I read a lot of good books last year; here's a list of those I recommend most highly. Many that made monthly lists don;t appear here; some who did not make the monthlies may. I looked at the list of what I'd read, the notes I'd taken, and thought of which books left me with the best impression. it's not a science.
Books are displayed in the order in which they were read. No ranking is implied.
Deadwood, Pete Dexter. Fantastic book. Told primarily from the perspective of Charlie Utter, the book seeps with dry humor and realistic Western bits. The dialog is superb. I've read that David Milch used this as source material for the TV series, and that Dexter was not happy with what Milch did with it. Both are great; both are different. Don't experience one expecting the other, and you'll love them both.
Gun Monkeys, Victor Gischler. I'd been meaning to read Gischler for quite a while, finally got around to it. Funny, while retaining believability, and the plot twists are a delight.
Let it Ride, John McFetridge. (Swap outside the U.S.) The third of McFetridge's crime novels shows the evolution of his style toward George V. Higgins. As always, the dialog sounds like people talking, and the plot and characters are presented without judgment or apology. He's been described as Canada's Elmore Leonard (a reasonable comparison, especially to Leonard's earlier, grittier books); he may also be turning Toronto into the 21st- Century's version of Chandler's Los Angeles.
Bury Me Deep, Megan Abbott. Holy shit. It took me a chapter or two to get into what seemed to be an archaic writing style that turns out to be critical to setting the book in time. As noir as it gets, without the neo-noir mannerisms of perversion and violence for their own sakes. Brilliantly based on a true story.
Johnny Porno, Charlie Stella. Stella writes about the aspects of organized crime most forget: not bosses, but the knockaround guys who grease the money wheels. A matter of fact telling of how easy it can be for someone to fall from respectable blue collar worker (as well as a reminder that blue collar work is, indeed, respectable) into the periphery of crime, and how there is no real periphery to crime. No one writers this kind of story better.
The Queen of Patpong, Timothy Hallinan. Every year I say Hallinan has outdone himself, and every year the Poke Rafferty series gets better. It's hard to believe he can write a better book than this. it's hard to believe anyone can write a better book than this.
Cop in the Hood, Peter Moskos. Not your ordinary cop's diary. Moskos worked for a year-and-a-half as a Baltimore cop to prepare his Masters thesis, so his opinions are those of an outsider who truly went native. This gives the Cop in the Hood a depth many allegedly similar books lack, as Moskos is able to step outside the moment when necessary. The history of the effects of drug and alcohol prohibition at the end of the book is an eye-opener.
Clockers, Richard Price. I discovered Price through The Wire, and there's a lot of The Wire in Clockers. A true crime novel, where the crime is the inciting action of a story about people's lives. As with Freedomland--the other Price book I've read--the resolution of the crime doesn't seem to matter so much by the time you get there. It's what happens to the people, and how they got there, that's important.
The Night Gardener, George Pelecanos. A lot of Pelecanos's writing escapes me. I can understand why he's so highly regarded, but something about him doesn't resonate with me. (Probably due to the frequent references to popular music of the 70s and 80s and cars.) In The Night Gardener he hits all his marks dead on and creates a book you'll not soon forget.
The Rare Coin Score, Richard Stark. I've loved Donald Westlake's books for years. Why it took me so long to read my first Richard Stark is a reasonable question for which I have no good answer. ("not as smart as he thinks he is" comes to mind.) This is, so far, my only Stark, so I can't say where it falls in his oeuvre, but even if it's the best, the others will still be worth reading.
Every Bitter Thing, Leighton Gage. Brazilian federal cops in a story Ed McBain would have enjoyed. The relationships--some better, some not so good--between the cops drive the story. The plot is just complicated enough, the clues just tantalizing enough, and the ending falls together nicely. This was my first Gage, but won't be my last.
Boyos, Richard Maranick. Another unapologetic, non-jedgmental look into the lives of criminals. Wacko Curran is not someone you'd like to know, but everything he does makes sense when iewed from his perspective. Pay attention as the ending comes together and you'll look forward to the next installment in Curran's saga.
Dancing Bear, James Crumley. I read The Last Good Kiss a couple of years ago and appreciated it without really enjoying it. (Of course, I had mononucleosis at the time, which could have had something to do with it.) Dancing Bear was such a good read I'm going to give Kiss another chance. Crumley was a hell of a writer, with a sparse--not Spartan--style, wo knew exactly how do insert humor, and how much.
Complications, Atul Gawande
Fiddle Game, Richard Thompson
The Fourth Protocol, Frederick Forsythe
Gutshot Straight, Lou Berney
Tonight I Said Goodbye, Michael Koryta
Ghosts of Belfast, Stuart Neville
Romance, Ed McBain
Eight Men Out, Eliiot Asinof