In the News: 11 Best Mysteries and Crime Novels of 2014

By Adam Woog
Special to The Seattle Times

(Published Sunday, December 14, 2014 at 5:03 AM)

It’s always tough, whittling down the year’s crime fiction to choose the best, but that reflects the deep pool of contenders — it’s a good problem to have.

“Destroyer Angel” by Nevada Barr (Minotaur). In this gripping story, National Park Ranger Anna Pigeon drops straight into Deliverance country. Pigeon, always more comfortable in wilderness than town, is camping deep in the Minnesota woods with two friends and their respective teenage daughters. Things are great until a team of thugs appears, with orders to kill one of them. Far from civilization, the campers have only a short time to find a safe way out, and complicating matters is the fact that one woman is disabled. Fortunately, all of them are smart and resourceful. As always, Barr writes beautifully about the wild places she so clearly loves.

“Love Story, With Murders” by Harry Bingham (Delacorte). In a genre chock-full of quirky characters, Welsh detective Fiona Griffiths stands tall — a startlingly original character whose troubled, intense personality makes her a brilliant, deeply empathetic cop (at least toward the dead). Here, Griffiths’ singular talents help her find a link between murder victims whose body parts have been scattered around Cardiff.

“Jack of Spies” by David Downing (Soho). In the volatile days preceding World War I, Jack McColl, luxury car salesman, is tapped to spy on threats to a dying British Empire: saber rattlers in Germany, rebellion in India, freedom fighters in Ireland. The result: a smart, erudite book worthy of comparison to the classic stories by W. Somerset Maugham about Ashenden, another amateur spy from an earlier era.

“An Officer and a Spy” by Robert Harris (Knopf). Alfred Dreyfus, a real-life French military officer (and, not coincidentally, a Jew), was wrongly convicted of treason at the turn of the 20th century. Harris’ nuanced retelling wears its research lightly, with clear links to today’s atmosphere of government secrecy, national security and religious bias.

“Darkness, Darkness” by John Harvey (Pegasus). Nottingham detective Charlie Resnick considers a murder with ties to the bitter strike by coal miners in England during the 1980s — a time when Resnick, then a rookie cop, began learning that the line between good and bad can blur. Resnick, even more melancholy and rumpled than usual, reflects on his own mortality as this compassionate, astute series comes to a close.

“The Intern’s Handbook” by Shane Kuhn (Simon & Schuster). A morbidly funny satire with an inspired premise: a firm of professional assassins who get close to their targets (typically corporate types) by posing as interns. No one pays attention to interns, right?

“By Its Cover” by Donna Leon (Atlantic Monthly Press). In a book about books, someone in Venice is stealing pages from priceless antiquarian books for resale on the black market. Commissario Guido Brunetti, intelligent and sympathetic as always, investigates.

“After I’m Gone” by Laura Lippman (Morrow). Charismatic con man Felix Brewer, faced with a long prison term, vanished decades ago. Lippman shrewdly focuses on the abandoned women in his life — wife, daughters, mistress. There’s a murder mystery here, but at the book’s heart are the complex reactions of the heartbroken and angry Brewer women.

“The Day of Atonement” by David Liss (Random House). A sly, rich and swift historical novel of vengeance and rough justice. It’s 1755 and Sebastian Foxx, a young, Jewish “thief taker” (read: bounty hunter and all-around hard guy) returns to his native Lisbon to avenge his parents’ disappearance at the hands of the Inquisition, which terrorized Portugal far longer than elsewhere in Europe.

“I Love You More” by Jennifer Murphy (Doubleday). In this chilling and beautifully written debut from Seattleite Murphy, someone has murdered a charismatic lawyer at the summerhouse he shared with his wife and their precocious adolescent daughter. But he had two other wives, and all had reason to kill him. The women claim they didn’t know each other until the police investigation, but the daughter knows better.

“Red Joan” by Jennie Rooney (Europa). WWII-era, pro-Soviet radicals convince Joan Stanley — a young physicist and part of Britain’s race to build a nuclear bomb — to pass vital information. This enthralling tale is based on a real figure: Lettie Norwood, who in 1999 — at age 87 — was outed as the longest-serving Soviet agent in England. “Oh dear,” she told a reporter, “I thought I had got away with it.”

Adam Woog’s column on crime and mystery fiction appears on the second Sunday of the month in The Seattle Times.

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