Favorite Reads of 2018

These are some of my favorite books that I read in 2018.Most were published last year, but a few are golden oldies that I've only just gotten around to reading.

The list is not in any particular order. Though I have no problem identifying those books I really enjoyed, I don't like rating them from best to worst, which strikes me as arbitrary. A good book is a good book--period.So, let's get the party started with one of the best weird tales I've read in some time, The Ballad of Black Tom

“Nobody ever thinks of himself as a villain, does he? 
Even monsters hold high opinions of themselves.” 
― Victor LaValle, The Ballad of Black Tom

This novella by Victor Lavalle just might be the consummate weird tale. The Ballad of Black Tom is is a reimagining of Lovecraft's "Horror at Red Hook.” Tommy Tester is a young black man trying to take care of his father in 1924 Harlem. He does what is necessary to earn his living, but when he's hired to deliver a mysterious book to an equally mysterious woman, a series of events are set in motion.

In prose as smooth as jazz, Lavalle conveys dual horrors. In this brilliant tale, the horror of the dread Master of R'lyeh coexists with the horror of racism and I’m not sure which is worse. Near the conclusion, after the die has been cast, Tom observes, “I'll take Cthulhu over you devils any day.”

And who can blame him?

Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn.
In his house at R'lyeh dead C'thulhu waits dreaming.

Next is The Night of the Hunter.

“It's a hard world for little things.” 
― Davis Grubb

Davis Grubb's dark gem was published in 1953 and wasn’t even available in a legitimate American version until Vintage Books republished it in 2015. I suspect that like most people, I was familiar with the story through Charles Laughton’s 1955 excellent film adaptation, which I watched on the afternoon movie on TV as a child. When I finally got around to reading the novel, the plot was a little hazy, though I do recall Robert Mitchum’s portrayal of Harry Powell scaring the bejesus out of me!

The novel takes place in Depression-era West Virginia. Nine-year-old John Harper tries to protect his little sister Pearl and their widowed mother from Harry Powell, a snake in preacher’s clothes. Powel is a serial killer who has slain so many widows for their money that he’s lost count. Only John sees Preacher for what he is—a monstrous hunter who kills the small, weak things of the earth.

In tone and structure, the book is reminiscent of an Appalachian ballad, a sad tale of loss and longing that descends into nightmare. Through written in lyrical and dreamy prose, the story moves at a relentless pace. Once begun, I found it impossible to put down.

The Night of the Hunter is a minor American classic that deserves to be read.

Continuing in this dark vein, let's check out Laura Lippman's first foray into noir fiction--Sunburn.

“She wonders if he is as exhausted by all the lying as she is.” 
― Laura Lippman

Though inspired by James M. Cain’s classic noir novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, the enigmatic character of Polly Costello is uniquely Lippman’s own creation. This is a difficult novel to discuss because the entire plot contains spoilers. Suffice it to say, that early on the reader realizes  that Polly is a woman with a troubled past, who may or may not have murdered her husband, though there's no doubt he beat her, which might explain why she stuck a knife in his chest while he slept.

The novel sizzles from page one when Polly meets handsome stranger Adam in a bar in Delaware. Polly is obviously on the run from it's unclear who or what is chasing her. Sparks fly between Polly and Adam, but there is something else as work in this relationship. The real fun for the reader is trying to figure out what these two people are up to—because they are definitely up to something.

The ending came as a total surprise and was eminently satisfying, in a dark sort of way.

Somewhere out there, James Cain must be smiling.

A man can live his whole life following the rules set down by happenstance and the cash-coated bait of security-cosseted morality; an entire lifetime and in the end he wouldn’t have done one thing to be proud of.” 
― Walter Mosley

Down the River unto the Sea is a private eye tale told as only Walter Mosley can tell it. PI Joe King Oliver has had a run of bad luck. Thirteen years earlier, while a detective with NYPD, the black detective was framed for the rape of a white woman. After spending three months in solitary confinement at Rikers, the charges were dropped, but by this time his life was smashed. He lost not only his wife and his job, but something of himself. When he gets the chance to find out who was responsible for the frame, he musters his courage and the story takes flight.

I loved every page and I especially loved this soft-spoken PI who finds his way through a racist reality with grace and humor.

I'm finishing with the only nonfiction entry--Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI

“History is a merciless judge. It lays bare our tragic blunders and foolish missteps and exposes our most intimate secrets, wielding the power of hindsight like an arrogant detective who seems to know the end of the mystery from the outset.” 
― David Grann

In the 1870s the Osage people were driven from their ancestral land in what is now Kansas to a presumably useless land. When oil was discovered on their new homeland, prospectors had to pay the Osage Tribe in order to drill. By the early 1920s the Osage had become some of the richest people on earth. However, full-blooded Osage were considered incapable of handling such wealth and so a white guardian was assigned to “protect” his or her interest. 

It was the perfect setup for an unscrupulous white to take advantage of his Osage neighbors. As one white man observed, “The Osage Indians are becoming so rich that something will have to be done about it.”

Something was done. The Osage were married or befriended and then murdered. It’s still not certain how many were slaughtered. Between 1907 and 1923, the Osage death rate was more than one and a half times higher than the death rate for whites, when, with their higher standard of living, should by all rights have been lower. Eventually, the nascent FBI was sent to investigate since local law enforcement was either involved in the killings or simply ignored them.

Grann constructs his story through the prism of a single family, but even so there are scores of characters. A consummate researcher, he provides valuable context on everything from the state of forensic pathology in the early 1920s to the boarding schools that young Native Americans were forced to attend. All of this paints a shocking and horrifying picture of a community of willful executioners, who were either active in the murderous conspiracy or turned a blind eye.

If there is a hero in this story, it is Tom White, the frontier lawmen who uncovered a murder conspiracy, with one man at its center. A mote of justice was achieved when this man was convicted, but Hoover had no interest in shining too bright of a light on the other murders against the Osage. To him, the investigation was simply a means to promote his new “Bureau.” Once that was achieved, Osage were of no more use to him.

Killers of the Flower Moon is nonfiction that reads like fiction, with a cast of memorable characters one might find in the pages of a thriller. But because this story is true, its impact is more profound and heartrending than any fiction could ever be—a true American tragedy.

North by Northwest Theme

On July 17,1959, North by Northwest premiered in Los Angeles. I'm a big fan of Hitchcock and North by Northwest is one of my favorite films, if only for that amazing crop duster scene. Here the master explains:
“Now in movies…the cliche of the man being put on the spot is usually a place of assignation and it takes the form of a figure under a street lamp at the corner of the street with the rain-washed cobbles shining in the night…this is the cliche atmosphere in which you put a man who has been deliberately placed in danger. Somebody is going to come along and bump him off. Well of course, this is such a cliche thing, you see, that one has to fight shy of it and run as far away from it as one possibly can because it’s all predictable. Now I decide to do something quite different… I take the loneliest, emptiest spot I can so that there is no place to run for cover, no place to hide, and no place for the enemy to hide.”

He turns the cliche fresh by reimagining the setting--and what a setting it was!

Also, the theme music is superb. It fits the driving suspense that doesn't let up! 

The Rules of Murder

Detective fiction is the new kid on the literary block. Unlike romance, which traces its roots back to the middle ages, the detective story burst on the scene in 1841 with Edgar Allen Poe and his brilliant detective Auguste Dupin.
Several decades later, Sherlock made his debut in  A Study in Scarlet and the game was really
afoot. By the twenties and thirties the so-called Golden Age of Detective Fiction arrived, with the likes of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers plying their trade. As many of these writers were based in London, it was perhaps inevitable that they formed their own society--the Detection Club.

Like any club worth its salt, there was an elaborate initiation ceremony, including this sacred oath:
Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on or making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?
Members of The Detection Club, detecting the Sunday Times
Personally, I have no problem with most of the oath, though I enjoy a little jiggery-pokery now and again. In addition to the blood oath, members were also expected to follow ten commandments in writing a mystery. The rules were set down in stone by Ronald Knox in 1928. Let's check out a few of these rules to see how well they've stood the test of time.

The criminal must be named in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow I have no problem with the first part as it's just a question of playing fair with the reader. Also, the interplay between the sleuth and killer is a big part of the fun in any murder mystery. However, I'm not so sure about about that last bit. If Agatha Christie had taken this rule to heart, she'd have never written the classic The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, where--spoiler alert--the killer narrates the tale. It's one of mystery's great novels and yet at the time of its publication, some contemporary reviewers were so upset, they  actually called The Grand Dame of Mystery a cheat.

Not more than one secret room or passage. I guess Dan Brown didn't get the memo.

No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end. A good rule as the real deal--or poison--is almost always preferable to some made-up concoction. I added "almost" because this was another rule Christie broke, most notably with the fictitious hypertensive drug Serenite in A Caribbean Mystery and equally fake sedative Calmo in The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side

 The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader. In other words, play fair with your readers, or else you won't have them for very long! In the opening chapter of Death at China Rose, I slipped in a little fact that virtually identifies the killer. Of course neither my sleuth nor the reader has the context to use that information at that early date--sneaky, but fair.

Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them. I've always found the twin thing boring and done to death, though an episode of Endeavour which involved  twins kept my interest. But then I'm nuts about Shaun Evans so anything his Morse does is fine by me! However, if a writer wants to go with twins, I'd advise caution. Extreme caution.

So, are the rules still viable? Before I get to my final verdict, here's  a quick cautionary tale.

When I attended the University of Florida, postmodernism was the big thing. In one of my classes the professor instructed us to write an paper without any rules.

Elvis Presley 
rocking his moneymaker in jail
I took him at his word and constructed a frenetic paper that incorporated everything from Derrida to Moby Dick to Elvis's phallus. (Trust me, you don't want to know.)

Writing the paper was a liberating experience. I jumped from topic to topic in a steam of consciousness that would have done Joyce proud. It was fun and I even got an A!

A year of so after the fact, I was going through some old papers and came across my forgotten masterpiece. A sappy smile on my face, I started reading. Pretty soon, my smile twisted into a grimace. The damn essay made no sense. It was just a bunch of random thoughts tied together with string and spit, signifying nothing. (Sorry, Elvis.) The fact is that rules exist for a reason. If you're going to break them, you too need a reason--a good one

My rule is that rules are useful, unless they're not!

Agatha Christie Memorial in London's West End

The Mousetrap

As every mystery fan knows, Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap holds the record for  the longest running play in the world.

As a lifelong lover of Christie, I'd long wanted to see The Mousetrap, and a few years ago, I got my chance. Even so, I wasn't sure the play was still fresh enough to entertain. On stage since 1952, The Mousetrap has been performed over 25,000 times! After that many years, things can get a little creaky.

Well, I was wrong--dead wrong!

Built in 1901, the cozy St. Martin's Theater is the perfect venue for a classic murder mystery. The interior is somehow both intimate and elegant, an Edwardian feast of burnished woods and heavy burgundy curtains flecked with gold. I overheard a woman complaining about the tight seating, but that is the price of communing with the past--asmall price, in my view.

But as they say, the play's the thing, and in this classic who-done-it, Dame Agatha didn't disappoint.
Writing a mystery is a bit like juggling, only instead of balls, you're juggling suspects. The writer strives to keep as many suspects in play as possible so that the reader--or viewer--is never quite sure who the killer is, until the last possible moment. But as the plot grows in complexity, it becomes more and more difficult to keep everything moving--inevitably balls are dropped or discarded as the suspect pool shrinks.

 The Mousetrap is a closed mystery. Because of a severe winter storm, the seven characters--along with the intrepid Detective Sergeant Trotter--are marooned at a guesthouse. One of them is a murderer, but which one?

Until the play's closing moments, any one of the suspects could have been the killer--that's the equivalent of juggling seven balls over two hours. Believe me, that's a lot of balls! As a mystery writer, I can only stand back in awe.

So maybe The Mousetrap is old-school. And maybe it creaks with the conventions of an earlier time. But all the elements that made Agatha Christie great are in this play. So take my advice, and put it on your bucket list.

Or even better, just hop the next plane to London.