The Six Best Mysteries I Read Last Year
01 The Witch Elm
A Tana French mystery is usually a pretty good bet for me, and I plowed through The Witch Elm to find out what was happening under French's layers of story. In The Witch Elm, French dips her toe into exploring how privilege, luck, (sometimes blind) loyalty—and, in several instances, a shocking absence of guilt and potentially skewed sense of justice—shape lives and carry events. In case her books aren't already on your radar, French is the author of six Dublin Murder Squad books (In the Woods, The Likeness--this is my favorite of hers, Faithful Place, Broken Harbor, The Secret Place, and The Trespasser).
She has also written another stand-alone book in addition to this one, her newest book, The Searcher.
For my full review of this book, see The Witch Elm.
02 The Lost Man
Nathan and Bub come together to grieve the loss of their brother Cam. Cam had been bothered by something before dying unexpectedly in the Australian outback desert, but was his death suicide--or did someone kill him? Nathan is no detective, but he owes it to Cam not to give up until he figures it out.
Harper skillfully builds the pool of potential culprits for Nathan to examine in this story of uncovering truths, family history, loyalty, stubbornness, and love.
Harper's books read like Westerns to me, and her sometimes spare tone suits the setting, the situations in which she places her characters, and the characters themselves. Things aren’t what they seem in The Lost Man, but Harper isn’t manipulative or tricky, either. I thought this was great.
03 Disappearing Earth
Julia Phillips's interconnected stories follow in chapters that take place each month for a year after the disappearance of two girls on the edge of Russia. The rural Siberian settings are exquisitely wrought, with stark, rugged, lush landscapes serving as the backdrop for a mystery that shakes a small community.
The story is as much about the varied cast of characters, the closed-off community, and the vivid sense of place Phillips imagines as it is about the mystery itself. It isn't a police procedural; this is a starkly beautiful book that happens to be a mystery.
Disappearing Earth is Phillips's first book, and she builds the story's pace steadily toward a crescendo. The ending doesn't necessarily provide all the answers, but Phillips provides enough pieces of the puzzle to create closure. I still think about this book from time to time, and I read it over a year ago.
04 The Last Child
I loved John Hart's brusque, determined Clyde Hunt, the scrappy and unstoppable young Johnny Merrimon, the sinister underbelly of their rural North Carolina town, and basically everything about this intricate literary mystery-thriller.
Hart knows how to masterfully build a story around unforgettable characters with layers they reluctantly reveal. I didn't expect the resolution Hart allows to unfold at the end. But I was in for whatever he was dishing up, and I was fascinated all along the way.
Hart has written many other books, including The Hush, which is the second in the Johnny Merrimon series, and Redemption Road (see my notes about that book at the end of this Greedy Reading List, below).
For my full review of this book, see The Last Child.
05 City of Windows (Lucas Page #1)
This was a really compelling mystery/thriller—with a smart underlying commentary about gun ownership, violence, and the factors complicating these issues, including societal malaise, ignorance often overpowering facts, and longstanding patterns of power and fear.
I loved the balance of clues and revelations Pobi lays out; they didn’t make me feel manipulated or red-herringed to death.
Lucas Page is a fantastic character (as are Whitaker, Kehoe, Erin, and Dingo). The elaborate climactic scene was creatively gruesome—and I felt realistic disgust as a result.
I haven't yet read the second in this Lucas Page series, Under Pressure--and I didn't even realize this was a series until after the fact, it stands so well on its own.
For my full review of this book, see City of Windows.
06 Bull Mountain
Clayton Burroughs is sheriff of a small town in North Georgia. But the rest of his family is a well-known, entrenched, powerful bunch of moonshiners (they operate in even darker avenues too) on and around Bull Mountain.
Clayton's law enforcement career and the rest of the Burroughses' relentless lawbreaking make for difficult family dynamics and some impossible professional dilemmas.
Panowich offers a story about a complicated family and sense of duty, with ruthless mountain
gangsters, twists and turns, dark elements,
interconnected stories, and quite an ending. I thought it was great.
Panowich also wrote Like Lions and Hard Cash Valley, the next two books in this series.
What mystery/suspense reads have been your favorites lately?
It feels like the time of year to be stocking up on spooky books and mysteries. These were all so good and so different--they were my favorites from 2019, in the general order of when I read them.
Honorable mention goes to Redemption Road by John Hart. I'm captivated by Hart's stories, but I admit that I had difficulty sitting through the horrific cruelties perpetuated by multiple characters in the book. I loved his imperfect, brave, relentlessly tough protagonists, and Hart is a gifted storyteller, but the rock-bottom depravity and evil underpinnings of much of Redemption Road story were upsetting and difficult to read.