Adam Woog’s picks for the 10 best mysteries of 2015 include books by Lisa Brackmann, Harry Brandt, Christopher Fowler, Laurie B. King, Laura Lippman, Peter May, Joyce Carol Oates, Peter Robinson, Olen Steinhauer and Seattle author Roger Hobbs.
“Dragon Day” by Lisa Brackmann(Soho). Ellie McEnroe, a funny, shrewd Iraq war vet with a bad leg and a worse attitude, is scraping by in Beijing. Her friendship with a dissident artist puts her in the orbit of a Shanghai billionaire, and she accepts his request to investigate his son’s creepy business partner. Brackmann is terrific at contrasting the glitz of modern high-society China with Beijing’s less reputable neighborhoods.
“The Whites” by Harry Brandt (Holt). NYPD detective Billy Graves’ career tanked after a justified but racially charged shooting. Kicked off his elite squad, he’s stuck in the dead-end night shift. He’s also obsessed with nailing, on his own time, the bad guy who got away (a “white,” as in “white whale”). Brandt (actually heavy-hitter novelist Richard Price) brilliantly uses his crackling crime story as framework for a broad novel of social commentary exploring good, bad, and the possibility of redemption.
“Bryant & May and the Bleeding Heart” by Christopher Fowler(Bantam). London’s oldest, oddest detectives — John May (relatively rational) and Arthur Bryant (eccentric, brilliant, slightly mystical) investigate a murder that leads them to iconic ravens, body snatchers, and the human-waste trade (don’t ask). Bonus: We get a healthy sampling of Fowler’s ongoing fascination with some very strange corners of London’s history.
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“Vanishing Games” by Roger Hobbs(Knopf). Call him Jack. Or whatever — he has many identities. Jack is a meticulous high-end thief, the smartest guy in the room, and an expert on helping other thieves and their swag disappear. In this riveting sequel to Seattle author Hobbs’s “Ghostman,” Jack reunites with his former mentor in a caper involving pirates in the South China Sea and a prize worth millions.
“Dreaming Spies” by Laurie R. King(Bantam). An ostensibly retired Sherlock Holmes and his smart, spirited wife, Mary Russell, travel to Japan, disguising themselves as Buddhist pilgrims to solve a problem involving royal personages. King has a keen eye for evoking a long-lost place and time, when Japan was exotic and still largely untouched by Western culture.
“Hush-hush” by Laura Lippman(Morrow). Smarty-pants Baltimore private eye Tess Monaghan has a new challenge: she’s the joyful/terrified mother of a toddler. (Imagine a stakeout during which the small person with you demands Chicken McNuggets.) But Monaghan perseveres, bodyguarding a rich woman bent on exonerating herself of charges that she killed her infant daughter.
“Entry Island” by Peter May(Quercus). You can practically smell the salt air of the rugged island off Québec where Montréal police detective Sime Mackenzie is investigating a murder. Meanwhile, Mackenzie is reading his Scottish ancestor’s diary — an occupation that starts giving him disturbing visions of a distant past, when greedy aristocrats evicted his ancestor from his land. The ancestor fled to Canada, leaving behind his true love, who eerily resembles the murder’s victim’s alluring widow. May’s intensely evocative book is both a gripping mystery and a fully realized novel of lost love, yearning, and unbearable hardship.
“Jack of Spades” by Joyce Carol Oates(Mysterious Press). Few writers better illuminate the mind’s most disturbing corners. Oates tightens her silken noose around our necks with the story of a mainstream mystery writer who secretly writes shocking, violent, explicitly sexual thrillers. This hidden life implodes, and he becomes increasingly unhinged after a bizarre woman sues him, claiming that he steals her ideas — literally, by breaking into her house to pilfer manuscripts.
“In the Dark Places” by Peter Robinson (Morrow). A minor crime — the theft of a gentleman farmer’s expensive tractor — sets in motion a complex case for self-effacing Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks, a Yorkshire policeman, and his loyal team. Their investigation takes in the disappearance of a petty criminal, his pal’s gruesome murder, and a ring of thieves specializing in high-end agricultural machinery.
“All the Old Knives” by Olen Steinhauer (Minotaur). Over dinner at a posh restaurant, two spies — once colleagues and lovers — perform a delicate dance. He’s a CIA agent, she’s retired to placid family life. His mission: Extracting information about a long-ago airliner hijacking that went horribly wrong. During an increasingly liquid evening, they rehash events in vivid flashbacks, right up to the book’s surprising conclusion.