Thursday, December 31, 2009

Mysterious Reviews: The Best Mysteries of 2009

Mysterious Reviews: Mysteries Reviewed by the Hidden Staircase Mystery Books

It's time once again to review (as it were) the best mysteries reviewed by Mysterious Reviews during 2009. In addition to the reviews I write myself, we also have two regular contributors. To keep things simple, we'll primarily focus our attention in this post on the reviews of just one person, that being yours truly.

The year started slowly for me. Through May, I had rated only 2 books with 5 stars. But the last 7 months produced an additional 10 mysteries, suspense novels and thrillers that garnered my top rating.

Herewith are my selections as the best mysteries of 2009.

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Floodgates by Mary Anna Evans
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Floodgates by Mary Anna Evans

I've been a fan of Mary Anna Evans' Faye Longchamp mysteries from the very beginning, one of the few series for which I've read every book. Floodgates continues her streak of excellence. What sets the series apart from its peers is the exceptionally well-developed character of Faye. Here's a quote from another character in the book that aptly describes her: "That's what I like about you, Faye. You never stop being an archaeologist. You never stop digging. And you never fail to look at facts, even when you don't like them much." These are also books that blend historical information into the murder mystery plot, in this case the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Though each book can be read as a stand-alone, start from the beginning and watch Faye grow and evolve with each succeeding story.

Read my complete review at Mysterious Reviews: Floodgates by Mary Anna Evans.

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Mad Hatter's Holiday by Peter Lovesey
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Mad Hatter's Holiday by Peter Lovesey

Soho Press is reissuing Peter Lovesey's Sergeant Cribb mysteries, and what a wonderful series this is. Originally written in the 1970s, they are a study in how richly detailed characters, setting, and plot can be developed in a relatively short novel format. Mad Hatter's Holiday is the fourth in the series, and "is so deftly plotted it isn't clear to the reader at any time what is true and what isn't, and who to believe and who not to trust." I found the ending wonderfully ambiguous, but later learned (from the author) that it wasn't intended to be so. That clarification didn't diminish the appeal of the book, which I heartily recommend.

Read my complete review at Mysterious Reviews: Mad Hatter's Holiday by Peter Lovesey.

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A Darker Domain by Val McDermic
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A Darker Domain by Val McDermic

Val McDermid introduced a police detective who definitely deserves her own series in A Darker Domain. Though basically a cold case investigation for Fife Detective Inspector Karen Pirie, the plot deftly shifts between two cases, one current, eventually linking them in unexpected ways. Pirie is a character I wanted to get to know better, and I was ever so slightly disappointed that the book seems to be a stand-alone. Still, "the meticulously drawn characters and the intricately developed plot to the superbly written narrative" elevate this novel into the top echelon of police procedurals.

Read my complete review at Mysterious Reviews: A Darker Domain by Val McDermic.

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The Samaritan's Secret by Matt Beynon Rees
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The Samaritan's Secret by Matt Beynon Rees

Matt Beynon Rees' third Omar Yussef mystery, The Samaritan's Secret, puts the teacher and historian in a seemingly untenable situation: solve the senseless murder of a young man who may be responsible for the loss of millions of dollars of Palestinian money and prevent the World Bank from cutting off additional funds to the Palestinian people, all in three days. What I found most interesting about the story is how Omar elects to pursue his investigation. As I wrote in my review, "Omar Yussef initially overlooks some of the obvious, but highly improbable, solutions to the murder mystery in favor of the more expedient, if less practical, ones." As a reader, I kept wanting to tap Omar on the shoulder and tell him he's approaching the problem from the wrong perspective. That the story drew me in so completely is a mark of an outstanding mystery.

Read my complete review at Mysterious Reviews: The Samaritan's Secret by Matt Beynon Rees.

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Hard Stop by Chris Knopf
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Hard Stop by Chris Knopf

I am in awe of how Chris Knopf writes, the way he constructs his sentences, their cadence, the words he uses in them and the images and feelings they evoke in both the characters and the reader. It is sheer joy reading his work, and his novel Hard Stop is yet another example in his Sam Acquillo series. Here's a short sample taken from a longer passage I included in my review, one from which the title is taken: "No willful murder is justified, but hers felt less like an act of butchery than a surgical elimination. A tactical execution. Maybe that's all it was, a simple transaction. A line item on a profit and loss statement. Case closed. Meeting over. The ultimate hard stop." So much can be inferred about the characters, the plot, and the overall pacing of the story from just these few sentences. Truly remarkable.

Read my complete review at Mysterious Reviews: Hard Stop by Chris Knopf.

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Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartey
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Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartey

Mysteries set in Africa seem to be in vogue lately, but I found Kwei Quartey's debut novel featuring Ghanian Detective Inspector Darko Dawson, Wife of the Gods to be particularly rewarding. I wrote that the book "is written with a quiet elegance, often lyrical in its narrative. Sound actually plays an important part of the story, Dawson having a particular affinity for distinguishing subtle variations in speech patterns." The local customs and beliefs play a part in the mystery plot, the author seamlessly incorporating cultural references in a natural manner. It's terrific debut, and a series worth watching.

Read my complete review at Mysterious Reviews: Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartey.

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The Lord of Death by Eliot Pattison
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The Lord of Death by Eliot Pattison

Eliot Pattison is another author whose wordcraft enthralls me. In the sixth Shan Tao Yun mystery, The Lord of Death, "Pattison takes a fairly simple plot outline and develops the most extraordinary story around it, one that captures the reader's imagination. He's a master not only with words but with imagery." Not unlike Rees' Palestinian mysteries, Pattison subtly weaves modern politics into his story, here with Chinese policies juxtapositioned against the ancient ways and beliefs of the native Tibetans. The books in this series aren't fast-reading, nor should they be; rather, they should be savored for their richness and depth.

Read my complete review at Mysterious Reviews: The Lord of Death by Eliot Pattison.

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Jump by Tim Maleeny
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Jump by Tim Maleeny

"Entertaining" is one of those words that gets overused in reviews, possibly because it's used so broadly and can mean almost anything. But it is probably the best word to use for Tim Maleeny's stand-alone thriller Jump. Start to finish, I was absolutely and utterly entertained, "... from an extraordinary cast of characters to Maleeny's rapid-fire narrative style to a deftly plotted story that has a familiar ring to it yet feels uncommonly new." This is one novel I'll fondly remember for a very long time. And though I pined for a sequel in my review, it would be hard to improve on the perfect mix of character, setting, humor and thrill that is this book.

Read my complete review at Mysterious Reviews: Jump by Tim Maleeny.

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Killer Summer by Ridley Pearson
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Killer Summer by Ridley Pearson

I had never read any of Ridley Pearson's novels before, and clearly didn't realize what I was missing. As I mentioned in my review of his third Walt Fleming thriller, "sometimes a mystery's plot, characters, inter-character relationships, setting, narrative, and dialogue all come together in perfect harmony to produce an exceptional novel; Killer Summer is one such novel." No book is flawless, but this one comes pretty close; thriller fans will find something to their liking here, from the twisty plot to the vividly drawn characters and setting to the thrill (as it were) of the chase.

Read my complete review at Mysterious Reviews: Killer Summer by Ridley Pearson.

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Breathing Water by Timothy Hallinan
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Breathing Water by Timothy Hallinan

As I wrote in my review of Tim Hallinan's third Bangkok thriller, "The thrill in reading Breathing Water comes from the subtle, but relentless, escalation of tension in the story. A number of unexpected plot points, including Pan's apparent sudden change of heart with regard to the biography, keep the reader wary." I like being kept off-guard while reading a suspense novel, not knowing what will happen next. The book is also a bit unusual in that it isn't a typical thriller: there are no killers to search for or crimes to investigate; rather it is "an exceptionally compelling novel of a man caught up in a sequences of events that are spiraling out of control for everyone involved ... with little chance that anyone can come out unscathed."

Read my complete review at Mysterious Reviews: Breathing Water by Timothy Hallinan.

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The Hidden Man by David Ellis
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The Hidden Man by David Ellis

Edgar Award-winning author David Ellis introduces his first series character, attorney Jason Kolarich, in the elegantly crafted The Hidden Man, a novel I said was in the "top tier of legal thrillers." Here the book's principal strength is in its plotting: "The twists the case takes are unexpected, the misdirection subtly introduced, and the conclusion brilliantly conceived." I admit I'm not much into backstories, and there are a few too many of them here, but they aren't so distracting that my overall enthusiam for the book is tempered in any way.

Read my complete review at Mysterious Reviews: The Hidden Man by David Ellis.

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Bad Things Happen by Harry Dolan
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Bad Things Happen by Harry Dolan

And finally, my selection of the best of the best: Harry Dolan's extraordinary debut novel, Bad Things Happen. I was completely taken in from the first page when the principal character is described as the "man who calls himself David Loogan." Who is this guy? In my review I asked, "What role is he playing in the book? Is he a culprit (and if so, of what), or is he a victim?" Yes, it's a murder mystery but the plot is delightfully intricate, a cat-and-mouse game played out on several levels; the conclusion elegantly clever. While I strongly recommend each of the books on my list of the best mysteries of 2009, if you can read only one, this should be it.

Read my complete review at Mysterious Reviews: Bad Things Happen by Harry Dolan.

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