My Favorite Crime/Mystery/Detective/Thriller Fiction of 2019

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 even looked at my reading log. After my first cut (which was pretty hard), I had 20+ candidates for the other 5 spots. Whittling those down was difficult, 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 really good and worth the time (sure, a handful should be missed, but let’s forget about them). But these are the crème de la crème.

Not all of these were published in 2019—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.

I should say that I was a little worn out by the time I composed a lot of this and ended up borrowing heavily from my original posts. Hope you don’t mind reruns.
(in alphabetical order by author)

Deep Dirty TruthDeep Dirty Truth

by Steph Broadribb

My original post
Lori is kidnapped by the same Mob that wants her dead, giving her basically two choices—do a job for them or else they’re coming for JT and Dakota. Nothing about this book went the way I expected (beginning with the premise), it was all better than that. I had a hard time writing anything about this book that I hadn’t said about the first two in the series. Broadribb’s series about this tough, gritty bounty hunter (who is not close to perfect, but she’s persistent, which is easier to believe) started off strong and remains so.

4 Stars

ThirteenThirteen

by Steve Cavanagh

My original post
One of the best serial killer antagonists I can remember reading. A breakneck pace. An intricately plotted novel. An already beloved protagonist. Genuine surprises, shocking twists, and a couple of outstanding reveals make this fourth Eddie Flynn novel a must-read (even if you haven’t read any previous installments).

5 Stars

Black SummerBlack Summer

by M. W. Craven

My original post
It’s hard to avoid hyperbole in a Best-Of post like this, it’s harder still when talking about this book. But I just did some math, and Black Summer is in the top 1% of everything I read last year—the writing, the plot, the pacing, the tension, the protagonists, the villain(s), the supporting characters are as close to perfect as you’re going to find. The first note I made about this book was, I’m “glad Craven gave us all of zero pages to get comfy before getting all morbid and creepifying.” It’s pretty relentless from there—right up until the last interview, which might elicit a chuckle or two from a reader enjoying watching a brilliant criminal get outsmarted. It’s dark, it’s twisted, and it’s so much fun to read.

5 Stars

An Accidental DeathAn Accidental Death

by Peter Grainger, Gildart Jackson (Narrator)

My original post
Grainger’s DC Smith couldn’t be more different than Craven’s DS Poe if he tried, and these two books feel so different that it seems strange to talk about them at the same time. What’s the same? How easily they get the reader invested in their protagonists. How easily they get you plunged into their world and caring about what they care about. Grainger has a nice, subtle style (with even subtler humor) that made this novel sheer pleasure to read (well, listen to, in this case).

4 Stars

Dead InsideDead Inside

by Noelle Holten

My original post
When I was about halfway through this novel, I wrote, “While I’m loving every second of this book, I’m having a hard time shaking the bleak outlook on life and humanity that seems to be part and parcel of this novel…Seriously, read a few pages of this book and see if you’re not willing to replace humanity as the apex predator with something careful and considerate—like rabid pit bulls or crack-smoking hyenas.” This is not an easy read thanks to the characters and circumstances, later I wrote, “This isn’t the cops dealing with a larger-than-life genius serial killer—rather, it’s the everyday reality for too many. Just this time tinged with a spree killer making a grim circumstance worse for some. It’s a gripping read, a clever whodunit, with characters that might be those you meet every day. As an experience, it’s at once satisfying and disturbing—a great combination for a reader. You won’t read much this year that stacks up against Dead Inside and you’ll join me in eagerly awaiting what’s coming next from Holten.” I can’t put it better than that.

5 Stars

Deception CoveDeception Cove

by Owen Laukkanen

My original post
I heard someone describe this as Laukkanen writing fan-fic about his dog Lucy. Which is funny, and pretty much true. From the setup to the execution and all points in between, Deception Cove delivers the goods. Anyone who read just one of his Stevens and Windermere books knows that Laukkanen can write a compelling thriller with great characters. In these pages, he shows that in spades—you take a couple of characters that could easily be cardboard cutouts and instead makes them three-dimensional people with depth, flaws, and a relatability—and throw them into a great thriller. What more could anyone want? A wonderful dog. Guess what? He’s got one of those, too. Leaving the reader wanting little more than a sequel.

4 Stars

HackedHacked

by Duncan MacMaster

My original post
Duncan MacMaster is a new (for me) go-to author if I need someone to break me out of a gloomy mood because of books like this. Clever, well-plotted, and filled with more laughs than some “Humor” books I read this year. It also features what’s probably the best secondary character from 2019. Take out the humor (for the sake of argument here, don’t you dare do that really) and this is still a smartly-plotted and well-executed mystery novel. Adding in the humor makes this a must-read.

4 1/2 Stars

The ChainThe Chain

by Adrian McKinty

My original post
There was enough hype around this that I can see where some of my blogger acquaintances were let down with the reality. But McKinty’s breakout novel absolutely worked for me. The tension is dialed up to 11, the pacing is relentless, the stakes are high enough that the reader should make sure their blood pressure prescriptions are filled. The Chain is as compelling and engrossing as you could want. It’s a near-perfect thriller that doesn’t let up. Winslow calls it “Jaws for parents.” He’s right—I can’t imagine there’s not a parent alive who can read this without worrying about their kids, and reconsidering how closely to track their movements and activities.

4 1/2 Stars

Black MossBlack Moss

by David Nolan

My original post
This is one of those books that the adjective “atmospheric” was invented for. There’s an atmosphere, a mood, an undercurrent running through this book. Hopelessness surrounds the so many of these characters. Wretched also works to describe the feeling. You really don’t notice the time you spend in this book, it swallows your attention whole and you keep reading, practically impervious to distractions. Yes, you feel the harsh and desolate atmosphere, but not in a way that puts you off the book. The mystery part of this book is just what you want—it’s complex, it’ll keep you guessing and there are enough red herrings to trip up most readers. As far as the final reveal goes, it’s fantastic—I didn’t see the whole thing until just a couple of pages before Nolan gave it to us. But afterward you’re only left with the feeling of, “well, of course—what else could it have been?” And then you read the motivation behind the killing—and I don’t remember reading anything that left me as frozen as this did in years. There’s evil and then there’s this. This is a stark, desolate book (in mood, not quality) that easily could’ve been borrowed (or stolen) straight from the news. Nolan’s first novel delivers everything it promises and more.

5 Stars

The Power of the Dog The CartelThe Power of the Dog / The Cartel

by Don Winslow

My original post about The Power of the Dog, The Cartel should be up soon.
There’s simply no way I can talk about one of these without the other, so I won’t. This is a fantastic story about a DEA Agent’s obsessive drive to take down one of the most powerful, deadly and successful Mexican Drug Cartels around, as well as a devastating indictment of the U.S.’s War on Drugs. Despite the scope and intricacy of the plot, these are not difficult reads. Despite the horrors depicted, they’re not overwhelming. In fact, there are moments of happiness and some pretty clever lines. Which is not to say there’s a light-hand, or that he ever treats this as anything but life-and-death seriousness. They’re not easy, breezy reads— but they’re very approachable. I don’t know if there’s a moment that reads as fiction, either—if this was revealed to be non-fiction, I would believe it without difficulty. I will not say that he transcends his genre to be “Literature,” or that he elevates his work or anything—but I can say that Winslow demonstrates the inanity of pushing Crime Fiction into some shadowy corner as not worthy of the attention of “serious” readers.

5 Stars

Books that almost made the list (links to my original posts): Flight of the Fox by Gray Basnight, Who Killed the Fonz? by James Boice, Killer Thriller by Lee Goldberg, Going Dark/Going Rogue by Niel Lancaster (can’t pick between the two), You Die Next by Stephanie Marland, The Killing State by Judith O’Reilly, Dead is Beautiful by Jo Perry, Standing in Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin, Paper Son by S. J. Rozan, and How To Kill Friends And Implicate People by Jay Stringer.

Pub Day Repost: Thirteen by Steve Cavanagh: Eddie Flynn, a Serial Killer and a “Trial of the Century”

ThirteenThirteen

by Steve Cavanagh
Series: Eddie Flynn, #4
eARC, 336 pg.
Flatiron Books, 2019

Read: July 26 – 29, 2019

I wanted this posted a day ago, but just a couple hours after finishing it, I wasn’t capable of discussing it in a meaningful way—unless you consider gibberish with intermittent “squee”s and a lot of exclamation points meaningful (and, I suppose it is, in a fashion). I think I’m a bit better now, but I’m still having a hard time organizing my thoughts. I’ve discussed each of the prior Eddie Flynn books in the last couple of years here—and each one has been a little better than its predecessor. This is no exception—but I’m not sure if Eddie Flynn #5 will be able to top this one (equalling it will prove difficult enough).

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Before he’s had time to fully absorb—much less react to—some devastating personal news, Eddie Flynn is approached by one of the biggest, flashiest, best-known defense attorneys in New York to be his second chair in an upcoming murder trial. He’s not interested, at all—even after the money on the table is mentioned. But he eventually agrees to meet with the accused to decide if he believes in the client’s claims of innocence.

Robert (Bobby) Solomon is an actor on the verge of super-stardom. He’s one-half of a Hollywood power-couple with a reality show and a couple of movies together that are responsible for this status. He also stands accused of killing his wife and their security chief after finding them in bed. Eddie believes him and signs on. The media (social and otherwise) is abuzz with the killings and is circulating plenty of rumors, innuendoes and speculation about Bobby and his wife at this time, as they cover “The Trial of the Century.”

The prosecution’s case is almost overwhelmingly strong, but with some creative thinking, Eddie and his investigator dive into the case, coming up with a strategy for his defense—including ways to attack the prosecution’s case. His investigator is the FBI Agent Harper from The Liar, who has since quit the Bureau and is doing PI and security work with her former partner (this was a great move by Cavanagh, she’s the best character from that book not named Flynn).

Still, that’s a daunting target and an almost impossible feat. But what makes it worse? The actual killer—a serial killer, mind you—is on the jury and is committed to getting a guilty verdict. What a great hook, right?

It is hard, almost impossible, to give readers a serial killer as unique as this one. He’s not as charming or intelligent as Dr. Lecter (but close on the latter), he’s not as obviously sick and twisted as most fictional serial killers. There’s not a trace of sexual sadism or anything like that to his modus operandi (which is not to say there’s none in his past). He’s smart, he’s careful, he’s strategic and committed to his vision. He’s got some natural gifts that help him—and an ally that assists him (a non-lone wolf serial killer, I don’t know if I’ve seen that before).

What separates this killer from the rest is the motivation behind his killings and victim selection (and how he makes them a victim). Yes, he’s clearly mentally ill—psychopathic/sociopathic tendencies (if he’s not diagnosable with either), and he enjoys his work. But there’s an ethos, an ideology behind his work. He’s got a message for the world, a lesson he’s trying to teach people. Everything he does is toward this goal, toward living out this ethos. I absolutely loved this, and the more Cavanagh showed this was behind the killing (and eventually, killings), the more we saw of the motivation, the more I liked it (and the more impressed I was with the creation of this killer).

I want to go on a few more paragraphs about him, but I can’t without spoiling everything—so let me stress this is a great, and unique, serial killer.

While dealing with this case, Eddie also has some family problems he’s trying to address, and there are some NYPD cops out for him after embarrassing a detective on the witness stand. Eddie spends more time in danger from members of the NYPD than he does from the killer.

Harry, of course, is back—which is great. He’s more involved in this case than he has been since the first book, The Defense. He’s a judge, Eddie’s former mentor and current self-appointed guardian of Eddie’s alcohol intake. He’s a great friend and ally for Eddie. We also see the return of Arnold Novoselic, the jury consultant that caused so much trouble for Eddie in The Defense, this time, however, he’s on Eddie’s side. From a one-dimensional bad guy in book 1, he’s transformed into someone Eddie has to—and then can—rely on. There’s a new prosecuting attorney, and he’s a great character and a worthy competitor for Eddie.

No matter who’s writing the legal thriller, one of my favorite parts of the book is the narrator/protagonist giving the reader insight into how the judicial system functions—the nitty-gritty stuff about scheduling trials, deciding who to put on your witness list, the order you call the witnesses in, and so on. The reader gets plenty of that here—along with two (complementary) explanations why attorneys on either side of the case just don’t want anything to drive a judge to sequester a jury. I’d never thought of that before, but it rings so true. Eddie also gives a very detailed explanation about how the skills that made him a successful con artist make him a successful trial lawyer. Because I enjoy it so much, I could’ve read a whole lot more of this “behind the scenes” material if it’d been possible for Cavanagh to work it in. Still, I think we get more of that here than we have before.

The pacing on this book is intense—Eddie being hired, investigating, the trial and the outcome all take place in a week. A business week, Monday – Friday, to be specific. That’s just insane—and improbable. But you don’t stop to doubt it while reading. Even after finishing the book, I can’t be bothered to spend too much time wondering about that, because Cavanagh sold the timeline so well. It doesn’t feel rushed at all, however, it just feels like an intense thriller.

While driving the pace that hard, no corners are cut in the intricacy of the story. There are surprises, twists and turns enough to satisfy every reader, and enough courtroom shenanigans to compete with Mason or Haller. The penultimate reveal got me calling Cavanagh some pretty terrible names—not because I didn’t like the reveal, not because Cavanagh cheated in the way he told the story, but because he fooled me. It was all there, ready to be seen, but like a good magician, Cavanagh kept my eyes on what he was doing with one hand and ignoring the —he totally hoodwinked me. I admire that in an author but despise myself for falling victim.

Is Thirteen a decent jumping-on point to the series? Oh yeah, a great one—but you might find yourself a bit underwhelmed if you then go on to read the previous books (just a bit, that that’s only in comparison to this). For those of us who’ve been with Eddie for a while? This is a noticeable progression in quality. Cavanagh’s no longer a promising new author, he’s a reliable established veteran. Cavanagh’s been accumulating plenty of awards lately, and Thirteen demonstrates why and absolutely deserves the critical and award attention it’s been receiving. But better than all of that? It’s a riveting and rewarding read—entertaining, tense, and satisfying. Go get yourself a copy now and you can thank me later.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Flatiron Books via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.

—–

5 Stars

2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

Thirteen by Steve Cavanagh: Eddie Flynn, a Serial Killer and a “Trial of the Century”

ThirteenThirteen

by Steve Cavanagh
Series: Eddie Flynn, #4
eARC, 336 pg.
Flatiron Books, 2019
Read: July 26 – 29, 2019

I wanted this posted a day ago, but just a couple hours after finishing it, I wasn’t capable of discussing it in a meaningful way—unless you consider gibberish with intermittent “squee”s and a lot of exclamation points meaningful (and, I suppose it is, in a fashion). I think I’m a bit better now, but I’m still having a hard time organizing my thoughts. I’ve discussed each of the prior Eddie Flynn books in the last couple of years here—and each one has been a little better than its predecessor. This is no exception—but I’m not sure if Eddie Flynn #5 will be able to top this one (equalling it will prove difficult enough).

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Before he’s had time to fully absorb—much less react to—some devastating personal news, Eddie Flynn is approached by one of the biggest, flashiest, best-known defense attorneys in New York to be his second chair in an upcoming murder trial. He’s not interested, at all—even after the money on the table is mentioned. But he eventually agrees to meet with the accused to decide if he believes in the client’s claims of innocence.

Robert (Bobby) Solomon is an actor on the verge of super-stardom. He’s one-half of a Hollywood power-couple with a reality show and a couple of movies together that are responsible for this status. He also stands accused of killing his wife and their security chief after finding them in bed. Eddie believes him and signs on. The media (social and otherwise) is abuzz with the killings and is circulating plenty of rumors, innuendoes and speculation about Bobby and his wife at this time, as they cover “The Trial of the Century.”

The prosecution’s case is almost overwhelmingly strong, but with some creative thinking, Eddie and his investigator dive into the case, coming up with a strategy for his defense—including ways to attack the prosecution’s case. His investigator is the FBI Agent Harper from The Liar, who has since quit the Bureau and is doing PI and security work with her former partner (this was a great move by Cavanagh, she’s the best character from that book not named Flynn).

Still, that’s a daunting target and an almost impossible feat. But what makes it worse? The actual killer—a serial killer, mind you—is on the jury and is committed to getting a guilty verdict. What a great hook, right?

It is hard, almost impossible, to give readers a serial killer as unique as this one. He’s not as charming or intelligent as Dr. Lecter (but close on the latter), he’s not as obviously sick and twisted as most fictional serial killers. There’s not a trace of sexual sadism or anything like that to his modus operandi (which is not to say there’s none in his past). He’s smart, he’s careful, he’s strategic and committed to his vision. He’s got some natural gifts that help him—and an ally that assists him (a non-lone wolf serial killer, I don’t know if I’ve seen that before).

What separates this killer from the rest is the motivation behind his killings and victim selection (and how he makes them a victim). Yes, he’s clearly mentally ill—psychopathic/sociopathic tendencies (if he’s not diagnosable with either), and he enjoys his work. But there’s an ethos, an ideology behind his work. He’s got a message for the world, a lesson he’s trying to teach people. Everything he does is toward this goal, toward living out this ethos. I absolutely loved this, and the more Cavanagh showed this was behind the killing (and eventually, killings), the more we saw of the motivation, the more I liked it (and the more impressed I was with the creation of this killer).

I want to go on a few more paragraphs about him, but I can’t without spoiling everything—so let me stress this is a great, and unique, serial killer.

While dealing with this case, Eddie also has some family problems he’s trying to address, and there are some NYPD cops out for him after embarrassing a detective on the witness stand. Eddie spends more time in danger from members of the NYPD than he does from the killer.

Harry, of course, is back—which is great. He’s more involved in this case than he has been since the first book, The Defense. He’s a judge, Eddie’s former mentor and current self-appointed guardian of Eddie’s alcohol intake. He’s a great friend and ally for Eddie. We also see the return of Arnold Novoselic, the jury consultant that caused so much trouble for Eddie in The Defense, this time, however, he’s on Eddie’s side. From a one-dimensional bad guy in book 1, he’s transformed into someone Eddie has to—and then can—rely on. There’s a new prosecuting attorney, and he’s a great character and a worthy competitor for Eddie.

No matter who’s writing the legal thriller, one of my favorite parts of the book is the narrator/protagonist giving the reader insight into how the judicial system functions—the nitty-gritty stuff about scheduling trials, deciding who to put on your witness list, the order you call the witnesses in, and so on. The reader gets plenty of that here—along with two (complementary) explanations why attorneys on either side of the case just don’t want anything to drive a judge to sequester a jury. I’d never thought of that before, but it rings so true. Eddie also gives a very detailed explanation about how the skills that made him a successful con artist make him a successful trial lawyer. Because I enjoy it so much, I could’ve read a whole lot more of this “behind the scenes” material if it’d been possible for Cavanagh to work it in. Still, I think we get more of that here than we have before.

The pacing on this book is intense—Eddie being hired, investigating, the trial and the outcome all take place in a week. A business week, Monday – Friday, to be specific. That’s just insane—and improbable. But you don’t stop to doubt it while reading. Even after finishing the book, I can’t be bothered to spend too much time wondering about that, because Cavanagh sold the timeline so well. It doesn’t feel rushed at all, however, it just feels like an intense thriller.

While driving the pace that hard, no corners are cut in the intricacy of the story. There are surprises, twists and turns enough to satisfy every reader, and enough courtroom shenanigans to compete with Mason or Haller. The penultimate reveal got me calling Cavanagh some pretty terrible names—not because I didn’t like the reveal, not because Cavanagh cheated in the way he told the story, but because he fooled me. It was all there, ready to be seen, but like a good magician, Cavanagh kept my eyes on what he was doing with one hand and ignoring the —he totally hoodwinked me. I admire that in an author but despise myself for falling victim.

Is Thirteen a decent jumping-on point to the series? Oh yeah, a great one—but you might find yourself a bit underwhelmed if you then go on to read the previous books (just a bit, that that’s only in comparison to this). For those of us who’ve been with Eddie for a while? This is a noticeable progression in quality. Cavanagh’s no longer a promising new author, he’s a reliable established veteran. Cavanagh’s been accumulating plenty of awards lately, and Thirteen demonstrates why and absolutely deserves the critical and award attention it’s been receiving. But better than all of that? It’s a riveting and rewarding read—entertaining, tense, and satisfying. Go get yourself a copy now and you can thank me later.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Flatiron Books via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.

—–

5 Stars

2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge