What makes a mystery land on the best of the year’s list? The perfect melding of strong characters, unusual plots and evocative settings that make the novel stay in this reader’s mind long after the last page.
1. “Badlands” by C.J. Box (Minotaur) and “Endangered” by C.J. Box (Putnam): Edgar-winner C.J. Box’s two 2015 novels are each deserving. “Badlands” shows the new Wild West in which a North Dakota hamlet becomes a boomtown because of its oil-rich fields in Box’s intriguing fifth stand-alone novel. “Badlands” deftly explores an area under siege by its own progress, inhabited by well-rounded characters shaped by their environs and their own moral codes. “Endangered,” the 15th novel about Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett, continues Box’s clear-eyed approach to balancing environmental and human issues in compelling plots.
2. “Last Words” by Michael Koryta (Little, Brown): A poignant look at grief, greed and small-town angst complement the exciting action that goes deep into a dark, dank, claustrophobic cave. Private investigator Mark Novak, still reeling over his wife’s death two years before, looks into a teenager’s decade-old murder inside a now-shuttered Indiana tourist cave.
3. “Hush Hush” by Laura Lippman (William Morrow): Baltimore private investigator Tess Monaghan’s most welcome return after a three-year hiatus finds the perceptive detective juggling motherhood of a precocious toddler while working for a wealthy woman who was found not guilty of killing her infant daughter 12 years before. Parenting issues seldom are fodder for crime fiction, but Lippman uses this to provide an emotional depth for an exciting mystery that spins on the precise character studies.
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4. “Last Ragged Breath” by Julia Keller (Minotaur): Our personal stories define who each of us is as an individual. Keller smoothly incorporates the power of an individual’s story into a tense tale that uses the background of the 1972 Buffalo Creek flood, a real West Virginia tragedy that symbolized the epitome of corporate greed. Keller’s series captures a community paralyzed by a lack of opportunities, yet where people still have hope and even dignity.
5. “The Crossing” by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown): Newly retired LAPD detective Harry Bosch reluctantly teams up with his half-brother attorney Mickey Haller (“The Lincoln Lawyer”) to prove that a man may be innocent of murder. Harry, who has often defined himself by his job, learns that work, no matter how important, is not the sum total of a person. Connelly handles this retirement with aplomb and fits well with this series in which Harry has aged.
6. “A Fine Summer’s Day” by Charles Todd (Morrow): A high point in an already evocative series normally set during post-WWI Great Britain finds the battle-fatigued Scotland Yard detective Ian Rutledge happy and hopeful on the day before WWI breaks out. A superior character study seamlessly melds with a historical overview of how the threat of war began to permeate Britain. While PBS' “Downton Abbey” looks at how WWI affected the aristocrats, Todd concentrates on those not to the manor born.
7. “The Redeemers” by Ace Atkins (Putnam): Sheriff Quinn Colson knows how lawlessness can erupt when people believe they are above the law – a fact even more clearly illustrated as Colson’s tenure in Mississippi’s Tibbehah County draws to a close.
8. “Let Me Die in His Footsteps” by Lori Roy (Dutton): Desire and regret as palpable as the fragrant lavender fields that separate two feuding families permeate this tale about two women separated by decades but linked by family bonds in rural Kentucky.
9. “What You Left Behind” by Samantha Hayes (Crown): Intense character studies, aided by a perceptive look at teenagers united by feelings of alienation, elevate the unpredictable plot in which a family in an affluent British village worries that their teenage son may have suicidal tendencies.
10. “World Gone By” by Dennis Lehane (William Morrow): Dennis Lehane gives a textbook guide on how to end a series in the final of his thrilling trilogy about organized crime set in Ybor City during the early 20th century. While never glorifying the illegal, Lehane examines how crime works on one’s soul and what it means to know that the life you’ve chosen must give way to the next breed of criminals.
A last-minute gift idea?
“Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & ‘50s” edited by Sarah Weinman (Library of America). A superior compilation shows the range of women writers, some of whom are neglected by today’s readers.