As usual, my online mystery reading group collects our top ten crime fiction reads of the year. I’ll note them here out of a sense of tradition, along with some notes on other books I read and enjoyed in 2021. Someday I’ll look back on all of these and map out how my tastes have changed (and/or how the genre has changed). My impression is that I’m reading more women and BIPOC authors and have mellowed from my more hard-boiled days. I even read a cozy this year – it didn’t make my top ten, but I did finish it.
David Heska Wanbli Weiden / WINTER COUNTS
I enjoyed every minute of this book, set in familiar places in South Dakota and Nebraska featuring a Dakota man who gets physical with people for money but who has an inner sense of decency and a strong desire to protect his nephew, caught up in a corruption scheme. Just excellent. Review.
Rahul Raina / HOW TO KIDNAP THE RICH
This was a surprise: a rollicking caper set in a highly immersive Delhi setting. An impoverished young man, who got a good education has no prospects of his own, makes a living taking the All India exam for rich kids who want the high scores but not the stress of actually studying for them. Laced with acerbic commentary on contemporary India (and the US), it gets wilder and wilder with no hesitation to go completely over the top. Review.
Víctor del Árbol / ABOVE THE RAIN
This may have been the most memorable book I read all year. I’m not sure why – it’s long and lacks the breakneck pacing, focus on plot, or sense of resolution that you might expect from the genre, but it grew on me until it swept me away. A pair of elderly Spaniards who each have troubled relationships with their children (and fraught relations with their parents in the past) come together for a road trip. But that’s just a thread; the rest of the cleverly-wrought tapestry includes immigrants in Sweden, memories of the Spanish Civil War, police corruption, and domestic violence. It’s beautifully translated and very, very good. Review.
Catherine Jinks / SHELTER
I wasn’t sure about this one, because the ending was a bit unsatisfying, but as I scrolled through my recent reads I found it stuck with me more than most. It’s set in Australia and involves a woman, leading a hidden life while trying to avoid a violent ex, taking in another woman and her small children who is also in danger and has tapped into a secretive network for victims of domestic violence. There’s an intriguing mix of suspense and domestic drama (because the woman who has moved in is a mess and her children are in need of a steadier parent). Overall an enjoyable read if a bit too much scripted suspense. Review.
Julia Dahl / THE MISSING HOURS
Quite a change of pace from the author’s series focused on the orthodox Jewish community. This short and intense stand-alone opens with a college student waking up sore and hungover, gradually realizing she has been raped. She’s an interesting protagonist – very wealthy and not aware of her privilege as a boy in the same dorm (but without her rich parents) tries to help her get over the trauma and eventually to get even. Though the focus is on plot (and, to a lesser extent, characters) it has themes dealing with masculinity, inequality, and the role social media celebrity plays in misogyny. Review.
Lindsay Faye / THE KING OF INFINITE SPACE
A weird, intelligent, and delightful retelling of Hamlet set in modern-day New York City, where the owner of a theatre has married . . . well, you know the plot. I confess I almost put it down in the early going. The Hamlet figure is highly annoying, and yet has steadfast friends. But it grew on me and I’m glad it did. Faye is an imaginative writer who I need to read more of. Review.
T. Jefferson Parker / A THOUSAND STEPS
A coming-of-age story inside a time machine, this story is set in a place the author obviously knows an loves, Laguna Beach, which in 1968 was home of the Mystic Arts World head shop, gallery, and headquarters of the Brotherhood of Eternal Love. Matt is leading a hand-to-mouth existence when his sister goes missing. He’s convinced she didn’t go willingly, and sets out to find her, taking him to the head shop where Timothy Leary preaches love and LSD, a creepy house where creepy men host sex parties, to a guru’s compound where acolytes seek enlightenment, and the Thousand Steps – a set of stairs going to the beach where another teenage girl has been found dead. Nicely done, and very assuredly anchored in a specific time and place. Review.
Jane Harper / THE SURVIVORS
Harper’s books have a habit of showing up on my top ten lists. She has made a semi-series out of setting each of her books in a different part of Australia, making the most of the settings’ unique characteristics. This time we’re in Tasmania, where a woman’s body is found on the beach and it brings up the hard feelings about a ferocious storm that killed three people and left one of the survivors under a load of guilt. The community is small and close-knit, but it begins to unravel as police fail to make progress on the murder. Family relationships and the secrets that they hold are very much at the center of this character-driven mystery. Review.
Mick Herron / SLOUGH HOUSE
Another regular on my top ten lists. Now that John le Carre, the grand master of the espionage subgenre, has passed away, it’s comforting to know the tradition of using spy stories to analyze the present political situation and tweak the power-brokers who continually make a mess of things is being carried on so ably. In this case, there a very twisty plot involving a right-wing social media influencer, a populist politician that could be Nigel Farage if he spoke like Boris Johnson, and MI5 skullduggery. I’m not sure I could find my way through the plot with a map and a flashlight, but the trip is thoroughly entertaining. But fair warning, bring a hankie – the ending is a gut-wrencher. Review.
Naomi Hirihara / CLARK AND DIVISON
I was so pleased to find this book listed in many publications’ year-end round ups. This mystery is another time machine, this time taking us to a World War II internment camp where a California family has been imprisoned, losing their home, business, freedom, and dignity. Eventually one of the daughters is allowed to go to Chicago to prepare for the family’s relocation far from the west coast, but when the family finally is able to join her, they learn she is dead, supposedly a suicide. Her sister sets out to find out what really happened. A very human look at a part of our history that is too often overlooked. Review.
Other books I enjoyed
Clint Smith / HOW THE WORD IS PASSED
The author visits sites that carry stories about our history and reflects on what those stories say. Beautifully done.
Nicole Perlroth / THIS IS HOW THEY TELL ME THE WORLD ENDS
A deep dive into the rise of cyber warfare and the decisions our government makes that give them an offensive edge but put us all in danger. Gripping.
Kristin Kobes Du Mez / JESUS AND JOHN WAYNE
An illuminating history of contemporary white evangelicalism, uncovering the toxic masculinity that has overtaken a religion.
Jessie Daniels / NICE WHITE LADIES
Deftly combining personal narrative and sociological analysis, Daniels reveals the ways white women support and drive white supremacy. Her recommended solutions are bracingly bold. I keep thinking about this book.
Noah Giansiracusa / HOW ALGORITHMS CREATE AND PREVENT FAKE NEWS
A clear explanation of how algorithms work to write headlines and stories, place ads, and recommend videos, all with a focus on how they influence our news environment, a nice technical supplement to research that digs deeper into the social and economic side of disinformation.
Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner / YOU ARE HERE
As it says on the tin, this is “A Field Guide for Navigating Polarized Speech, Conspiracy Theories, and Our Polluted Media Landscape” and it’s very good at tackling the messy, confusing, historically and politically fraught media moment we are in. If I were still teaching I would love to read it with students. Review.
And a favorite novel . . .
Louise Erdrich / THE SENTENCE
If you thought nothing good came out of the year 2020, think again. Erdrich’s story, set in her own real-life bookstore in Minneapolis during that awful year, recounts how an Ojibwe woman who works there feels the presence of the ghost of a wannabe Indian white woman who moves books around and refuses to leave. The pandemic arrives, then George Floyd is murdered, and all of it puts a strain on the protagonist and her husband, a former cop who once arrested her. Just a beautiful, tender, hopeful story.