Monday, December 29, 2008

Best Reads of 2008

Not all of these books came out in 2008; I read them as I get to them. These were the ten (plus one)best books I read for first time this year, listed alphabetically by author. Books I reviewed contain links to the review, as do the names of authors I was able to interview.

Mark BillinghamIn the Dark
My first exposure to Billingham; I’ll be back. A compelling, multi-faceted story told with an economical style that never lapses into dryness. Nothing is quite what it seems, and the plot twists are unforeseen, yet inevitable. A reader can’t ask for more.

Jimmy Breslin – The Good Rat
The story of Burt Kaplan, the prime witness in the case against New York’s two hit man cops, Louis Eppolito and Stephen Caracappa, told as only Breslin can. The arrogance and hubris of the mobsters, the matter-of-factness of their betrayal, and insights into the decline of a mob well past the glory days of Costello, Profaci, Gambino, et al. A must read for anyone with an interest in how New York’s Five Families have played out their strings, and a lot of fun.

Declan BurkeThe Big O
The most fun I’ve had reading a book all year, laugh out loud funny. Burke’s cast of characters are the love children of Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen. More than once I caught myself wondering, “What’s this asshole going to do now?” (Referring to a character, not Burke.) No one’s quite as sharp as they think they are, want to be, or need to be. The ending is a little more complicated than it needs to be, but that’s quibbling.

Sean Chercover – Trigger City
Chercover may be the next big deal in American PI fiction. Trigger City has its homage to Chandler in tone and style, but never feels retro; it’s Twenty-First Century all the way. A major plot twist halfway through is exquisitely set up to provide a true “Oh shit!” moment, and the ending is satisfying for being as good for the characters as can be expected. Nothing too Hollywood here, just top-rate hard-boiled fiction from a writer who bears watching. (Note: Schedules dictated the delay of my interview with Sean Chercover. It should be posted here in early January.)

John Connolly – The Reapers
Louis and Angel get their own book; Charlie Parker appears only as The Detective, who gets to try to repay some of the chits he’s rolled up in Connolly’s previous books. As formidable as Parker and Louis are, the book is stolen by everyman Willie Brew, who becomes the moral center of the book. As violent as anything Connolly has ever written, The Reapers always retains its humanity, in large part through Connolly’s artful descriptions. He’s probably the closest current writer to James Lee Burke in the poetic narrative department, and his skills are well used here.

Timothy HallinanThe Fourth Watcher
Maybe the best pure thriller I read this year, but reading it as just a thriller is cheating yourself. This is what thrillers should want to be when they grow up, a multi-layered story about people, with the suspense growing entirely from the reader’s empathy for the characters. Hallinan’s writing style is perfectly suited for such a tale: crisp, not dry; humor flows naturally from the characters’ personalities and relationships; and your emotions are evoked, not demanded. Not to be missed.

Declan HughesThe Price of Blood
The third book in Hughes’s Ed Loy series; let’s hope there are plenty more. Right up there with Connolly as a wordsmith, Hughes combines the atmospherics of Chandler with the family histories of Ross Macdonald, tying them together in aftermath of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger boom. Never apologetic, Hughes lays out flawed characters for the reader to decide who to root for. Loy fights his demons without becoming maudlin about it, and Tommy Owens may be the most well-rounded sidekick currently operating.

Laura Lippman – Hardly Knew Her
This collection of short stories puts a whole new sheen on Lippman’s work. Best known for her Tess Monahan novels, the Monahan short stories may be the least compelling of the bunch, as the writing there is the least adventurous. A wide-ranging list of subjects, covered by a writer equally at home in a variety of styles. Short story collections are sometimes good bathroom reads; take this one in there and the rest of your family may explode before you come out again.

David McCullough – The Great Bridge
Yes, I do read books other than crime. This story of how the Roeblings built the Brooklyn Bridge is a masterpiece on a par with the bridge itself. No detail is too small for McCullough’s eye, yet the tale is never bogged down in minutiae. A look into New York and Brooklyn life of the day as well as the story of the bridge, this book alone would cement McCullough’s reputation, even without the rest of his formidable oeuvre.

John McFetridge – Everybody Knows This is Nowhere
A sequel of sorts to his first novel, Dirty Sweet, EKTIN uses the same Toronto settings and a handful of the characters to provide continuity. Dirty Sweet was good; EKTIN is a lot better than good. The writing is crisper, the humor flows better, and the plotlines spins themselves out effortlessly, yet unexpectedly. Contains maybe the best opening sequence of the year.

Richard Price – Freedomland
This one’s been around a while, but I only discovered Price through my immersion in The Wire. A crime story that isn’t, Freedomland uses a crime to show the dynamics of a situation that, once launched, communicates like a fire, not obeying the intent of any of its originators. Darker than Wolfe’s work, but Freedomland is not unlike The Bonfire of the Vanities for the underclass.

So, while 2008 may have been a shit year in a lot of ways, it was a good year for reading.


Anonymous said...

Dana --

Thank you so much -- I really don't know how to tell you how much I appreciate this. I've just been through a very rough year of writing BREATHING WATER, and when I read this, I thought back to all the trouble WATCHER gave me -- and suddenly I think there might be hope for the new one.

At any rate, thanks again, and happy New Year.

Tim Hallinan

Dana King said...

My pleasure; any good words for THE FOURTH WATCHER are well deserved. I will be surprised and disappointed if I don't see it on some award nominations lists.