To be clear, what follows is not a list of the best mysteries and thrillers published during the past year. Instead, I’ve decided not to copy those reviewers who imply they’ve read the many thousands of mysteries and thrillers published in any given year. Nobody, and no team of reviewers, can possibly manage that. And I won’t pretend to do so. Besides, I don’t read only new books. Many of the books I review were published years ago, award-winners and classics among them. So, the following list includes both new and old titles.
Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
As you’ll see, only one of the five titles listed here first appeared during the past year: Paul Vidich’s compelling spy drama, The Matchmaker. The other four include an acknowledged classic of suspense fiction—Ross MacDonald’s The Galton Case—and three others published from 1988 to 2008. I find myself turning more and more to older mysteries and thrillers as so many of the new entries in the genre seem formulaic and derivative.
A Cold Red Sunrise (Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov #5) by Stuart M. Kaminsky (1988) 332 pages ★★★★★—A historical mystery about a murder above the Arctic Circle
Stuart Kaminsky won the Edgar for Best Novel for A Cold Red Sunrise, and it’s easy to see why. The four books that precede it in his long-running series featuring Inspector Porfiry Petrovich Rostnikov are all excellent. But he outdoes himself with this fascinating excursion into a murder above the Arctic Circle. We follow Rostnikov 2,000 miles east of Moscow to the frozen wastes of a tiny Siberian village in 1987. There, surprise piles atop surprise. Meanwhile, we gain insight into the dysfunction of the Soviet state and learn about the indigenous culture of the area. It’s a tour de force, surely among the best novels in the detective genre.
The Galton Case (Lew Archer #8 of 18) by Ross MacDonald (1959) 255 pages ★★★★★—A classic detective novel that’s hard to put down
Reading as much as I do, it’s highly unusual for me to come across a book I find so riveting that I lose track of time. But this masterpiece of detective fiction did that to me. Strangely, I had read the novel nearly half a century ago, when I was in the process of devouring all 18 of the Lew Archer tales. But Ross MacDonald’s plot was so fiendishly complex, and the book was stuffed with so many startling surprises, that I couldn’t possibly have remembered them all. Thus, “I (literally) couldn’t put it down.” Here’s a classic detective novel that fully merits the label.
The German Client (Bacci Pagano #6) by Bruno Morchio (2008) 204 pages ★★★★★—An outstanding novel about the Italian Resistance in World War II
The French Resistance dominates accounts written in English about irregular warfare in World War II. But the most effective Resistance efforts may well have been in Poland, Yugoslavia, and the Soviet Union. And there was anti-Nazi activity everywhere in occupied Europe. Italy was no different. And, in contrast to France, where the Resistance gained mass and momentum only very late in the war, Italian partisans harried their German occupiers from an early date. Popular crime author Bruno Morchio dramatizes the operations of the Italian Resistance in World War II in his riveting detective novel The German Client.
Death of a Red Heroine (Inspector Chen #1) by Qiu Xiaolong (2000) 477 pages ★★★★★—A gripping Chinese police procedural
You might think a police officer in any country in the world would share a great deal with anyone in law enforcement anywhere else. Surely, detecting crime and punishing criminals is a straightforward process that must involve the same methods everywhere. A Chinese police procedural must closely resemble one set in the United States or anywhere in Europe, right? But, while that’s all true to some extent, the assumption falls apart when the social and political conditions in which police officers operate are dramatically different. And Chinese-American author Qiu Xiaolong’s award-winning Chinese police procedural, Death of a Red Heroine, brilliantly dramatizes that point.
The Matchmaker: A Spy in Berlin by Paul Vidich (2022) 250 pages ★★★★★—A dangerous spy game in Berlin before the fall of the Wall
Over the past half-dozen years, Paul Vidich has emerged as a major new voice in the literature of espionage. He writes historical fiction, with each of the five books he has published to date solidly grounded in verifiable facts. A mole hunt in the CIA during the paranoid years of the Red Scare. A CIA operation in Cuba the year before its Revolution. The death of a CIA scientist during Project MKUltra, the Agency’s experiment with LSD. A KGB defector during the final months before Mikhail Gorbachev took the helm of the Soviet Union. And now, in The Matchmaker, a tense, brilliantly plotted venture into the divided city of Berlin in the weeks before the Wall came down. The story is loosely based on the career of the legendary East German spymaster Markus Wolf.
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