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.
Our book today is Death in the Ashes, a murder mystery by Albert Bell, the fourth in his delightful “Notebooks of Pliny the Younger” series starring, obviously, the famous first-century author and imperial kiss-up Pliny the Younger, here ably assisted (and mocked the whole time) by the even-more-famous historian Tacitus. Both of them are comparatively young men still in the course of the series, not yet famous for their own deeds but rather for their well-known connections: Tacitus is the son-in-law of one of the Empire’s most able and most controversial generals, Agricola, and Pliny, even more famously, is the nephew of the great Roman polymath and administrator and voluminous author we now know as Pliny the Elder, who died during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius while trying to use the Roman warships under his command to ferry survivors away from the catastrophe.
The memory of that terrible day hangs over all the “Notebooks of Pliny the Younger,” but none more so than Death in the Ashes, in which their latest investigation takes Pliny and Tacitus back to the Bay of Naples and to death-site of Pompeii itself. But as the book opens, he’s facing a peril of a decidedly more mundane kind – the fear of public speaking:
I started down the hillside toward the Forum. The largest men among my clients stepped in front of me to clear a path on the crowded sidewalks. After several days of rain the morning was clear and crisp, even a bit cool for the Kalends of October. As I took out my copy of my speech, for some reason an image came to my mind – Pompey, leaving the safety of his trireme, in a little boat taking him to shore, reading over the speech he intended to give before Ptolemy, the Egyptian boy-king, but murdered before he could set foot on shore.
Pliny is due to represent a client in the zesty open-door verbal free-for-all that is Rome’s Centumviral Court, and as Death in the Ashes begins, he and his morning’s roll-call of clients are facing not only the ordeal of the trial itself but also the ordeal of simply getting across town – seldom a casual thing in the violence-prone Rome of the emperor Domitian, especially when the group if forced to deter through the City’s worst neighborhood:
We took the street leading behind the Portico of Livia, dedicated by the deified Augustus to his wife, turned left onto the Clivus Suburanus, and followed it until it ran into the broad street known as the Argiletum. The Argiletum cuts directly through the Subura, the lowest point in Rome in more ways than one. In the Subura the city’s human dregs settle as inevitably as the lees at the bottom of an amphora of wine. Today, as we came down the hill toward it, the place had a particularly fetid smell from all the water that had collected there during the last few days’ rain, washing the garbage from higher spots down with it.
But although Death in the Ashes is a hugely enjoyable murder mystery (once again, the particularly fluid and problematic dynamics of the master-slave relationship seem to fascinate our author – both our authors, since Bell’s extensive research matches the interesting comments Pliny himself makes on the subject at random points in his collected letters), our book today could really be any of Bell’s novels – they’re all immensely enjoyable, as I’ve had occasion to point out here on Stevereads before. These books are every bit as well-written, well-plotted, and emotionally insightful (the relationship between Pliny and Tacitus continues to be the series’ heart and soul) as their bigger-press counterparts in the world of fiction set in ancient Rome – only without the guaranteed library and book-club sales the bigger publishers can lock into the roll-out of those higher-profile books. Bell (and the good folks at Perseverance Press, his new publisher), in other words, relies a lot more on that most trustworthy of all reader barometers: word of mouth.
So that’s my own word on the subject, for what it’s worth: order these books! You won’t be sorry!
Our book today is Albert Bell’s 2002 mystery novel All Roads Lead to Murder, and it’s a perfect illustration of a fact that might sometimes get obscured in the omnivorous whirligig of Stevereads: there are countless books out there I’ve never read! Countless books, in fact, that I’ve never even seen. Every single trip I take to the Boston Public Library is a voyage of discovery for me – and I’ve been prowling their aisles since the days when I was lunching regularly with Oliver Wendell Holmes (translation for the rest of you: a long time). Part of the vertiginous joy of reading for me is that very knowledge that there’s so much more out there.
Perfect case in point: in Open Letters recently, while reviewing a murder mystery starring ancient Roman dilettante and letter-writer Pliny the Younger, I opined that it was amazing no writer had thought to make him the star of a murder mystery before now. I’ve read a vast, heaping number of novels set in ancient Rome (and written one! Prospective publishers may begin their bidding war now!) – in my hubris, it never occurred to me that I might have missed one, when in fact I’ve doubtless missed many thousands.
The one I missed was a doozy! After my review appeared, I was duly informed that at least one other author had, in fact, written a murder mystery starring Pliny the Younger: Albert Bell. His novel All Roads Lead to Murder appeared in 2002, and, prince that he is, he sent me a copy (most writers in such a circumstance would have sent me their dog’s latest nighttime surprise in a plastic baggie – but then, I suspect Mr. Bell is a good deal more civilized than most writers)(not that this is difficult …).
I’m glad he did, for the best, simplest reason: All Roads Lead to Murder is fantastic.
And Pliny the Younger is indeed the star: the novel takes place when he’s still a young man, still making his way in Roman society (and still grieving the recent loss of his famous polymath uncle, Pliny the Elder, in the Vesuvius disaster) – but already set in a lot of his ways, as young men will be. The story finds him and his traveling companion Tacitus – the great Roman historian, only here still comparatively young and known mainly as the son-in-law of the famous governor of Britain Julius Agricola – traveling to Smyrna in a group that includes all kinds of future suspects: the adherents of an exotic religious cult, two old Jews who might just belong to a religious cult themselves (the elder is a certain doctor named Luke, if that gives you any hint), a well-to-do Roman lout, his slaves, and his various cronies, etc. The group has no sooner settled in lodgings in Smyrna than one of their members is found dead in his room with his heart carved out of his body. The provincial governor is away, and for local administration Smyrna has the usual bureaucratic mess characteristic of that part of the world even today – so Pliny (dragging Tacitus along) takes it upon himself to investigate.
Bell does every single thing right in this engrossing book, starting with keeping his star player believable. Pliny the Younger published a large collection of his correspondence during his lifetime, and although all of it was pumiced and holystoned as close to self-aggrandizement as he could make it, the collection is still infinitely revealing – and the person it reveals was, shall we say, fallible. It would be a capital mistake to change that for the sake of producing a more conventional hero, and Bell never comes near to doing that. Instead, his Pliny is given to offhand comments like “Slaves and horses – they both have to be broken to be useful. But you don’t want to crush the spirit.” When one character calls him a “high and mighty bastard,” we can’t help but agree. Hell, almost on the book’s first page, the easy-going Tacitus asks him, “Why can’t you just relax and stop being such a prig?” It’s a line good for a chuckle, because Pliny never does relax in the course of the book. You get the impression he wouldn’t know how; it’s a trait he shared with his illustrious uncle, whose memory hovers over this book like a ghost, as when Pliny contemplates his memories of the man:
What difference does it make? The end of both men – of all men – is the same. The day will come when Apelles’ wife and children will no longer remember just what he looked like, what his voice sounded like. He will ‘live’ only in the name which his son bears. Poor Cornutus didn’t leave even that much to keep his memory alive. I find each day that my uncle’s visage is dimmer in my mind. He was fortunate to have written so much. He is ‘alive’ even for people, like Luke, who never met him. That kind of legacy is the closest we can come, I think, to immortality. It’s what I hope to achieve with my life.
Pliny and Tacitus have a wonderful chemistry – it’s a brilliant choice in Bell’s part to give the ‘sidekick’ role to a man very likely more intelligent than Pliny himself: it forces us to concentrate on Pliny’s other characteristics, like his tenacity and the unconventional modes of thinking he learned from his uncle. The inconvenient fact that the pre-modern world had nothing much in the way of forensics or investigative procedure is handled with perfect deftness – Pliny goes about tracking down the truth much as you or I would, with his hands and his brain and his best guesses, and it’s all wonderfully convincing.
Bell is a classicist and a scholar of the ancient world, and when I read that, I trembled. Such men are dangerous – they have lean and hungry looks and often take a dagger to dramatics without even meaning to. But even after a single chapter, I breathed easier – Bell knows his facts, yes, but his primary concern here is storytelling.
The best illustration of this comes half-way through the book. The governor of the province has returned to take over the murder investigation, and a beautiful slave-girl has been fingered as a likely source of information. She and her family have a tangled and tragic history with Pliny and his uncle, and he feels both guilty and intrigued by her strength of character, so he’s horrified when the course of Roman justice begins to take the path it always does: whenever a crime happens to a person of quality, the first thing you do is torture the slaves for information. So we get a scene in which, over Pliny’s protests, the governor orders the slave-girl strung up right there in the room to be whipped.
Reading that far, I groaned inwardly – because Bell had painted himself into a dramatic corner. The facts of the Roman world make only one outcome of such a scene possible – but the far older dictates of drama say: your hero doesn’t stand idle while the innocent suffer. When the Roman soldier raises his fist with the whip in it, I knew the only thing Bell could have Pliny do was nothing at all.
So imagine my pleasure when he has his Pliny do the only thing he should do first: he grabs the hand holding the whip. It’s a little moment, passing quickly (after he’s admonished, he leaves the room and the torture commences), but a classicist with no ear for the stage, no heart for drama, wouldn’t even have seen how crucial it was, much less worked it right. I’m not sure, but I may have applauded just a bit, the first time I read it.
All Roads Lead to Murder was followed in 2008 by a second Pliny-Tacitus adventure, The Blood of Caesar. This one takes place in Rome itself and features an Emperor Domitian who’s every bit as monstrous as history portrays him and yet recognizably human as well (it’s a beguiling bit of characterization, and there are many, many bits like it in the book). The plot involves twists and turns of high statecraft reminiscent of I, Claudius, and all the dramatic strengths of All Roads Lead to Murder are here again, only sharpened and strengthened.
I can’t recommend these two books strongly enough. Any fan of fiction set in ancient Rome will love them; any murder mystery aficionado will love them; any classicist who’s head isn’t firmly up their aqueduct will love them. I missed them fair and square (effective self-promotion, rather charmingly, doesn’t seem to be our author’s strong suit), but you now have no such excuse: go to Amazon or BN.com right now, today, and buy a copy of each – buy a couple of copies, because I guarantee you’ll want to give them to readers you know.
And while you’re at it, kindly help me to correct the only problem I can find with these books: there are only two of them! In a publishing world where so many murder mysteries aren’t fit for lavatory duty, Albert Bell has seen fit to give readers only two adventures of young prig Pliny and his surprisingly libertine friend Tacitus, and that’s just not right. So email the author and tell him to write a third book in the series post haste. Nag him via snail mail. If you live near him, harangue him at the Piggly-Wiggly. A writer of his caliber (and playfulness! All Roads Lead to Murder has dozens of impish anachronistic allusions, including a hilarious little nod to “The Tell-Tale Heart”) must have no rest, no relaxation: he must be firmly in harness all the time in the service of his demanding readers.
I’m now one of those readers, and all I want for Christmas is another one of these fantastic books.