Best of 2020
Yes, 2020 had a silver lining. We all stayed home and read more.
Every other Sunday, I fed the collective appetite of fellow mystery lovers with the Mystery Ahead newsletter. Readers enjoy sneak peaks of what I’m writing now AND reviews of books I love and think you will, too.
Based on your feedback, here are the Top 10 Best of 2020 mystery recommendations from the Mystery Ahead newsletter. How many have you read?
P.S. Not a subscriber? Join a few thousand other mystery lovers. Subscribe here.
Every other Sunday, Mystery Ahead newsletter subscribers enjoy exclusive excerpts of coming books, thought-provoking conversation starters, and recommendations for what to read now.
1. ASSASSIN’S VOW by David Bruns and J.T. Olson
Authors Bruns and Olson bill themselves as the Two Navy Guys and are rapidly building a following among fans of military and espionage thrillers.
In addition to their WMD Thrillers series (WEAPONS OF MASS DECEPTION, JIHADI APPRENTICE, RULES OF ENGAGEMENT, THE PANDORA DECEPTION) they have a series of outstanding standalone novellas that function as prequels and “in-between” tales.
Warning: The pace is fast, the action is blazing hot, and the research is meticulous.
The international fight against terrorism is central to the books and novellas. The writing is on par with Tom Clancy and other top-notch writers of the genre.
The reader walks shoulder to shoulder with military and intelligence officers from multiple countries. When it comes to the terrorists, these authors have done their research and give us fully formed characters, not caricatures.
ASSASSIN’S VOW is a free prequel novella in their Standalone Suspenseful Short Reads series. Rachel Jaeger is an Israeli intelligence agent assigned to “wet” work, i.e. assassinations. She’s married to her unit commander, Levi. Other than Levi, she has little to call her own. Few possessions and no family beyond her Mossad colleagues.
When Levi is captured on a mission to kill a notorious international terrorist, Rachael nearly loses her mind. Only the vow to get her husband back or kill his killer will save her.
The gut-wrenching drama of Rachael’s life is brilliantly laid out. I was amazed at how so much action was contained in 117 pages. The end sets us up for THE PANDORA DECEPTION in which Rachael is loaned to the US for a mission with a US Navy officer who appears in earlier books.
If you love national security thrillers, ASSASSIN’S VOW is a great way to meet a new author duo, both of whom are US military veterans, as well as a fascinating set of characters and settings torn from the news.
Get ASSASSIN’s VOW on Amazon >>> https://geni.us/vow21
2. THE SAINT series by Leslie Charteris
We have the proverbial 1000 cable channels at home. One of them is the FE TV network, showing mostly black and white television shows from the 1960’s and 70’s. That’s where I discovered the British show The Saint, starring Roger Moore after he was Ivanhoe but before he was 007.
The Saint is a study in mid-century modern style. Think sack suits, bar carts, languid cigarette smoking, and a Volvo P1800 sports car. At the beginning of each episode, someone says his name, prompting a halo to appear momentarily above Templar’s head. This is a reference to the saint caricature used in credits, book covers, etc.
As Simon Templar, whose initials created his nickname, Moore is a modern day Robin Hood/pirate/soldier of fortune/reformed jewel thief.
It’s a given that he plays both sides of the law, is known (and feared) by police everywhere, and is one of the most famous and instantly recognizable people in the world.
The series is based on an enormous body of SAINT stories by Leslie Charteris, many of which were converted into screenplays for the series. The entire collection, written over the course of 30+ years beginning in the 1930’s, has been re-released for Kindle Unlimited. Each volume contains 3-7 stories. Each story is a standalone.
The tales are the epitome of retro phrasing and international flair. Templar’s dialogue is peppered with flippant lines oozing confidence and movie star glam. The descriptions reflect both the author’s and the character’s globe-trotting lifestyle.
A dashing blue-eyed modern buccaneer who speaks half a dozen languages, Templar is at home anywhere, be it mining for gold in Mexico or playing baccarat in Monaco. His wealth, it is implied, comes from sleight of hand but not outright theft. He outwits everybody. Templar is never left holding the bag, unless it’s full of uncut diamonds no one is looking for.
Charteris was likely influenced by the mischievous gentleman thief of E.W. Hornung’s famous Raffles stories. For a modern comparison, think of Ian Fleming’s more famous James Bond series, which came later. Templar’s villains are generally thieves and cheaters, however, rather than those intent on world domination.
Like Bond, there’s always a pretty girl for Templar to romance. More than most of his contemporaries, however, Charteris was an equal opportunity villain creator. Many of the villains are female, ranging from husband killers to scam artists to an extortionist targeting beggars in Rome.
BTW: my husband has decided he’s the Southern variety of Simon Templar . . . The Ain’t.
There are 49 SAINT volumes on Kindle Unlimited, with gorgeous retro covers, enough to keep you reading until New Year’s Eve!
Find THE SAINT collection on Amazon >>> https://geni.us/saint
3. A MERCIFUL DEATH by Kendra Elliott
A MERCIFUL DEATH kicks off the 6-book MERCIFUL series featuring FBI Special Agent Mercy Kilpatrick. Start with the first and read in order as fast as you can. You’ll find yourself in the Oregon woods, looking for trouble before it finds you.
Mercy Kilpatrick grew up in the small town of Eagle’s Nest in central Oregon. Her father led a community of preppers, whose preparations for disaster were a way of life. Stockpiling wood, canning food, and other preparations in anticipation of the breakdown of civil society, disruptions in electricity, competition for food supplies, etc.
But when she was 18, Mercy was cast out.
Fifteen years later, she is an FBI agent in Portland and returns to Eagle’s Nest to investigate the murders of several preppers. The tautly-spun story mixes the investigation with her encounters with family members, some of whom want nothing to do with her and remain deeply suspicious of the government. To crank up the tension even further, Eagle’s Nest stirs memories of an assault on Mercy and her blind sister Rose, which led to Mercy’s estrangement from her family.
As the current timeline unfolds, Mercy meets the new police chief of Eagle’s Nest, Truman Daly. He’s got his own demons to contend with, notably the murder of his partner when he was a cop in San Diego. But Truman is strong and decent and a match for Mercy, a tough loner who can’t shake her prepper background, as evidenced by the secret cabin she keeps stocked with supplies.
A MERCIFUL DEATH leads right into the next book in a page-turning progression of crimes and relationships. There is significant character development throughout, mostly in terms of the love affair between Mercy and Truman, as well as Mercy’s efforts to reunite with her parents and siblings.
The prepper lifestyle remains a theme throughout the series, along with the phenomenon of rural militias with cult-like rules and “sovereign citizens” who believe that they are not subject to US laws. The vastness of rural Oregon is on display, both in terms of the landscape and the people who live off the grid in its wilderness.
The style is crisp, clean, and fast-moving, with most chapters from Mercy’s or Truman’s point of view. There’s plenty of page-turning action but no FBI legalese or internal politics. Some of the books include forensic details, but for the most part, the mystery in each book is solved by connecting the dots of human relationships and personal motives.
Characters are believable and relatable. Most secondary characters appear in all books. Plots are complex, but not needlessly so, and endings are very satisfying.
In short, I loved this series. Highly recommended.
Find A MERCIFUL DEATH on Amazon >>> https://geni.us/merc1
4. DEATH OF A LIAR by M.C. Beaton
I can’t say that DEATH OF A LIAR is the best book in the long running Hamish Macbeth mystery series set in northern Scotland, because they are all equally cleverly written and highly entertaining.
Hamish is a tall red-headed police sergeant. A bachelor, but only because every love affair goes awry for one justifiable reason or another. He’s outfitted the police station in Lochdubh to suit his needs: pets, chickens, and sheep. He barely tolerates the various constables assigned to work for him and doesn’t hide his disdain for power-hungry superiors.
Hamish is imminently likeable.
DEATH OF A LIAR is #30 in the series but it doesn’t matter. Hamish’s world is easy to slip into and you can start the series at any point. The backstory of his failed romances and current constable is always presented swiftly and simply so you never feel you are missing out.
Hamish and constable Dick Fraser–who spends more time in the kitchen than on his job—are called to the home of a woman who says she was attacked by a knife-wielding assailant, but is sketchy on details, timing, and evidence. A medical exam not only refutes her claim but the local doctor reveals she is known for lying about serious issues to get attention.
At the same time, a quarrelsome newcomer to the village turns up dead and buried in her own garden. The liar is killed, too. The entire Scottish police force descends on little Lochdubh, along with Hamish’s ex-girlfriend, a hotshot tv journalist. Clues to lead to Anka, a beautiful Polish baker. Both Hamish and Dick fall under her spell . . . but there’s a murderer to catch first, with the help of a wise seer, yet another old girlfriend, and Hamish’s detective buddy who needs to drink less and think more.
DEATH OF A LIAR a great romp through the misty Highlands with Hamish and the gang. Come for LIAR, and stay for the other 34 novels in the series.
Find it on Amazon >>> https://geni.us/beaton
BONUS: A Hamish Macbeth TV series? Yes, please. Robert Carlyle stars as Hamish with a dog named Wee Jock.
Find it on Amazon Prime here >>> https://www.amazon.com/Hamish-Macbeth/dp/B07VWS3T7M (US link)
5. THUNDERSTRUCK by Erik Larsen
Non-fiction author Erik Larsen (DEAD WAKE, THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY, THE SPLENDID AND THE VILE, etc.) writes true crime with the sweep, suspense, and vocabulary of the best fiction authors. THUNDERSTRUCK may not be his best known book but it is the incredible saga of a true crime that will leave you as breathless as any bestselling thriller.
The book pits two men against each other in a brilliant match-up aboard the SS Montrose as the ship churns across the Atlantic toward Canada. The captain of the ship is the linchpin. This is where THUNDERSTRUCK begins, hooking the reader with a little-known, but absolutely crucial moment in history.
The first man in this unlikely battle is Guglielmo Marconi, a wealthy and eccentric Italian youth who is obsessed with science and turns his family’s attic into a private laboratory. The socially inadept Marconi will be credited with the invention of the wireless telegraph, aka, radio. He’ll monetize his invention and transform global communications via ambitious experiments, risky marketing, British mentors, and his family connections.
The immediate value of Marconi’s wireless is the ability to communicate with ships at sea. Soon every major vessel has a Marconi cabin and telegraph operators sending and receiving Marconigrams.
Next up is Hawley Crippen, a mild-mannered American medical man who moves to London to peddle patent medicines. His wife Cora, with dreams of becoming an opera singer, spends every penny Crippen makes. In due time, she renames herself Belle Elmore, is a minor failure on the British vaudeville circuit known as varieties, and takes a lover who is more dashing than her husband. Crippen takes solace in a relationship with his very young secretary, Ethel Le Neve.
The lives of Marconi and Crippen move in parallel, each in their own fascinating way. Marconi is willful, selfish, demanding. Crippen is meek, abused, long-suffering.
When Belle’s friends doubt Crippen’s claim that Belle died in California, Scotland Yard investigates. Crippen and Le Neve drop out of sight. A manhunt ensues with Marconigrams flying through the ether.
Meanwhile, a father and teenaged son board the SS Montrose for an 11-day crossing. The captain identifies them as Crippen and Le Neve in disguise. Scotland Yard’s lead investigator boards a faster ship.
What happens next is stranger than fiction. Thanks to Marconi, the entire world except for the passengers aboard the SS Montrose knows about the nail-biting chase through the Atlantic. Will Scotland Yard catch up to Belle’s murdering husband or will the disguised lovers reach Canada first and disappear into the wilds?
The book is absolutely riveting. Larsen spins out the story like a master storyteller, tantalizing and leading us from one key piece of the puzzle to the next. Highly recommended.
Get it on Amazon >>> https://geni.us/thund
6. TREASURE HUNT by Andrea Camilleri
Inspector Salvo Montalbano’s corner of Sicily is a mystery lover’s happy place. TREASURE HUNT takes you there.
As you can tell, I’m having an Italian moment here.☺
As the book opens, an elderly brother and sister, religious recluses for years, shoot into the street from the balcony of their apartment to punish the city of Vigàta for their sins. It’s up to the man in charge, Montalbano, to climb a ladder in full view of news cameras, and subdue the addled snipers.
Their apartment is an unwashed Italian hoarder’s paradise, full of filthy but costly religious antiques, and one ancient and well-loved inflatable sex doll.
Shortly thereafter, the police get a call that a woman’s body is in dumpster. But Montalbano and his team instead discover a second inflatable sex doll, cunningly disfigured to look exactly like the one found the day before.
Montalbano now begins to get cryptic messages, challenging him to a strange scavenger hunt. Helped by a Swedish friend, a local university student, and the cops Montalbano supervises, the hunt ends in a seriously shocking climax that hinges on clues I never suspected.
Strong plot aside, I love the Montalbano series for his wry inner voice. It’s got the cadence and dry humor I associate with my other favorite Italian author, Giovanni Guareschi, author of the fabulous Don Camillo series. (A small village in Italy after WWII: Don Camillo is the parish priest, locked in eternal combat with Peppone, the Communist mayor. Brilliant.)
For example, Montalbano lets us know his opinion of the idiot coroner in a few light words, but they characterize him perfectly. In another bit of ribaldry, his desk sergeant is the king of mispronunciation and malaprops. Montalbano has also perfected bureaucratese as a way of confusing his superiors into leaving him alone.
Then there’s the food . . . and his domineering housekeeper and her criminal relatives.
In short, TREASURE HUNT (number 16 in the long-running series) is a trip to Sicily with an old friend. He knows what he’s doing, most of the time, and makes us laugh the rest of the time. Highly recommended.
Find it on Amazon here.
7. TROUBLE IN NUALA by Harriet Steel
Harriet Steel’s Inspector Shanti de Silva series set in 1930’s Ceylon is an absolute gem. De Silva is the head of a 3-person police force in the smallish city of Nuala. The British are still the colonial power (today Ceylon is the independent nation of Sri Lanka) and he straddles the divide between the local population and his British bosses.
He has flouted both cultures by marrying a British woman, Jane, who came to Ceylon as a governess to a British family. They live in a bungalow called Sunnybank where De Silvio has an extensive garden and Jane devours Agatha Christie novels.
TROUBLE IN NUALA starts with reports that a tea plantation owner has flogged a worker. A lawyer from the capital of Colombo makes a complaint on the worker’s behalf.
But when De Silva investigates, he finds that the worker has disappeared and the plantation owner is an unpleasant man who is up to his ears in debt. Add a dubious business associate, a frazzled wife, and a chatty mynah bird, and the situation is much more complicated than at first glance.
The heat and scents of Ceylon are captured so well, it’s easy to form a mental picture. The pacing is similar to The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency or the Commisario Brunetti series, with introspective moments and dialogue-driven action. De Silva’s social standing with the British adds a subtle layer of tension, even as he mentors younger police officers.
There are 8 books in the series so far, all with “Nuala” in the titles: DARK CLOUDS OVER NUALA, ROUGH TIME IN NUALA, PASSAGE FROM NUALA, OFFSTAGE IN NUALA, etc. Plots are true to time and place. As the series progresses, Hitler’s rise to power and the possible implications for the British Empire create additional questions but each book stands alone.
8. THE MAN WITH ONE OF THOSE FACES by Caimh McDonnell
Author Vee James gifted me this book and a tip of the hat to him. THE MAN WITH ONE OF THOSE FACES launches McDonnell’s Dublin Trilogy about the very funny, yet seriously intriguing misadventures of Paul Mulchrone, Brigit Conroy, and Garda detective Bernard “Bunny” McGarry.
Don’t worry if you have never been to Dublin, because by the end of all of the books, you will be intimate with the city and its people, plus the law enforcement powers and politics of the Garda, the national police agency.
The unique sport of hurling. Shopping on Grafton and Carroll. The restorative powers of Irish whiskey and Guinness beer.
Step up to the bar and drink deeply.
Paul had a rough start in life. He was orphaned at a young age, and his only stability was the hurling club presided over by Bunny McGarry, the larger-than-life cop with his own definition of justice. Now an adult, Paul is trapped by a will awarding him a subsistence stipend as long as he does charity work.
He regularly visits a nursing home to fulfill the requirements but one day a resident mistakes Paul for someone else and tries to kill him before dying of shock. When the dead man is found to be a gangster thought to be long dead, Paul and Brigit, a nurse, are targeted by the gangster’s old enemies. Bunny McGarry, who has a soft spot for Paul from hurling club days, makes things worse.
The mix of white knights and black sheep throws gray shadows on many of the characters in the Dublin Trilogy while relationships develop in smart and clever ways. But the real charm of this series lies with dialogue and descriptions, both of which evoke some real laugh-out-loud moments. There’s a line about anybody who could “cut two holes in a tea cozy thought he was John Dillinger” that still makes me laugh at odd moments.
THE DAY THAT NEVER COMES and LAST ORDERS are the next two books in the trilogy, and should be read in order. ANGELS IN THE MOONLIGHT is a prequel that is nonetheless listed on Amazon as #3 in the 4-volume set. The numbering is just one of the quirks of this well-written, funny, and breathlessly paced series.
9. GORKY PARK by Martin Cruz Smith
Gorky Park is the first Arkady Reno thriller set in Russia. Published in 1981, years before the first breach in the Berlin Wall, the novel was the first popular fiction set in Communist Moscow. Its portrayal of life in Moscow is authentic and unflinching.
I regard author Martin Cruz Smith as a role model. With the Detective Emilia Cruz series, I aim to take my readers inside Mexico the same way he does with Russia. We both use setting, food, politics, and uniquely cultural plot devices.
In GORKY PARK, three murder victims are found buried in snow near the ice rink in Moscow’s Gorky Park. Their faces and fingertips have been skillfully removed. Renko, the Moscow city police inspector for homicides, is called in. Despite KGB interference, Renko finds clues leading to a wealthy American fur dealer and dissidents from Siberia. A visiting New York cop is part friend, part foe.
The Russian locations, from fight scene on a frozen river to feeding ducks by a country dacha, are masterfully done. Life under Soviet rule is fully exposed: dogma no one believes in, vodka to shut out everyday miseries, informers, indoctrination meetings, permits to live in Moscow. It makes for a hefty book, not for the faint of heart, but an immersive one.
GORKY PARK was followed by RED SQUARE, POLAR STAR, HAVANA BAY, WOLVES EAT DOGS, etc. All are vibrant journeys into Soviet Russia with brilliant characters, descriptions that lure you into a shockingly unfamiliar world, and vignettes of the illogical logic of the Communist system.
Now 39 years later, the latest Renko book, THE SIBERIAN DILEMMA just hit bookstores. Ageless Arkady still holds the rank of inspector and still has trouble with the woman in his life as he navigates post-Soviet Russia under Putin. To be honest, this novel, does not even approach the high bar of the early Renko books listed above. It’s a lite beer when you expected a Guinness.
Read GORKY PARK on Amazon. Drink deeply.
10. REBECCA x 3
These three thrillers all started at Manderley . . .
1. REBECCA by Daphne Du Maurier
Du Maurier published her tour de force novel REBECCA in 1938. The book was one of the first to give us the unreliable narrator and has been the basis for a host of radio, television, and movie adaptations.
The narrator, an orphaned young woman working as a lady’s companion, meets a handsome and wealthy widower in Monaco. Despite their disparity in social class, he sweeps her off her feet and they marry.
He brings her home to Manderley, his baronial family estate. There she pales in comparison with his seemingly perfect late wife Rebecca, a point the sinister housekeeper Mrs. Danvers is at pains to make. When Rebecca’s body is found on her shipwrecked boat, now months after her death, dark deeds could destroy them all.
REBECCA has serious staying power. It’s edgy, gripping, visual, and a Gothic thriller classic. The setting is England in the 1930’s, but the creepy relationships and murderous secrets are timeless.
Get it on Amazon >>> https://geni.us/Rebecca
2. THE KEY TO REBECCA by Ken Follett
When I first read this World War II classic, I believed it was the best thriller ever written. The page-turning format inspired the pace of THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY.
The novel REBECCA is used as a code book by a German spy who infiltrates British-held Cairo during the war, in an effort to aid General Rommel’s army in north Africa. When the spy kills a soldier, the murder comes to the attention of a British intelligence officer.
A cat and mouse game ensues between spy and intel officer through the streets and souks of the war-weary city. Women, thieves, and the Egyptian independence movement complicate the hunt. The characters are riveting, complete, and their vulnerabilities are twisted by the enemy. The way Follett builds to a climax is a masterclass in thriller writing.
No spoilers, but REBECCA gets the last word . . .
Get it on Amazon >>> https://geni.us/FolRe
3. Rebecca, the new Netflix movie
Lily James stars as the unnamed narrator who falls in love with the wealthy and handsome owner of Manderley, played by Armie Hammer. She does a remarkable job of being the waif working as a lady’s companion to a cranky, demanding woman, but an even better job of being the new wife completely out of her depth trying to run a huge Downton Abbey-esque country house already ruled with an iron fist by Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott-Thomas).
It’s a loooong movie, but a faithful adaptation, although the ending is less edgy than in the book. Manderley and the surrounding coastline are gorgeous, with many a panoramic sea shot to underscore the isolation the new wife feels.
Lily James is superb, as is the conniving Scott-Thomas. Armie Hammer is a hunky lunk but cuts a dashing figure in a mustard colored linen suit in his first scene.
Highly recommended for a cold, rainy evening.
You may also like
First Job My first position with the Central Intelligence Agency was as a political analyst. The...
Blame it on the Swedish meatballs Early in my CIA career, I was having lunch in the cafeteria of...
SNOW by John Banville got a hearty endorsement from several hard-core mystery reader friends and...
Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.