My Favorite Crime/Mystery/Detective/Thriller Fiction of 2018

Once I settled on dividing this chunk of my reading out for its own list, I knew instantly half of the books that’d make it before I looked at just what I’d read in 2018. After going through that list, I had 15 more candidates for the other 5 spots. Whittling those down was hard, but I’m pretty comfortable with this list. That doesn’t mean the other 90 or so books I read in this family of genres were bad — most were great (I can think of maybe 5 I could’ve missed). But these are the crème de la crème.

Man, I wanted to write the crème de la crime there. But I’m better than that.

Not all of these were published in 2018 — but my first exposure to them was. As always, I don’t count re-reads, or almost no one could stand up to Stout, early Parker, etc. and my year-end lists would get old fast.

Now that I’m done with this, I can focus on 2019.

(in alphabetical order by author)

The Puppet ShowThe Puppet Show

by M. W. Craven

My original post
A book with some of the darkest moments I came across last year — and some of the brightest, too. The mystery was great, the character moments (not just between the protagonists) were better — great rounded, human, characters. Even after I saw where Craven was going with things, I refused to believe it — and only gave up when I had no other choice. Two (at least) fantastic reveals in this book, very compelling writing and fantastic characters. What more do you want? Washington Poe and Tilly Bradshaw are two of my favorite new characters and I can’t wait to see where they go next.

5 Stars

Needle SongNeedle Song

by Russell Day

My original post
I could pretty much copy and paste that above paragraph for this one. It never gets as dark as The Puppet Show, but the depravity displayed is bad enough to unsettle any reader. What makes this story compelling isn’t really the crime, it’s the way the crime impacts the people near it — those who lost a family member (I don’t want to say loved one) and those who are close to the suspects. Yakky and Doc Slidesmith are characters I hope to see again soon, and I want to bask in Day’s prose even more.

5 Stars

She Rides ShotgunShe Rides Shotgun

by Jordan Harper

My original post
The story of a little girl being surrounded by death and destruction, with both looming and threatening her all the time, and her discovering how to be brave. The story of a man trying to be a good father — or just a father. The story of survival. A story of revenge. A story about all kinds of violence. Wonderfully told.

4 Stars

WreckedWrecked

by Joe Ide

My original post
Not as entertaining as IQ, but it works as a novel in ways the previous two didn’t. I don’t know if I could put my finger on it, but it’s there. Wrecked is a clear step in evolution for Isaiah, Dodson, and probably Ide. It definitely demonstrates that the three are here to stay as long as Ide wants, and that these characters aren’t satisfied with being inner-city Sherlock/Watson, but they’re going places beyond that. Some good laughs, some good scares, some real “I can’t believe Ide ‘let’ them do that to Isaiah” moments — a great read.

5 Stars

A Mint Condition CorpseA Mint Condition Corpse

by Duncan MacMaster

My original post
I put off reading this for reasons I really don’t understand and haven’t forgiven myself for yet. But the important thing is that I read it — it took me a chapter or two to really get into it, but once I did, I was in hook, like and sinker. In my original post I said this is “a joy to read; full of characters you’ll want to spend days with, that you’ll want to have over for Thanksgiving dinner just to lighten things up and distract you from Aunt Martha’s overcooked yams and dry turkey; a completely fun time that’s very likely most I’ve enjoyed a book in 2018. It is escapist. It is silly. It is clever.” I also said, “Probably the 5-Star-est 5-Stars I’ve given this year.” There are a couple of books that could compete for that line, but I’m not sure they’d win.

5 Stars

My Little EyeMy Little Eye

by Stephanie Marland

My original post
Fantastic, fantastic premise. Great hook. Another great pair of protagonists (although most of their work is independent of each other). A True Crime blogger and a DI racing to uncover a serial killer, while battling dark secrets, dark pasts, and outside pressures that threaten to derail them at every turn. Marland surprised me more often and in more ways than just about any author this year. I was floored by some of them, too. A great puzzle, a great mish-mash of amateur detective and police procedural.

4 1/2 Stars

Her Last MoveHer Last Move

by John Marrs

My original post
I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into when I said yes to this Book Tour request. I’m not sure I could have — no offense to Mr. Marrs, but I don’t think I’d heard of him before. He’s definitely on my radar now. This was brutal, devastating, shocking, and just about every other adjective reviewers (professional and otherwise) overuse when describing a thriller. Marrs did so many things I didn’t think he would do. He didn’t do a lot that I thought he would (and seemed to mock the idea that he’d so some of what I wanted him to do). I spent a lot of time while reading this book not liking him very much, but so grateful I was getting to read the book. I’m still upset by some of it, but in awe of the experience.

5 Stars

Stoned LoveStoned Love

by Ian Patrick

My original post
Sam Batford, undercover cop, is back in a sequel that shows real growth from a very impressive debut. Batford is in incredibly murky ethical and legal waters — and that’s not counting what his undercover op is. Any misstep could ruin his career, end his life, land him in prison — or all three. Actually, those options hold true even if he doesn’t make any missteps. There are so many balls in the air with this one that it’d be easy to lose track of one or more. But Patrick doesn’t seem to struggle with that at all — and he writes in such a way that a reader doesn’t either. That’s a gift not to be overlooked. I liked the overall story more than it’s predecessor and think that Patrick’s writing was better here. This is a series — and a character — that you really need to get to know.

4 1/2 Stars (I remember liking it more than that…I’m sure I had a reason at the time)

Exit MusicExit Music

by Ian Rankin

My original post
I’ve spent enough time with John Rebus over the last couple of years that I knew one of the books had to end p here, I just wasn’t sure which one. Exit Music ended up on the Top 10 not so much for the main mysteries (although they put the book in contention), but for all rest of the things that the novel was about — Rebus’ moving on (not knowing how to or to where), Siobhan moving on (and not sure she wants to), and the dozen or so little things surrounding the two of them and their work. Even Big Ger was kind of moving on here — and that’s just strange to read about. Exit Music would’ve been a great way to say farewell to John Rebus, I’m just glad it wasn’t that.

5 Stars

Trouble is a Friend of MineTrouble is a Friend of Mine

by Stephanie Tromly, Kathleen McInerney (Narrator)

My original post
If not for Kirby Baxter (above), I could say this was the most fun I had with a Mystery novel this year (not to take anything away from the sequels on that front). This is just the right mix of high school hijinks, teen drama, quirky characters and writing with panache. Zoe and Digby are a great combo of smarts, recklessness and responsibility as they work their way through puzzles surrounding missing kids, drug dealing doctors, and some strange cult-like group. You can feel the chemistry between them — like Remington Steele and Laura Holt, David Addison and Maddy Hays, Cumberbatch’s Sherlock and Freeman’s Watson. Throw in their friends and frenemies and you’ve got a recipe for fun and suspense. I listened to this on audiobook (and bought the paperback for my daughter before I got to the end, I should add) and McInerney’s narration was perfect — she captured the spirit of the book and made the characters come alive.

4 Stars

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My Favorite 2018 (Fictional) Dogs

In one of the lightest moments of Robert B. Parker’s Valediction (just before one of the darker), Spenser describes his reservation about the first two Star Wars movies: “No horses . . . I don’t like a movie without horses.” After watching Return of the Jedi, he comments that it was a silly movie, but “Horses would have saved it.” Which makes me wonder what he’d have thought about The Last Jedi. Horses aren’t my thing, it’s dogs. I’m not quite as bad as Spenser is about them — I like books without dogs. But occasionally a good dog would save a book for me — or make a good book even better. I got to thinking about this a few weeks back when I realized just how many books I’d read last year that featured great dogs — and then I counted those books and couldn’t believe it. I tried to stick to 10 (because that’s de rigueur), but I failed. I also tried to leave it with books that I read for the first time in 2018 — but I couldn’t cut two of my re-reads.

So, here are my favorite dogs from 2018 — they added something to their novels that made me like them more, usually they played big roles in the books (but not always).

(in alphabetical order by author)

  • Edgar from The Puppet Show by M. W. Craven (my post about the book) — Edgar has a pretty small role in the book, really. But there’s something about him that made me like Washington Poe a little more — and he made Tilly Bradshaw pretty happy, and that makes Edgar a winner in my book.
  • Kenji from Smoke Eaters by Sean Grigsby (my post about the book) — The moment that Grigsby introduced Kenji to the novel, it locked in my appreciation for it. I’m not sure I can explain it, but the added detail of robot dogs — at once a trivial notion, and yet it says so much about the culture Cole Brannigan lives in. Also, he was a pretty fun dog.
  • Rutherford from The TV Detective by Simon Hall (my post about the book) — Dan Groves’ German Shepherd is a great character. He provides Dan with companionship, a sounding board, a reason to leave the house — a way to bond with the ladies. Dan just felt more like a real person with Rutherford in his life. Yeah, he’s never integral to the plot (at least in the first two books of the series), but the books wouldn’t work quite as well without him.
  • Oberon from Scourged by Kevin Hearne (my post about the book) — Everyone’s favorite Irish Wolfhound doesn’t get to do much in this book, because Atticus is so focused on keeping him safe (as he should be). But when he’s “on screen,” he makes it count. He brings almost all of the laughs and has one of the best ideas in the novel.
  • Mouse from Brief Cases by Jim Butcher (my post about the book) — From the moment we read, “My name is Mouse and I am a Good Dog. Everyone says so,” a good novella becomes a great one. As the series has progressed, Mouse consistently (and increasingly) steals scenes from his friend, Harry Dresden, and anyone else who might be around. But here where we get a story (in part) from his perspective, Mouse takes the scene stealing to a whole new level. He’s brave, he’s wise, he’s scary, he’s loyal — he’s a very good dog.
  • Ruffin from Wrecked by Joe Ide (my post about the book) — Without Isaiah Quintabe’s dog opening up conversation between IQ and Grace, most of this book wouldn’t have happened — so it’s good for Grace’s sake that Ruffin was around. And that case is made even more from the way that Ruffin is a support for Grace. He also is a fantastic guard dog and saves lives. His presence is a great addition to this book.
  • Dog from An Obvious Fact by Craig Johnson (my post about the book) — I might have been able to talk myself into ignoring re-reads if I hadn’t listened to this audiobook (or any of the series, come to think of it) last year — or if Dog had been around in last year’s novel. Dog’s a looming presence, sometimes comic relief (or at least a mood-lightener), sometimes a force of nature. Dog probably gets to do more for Walt in this book — he helps Walt capture some, he attacks others, just being around acts as a deterrent for many who’d want to make things rough on Walt. Walt couldn’t ask for a better partner.
  • Trogdor from The Frame-Up by Meghan Scott Molin (my post about the book) — Honestly, Trogdor probably has the least impact on the book than any of the dogs on this list. But, come on, a Corgi names Trodgor? The idea is cute enough to justify inclusion here. He’s a good pet, a fitting companion for MG — not unlike Dan’s Rutherford. He just adds a little something to the mix that helps ground and flesh-out his human companion.
  • Mingus from The Drifter by Nicholas Petrie (my post about the book) — Like Trogdor, a great name. Like Mouse and Dog, a great weapon. He’s really a combination of the two of them (just lacking Mouse’s magical nature). He’s vital in many different ways to the plot and the safety of those we readers care about. Petrie made a good move when he added this beast of a dog to the novel.
  • Chet from Dog On It by Spencer Quinn (my posts about Chet) — If I couldn’t cut Dog, I couldn’t cut Chet. Listening to this audiobook (my 4th or 5th time through the novel, I believe) reminded me how much I love and miss Chet — and how eager I am for his return this year. This Police Academy reject is almost as good a detective as his partner, Bernie, is. Chet will make you laugh, he’ll warm your heart, he’ll make you want a dog of your own (actually, all of these dogs will)
  • Zoey from Deck the Hounds by David Rosenfelt (my post about the book) — how do I not invoke Tara when discussing an Andy Carpenter book? Good question. It’s Zoey that brings Andy into the story, it’s Zoey that helps Don to cope with his own issues, it’s Zoey that defends Don and saves him (in many ways). Sure, Tara’s the best dog in New Jersey, but Zoey comes close to challenging her status in this book.
  • Lopside from Voyage of the Dogs by Greg van Eekhout (my post about the book) — It almost feels like cheating to bring in a dog from a novel about dogs — conversely, it’s hard to limit it to just one dog from this book. But Lopside the Barkonaut would demand a place here if he was the only dog among a bunch of humans — or if he was surrounded by more dogs. He’s brave, he’s self-sacrificing, he’s a hero. He’ll charm you and get you to rooting for these abandoned canines in record time.

The Puppet Show by M. W. Craven: The debut of one of the best pair of characters I can think of in a truly compelling novel.

The Puppet ShowThe Puppet Show

by M. W. Craven
Series: Washington Poe, #1

Paperback, 352 pg.
Constable, 2018
Read: July 23, 2018

‘First impressions?’ Flynn asked.

He studied the slash marks again. Not including the messy number five, he counted forty-two. Forty-two wounds to spell out ‘Washington Poe’. Forty-two individual expressions of agony. ‘Other than the victim wishing I’d been called Bob, nothing.’

‘I need you to come back to work,’ she said. She looked around at the desolate fells he now called home. ‘I need you to re-join the human race.’

He stood up, all previous thoughts of resigning dismissed. There was only one thing that mattered: the Immolation Man was out there somewhere, selecting victim number four.

Washington Poe was a Detective Inspector who either made a very, very, very horrible mistake or is a DI or did a very, very, very bad thing — it depends who you ask. Either way, he’s on suspension until he either quits or the internal investigation is complete. He doesn’t quit, but he doesn’t expect to be brought back to work anytime soon.

Until his former DS, now his replacement, shows up — there’s a serial killer afoot, burning people alive — after some torture, it seems. What led to him being brought back (aside from being the kind of investigator who will be able to track this guy down) is that the last victim had Poe’s name cut into him before he was burned. This is a message to him — and possibly a threat. So, potential bad cop or not — for his own protection, he needs to get reactivated. Sure, it’ll be a little awkward, he’ll be acting as a subordinate to his former DS — but he frankly knows he was better at that anyway, so he’ll get used to it.

One of the first things he does is meet an analyst working with the police — she’s the one who developed the model to make sense of the wounds and found his name on the corpse. Tilly is a fascinating character — she’s a mathematical genius, a whiz with computers, and socially awkward. That actually is an understatement — clearly from a young age, Tilly’s mom sheltered her from the worst of society so that her genius could flourish. Now an adult, she decides to work with the police so her mathematics could see some immediate benefit to society — but she still is an outsider (and mom is determined to keep her that way).

Almost immediately upon meeting her, Poe shakes up her life. He defends her from some teasing/bullying by some police officers and then he insists that she’s coming to the field with him. Tilly’s never done anything like that before, but jumps at the chance. The two of them build a strange partnership — and a strong friendship — as they work this case, along with DI Flynn and an old friend of Poe’s, Kylian Reid) who is one of the few police officers in the country who aren’t suspicious of him.

Poe is a great character — there’s no two ways about it — you put him in a novel by himself (or with Flynn or Reid) and I’m reading it. He’s in the Bosch/Rebus kind of vein — he’s going to get the job done, and will annoy/offend whoever in the chain of command, city government, press, etc. to get the job done. This quotation describes it best:

He knew some people thought his reputation for following the evidence wherever it took him was because he felt he held some sort of moral high ground. That he had a calling to a purer version of the truth that was unattainable to other, lesser, cops. The truth was simpler — if he thought he was right, the self-destructive element to his personality took over. It frequently allowed the devil on his shoulder to shout down his better angel. And at the minute, the angel couldn’t get a word in edgeways . . .

His face turned to granite. If he didn’t do it, who would? Sometimes someone had to step up. Do the unpalatable so others didn’t have to.

That’s the kind of character I can read any time.

But what makes this book (on the character front, anyway) a must read is Tilly Bradshaw. Actually, no. It’s the combination of Tilly and Poe. Yeah, Poe largely uses her the way he’d use anyone to get the job done (see Rebus/Bosch) — but there’s some genuine affection for her at work, too. He truly seems to like her and wants to protect her — and maybe push her a little to fend for herself. Tilly clearly adores him — I should stress that this is a platonic thing for both — he protects her, treats her like an adult (something her mother doesn’t allow anyone to do), and relies on her brain (which most people do). Tilly is a character worth one’s time, no doubt about it — and I can’t imagine anyone who reads this book to not like her a lot. But the two of them together are as good a pair as you can imagine.

Now, that’s all well and good — but what about the plot? What about the killer? The plot is as intricate as you can hope for in a serial killer novel. As the police start to compile a theory of the case, a profile of the killer, it quickly becomes clear that there’s a dark root, a strong motivating factor behind the killings. At one point, I put in my notes “Okay, I’d be absolutely fine not learning anything else about the killer’s backstory. Can we just get to his arrest now, leaving the rest of the uncovering to the prosecutor’s work after the novel is over?”

Naturally, the answer to that was a resounding no. You learn more about what drove this man to kill — and frankly, it’s hard not to wonder if he’s justified. Not justified in how he goes about the killing, because that’s just horrible. But you might wonder if it’d be okay for him to get away with it. To get to that point — and to find out if Poe and Bradshaw are able to stop the killing — there’s some great twists and turns to the case, and some very compelling reveals to get through. The reader will be hooked throughout.

Not only can Craven create great characters, and tell a good story — but his writing is compelling, too (yes, there is a difference between those last two). The first description given of one of the corpses The Immolation Man left was horrific, it really made me ill. Another description that stood out was an older suspect — and her home — without giving anything else away, Craven’s description of the two together was so well done that I felt I could see them as clearly as I could see the room I was in at the time. I loved the voice, the style, his use of words — really just about everything.

Oh, yeah and when — I can’t believe I almost forgot this — when you figure out why Craven used this title, you’re going to need some help picking your jaw off the ground. There’s at least one other reveal that may require that as well, come to think of it. Any good Crime Fiction is going to have some good reveals embedded in the story — the skilled writer revealing them properly is what makes a good Crime Novel into a great one. Craven delivered the latter.

Craven’s writing, the compelling story, the fantastic characters — you put these elements together and you have an unbeatable combination and the makings of one of the best crime novels — novels, period — that I’ve read this year. I’m not really sure I read it — it was more of a semi-controlled devouring. There are few sequels I’m looking forward to as much as the next Washington Poe book. While I’m waiting for it, you should go grab The Puppet Show so you can join me in anticipating its arrival.

—–

5 Stars