Monday, January 5, 2015

Best Mysteries and Thrillers - 2014

The bread pictured here is Tomato Ciabatta with Olives and Onions.  I made it this fall because Food & Wine Magazine's recipe stated that it "comes together very easily and requires no kneading."  I knew I had to try this recipe but wondered if it would really turn out well. Even after the dough doubled in size, it seemed quite dense. Still I shaped the loaves and placed them on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet and popped them in the oven. As the loaves baked, I resisted the urge to open the oven to see what they were doing and if they might really become bread with ingredients like tomato paste and quartered cherry tomatoes inside them. Twenty-five minutes later, I opened the oven to a delight -  a bread that was savory, chewy, colorful, and with surprises inside. I loved it. A similar experience greeted me when I read the best mysteries and thrillers this year.  They delivered tantalizing, colorful stories that I quickly devoured. The best mysteries and thrillers offer surprising twists along with good ingredients: colorful characters, plots that make you wonder if things will turn out well, and inevitably - surprises inside.  

2014 – Best Mystery
Natchez Burning by Greg Iles
Dr. Tom Cage, revered as "Atticus Finch with a stethoscope,” is accused of murdering his former nurse so his son Penn, town mayor and former prosecutor (who’s appeared in three previous Iles novels), tries to help him and finds clues going back to1968 and a group more evil than the KKK.  Local reporter Henry Sexton uncovers ties to the atrocities and Dr. Cage disappears.  Is the doctor guilty and will Penn choose family loyalty over justice? 

Iles credits the investigative reporting of true crimes with inspiring the novel. Some might think the evil deeds in the book were exaggerated, but reading Iles’ research confirms their existence and why the book rings so true. As Iles himself says, he’s “telling you what it felt like to be black or white during that time." At 791 pages it’s just the right length and this reader hopes the next two volumes of the planned trilogy offer more of the same.

Note: It’s Ile’s first book in five years and comes after he almost died in an accident in 2011. Iles was working on Natchez Burning at the time of the car wreck and the emotional impact of his own survival is clear in the immediacy of his characters and their reactions to what happens around them.  

The Long Way Home by Louise Penny
Mysteries don’t usually elicit tranquility but A Long Way Home filled me with melancholy then peace. This novel, unlike any other mystery I’ve ever read, showed how important it is for humans to feel useful, to be brave, and to be kind. Inspector Gamache doesn’t want to leave Three Pines especially to solve a mystery or, possibly, to find that something terrible had happened to neighbor Peter Morrow. Using art and creativity as a metaphor, Penny shows how nothing great can be created without heart or without feeling. It’s absolutely perfect.

2014 – Best Suspense Novel 
The Farm by Tom Rob Smith
The Farm is a psychological thriller similar to Gone Girl or Tana French’s novels. When Daniel’s father calls from Sweden to say that Daniel’s mother is in hospital as she’s psychotic and delusional, Daniel hurries to Heathrow to fly to see her. Before he boards his mother calls that she’s on her way to London. She says his father is involved in a criminal conspiracy and wants here out of the way. Who can Daniel believe?  His mother, Tilde, carefully lays out a tale packed with facts that may or may not prove her allegations. Smith, known for his espionage thrillers set in Russia, takes a new tack with this riveting tale of trolls, elk, strangely carved wood, and the darkness of Sweden.  Read my full review.

2014 – Best Thriller and Best Debut Mystery/Thriller
I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes
This fast-paced espionage thriller is sure to please. Scott Murdoch, “the Pilgrim,” retired as one of America’s best secret agents but duty calls him back when an extremist, dubbed “The Saracen,” plots to destroy the U.S. as revenge against the Saudi’s for his father’s beheading. Captivating side stories packed with detail and great minor characters work well. It seemed about 100 pages too long but it’s still a great read.

One of Us by Tawni O’Dell
O’Dell’s suspenseful thriller asks if psychopaths are born or bred and forces the reader to ponder the difference between evil and mental illness.  Sheridan Doyle, a famed forensic psychologist returns to the coal-mining town where he’s simply Danny Doyle, grandson of Tommy and son of a mentally ill mother.  There he confronts buried truths and a cold-hearted heiress.  O’Dell is well known for her Back Roads, an Oprah selection.

2014 – Best Mystery that Makes You Wonder if Time Stands Still
Cop Town by Karin Slaughter
Kate Murphy is the pretty, privileged new cop on the Atlanta PD in 1974.  Excellent period references especially the playing of Carole King’s Tapestry album in the background set the stage. There’s a cop killer on the loose and another cop has died. The police are racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, woman-hating creeps. They treat the law like a smorgasbord, taking what they want regardless of who gets hurt. Readers will wonder how much has changed in forty years.  Read my full review.

2014 – Best Mystery that Really Gets PTSD  
One Was a Soldier by Julia Spencer-Fleming (published in 2011)
This is the best yet in this series. Clare Fergusson, Episcopal priest, has just returned from a tour as a helicopter pilot in Iraq and she’s drinking too much and having nightmares. This seventh title is from the hymn “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God” with the words: “one was a soldier, and one was a priest, and one was slain by a fierce wild beast;” It’s an apt title as the returning soldier/priest and her Police Chief boyfriend are facing a beast that threatens their well-being. Clare reluctantly joins a support group to get a young amputee to attend and there she meets other returning soldiers trying to fight the beast in differing ways.  When one of them commits suicide (or was it murder?) the group finds that the problems of Iraq have followed them all home.

2014 – Best Mystery that Takes Place in One Day
The Secret Place by Tana French
This girls’ boarding school mystery is typical of French’s strength in delivering conflicted, believable characters. The book shares the viewpoints of a close knit group of Irish teens and the “outsider” detectives called in to investigate a year-old case when a new clue appears. The girl reporting the clue is the daughter of Frank Mackey, a detective who appeared in French’s first Dublin Murder Squad tale. She goes to Stephen Moran, Mackey’s former protégé, with the clue found on the school bulletin board. During Detective Moran and partner Antoinette Conway’s single day at the school, flashbacks and self-absorbed teens help build tension toward the denouement while Mackey’s jabs keep things on edge.

2014 – Best Mystery with Irony Sharing the Stage  
The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair by Joël Diker  
Quebert is pronounced Kuh-bear thus rhyming with “affair.”  Also think Stephen Colbert for a hint to this tongue-in-cheek whodunit with a famous young author’s novel coming to life in a tragic way.  It was a mega hit in Europe but the author’s childhood summers in Maine and the setting give it an American flair.  It’s a big, 643-page book you’ll probably read in one weekend because the twists and switchbacks will keep you flippin’ those pages and enjoying the wild ride

2014 – Best Mystery about Small Towns and Outsiders
Cover of Snow by Jenny Milchman
This cold, piercing debut in which small town newbie Nora Hamilton searches for answers to why Brendan, her policeman husband, would have killed himself is a winner. When the police and her mother-in-law freeze her out and homes are set afire she finds clues in a 25-year-old death, an autistic man’s rhymes, and a reporter’s research.  


  1. So honored to be in this company! I'm really glad you enjoyed my first novel, Hungry for Good Books! Thank you.

    1. Thank YOU for writing such fine characters and for making me think while Nora and company kept me guessing. This is a perfect read for the current Midwest and East Coast weather.