Time now to look at the three specific sub-genres of fiction that mean so much to me: murder mysteries, sci-fi and fantasy, and romance novels! The never-ending abundance of books in these sub-genres always makes me scratch my head a little when book-business friends of mine collectively lament periodic ‘dry spells’ in the publishing calendar. When one is trying to read a significant chunk of all the new general trade publications that appear in a given year (as indeed why wouldn’t one? Is one lazy or something?), one learns very quickly that there are no dry spells. In fact, when you factor in the ever-burgeoning self-publishing world, the very idea of ‘dry spells’ becomes virtually sacrilegious. So I plowed right into the whole mass of it all, and when it comes to murder mysteries, these were the year’s best:
10 The Bottom of Your Heart by Maurizio Giovanni (Europa Editions) – We begin with a bit of an equivocation, since in 2015 the wonderful, discerning folks at Europa Editions actually brought out two installments in Maurizio Giovanni’s fantastic series of novels starring Commissario Ricciardi, this book and Viper, and both were every bit as uniformly excellent as everything else this author has ever written – so either one could have taken a spot on this list. They all star a morose young man who’s cursed with the ability to see and hear the last moments of the dead, and they’re all superbly heartfelt, atmospheric little masterpieces.
9 Two Bronze Pennies by Chris Nickson (Severn House) – The casual visitor to the city of Leeds in, say, the 1960s might have been forgiven for thinking the place was just about the most wretched hive of scum and villainy west of Valletta, but that Leeds can’t even faintly compete with the stew of the 1890s Leeds that forms the backdrop for Chris Nickson’s sharply good second adventure of DI Tom Harper in Two Bronze Pennies. And Nickson layers the filth of the place with the viciousness of the crimes he has Harper confront. As with so many titles on this list, this is part of a series well worth following.
8 See Also Murder by Larry Sweazy (Seventh Street) – We go from the crowded back-alleys of 19th century Leeds to the wide open spaces of mid-twentieth century North Dakota, where the redoubtable Marjorie Trumaine is doing some freelance indexing work to make ends meet when the local sheriff – in the time-honored tradition of amateur-sleuthing everywhere – brings her an oddity that leads to a mystery that opens onto danger. Sweazy writes it all with an easy, low-key intelligence, and the plot’s climax has a small twist I actually didn’t see coming.
7 The Ville Rat by Martin Limon (Soho Crime) – Once again, a wild location-change, this time to South Korea in the 1970s, where Sergeants Sueno and Bascom work their crimes on a hostile border, surrounded by potential enemies, and scorned even by their fellow servicemen. You can read my full review here.
6 Lamentation (Matthew Shardlake) by CJ Sansom (Mulholland Books) – This latest Tudor era adventure of hunchbacked lawyer Matthew Shardlake navigating the treacheries in the court of King Henry VIII may just be my favorite of book in a very, very strong series – probably because it features the dying king’s last wife, the amazing Katherine Parr. You can read my review here.
5 Corridors of the Night by Anne Perry (Ballantine) – Very, very few long-running series actually seem to get better as they go along, and this is one of them. Perry grows more and more comfortable giving us the adventures of Thames River Police officer William Monk and his intrepid wife Hester, and this latest one features a double example of the creature Sherlock Holmes himself ranked as the first of criminals: doctors gone bad. And even though the Monk series is over twenty novels long, there isn’t a bit of lag or dumb momentum in these pages – instead, they crackle with talent and dry wit. And like so many of the authors on this list, Perry has mastered the art of making each book read like the first in the series – downright inviting for the newcomer.
4 Strange Loyalties (Laidlaw) by William McIlvanney (Europa Editions) This third installment in McIllvanny’s Jack Laidlaw adventures finds the Glasgow detective so grief-stricken over the car accident death of his brother that at first he seems to be imagining a crime where none existed, trying to read more into his brother’s death than the simple bad luck it was – and thanks to McIlvanny’s fierce cleverness, there turn out to be depths after all. You can read my full review here
3 Those Who Wish Me Dead by Michael Koryta (Back Bay Books) – The plot of this adrenaline-fueled novel has a calculated simplicity: the teenaged witness to a violent crime is hidden, for his own protection, in a remote youth wilderness program until such time as the police can catch the two sociopathic killers who committed the crime. But the killers elude the police and murder their way closer and closer to the young witness, forcing the rag-tag group of adults around him to see whether or not they can protect him. And the flawless execution of this plot is likewise deceptively simple – but Koryta tells a very lean story, and his action sequences are nearly perfect.
2 A Chorus of Innocents by P F Chisholm (Poisoned Pen Press) – It’s back to the Tudor era for this latest book by P F Chisholm starring Sir Robert Carey, this time to late 1592 when poor Sir Robert is suffering from a toothache (even in 2015, one can sympathize), and the already-married object of his passion, Lady Elizabeth Widdrington, has a hysterical pregnant woman on her doorstep, and like every Robert Carey adventure, this one is full of Chisholm’s prattish sense of humor and vast amounts of smoothly-integrated period research.
5 Dark Corners by Ruth Rendell (Scribner) – A necessarily melancholy ending to our list is this, the best mystery of 2015 – and the last mystery novel written by the great Ruth Rendell. It’s a typically twisty and psychologically brutal tale of feckless people doing creepily awful things to other feckless people – in this case a sleazily opportunistic new landlord and his increasingly nefarious patient, each trying to out-guess each other, and the whole murky drama brought vividly to life by the author’s singular voice. That voice will be sorely missed.
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