Best New Books of 2011: Janet L.’s Picks

It’s that time of the year—the time for Best Books lists.  2011 was a good year for mysteries and five of my favorites are below.  They made the cut because they had good plots, interesting characters, and a strong sense of place.  Being a librarian, I decided to put them in order alphabetically by author.  Happy reading!

The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen
Carl Morck has just returned to work after a shooting that killed and maimed fellow officers.  He shows up late, insults colleagues, and is a general pain in the neck.  His boss is tired of the morale problems he’s creating.  When a new department is created to handle “cases deserving special scrutiny”  management seizes the chance to transfer Carl.

Carl’s enthusiastic assistant Assad brings to Carl’s attention the case of Merete Lynggaard, a politician who disappeared five years ago.  Everyone assumes she’s dead, except Carl Morck.  Carl is surprised to find himself caring about his job again, even if everyone else in homicide thinks his interest in this case is final proof that he’s a lost cause.

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran
Claire DeWitt is a private investigator who goes by the book.  Specifically, the book Detection by the great French detective, Jacques Silette.

It’s 2007 and Claire has been hired to find out what happened to Vic Willing, a New Orleans prosecutor who hasn’t been seen since Hurricane Katrina.   As Claire drives around the surreal landscape that is post-Katrina New Orleans she is struck and saddened by its shattered beauty.  And she realizes, along with several other characters, that New Orleans “knows how to tell a beautiful story.  It truly does.  But if you’re looking for a happy ending, you better be lookin’ somewhere else”.

I liked the atmosphere of this story and its refusal to make people all bad or all good.  I liked Claire, who tries to hide her big heart under a thin veneer of wisecracks.  I found the New Orleans Sara Gran conjures up vivid and original.  And I found myself pondering the words of Jacques Silette.  Silette’s first rule of solving mysteries is “most people don’t want their mysteries solved.  Including us.”  I’m still thinking about that.

Misery Bay by Steve Hamilton
It’s been a long time since Hamilton published an Alex McKnight mystery, but this book was worth the wait.  Alex is still drinking Canadian beer at the Glasgow Inn, still working on his cabins, still wondering why on earth he lives in a place where winter never seems to end.

Everything in his life is reassuringly normal until he receives a plea for help from his arch nemesis, police Chief Roy Maven.  As strange as it seems to Alex, Maven does have at least one friend, Charles Razniewski.  Razniewski needs help investigating the death of his only child.  McKnight agrees to help even though he thinks there is little he can do–how can he say no to what will surely be a once in a lifetime request for a favor from Maven?

Hamilton’s writing is taut, with frequent flashes of mordant humor.  The pacing is electric, building to a heart stopping climax.  I defy anyone to stop reading this book once they’ve hit page fifty.

The Woodcutter by Reginald Hill
“When love is in opposition to grim reality, there is usually only one winner.” So goes the underlying motif of the story of Wolf Hadda.  Wolf has worked hard to rise from humble beginnings and has built up a successful business and a big bank account.  But suddenly he finds himself in a nightmare of false accusations. He has no idea why this is happening and who is responsible.  Even worse, he’s not sure who his true friends are anymore.

So what will happen? Will the winner be love or grim reality? I recommend this book to anyone in the mood for a great read. It has a large cast of compelling characters, terrific plotting,  and vivid descriptions of the Cumbrian countryside. As a crime novel I think it stands with the best of P.D. James and Elizabeth George.

White Heat by M.J. McGrath
This first novel has one of the most interesting amateur detectives you’ll ever meet.  Edie Kiglatuk lives on Ellesmere Island, in the Canadian Arctic.  She is half-Inuit and famed for her skill as a guide; she has never lost a client in one of the harshest, albeit beautiful, landscapes on the planet.  She’s leading a party of two on what seems to be a fairly routine trip when one of the men is found shot just outside camp.  Edie is stunned.  This was no accident.  Edie calls on all her skills to track down the killer, hoping to find the culprit before more people are hurt.

This book reminded me of the Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee mysteries.  It’s grittier than Hillerman’s books, and Edie has more personal problems (she’s a recovering alcoholic), but if you’re looking for a book that is well written, introduces you to a fascinating culture, and has a strong sense of place, stop looking now.

If you’ve read any of these books (or if you’d like to) please drop us a line in the comments below to let us know.

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