faye (The Mysterious Press) – You could hardly have a list of mystery fiction without including Sherlock Holmes, now could you? The year featured the usual handful of Holmes pastiche fiction, but this volume, collecting all of Faye’s Strand magazine Holmes stories (and a couple of newly-published stories). Those stories are durably both the best things in any given issue of the magazine and the best Holmes-fiction written in any year, so this volume is a treat.
9 Prussian Blue by Philip Kerr (Putnam) – It was probably likewise inevitable that a new Kerr novel starring dour, redoubtable Bernie Gunther would show up on this list, but there’s no element of blind momentum involved: most of the books-in-series on the list this year are here because they’re the best books so far in their respective series, and that’s certainly the case with Prussian Blue, the most ambitious Bernie Gunther novel yet, splitting its action between 1939 Germany at the heart of the Nazi upper echelon and the 1956 French Riviera, where a dark shadow from his past catches up with an older and even more jaded Bernie. A terrific performance on Kerr’s part.
8 The Death of Kings by Rennie Airth (Viking) – This is the fifth in Airth’s series of mysteries starring Scotland Yard investigator (and then retired investigator) John Madden, the murder of an actress in 1938 and the conviction of her killer is opened again in 1949 and draws Madden out of retirement and into a world that seems far more sordid and complex than it did before the war. These Madden mysteries have always been lean, knowing delights, and as with so many books on this list, the series is every bit as strong now as it was when it began.
7 Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz (Harper) – In this hefty, immensely rewarding novel from Horowitz – one of the only stand-alone volumes on this list – the more a long-suffering editor reads into the latest manuscript of her best-selling but irritating mystery author, the most convinced she is that the manuscript is trying to tell a deeper story. I am, of course, a big fan of Horowitz’ “Alex Rider” novels, but the sheer literary virtuosity of this novel is of course orders of magnitude more impressive than books in which a floppy-haired teenager repeatedly saves the world.
6 The Body at the Brothel by Richard Waring (Peppertree Press) – Two ancient Roman murder mysteries back-to-back at this point in the list, and both of them from authors who ought to be better known. The first one is this delightful novel by Richard Waring starring a crime-solving husband and wife in a first-century Rome populated by colorful characters. The novel is extremely well-constructed, and it’s also a fine example of something that only makes this one appearance on my list this year: a playful murder mystery.
5 Fortune’s Fool by Albert Bell (Perserverance Press) – Bell’s sixth novel featuring Pliny the Younger as its unlikely crime-solver has a lamentable title (if a tag from Shakespeare has been used as the title of over 500 books, it’s no longer a tag from Shakespeare – it’s a cliché, and it’s always a bad idea to title your book with a cliché) and a delightful premise: Pliny’s workmen are renovating his villa on Lake Como when a skeleton falls out of one of the walls. Since the villa was once owned by his illustrious uncle – and since he’s unabashedly curious – Pliny of course investigates, and Bell balances that half of his book expertly with the other half, the tensions in Pliny’s personal life.
4 The Paris Spy by Susan Elia MacNeal (Bantam) – MacNeal’s latest novel featuring Maggie Hope features our intrepid heroine deep in enemy territory: she’s an undercover Special Operations agent in Nazi-occupied Paris, trying to discover the truth behind the disappearance of her half-sister and inevitably getting drawn into the case of another vanished agent – all of which she handles with the combination of steady courage and mordant humor that fans of this series have come to expect.
3 Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly by Adrian McKinty (Seventh Street Books) – McKinty’s police thrillers starring hang-dog Detective Sean Duffy almost count as guilty pleasures: they’re written in whip-cord tense prose and feature almost clockwork twists and turns, each more improbable than the last. McKinty dutifully creates a gritty, real-world atmosphere to his Sean Duffy books – this one features a seedy character mysteriously murdered – but then he loads them with page-turning improbabilities that makes the books enormously readable and no more likely than the Oz books.
2 Knife Creek by Paul Doiron (Minotaur Books) – This time, the series recurring character is Maine game warden Mike Bowditch, and this latest latest installment has an intensely gripping opening: Bowditch is tasked with culling an exploding population of feral hogs and discovers in the woods the hastily-hidden corpse of a baby. Doiron expertly deepens things from that starting-point and widens the story into the best Bowditch mystery he’s yet written.
1 The Road to Ithaca by Ben Pastor (Bitter Lemon Press) – The underlying premise of this, the best mystery of 2017, is similar to an entry at the top of this list: Ben Pastor’s complicated main character, Martin Bora, is an ethical man in a wildly unethical world. Bora is a Wehrmacht officer who’s quietly horrified by the Nazis, and in this latest adventure he’s investigating the brutal murder of a group of civilians in Nazi-occupied Crete. The suspects seem obvious, but Bora looks deeper, and Pastor’s storytelling has never been more textured or assured than it is in this book.