Best Books of 2016 – Mysteries!
Despite their separate category here in the Stevereads year-end roundup, murder mysteries are always guilty pleasures at heart. After all, YOU aren’t the one getting murdered, nor are you (except for a few particularly unlucky souls, one imagines) the one tasked with solving a murder; as an old friend of mine used to chuckle when asked why he loved the genre: “What I like most about whodunnits is that I’m not the who and I don’t have to sniff out the dunnit.” And in 2016, that guilty-pleasure aspect of the genre was its saving grace, because most of the other good bits you might find in a murder mystery – good writing, original plotting, stuff like that – were conspicuously absent. A sub-standard year for mysteries, in other words, but there were still highlights:
10. Eleven Prague Corpses by Kirill Kobrin, translated by Veronika Lakatova (Dalkey Archive Press) – All praise to the folks at Dalkey Archive for taking a chance at bringing out this intensely strange, slim set of ten linked stories sketching in a series of murders in Prague and featuring a pair of unlikely narrators gradually filling in a larger plot that may or may not have happened at all. This was one of the smartest murder mysteries I’ve read in years and certainly one of the oddest.
9. The Silence of Stones by Jeri Westerson (Severn House) – This is the seventh book in Jeri Westerton’s series of medieval murder mysteries starring brooding, somewhat violent “tracker” Crispin Guest is every bit as convoluted as all the earlier books and every bit as electrically involving, this time involving the theft of a mystical artifact and a King Richard II who’s very testy for Guest to get it back. Westerson gets better and better at honing in on her tortured hero’s inner workings, and this is the best outing so far.
8. Journey to Munich by Jacqueline Winspear (Harper) – This twelfth installment in Jacqueline Winspear’s unfailingly charming and gripping novels starring the dauntless Maisie Dobbs in her alliance with the British Secret Service, in this case a daring mission to travel to Nazi Germany incognito in order to rescue a man from Dachau. By this point Winspear has these Maisie Dobbs adventures down to an exceedingly winning science – they never fail to delight.
7. When Falcons Fall by CS Harris (NAL) – This series set in the early years of the 19th century and starring dashing, strong-willed Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, this time investigating both his own family history and an alleged suicide in a small Shropshire village. Harris excels in creating vibrant characters, and as usual there are plenty of twists and turns to keep the plot rushing along – and there are plenty of digressions about the news of the time that wonderfully flesh out the story.
6. Dearly Departed by Hy Conrad (Kensington) – This was an utterly delightful murder mystery starring mother-and-daughter professional travel agents and amateur sleuths Fanny and Amy Abel, whose task as the novel opens is as outlandish as it is smile-inducing: a client, maid to a series of wealthy employers, has died, and she’s left instructions for those employers to scatter her ashes all around the world. The tour that results is quickly decked out with foul play and murder, and Hy Conrad writes it all with such winking gusto that you reach the end much, much too soon, hoping for another adventure.
5. The Service of the Dead by Candace Robb (Pegasus) – For this one we go back to the Middle Ages, back again, in fact, to the reign of Richard II, this time in a intricately-scaled little mystery starring young widow Kate Clifford as she struggles to make a life for herself in a city of York broiling with political unrest. It took me a few books to acclimate myself to the peculiar storytelling rhythms Robb uses in these books, but it’s an effort very much worth making.
4. The Ides of June by Rosemary Rowe (Severn House) – A Year’s Best Mysteries list would hardly be complete without an entry from ancient Rome, and this year has two! The first is this latest – the sixteenth, Gawd help us – in Rosemary Rowe’s series of adventures starring level-headed and redoubtable freedman mosaic-maker Libertus in a second-century Roman Britain the author has researched down to its last potsherd. In this latest story, our hero’s patron has received dire threats against his life and his family’s safety, and it’s up to Libertus (who’s now – Gawd help us – sixty) to save the day. These books also take some getting used to, particularly the strange, lilting diction Rowe sometimes gives her characters, but as with all the other series entries on this list, the effort pays off.
3. Trade Secrets by David Wishart (First World Publication) – Set more than a century earlier than Rowe’s book is this latest caper by David Wishart starring smart-mouthed Roman sleuth Marcus Corvinus, who’s also getting on in years, as evidenced by the fact that his daughter is now plenty old enough to embroil him in mysteries, as she does in this book – one of the two mysteries Wishart poses this time. The book crackles with wry humor and clips along at a terrific pace, and Wishart keeps you wondering until satisfyingly late in the game how the two murders are connected. Reading this latest book reminded me all over again that I could read David Wishart all day long.
2. The Eloquence of the Dead by Conor Brady (Minotaur Books) – We wander almost all the way out of the past and into the present with this gripping murder mystery set in Victorian Dublin and starring dour Sergeant Joe Swallow as he investigates the case of a murdered pawnbroker as the case grows more and more complicated. Swallow is a wonderful character, drawn with appealingly minimalist effort, and the supporting characters this time around are likewise superbly drawn. Conor Brady puts this cast in a very convincingly hard and gritty setting and then gives his tale one violent shake after another.
1. The Woman in Blue by Elly Griffiths (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) – Despite the preponderance of historical fiction on the list this time around, the best murder mystery I read in 2016 was a contemporary: this eight installment in Elly Griffiths’ series of books starring consulting forensic archeologist Ruth Galloway, whose complex personal history with DCI Harry Nelson adds a terrific undercurrent of tension to this story about religion-motivated threats and murders in the Medieval Norfolk town of Little Walsingham. Griffiths fills her tightly-controlled narrative with sneaky eloquence and some of most believably adult dialogue currently going in the genre.
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