I started keeping track of every book I read a few years ago. I never would have remembered all the great books I read this year if I hadn’t written them down; there were too many.
The following list contains the best books I read for the first time in 2009, regardless of when they were published. (Which is why The Big Sleep isn’t listed.) Last year I named five. This year I planned for ten and was able to pare it to a baker’s dozen only by creating a list of honorable mentions that would have probably made the list in any other year.
Here’s my list, in the order in which they were read.
A Darker Domain, Val McDermid – My first McDermid, it won’t be the last. Excellent cold case story with class differences at the crux. McDermid’s from caol people, and understands them, and their trials. There’s no overt social comment, but it’s rife between the lines, making this en excellent book on multiple levels. The understated writing style is a perfect fit.
The Given Day, Dennis Lehane – Much anticipated, and even better than I’d hoped. Lehane has long written crime stories that were about something more; now he’s written a book about something more than happens to have crime in it. A wonderful book.
The Ice Harvest, Scott Phillips – I saw the movie and liked it. I met Scott at Bouchercon in Baltimore and liked him. Everyone who knew me and had read it said I’d like it, so I read it. Liked it even more than I expected. A noir story with humor, not gags, the narrator and reader laughing at what clueless bastards these guys are, and waiting to see how the crime gods will smite them next.
Hardcore Hardboiled, edited by Todd Robinson – A collection of stories originally published by Robinson’s Thuglit website. As with any anthology, some stories are stronger than others, but this collection touches all the bases. Sean Chercover’s award-winning “A Sleep Not Unlike Death” is here, along with high octane stories from Tim Wohlforth, Ryan Oakley, Victor Gischler, B.H. Shepherd, Vincent Kovar, Duane Swierczynski, David Bareford, Charlie Stella, and several others all worth the time. (Full disclosure: I would have loved this book even if I didn’t have a story appearing in Thuglit’s next anthology. And gotten a free copy based on my detailed knowledge of Apocalypse Now. Honest to God.)
What the Dead Know, Laura Lippman – I’m not much of fan of her Tess Monaghan stories, but Lippman’s shorts and standalones are as good as anyone’s. This book is everything a taut mystery should be.
Fifty Grand, Adrian McKinty – Michael Forsythe has suffered enough in McKinty’s Dead series. This standalone about a Cuban cop looking for answers about how her father died in Colorado is as tightly written as one would expect from McKinty. He knows the territories, having lived in Colorado and spent time in Cuba, and leverages that knowledge with the right amount of cynicism and sardonic eye. Wherever he goes from here is worth watching.
Breathing Water, Timothy Hallinan – Hallinan may be my favorite contemporary writer. No one writes believable thrillers like he does. He doesn’t just pay lip service to the importance of characters and relationships; his books are about them. The writing treads the line between hardboiled and poetic at times. No one writes more complete and engrossing thrillers. And he keep getting better.
All the Dead Voices, Declan Hughes – Speaking of continuing to get better, the fourth Ed Loy novel picks a few scabs from the Irish Troubles that weren’t well received by some who were closer to them than I. The controversy’s a shame, as Hughes merges his usual Macdonald-esque family secrets story with the historical backdrop to go to another level.
Cottonwood, Scott Phillips – I loved The Ice Harvest, I like Westerns, so what the hell? The hell of it is, this might be an even better book than Ice Harvest. Phillips has shown interest in using Bill Ogden in a series. Let’s hope so. The voice here is as perfect as the one used for Ice Harvest, though different, as the stories are much different. Phillips nails them both.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle, George V. Higgins – Technically this shouldn’t be here, as I’d read it quite a while ago, before I knew enough to get what Higgins was up to. Now I get it; this truly is a seminal work.
Chasing Darkness, Robert Crais – Elvis Cole and Joe Pike are reading comfort food to me, among the reasons this book was in my hand when the plane took off for Bouchercon in Indianapolis. That’s not why I was still reading in my hotel room after midnight. Crais is now at the height of his skill; his comfort with these characters is evident on every page. In this familiarity does not breed contempt, but a willingness to take them wherever he wants.
Blood’s a Rover, James Ellroy – My only previous Ellroy was The Cold Six Thousand, and I hated it. Blood’s a Rover hooked me in the first scene and held me, sometimes against my will, through to the end. Love it or hate it, there’s genius sprinkled throughout; you’ll always remember it.
London Boulevard, Ken Bruen – An updated take on Sunset Boulevard, with William Holden’s Joe Gillis replaced by someone more like Richard Stark’s Parker. All the usual Bruen trademarks and a refreshing perspective on a familiar story. Cold-blooded fun.
Swan Peak, James Lee Burke – I wasn’t sure about this one at first, and I still don’t think his lush descriptions suit Montana as well as they do Louisiana, but multiple layers of story and character combine with a nifty twist at the ending to make this a first-class read.
And that still doesn’t cover it. Honorable mention goes to:
Priest, Ken Bruen
High Season, Jon Loomis
Soul Patch, Reed Farrel Coleman
Swag, Elmore Leonard
Slammer, Allan Guthrie
Family Secrets, Jeff Coen
Silent Edge, Michael Koryta
No More Heroes, Ray Banks
Shakedown, Charlie Stella
If 2010 reads as well as 2009, I’d better rest up.