Thursday, December 27, 2018

The Best Mysteries, Suspense Novels, and Thrillers of 2018

When my brain refuses to function and I can’t even recall how to get from HDMI 1 to HDMI 3 on my “smart” TV to watch a movie, I like to read mysteries to see if I can beat the detectives in identifying the perpetrator. Some people do jigsaw puzzles to relax, I read mysteries and suspense novels. The best ones I read in 2018 featured strong, multidimensional characters, engaging plots, and entrancing settings.

The Best Mystery/Suspense Novel/Thriller of 2018:
The Witch Elm by Tana French has everything I love in a suspense novel – fine writing, a captivating story, and psychological twists rarely found in crime fiction. The Witch Elm differs from her Dublin Murder Squad series as it primarily highlights a crime victim. Toby, the protagonist, has always considered himself lucky until he’s beaten in a robbery in his Dublin apartment. He heads to his family’s ancestral estate for a change of scenery to help him recover while he assists his dying uncle. When a human skull is found in a tree in the garden, Toby must reconcile what he’s believed about himself and his family with the facts he and the detectives on the case keep finding. Toby’s brain injury makes him a truly unreliable narrator both to himself and to those investigating his beating and the story behind the skull. French sets the gold standard for suspense.

The Best Mysteries, Suspense Novels, and Thrillers I Read in 2018:

Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke won the 2018 Edgar Award and is a masterful mystery with twists of insight about race, greed, and fear. Locke is probably best known as the writer and producer of the television drama Empire, but her fantastic debut Black Water Rising was also an Edgar nominee. This 2017 thriller features John Lee Hooker’s lyric “Bluebird, bluebird, take this letter down South for me’ which becomes real when Michael Wright, a black University of Chicago educated attorney, travels to East Texas to return a guitar his father held for years. When Wright’s bloated body shows up followed by the remains of a white waitress who died a few days after him, Darren, an African-American Texas Ranger with problems, sees a shot at redemption if he can solve the crime. Great writing and subtle plot twists make this both an engaging page-turner and a finely written novel.

The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld is difficult to classify. Is it a psychological suspense thriller, literary fiction, or a fairy tale? Whatever its classification, it’s magnificent. Naomi is a private investigator who searches for and finds missing children. She was once a missing child herself and is still recovering memories from her past. Madison, a child she’s tracking, disappeared after wandering off when her family was searching for a Christmas tree deep in a wintery Oregon forest. She’s being held captive in a remote cabin by her “rescuer” and she survives by imagining her own fairy tales. This book is brilliant, breathtaking and full of hope. A friend who usually refuses to read any book with a child in danger or hurt adored The Child Finder. The minor characters and secondary stories are just as compelling and insightful as the main plotline.

The Dry by Jane Harper is the compelling 2016 tale of federal agent Aaron Falk’s return to his hometown after his childhood friend and family were brutally murdered. Falk and his father had been run out of their small Australian town when he was a teen and many townspeople still thought he was connected to the drowning of a girl there. The town is in the midst of a long drought both literally and in terms of any hope for its citizens. This tight debut mystery builds suspense as it offers clues to how fear, greed, hatred, and loyalty make a case for more than one possible culprit

The Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny uses blindness as a metaphor for the acceptance and allowance of evil as long as we don’t actually see it. This, the fourteenth in the Inspector Gamache series, is, as always, phenomenal at making readers feel that they are in mythical Three Pines as a part of the Inspector’s team. Gamache and Myrna, the bookseller/psychologist, are named executors of a stranger’s will and one of the beneficiaries dies suspiciously. Gamache also tackles the tracing of an opioid shipment from a previous case that offers new twists. That Penny can take a simple murder mystery and make it a universal inspection of the heart in every single novel, is truly extraordinary. Read her earlier titles first.

My Favorite Unreliable Narrator Tales of 2018:

Bring Me Back by B.A. Paris is a thriller that keeps you guessing because you don’t know who to trust. What part did Finn play in the disappearance of Layla twelve years previously? Can he trust Ruby or even his best friend Harry? Since Finn became engaged to Layla’s sister Ellen, Russian nesting doll pieces have begun appearing. Do they mean that Layla’s alive? I found myself begging Finn to tell the police about the dolls, but that might have meant no story.

The Real Michael Swann by Bryan Reardon builds suspense with short, staccato chapters. Julia Swann is talking on the phone with her husband Michael when the call drops. She soon learns that a bomb has gone off in New York’s Penn Station where Michael was awaiting a train home when their call ended. She heads to the city to find him but finds only questions. Is Michael alive? What happened to him? What should Julia do? This is one page-turner of a page-turner.

The Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkannen, Fans of unreliable narrators like those in Gone Girl will enjoy figuring out if sweet preschool teacher Nellie, her controlling fiancé, or his boozy ex-wife are telling the truth. The hair on the back of your neck will warn you that something sinister is coming. Let’s leave it to the reader to ascertain.

The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn introduces eerie character Anna, a child psychologist, who lives alone in a New York suburb where she drinks wine and watches movies on TV while spying on her neighbors. When she sees a horrific crime across the park in her new neighbors’ home, she doesn’t know what to do. The novel evokes the qualities of a Hitchcock movie, but the pacing of the last quarter of the book could have been tightened to keep the suspense building. Despite that quibble, the secrets of Anna’s past and her unreliability make this a compelling read and I can’t wait for more from Finn.

The Cleverest Take on Politics and Money in a Mystery I Read in 2018:
Murder in the One Percent by Saralyn Richard is an engaging procedural with an unexpectedly delicious twist of an ending that will leave readers wanting more of Detective Oliver Parrot. The satirical jabs at the suspects and their “affluenza” deliver a tasty treat of a whodunit. The elite gathers for a 65th birthday party at a country estate and one of them is murdered. Finding the murderer hits the highest stakes with even the President of the US demanding a quick resolution.

The Most Compelling Feminist Mystery I Read in 2018:
Barbed Wire Heart by Tess Sharpe is a thriller with a feminist twist. Harley, the heir to an illegal drug empire, funds and protects the women and children at a women’s shelter she’s helped create. She’ll do anything to protect them and her turf. Will, the boy raised with her, tells her “You gotta be like barbed wire. Tough no matter what, ready to tangle with anyone who gets too close. If you stay like that, you’ll be too strong for anyone to hurt you.” Can she survive without becoming the worst of what she sees and has learned? It’s rare to find a fine tale of suspense that makes the reader ponder issues of such importance.                                                                                                                       
A Delightful Mystery Series that Captures Northern Michigan:
Murder at Cherokee Point by Peter Marabell is the first in a series of Michael Russo mysteries set in the Petoskey, Michigan area where the privileged residents of a gated resort north of Harbor Springs don’t want anyone investigating a murder within their borders. The police ask local attorney Russo to assist and he’s soon warned to desist by a Chicago Mafia boss. Sheer fun. It came out in 2014. Once you read it you’ll want to read the sequels: Murder on Lake Street, Devils are Here, and Death Lease. Marabell’s familiarity with Northern Michigan make the Mackinac Island, Petoskey, and Harbor Springs settings perfect escapes for visiting tourists.


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  2. I only read The Dry from your list, and I think it was a really good debut. Harper`s next novel didn`t impress me as much, but she`s a good writer and I`m sure we`ll hear more about her. In the meantime, I don`t know if you`ve heard, The Dry is getting turned into a movie. ;)