Every year, I calculate which books in the Mystery Ahead newsletter were most popular with readers. The top books of 2023 were clicked on the most out of the 75 books featured in the newsletter this year.
One of my books claimed the top spot (not always the case!) followed by 2 sensational mysteries that are each part of a series but can be read as standalone novels.
Without further intro, here are the top 3 books Mystery Ahead readers loved this year. (All make great holiday gifts 🙂
#1 MURDER AT THE GALLIANO CLUB by Carmen Amato
MURDER AT THE GALLIANO CLUB is the first full novel in the Galliano Club saga.
In 1926, thanks to Prohibition, it’s hard to find a beer in Lido, New York. But trouble is always on tap at the Galliano Club in this explosive start to the riveting Prohibition-era historical fiction crime series.
Winner, 2023 Silver Falchion Award for Best Historical
Social hub for the Italian immigrant community, the Galliano Club serves bootleg beer and Luca Lombardo’s signature sandwiches to workers from the city’s copper mills. The club means everything to Luca, who arrived in Lido with nothing left to lose.
He’ll do whatever it takes to keep the club afloat, even staying silent about a murder in the alley behind the building.
From her second-floor window, Ruth Cross witnessed the murder, but a scandalous past keeps her quiet.
Could gangster Benny Rotolo be involved? Run out of Chicago by Al Capone, he fled to Lido with a gun in his pocket and plans to establish his own bootlegging empire. He wants to turn the Galliano Club into his private speakeasy.
It’s hard to review my own books so here’s what Jim Nesbitt, author of the Ed Earl Burch series, had to say:
The book opens with what should be an un-adulterated moment of triumph for the working stiffs crowding the club and their cross-town Polish co-workers at the Lido Premium Copper and Brass Rolling Mill . . . In walks Jimmy Zambrano, mill foreman, shaking hands like a politician. He jumps up on the table to deliver a message from the bosses. The deal was done, the men would get their bonus money. But not all at once. It would be paid out across three days, in alphabetical order.
An uproar ensues . . . Cooler heads prevail and help Zambrano sell the payout schedule, including Luca Lombardo, [Vito] Spinelli’s right-hand man and club manager.
The party cranks back up and keeps rolling until closing time.
Less than an hour later, Lombardo steps outside the back of the club and finds Zambrano’s body partially stuffed under the frame of Vito Spinelli’s Packard. The dead foreman has been garroted with copper wire that bit deeply into his neck.
That shifts the story into overdrive. Murder, blackmail, rum-running, intrigue and double-crossing treachery introduce a cascade of characters, including crooked Irish cops, a Chicago fugitive from Al Capone’s gunsels, a larcenous blue-blood wannabe mill accountant, a fallen Broadway chorus girl with a horrible secret and a vivacious Irish bank employee who steals Lombardo’s heart.
Splicing this all together is Amato’s knowing eye for detail and intuitive feel for the temper of the times, the class divisions and the clannishness of immigrant communities struggling to make it in America.
#2 RED WOLF by Liza Marklund
Earning more than Welcome to Stockholm, Sweden and the outstanding Annika Bengtzon series! I actually picked up this book because of the very cool cover and was immediately hooked, so much so that I found all the rest of the books in the series and absolutely devoured them.
Annika Bengtzon is an investigative reporter for Sweden’s #1 tabloid newspaper. She is a young mom with two kids, a faithless husband (who gets his comeuppance later in the series) and a big load of emotional baggage from having been trapped in a tunnel with a murderer on her last assignment.
Her new assignment is a retrospective on a 20-year-old terror attack on a Swedish air force base near the Arctic Circle. No one was ever found guilty. She heads up there to interview a local journalist who claims to have new information. When she gets there, he’s dead.
More murders follow, including that of a teen who might have seen the man who killed the journalist. Each murder is accompanied by a strange snippet of an essay, which eventually leads Annika to the Communist student clubs that flourished in Sweden in the 1960’s and 70’s. Some of her information comes from Q, the head of Sweden’s national crime squad, a shadowy figure who feeds her tidbits in exchange for what she’s found out.
What I loved about this series is Annika’s deep point of view and the ongoing sense of the character’s life from one book to the next. We are really inside her head, experiencing the highs and (mostly) lows of the investigation, newsroom politics, and her disintegrating marriage. Other points of view function as a supporting cast, including husband Thomas whom we love to hate, and perpetually harried editor Anders. Later in the series, author Marklund introduces a female cop who becomes both rival and friend, and her point of view becomes important as well.
I really got caught up in the series, in which crimes and characters from one book bleed into the next, almost as if Marklund wrote one enormous tome, then cut it into manageable books. You also get a great view of life in Sweden and its social conventions and norms, not to mention the biting cold when the action moves to the Arctic Circle.
For whatever reason, the series is misnumbered on Amazon and the book covers are not cohesive. But don’t let that stop you from enjoying this best-selling Swedish series, which was made into the Swedish-language television show Annika Bengtzon Crime Reporter (Not to be confused with Annika, starring Nicola Walker as head of a UK Marine Homicide Unit). It is exceptional. https://geni.us/redwolf
#3 THE MONOGRAM MURDERS by Sophie Hannah
Mystery fans can’t get enough of Agatha Christie’s fussy Belgian detective (cue Kenneth Branagh, please!) and THE MONOGRAM MURDERS shows why. The new Hercule Poirot books by Sophie Hannah are spot-on, capturing the style and personality of the original books right down to Poirot’s tendency to speak of himself in the third person, identify the most obscure clues and solve multi-villain crimes.
Three people are found dead in a swank London hotel. They have all been poisoned. Two women and a man are each found in their respective hotel room, prone body positioned toward the door, and a monogrammed cufflink in the mouth.
What do the initials PIJ stand for?
Edward Catchpool, a young Scotland Yard detective, is assigned to the case. Poirot, who is taking a sabbatical of sorts by staying in the same boarding house, accompanies Catchpool to the scene of the crime. Catchpool, who deals with an inner struggle regarding the bodies of the dead, becomes Poirot’s foil and sounding board. Poirot delights in the role of teacher, making many clever (and correct IMHO) observations about human nature as they investigate.
The crime traces back to an old scandal in little village. As in so many Poirot tales, the final denouement reveals complex connections. Red herrings are ultimately complicit in the crime. The ending was impossible to guess! Only Poirot or an encyclopedia would know the tiny details that lead to certain supporting conclusions.
You almost need to graph out all the twists and turns to make sure you didn’t miss anything.
I loved the way the novel set up the crime, with clues that appear impossible to reconcile. What happened to the room service food? How did the killer escape? Why was one victim’s room key hidden behind a loose tile? Why did the waiter lie? The crime is tantalizing and the pages flew by.
Yet after so much brilliance, the last quarter of the novel moves at a glacial pace, with chunky dialogue in which the crime is picked apart and Poirot explains far too many extraneous bits of investigative genius.
But if you love Agatha Christie, Poirot’s return is “can’t miss” reading. So far there are 5 Poirot mysteries by Sophie Hannah, all incredible brainteasers like THE MONOGRAM MURDERS.