In keeping with rules I set for myself last year, I'm not putting the same author on the favorites list two consecutive years, which means that no matter how much I loved Megan Abbott's Dare Me, Wallace Stroby's Kings of Midnight, Grant Jerkins' The Ninth Step, James Sallis' Driven or Roger Smith's Capture - they won't be on this list. Also Matthew McBride's Frank Sinatra in a Blender was originally and briefly published in 2011 before New Pulp Press gave it a proper printing last month, which is why that deliriously profane, hilariously violent, booze and pill addled PI novel isn't really eligible for this - or the favorite debuts - list.
And speaking of debuts, apparently I read a lot of really good ones this year, and something like half of the ones on last week's list would've made my flat-out favorites, so in an effort not to be repeating too much on you, this year debuts have their own entirely separate category.
Without further disclaimers: My Flat-Out Favorites of 2012
Devil's Oven by Laura Benedict. After her debut, a small town murder mystery with a supernatural edge (Isabella Moon), and a creepy follow up that ran further into straight-up horror-thriller (Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts), it's her third novel that I believe plays to all of Benedict's strongest suits. You wanna update The Gingerbread Man and set it in a small Appalachian town populated by simple hill-dwelling necromancers and put-upon good-ol-boy strip club proprietors? Let's get Laura Benedict to write it. She'll love those people, that town and the story so infectiously we'll likely end up with an epidemic on our hands.
Lake Country by Sean Doolittle. There's a point in almost every mystery or thriller where the machinations of the plot require a bit of extra force from the authorial hand to push the characters and the audience past a hurdle of logic, a dubious coincidence or inconstant trait so that we arrive at the desired conclusion. It's often followed closely by big noise, frenzied action or some other writerly flim-flam to aid the reader's ingestion and acceptance of said unwieldy bit of diegesis, but I've never caught a whiff of it in any Doolittle story. His characters ring so true and reliable to their own motives and logic that no other outcomes seem plausible in hindsight. This one's a heartbreaker, kids - and please don't conjur some intellectually overwrought piece of politically correct tragedy of manners when I say that - this is a heartbreaker because it's got heart (as opposed to feelings) and gives it away at every opportunity. The empathy conjured for and personal investment in every character are deep, so when the fit really hits the shan, it's going to hurt.
The Dispatcher by Ryan David Jahn. Ian Hunt's life has been fell apart seven years ago when his daughter was abducted. He's now got three ex-wives, two children (one presumed dead and the other estranged) and one job - dispatcher manning the emergency line for the Bulls Mouth, Texas police. When he receives a 9-1-1 call from his missing daughter, he is shaken out of his seven-year slump and set into action with a single, clear purpose - to get her back. This one was just tailor-made for me. Great language, setting and tone, slipped into a strong narrative current with terrific company. The monster is monstrous, but supplied with enough humanity to make him truly frightening, while the hero lets his inner monster off the leash in his single-mindedness. Morally complex for such a simple (kick-ass) story.
Prudence Couldn't Swim by James Kilgore. Amateur sleuth novels have a bit of a hump to get over with me. Mostly, the detective needs an awfully good reason they're doing what they're doing to convince me to keep reading, though, when they do find that just-right hook to bring me in, they can give me some of my all-time favorite reads (Newton Thornburg's Cutter and Bone, Dennis Tafoya's The Wolves of Fairmount Park and Benjamin Whitmer's Pike jump to mind). Calvin Winter, the ex-con detective of James Kilgore's book, has a good reason - or at least one that make sense for his character as it's revealed. Sure, his marriage wasn't exactly based on love, but that doesn't mean he's not upset when somebody kills his wife. This one starts out in some interesting grey areas and goes darker. Lots darker. Good underbelly, weird-Americana tour, full of sex, violence and perversity. Me likey.
Edge of Dark Water by Joe R. Lansdale. When her friend's body is fished off the bottom of the river, young Sue Ellen takes up a quest to cremate the corpse and spread her friend's remains in Hollywood. Bailing on the harsh, backcountry life she's known till now, with unlikely companions on board, and unforgiving forces in pursuit, a bold river adventure is undertaken. Why can't everything read like a Lansdale book? I'd wager that there's more humor, heart and incisive character observation on any two pages of this book than two chapters of eighty-five percent of the novels published last year. Nothing feels rushed, but the plot unfolds at a good clip. The narrative propulsion is irresistible, but the language is so memorable you want to savor it.
Escape by Perihan Magden. Bambi and her mother love each other dearly and are as close and inseparable as any two people on earth. They travel constantly, dine in expensive restaurants and stay at the best hotels all over the world... forever. Bambi, now a teenaged girl, has never known a home and never had more than passing contact with another human being outside her ever-doting, ever-loving, ever-hovering, fanatically-protective, homicidally-secretive mother. This story of life on the run unfolds in a young lifetime's worth of un-sequential snapshots, that layer ritual, obsession, paranoia, claustrophobia and cloying-maternal love into a heady and memorable mystery. Who are they? Why are they fugitives? Where will it lead? You'll want to pick it up and find out.
The Last Kind Words by Tom Piccirilli. I don't know what else to say about this one. I wasn't going to do any ranking of my favorites on this list, but... this was straight-up my favorite book of 2012. I'm still haunted by it. Here's some of what I had to say when first discussing it: The Last Kind Words is a family saga, disguised as a mystery, concerned with the reparation or at least resolution of the myriad of fragmented relationships that orbit Terry (the main character). Terry’s angst, anger, deep sadness, general, all-purpose lost-ness and ache are on vivid display in the exposed-wiring first person narrative that drives the story. There’s a slightly uncomfortable, though undeniably quickening, sensation of being a voyeur, of treading on very private ground, that you may experience when reading certain of Piccirilli’s books. As if you’ve been asked over to the author’s home for dinner only to find yourself left alone in the house and surrounded by opened doors and yawning drawers beckoning you to poke around – or invited to observe a therapy session from behind a two-way mirror. But don’t get me wrong – this is no maudlin piece of umbilicus cartography – The Last Kind Words is a forward propulsion mystery of uncommonly immediate and relatable consequence and unbearably heightened stakes. Terry’s decision to investigate the now un-claimed victim’s murder is just as thrilling and dreadful as the investigation itself due to the masterful rendering of the characters and environment, and that is far more than we have come to expect from the writing we seek to entertain us. The title refers to the last kind words spoken to Christ during crucifixion – they were uttered by a thief and therefore, the Rand’s reason - there is a place in paradise reserved for thieves. The Last Kind Words deserves to be considered alongside anything else, concocted for awards and groomed for adulation coming down the pike this year, for a prominent spot on your reading list. It ought to earn Piccirilli a large and main-stream audience (he’s already beloved in crime and horror circles) and a place for genre writers in literary Avalon. For more on The Last Kind Words - go here.
Big Maria by Johnny Shaw. I struggled with whether to include this one on my list at all. It's only sort of a mystery, it's not even got much going on by way of crime, and it's nowhere near a traditional thriller - it's more an adventure novel than anything else - but I just loved this book so much, it had to make the list. Let's start with the pacing - conventional publishing wisdom says play to the A.D.D. and start with the mayhem, then back track if you must and fill in some character details, but push, push, push to that climax. Johnny Shaw says nope. He takes his time introducing his cast of down and out heroes (you won't think of them as heroes till the book's end, but you by-god will by then), and showing us exactly how desperate each one is, and why any of them would ever consider the insanely-dangerous and only half-baked quest that they embark upon as a viable option. Placed alongside last year's (much more crime/mystery flavored) Dove Season, Johnny Shaw's goal clearly seems to be the patron-writer of the bad-idea novel... He seems to be after owning his own genre: the When-there-aren't-any-more-good-ideas-you-have-to-try-the-bad-ones-book (*just coined). And let's talk for just a moment about his characters. They are capital 'L' loooooooosers, but Shaw capital 'L' looooooooves them, and not in any detached, ironic sort of way. The affection I felt for each of these galoots by the book's end was so profoundly unexpected and substantial it could only be brought on by an author who felt the same (I might've cried. Might have). Funny, fist-pumping, rockin, right-on, righteous fun.
Rough Riders by Charlie Stella. Y'know when I was sure that this was one of my favorite books of the year? When I saw Andrew Dominik's Killing Them Softly. Did you see it? Did you, like me, get caught up in the conversations, revel in the details of the character's lives, want to further peel back the brain-caps and stare agog at the working of the criminal mind? I walked out of the theater wanting nothing so much as to re-read Rough Riders (or any of Charlie's books, really - not to mention George V. Higgins). As convoluted a cluster-cuss of interdepartmental cross-purposes and good ol' American entrepreneurial thinking as I could ask for in a book.
The Kings of Cool by Don Winslow. What could've been a cash-in on the movie version of its predecessor Savages, ends up being the lynch pin in Winslow's carefully constructed, and lovingly-layered alternate-SoCal history - who'da thunk it? This Savages prequel focuses just as much (and with even greater emotional depth) on the previous generation of young drug lords as on their spiritual (and sometimes biological) progeny. You'll have fun spotting cameos from previous Winslow worlds and playing the who's who? games - matching nicknames to legal monikers, but mostly, you'll get caught up in the story web spun by one of the times' most impressive and innovative talents doing what he does best.
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