Monday, December 30, 2019

2019: The Year in Reading

2019 was a solid reading year. I finished 51 titles, which is 13 fewer than last year’s mark. As usual, the majority of the titles were fiction, but I did increase my nonfiction intake over last year, which means I’ve been trending upwards for two straight years.

My fiction reading was dominated by my obligations to Mystery Scene Magazine—thirty titles, novels, collections, and anthologies, plus a bunch of magazines. I was able to read some old favorites, too. I read four novels by Lionel White, including his classic novel, The Killing, to prepare for an essay I wrote for Stark House, two novels by Ed Gorman, including the Sam McCain novel, Save the Last Dance for Me, a Jack Higgins novel and a Richard Laymon novel.

I also read a bunch of authors new to me—16 in total—including impressive works by Mike Miner (The Hurt Business), Sandra Ireland (Bone Deep), Peter Temple (Bad Debts), Rachel Howzell Hall (They All Fall Down), Oscar de Muriel (Loch of the Dead), and Kerry Greenwood (Blood and Circuses).

There were a few titles that rose to the top, which I skimmed (with some difficulty) down to five. With that said, my five favorite fiction titles that I read in 2018 are (and in no particular order):

Bad Debts, by Peter Temple, is the first novel featuring Australian debt-collector, part-time lawyer, and furniture maker, Jack Irish. Published in 1996, it has lost little of its power. Irish is cynical, romantic, and believable as an idealistic, but worn-out seeker of truth. Peter Temple is a brilliant and flashy writer that adds just enough societal observation to elevate it into something approaching literature (in a good way).

Condor: The Short Takes collects six tales featuring James Grady’s crazy spy, Condor. It’s the same Condor that found fame, with Robert Redford’s face, in the film Three Days of the Condor, but the stories are very much about the oddness of our time. The first is set shortly after the 9/11 attacks and the final story—clocking in at very close to a short novel—is about Russian election meddling. The stories showcase a shimmering, yet at times hard to understand, brilliance wrapped in a meaningful schizophrenic style that is as telling of our culture—never-ending news cycles, the fervency of self-inflicted and self-described crises—as it is entertaining. Read my Mystery Scene review.

The Second Sleep, by Robert Harris, is a thriller with a message about the fragility of modern culture and a coming dystopian post-technological world where the Church is the law and its only guidelines are superstition and fear. This second Dark Age is brought about by human fear and hubris, but the story is played as a tight mystery whodunit that flawlessly plants clues many readers may miss the first time around. Read my Mystery Scene review.

Pursuit, by Joyce Carol Oates, is a brilliant—does Oates write any other way?—dark suspense novel about stalking, abuse, and the female experience in our modern society. Pursuit reminds me, to quote myself, why I would walk 10 miles in the snow to read a handful of Joyce Carol Oates brilliant words.

Blood in the Sky is Steve Hamilton’s fifth Alex McKnight novel that is as much an adventure tale as it is a detective story. McKnight is looking for his best friend’s brother who disappeared while acting as a hunting guide in the Canadian wilderness. The trail starts and ends in the Canada’s vast and cold forests, but nothing turns out as expected. Originally published in 2004, Blood is the Sky is still an impressive and surprising read that pumps new and original life into the private eye genre.

And here are a few honorable mentions. They All Fall Down by Rachel Howzell Hall, Milwaukee Noir, edited by Tim Hennessy, Under the Cold Bright Lights, by Garry Disher, and The Big Book of Reel Murders, edited by Otto Penzler.

I hope 2020’s reading is as good as 2019’s was.

Thursday, December 19, 2019


The Poker Club, by Ed Gorman, originally published as a limited and signed edition hardcover by Cemetery Dance in 1999, is an expansion of Gorman’s sleek novella, “Out There in the Darkness” published in 1995. It is the story of four poker buddies whose lives go sideways when a burglar interrupts their weekly game. The men’s fear and anger, heightened by a rash of burglaries and property crimes in their middle-class neighborhood, boils over and the burglar finishes the night dead. Instead of calling the police, the four friends dump the burglar’s body in a river and try to move on, but then the late night calls start, and the men find themselves knocking on the doors of the criminal class.
The Poker Club is a suspense novel propelled by the amplifying effect of the primary characters’ fear-based decisions. These decisions—we’ll call the police after we’ve scared the burglar, no one will ever know he was here—isolate the men, in quick succession, from their families, their neighborhood, and ultimately, from each other. The plotting is straight-forward and without any real surprises, which is okay because the novel’s power is emotion. The men are pushed into decisions (and actions) most middle-class men never see. They face the prospect of losing their reputations, their professions—and with this, the loss of their lifestyles—their families, and, perhaps, their lives. It is more psychological and character-driven than action and it works pretty well.
The Poker Club is dedicated, in part, to Richard Matheson and it’s a good fit. The depiction of suburban middle-class America as a comfortable and safe place before it transforms into something less friendly, almost nefarious, is similar to Matheson’s brilliant novel, Stir of Echoes. The Poker Club was translated into a tolerable low-budget film directed by Tim McCann and starring Johnathon Schaech.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "The Bavarian Connection"

The Bavarian Connection, by Don Smith, is the twentieth installment of the popular Secret Mission series. It was a paperback original published by Charter in 1978, which is the very edition that caught me eye. The stamps, the disheveled background (especially the colors) work for me. The artist: Unknown (to me at least)

The first paragraph:

Carl Hoffman sat back and steepled his long fingers and considered the dark slender young man sitting nervously opposite his desk. His name was Gunter Vogel, a good German name, Hoffman reflected. And from his swarthy complexion and pronounced accent, probably as phony as the story he had just told him.