Monday, November 26, 2012

Best Mystery and Crime Novels of 2012

2012 saw the release of some outstanding novels in the Mystery genre. Here are the picks by this Blog for best of the year:

The Leopard by Jo Nesbo - A chilling new entry in the series that features Oslo police detective Harry Hole. This one is a near-epic hunt for a serial killer who uses a fiendish device called the Leopold Apple on his victims. A gripping and psychologically complex narrative of Harry's obsessive pursuit of the killer. Jo Nesbo's novels are rich in character and twisted, big canvas plots. This crime thriller was the best read of the year.

The Black Box by Michael Connelly - LAPD detective Harry Bosch returns to investigate the cold case of a female journalist murdered twenty years before during the 1992 Rodney King trial riots in the city. As Bosch digs deeper into the death, seemingly mundane threads weave together to link to powerful people and a past war crime. A solid and methodical police procedural, with Michael Connelly writing at his satisfying best.

Defending Jacob by William Landay - Both a riveting legal mystery and a troubling picture of a family cracking apart under the stress of a murder indictment against one of its members. The teenage son of a Boston Assistant D.A. is arrested for the bloody murder of a classmate. Jacob insists he is innocent, but his worried parents face mounting doubts. The novel is a compelling, disturbing read with a hideous twist at the end. A can't-put-down plot and a tense moral puzzle. Outstanding.

The Expats by Chris Pavone - An intriguing tangle of deception and an innovative take on the espionage novel. A woman who is a retired CIA covert agent begins to suspect that her husband may be involved in a secret life of his own. When the couple comes under surveillance by someone, alarm bells begin to ring. The plot is full of unexpected twists as each layer of lies is peeled away both within the couple's marriage and their covert lives, which have been kept secret from each other. An unpredictable and thoroughly enjoyable spy thriller read.

Raylan by Elmore Leonard - Best outing in years for crime writer Leonard as he brings back his iconic character, fast-draw U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens. Here Raylan is up against canny, treacherous offenders in backwoods Kentucky coal country. Full of the author's trademarks of dead-on dialogue, oddball criminal types, and quick, lethal violence. An entertaining treat for Elmore Leonard fans.

Honorable Mention - Broken Harbor by Tana French, The Fear Index by Robert Harris, Driven by James Sallis.

Monday, October 15, 2012

PHANTOM By Jo Nesbo a Must-Read Crime Thriller

The new Jo Nesbo work Phantom is a must-read for crime novel fans. The novel is the latest in a series that features Oslo police detective Harry Hole, who appeared in the previous outstanding novels The Snowman and The Leopard.

This time, Harry isn't hunting for a serial killer, but is on a more personal quest. A young man Harry is close to is arrested for murder. Harry digs into the case, even though he is not currently on official police duty.

The case takes him into the murky, violent world of drug smugglers who exploit the spreading heroin addiction problem in European countries. The drug ring is led by a mastermind phantom known as Dubai. The smugglers even have a planted mole inside the Oslo police. Enemies who cross the ring are dealt with using a diabolical device called The Beetle.

As Harry Hole keeps hunting for the identity of Dubai, the case takes him toward awful truths he doesn't want to know. He must face at last the inner demons that now lead him to a final dark end. Phantom is a tense crime thtiller that doesn't disappoint and another winner for Jo Nesbo.

BEACH RATING:  4 Palm Trees

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Horror Movies - A Dying Genre?

Back in 2009, this blog did a post asking if the Horror movie genre had itself become one of the walking dead lately. Not much has changed since then.

We still get too much recycling of well-worn stereotype plots. How many more vampire and zombie retreads do we need to see? How many more formula slasher movies that kill off victims by ever-gorier methods?

Occasionally, a fresh new take on horror themes will appear. The creepy paranoia of The Ring, an import from Japanese horror films. The pandemic hysteria of 28 Days Later. The claustrophobic intensity of Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity.

Sadly, these inventive breakthroughs are all too rare. Last year's Insidious was an unsettling portrayal of hidden demonic forces around us. 2012 has so far offered only Cabin in the Woods, a sardonic commentary on the empty nihilism of the whole slasher movie format.

If the Horror movie genre is to revitalize itself, it needs to get off a stale, dead-end road and find vivid new ways to portray the elemental fears of human existence in modern society. That's what the Horror genre is there for, after all.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Best Hard Boiled Crime Writers Out There

The hard boiled crime genre is a harsh, unsparing one populated with morally crippled characters, gritty street realism, and outbreaks of sudden, graphic violence. The genre's bloodlines run through the classic works of Jim Thompson, George V. Higgins, and James Ellroy.

Here are three of the best hard boiled crime writers working today:

 George Pelecanos - His novels are set in Washington D.C., but not in the world of big time politics. This world is one of working class streets, gang turf, and small time hoods with vicious ambitions. A series of novels feature streetwise former cop Derek Strange, beginning with Right As Rain. The author's recent novel The Cut introduces a new character, Spero Lucas, an Iraq war veteran and freelance investigator who will work for almost anyone, including local criminal types.

Pelecanos writes with a clean, razor-sharp style that seems to move with an effortless momentum through the hard-edged stories that he tells.

James Sallis - Author of the novel Drive and its sequel Driven, whose main character is known only as Driver. He works as a movie stunt driver and sometimes makes side money driving in robbery jobs for crime gangs. Sometimes, those jobs go bad.

The novels are brute, existentialist parables. Driver lives day-to-day. He defines himself only by his actions to survive in the moment, whatever that uncertain next moment may be, Stay alive, keep moving somewhere.

That restless, spontaneous movement is a metaphor for the character and for the novels themselves. Sallis writes with an ice-cold minimalism that embodies the bleak, violence-spotted road that Driver travels down.

Dennis Lehane - His work is set in the rough-edged blue collar neighborhoods of south Boston -- areas of worn brick tenements, raw red complexions, and shabby local bars filled with tired, embittered patrons. A petty crime act is only a step away for people who don't have much to begin with.

An ongoing series of novels features private eye Patrick Kensie and his partner, and later wife, Angela Gennaro. The series includes the classic Gone, Baby, Gone and its recent sequel Moonlight Mile.

Central to the novels is the sardonic narrative voice of Kensie and how changes in his new family situation with Gennaro and their small daughter affect his philosophy in facing the brutal violence he encounters in his work.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Stephen King Scorecard - Rating His Later Works

Three years ago, this blog did a post titled, "Stephen King in a Slump?" This was a rating of King's more recent work, finding some of it weak or worse. At that time, we reluctantly asked the question: Could Stephen King still write a really good horror or paranormal novel to match some of the great ones from his earlier career? Or was his best stuff behind him?

But then ...

Then Mr. King, in short order, uncorked two massive reads that can stand with the best of all his work: Under the Dome and 11/22/63. As a fan of King's writing and his amazing creative production over four decades, we offer kudos to him for finding his groove once again in such spectacular fashion.

Herewith, our updated scorecard for King's major works since 1998. (Note list does not include the Dark Tower series)

Pure Classics, no argument: Under the Dome, 11/22/63. These two are King writing at his red-line, hammer-down best. See this blog's past posts for full reviews of these novels.

Pretty Good Stuff: Bag of Bones, Everything's Eventual (collection), Mile 81 (Kindle book). Most of this material is mainstream supernatural horror, where King still shines. Entertaining, fun reads.

Just Okay: Just After Sunset, Full Dark, No Stars (both collections). No real knock-out stories here, but some interesting, offbeat angles.

Pretty Awful: Dreamcatcher, From a Buick 8, Cell, Duma Key. Please Mr. King, no more dumbness like killer cell phones, possession by evil aliens, or pirate ghost ships. Let's just pretend none of that ever happened.

All of which only shows that a writer who produces as much new material as Stephen King is bound to have some uneven work along the way. But given the contribution this author has made in his career over the decades, especially to the Horror fiction genre, we can readily forgive him that.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Ray Bradbury's Horror Fiction

Ray Bradbury was known for his science fiction work, but he wrote some fine horror stories too. Here are five of his best:

"The Jar" - In a seedy country carnival sideshow, something hideous is floating in a big glass jar. From the classic horror collection "The October Country."

"Zero Hour" and "The Veldt" - Two tales that portray the secret malevolent schemes of apparently innocent children. Both are found in the famous collection "The Illustrated Man."

"The Witch Door" - An unsettling tale of persecution in two different time periods. From the collection "Quicker Than the Eye."

"The October Game" - Grotesque story of a resentful husband and father and a Halloween game called "The Witch Is Dead." The whiplash ending is both ambiguous and horrifying. A Bradbury masterpiece. From the collection "Long After Midnight."

Thanks, Ray, for all the great reading you created!

Friday, May 25, 2012

HEADHUNTERS a Nightmare Crime Ride

"Headhunters" by Norwegian writer Jo Nesbo is a departure from that author's outstanding crime novel series featuring Inspector Harry Hole as he hunts serial killers in "The Snowman" and "The Leopard."

In "Headhunters" Roger Brown runs an executive headhunter search firm that seeks high quality candidates for top corporate job openings. On the side, Brown is also a slick art thief, stealing valuable paintings from private owners.

But when Brown steals a rare, lost Reubens work from the wrong owner, he ends up on a nightmarish ride of horrific events. The sequence of plot twists is truly diabolical, including a scene in which Brown is forced to hide himself in the most nauseating place imaginable, described in all-too-graphic detail not for the squeamish.

"Headhunters" begins with deceptive calmness, then wrenches suddenly into a hideously gripping crime thriller. It's an offbeat, can't-miss treat for Jo Nesbo fans.

BEACH RATING:  4 Palm Trees

Saturday, April 28, 2012

DEFENDING JACOB a Troubling Legal Mystery

Defending Jacob by William Landay is both an engrossing legal mystery and a troubled picture of a family cracking apart under the stress of a murder indictment against one of its members.

Andy Barber is an Assistant D.A. who is taken off a sensational murder case when his own teenage son, Jacob, becomes a prime suspect. One of Jacob's classmates is murdered in a local park. Evidence uncovered leads to Jacob's arrest and trial for the killing. Jacob insists he is innocent.

Andy Barber and his wife, Laurie, support their son even as the family become despised outcasts in their own community. But as the Barbers endure the trial testimony, they are forced toward a stark choice: either Jacob is entirely innocent, or their son is a deceptive, emotionless sociopath.

Defending Jacob is a compelling, disturbing read with a hideous twist at the end. Rich in character, the novel is a moral mystery with no comfortable answer.

BEACH RATING:  4 Palm Trees

Sunday, April 15, 2012

THE EXPATS An Intriguing Tangle of Deception

The new mystery The Expats by Chris Pavone is an intriguing and surprising tangle of a married couple's lies and deceptions in their jobs and with each other.

Kate Moore is a retired CIA agent whose husband, Dexter, never knew about the sometimes violent kind of work that she did. Dexter himself is a high-tech bank security consultant, or at least that's what Kate thinks he is. The couple has recently relocated to Luxembourg for Dexter's work, and joined the American expatriate community there.

But while Kate hides her own secrets, she begins to suspect that Dexter may be hiding things of his own. When a new couple, the Macleans, arrive and seem to be keeping Kate and Dexter under surveillance, alarm bells go off in Kate's head. Could the Macleans be there after her, or is it her husband?

The plot is full of unexpected twists as each layer of lies is peeled away one by one. The Expats is an inventive mystery set within the borders of a marriage and played out against an international backdrop.

BEACH RATING: 4 Palm Trees

Saturday, March 24, 2012

New Thriller THE FEAR INDEX a Timely Warning

The new Robert Harris thriller The Fear Index is a timely warning about what can happen in nervous world financial markets when a hyper-powerful computer trading program gets too smart and decides to go rogue.

Dr. Alex Hoffman, a mathematics genius, creates the VIXAL algorithm to execute large scale, instantaneous financial trades for a hedge fund. But when VIXAL begins to operate autonomously outside of human controls, the result is potential market chaos.

At the same time, Hoffman himself comes under attack in a series of anonymous actions that threaten to destroy his entire life.

This stylish, literate thriller is a cautionary warning about the potential for a sudden financial market collapse and the threat of unchecked artificial intelligence advances. What happens when the technology outgrows its human creators?

For those new to British writer Robert Harris, his previous work includes the chilling political suspense novel that was the basis for the film "The Ghostwriter." He is also the author of the excellent suspense novels "Enigma," "Fatherland," and "Archangel."

BEACH RATING: 3 and 1/2 Palm Trees

Saturday, March 3, 2012

RAYLAN One of Elmore Leonard's Best

The new Elmore Leonard crime novel, Raylan, features fast-draw U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens going up against canny, treacherous offenders in Kentucky coal country. His foes include callous body organ thieves, coal company hired thugs, and a murderous bank robber.

It's Leonard's best book in years, reminiscent of his Nineties hot streak of Get Shorty, Maximum Bob, Rum Punch, and Pronto. The later novel was Raylan's first appearance as a character.

Leonard brought back Raylan in Riding the Rap and a short story, Fire in the Hole. The character is also the basis of the hit FX Cable series Justified.

The new novel is a set of linked episodes full of sharply written, dead-on dialogue and a collection of oddball country criminal types. In the past, Leonard applied his trademark dialogue ear to streetwise slang in Detroit and Miami. It works just fine here with hill country folksiness.

Raylan is an entertaining, can't-miss read for Elmore Leonard fans.

BEACH RATING: 4 Palm Trees

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

This Year's Must-Read Mystery: THE LEOPARD

The Leopard by Jo Nesbo is the must-read mystery novel of the year so far.

Set in Oslo, Norway, the novel continues the chilling series that features Oslo police inspector Harry Hole. This new entry follows on the heels of The Snowman, an outstanding thriller that was one of the best mystery novels of last year.

The Leopard is a gripping, psychologically complex, and nearly epic hunt for a serial killer who uses a fiendish device called the Leopold Apple on his victims. In his obsessive pursuit of the killer, Harry Hole continues to battle his own personal demons of alcoholism and drug use.

Jo Nesbo's novels are rich in character and twisted, large canvass plots. Nesbo takes over as heir to the title of best Nordic mystery novelist from the late Stieg Larsson and his great Dragon Tattoo series.

For those new to Nesbo's work, The Snowman is highly recommended as a starting place. Then get your hands on The Leopard.

BEACH RATING: 4 Palm Trees