Off On a Tangent

Random musings from Sarah Weinman, editor of Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives (Penguin, August 27)

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My Favorite Crime Novels of 2010, and Other Books I Loved

Nobody asked me to contribute a list, so I kind of forgot about it in a haze of work, but after a gentle reminder, here’s that list, not in any particular order and not including Stieg Larsson because as much as I love THE MILLENIUM TRILOGY and will defend those books to the death, there’s no need to spill more ink.

SAVAGES, Don Winslow

This more than any other book was my “shout from the rooftops” pick. I read the book 3 times and I could easily have read it another 3 more. That in a way made it hard for me to review SAVAGES, but I gave it my best shot in describing the book as “both a departure and a culmination, pyrotechnic braggadocio and deep meditation on contemporary American culture.” In other words, it’s funny and sad, very rooted in today’s culture while also a damning indictment, and oh yeah, the ending is amazing and absolutely perfect.


THE SINGER’S GUN, Emily St. John Mandel

Widespread and rapturous praise for the book, and for Mandel, is wholly justified. As I wrote in my “Dark Passages” column when THE SINGER’S GUN was first published in May, “The beauty of the novel is that its key truths are those the reader arrives at on his or her own, without the help of a straight-line narrative or a dominating perspective. Instead, Mandel feeds off of our need to make connections, even when the pattern they form doesn’t really exist. We start with anxiety and end with it, thrumming in the background for us to listen in - or ignore, at both cost and reward.”

CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER, Tom Franklin

If SAVAGES was my summer rooftop shout book, CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER occupied that same perch for the fall. I’ve been a huge Franklin admirer for years and have awaited a new novel from him for a long time. Boy, did he deliver with this standout tale of race, boyhood friendship gone wrong, past secrets exposed to the cruel light of the present, and what have you.

From my LAT column: “[Franklin’s] larger aim is to comment on how misunderstandings multiply into easily averted tragedy; how generations-old racism is a scourge that only needs a few small souls to stamp it out, whether they know it or not; how small gestures are full of loaded meaning; and how childhood thoughtlessness — the good and the bad — can be amplified with the greater context of adulthood.”

HELLO KITTY MUST DIE, Angela Choi

Nobody but Tyrus Books could have published Choi’s debut, which has one of the most memorable opening chapters I have ever read. But who cares if the majors didn’t want to touch HELLO KITTY with a hundred-foot pole, this book has its audience - and I am certainly among the enthusiasts. Again from my LAT column: “The real triumph of HELLO KITTY MUST DIE is that it refuses to apologize for Fiona’s behavior and never offers clear-cut explanations for her pole slide down into amoral adventure. As for where she ends up, let’s put it this way: I fully expect Fiona to make partner in a decade or so, and by then there will be new rabbit holes for her to explore and exploit to the fullest.”

I’D KNOW YOU ANYWHERE, Laura Lippman

Laura and I have been friends for almost a decade (!) and I am honor-bound to disclose this, but even if I had never met her once in my life I would still say this is her best book, a feat that still leaves much room for further growth and improvement, which is quite rare and amazing. The way in which she reveals and exposes layer after layer of her characters so that “good” and “evil” really operate on multiple sides of the same empathy coin (Walter, in particular, is a creation Patricia Highsmith would have loved to make her own) is incredibly difficult to pull off, but did she ever - and in the process show that people can experience terrible things and not just survive them, but move on and live full lives as a result.

THE MANY DEATHS OF THE FIREFLY BROTHERS, Thomas Mullen

I am counting this as a crime novel even though it’s more accurately described (at least by me) as a “literary gangster zombie novel.” And did I have such a fabulous time reading it at the beginning of the year. Don’t forget about it, and buy zillions of copies when it’s out in paperback so that Mullen can find his crossover audience, which will no doubt increase even further when his dystopian novel is published by Mulholland next fall. He is a wonderful andd assured writer and we will be hearing tons and tons more from him, I bet.

IF THE DEAD RISE NOT, Philip Kerr

How much longer can Bernie Gunther go on? I almost hope Kerr doesn’t answer that question, because the way he’s extended his urbane, sardonic Berlin-born sleuth’s life has been masterful, again (as in A QUIET FLAME) contrasting a 1930s-era case - and the ramifications of one quick decision - with the pre-Castro Havana of the mid-1950s. Kerr has a complicated story to tell, but his juggling is expert and culminates in one of the best ending confessions I’ve read in ages.

WINTERLAND, Alan Glynn

A decade or so from now, when serious history books recount the hazy crazy days of the Celtic Tiger, its unstoppable boom and calamitous bust, those who seek those books out will also know that WINTERLAND got there first. Through a kaledescopic lens that only fiction - and especially crime fiction - can provide, Alan Glynn shows the depth of greed, the slow slide into corruption, the brutality of murder, and the bonds of family that glue a city, a country, and scores of people together. Is it a masterpiece? I won’t say that now, not yet. But ask me again in ten years.

HAILEY’S WAR, Jodi Compton

You want to talk of comeback kids? Compton, whose first two novels were published a zillion years ago (okay, 2005 and 2006) seemed to have disappeared…before HAILEY’S WAR was published by a different Random House imprint. Thank god. It’s fantastic, or as I said a little more floridly in the LAT, “HAILEY’S WAR serves as a metaphor for dreams so close to realization but for a fault line or two. Weaker hearts would flinch, then crack. But Hailey, instead, summons her inner soldier, the one that tells her, no matter what perilous situation she’s in, to paraphrase Bob Marley, she has to get up, stand up, stand up for her life — a better and truer test of heroism.”

IN FREE FALL, Juli Zeh

Give me a novel of ideas and if the story is good and the characters are believable and entertain me, I am there. Give me a crime novel of ideas, where two physics professors, friends and rivals, opposites but startlingly similar, do emotional battle on an intellectual canvas, raise the stakes through betrayal, the possible kidnapping of a child, and embroil a romantic-leaning police detective in the complicated machinations of quantum theory, and holy hell, this really did end up one of my favorite books of the year. Even if I suspect few others would agree but who needs ‘em?

OTHER GOOD BOOKS I LOVED THAT I READ IN 2010

  • Nightmare Alley, William Lindsay Gresham (thanks NYRB Classics for reissuing!)
  • Memory, Donald E. Westlake
  • The Poisoner’s Handbook, Deborah Blum
  • Occupied City, David Peace (I guess it could be a crime novel but Peace is in a genre of his own, so I treat him accordingly, arguments be damned)
  • Skippy Dies, Paul Murray
  • Our Tragic Universe, Scarlett Thomas
  • You Were Wrong, Matthew Sharpe (the writing! How he messes with literary and genre conventions! More people need to read this book)
  • Diamond Ruby, Joseph Wallace (obligatory disclosure of family ties, but this book has such warmth and big-heartedness that it will win over even the most cynical of sorts)
  • The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, David Mitchell
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot, and Here Is A Human Being, Misha Angrist, for being voice-driven accounts of scientific strands and stories we need to know much, much more about
  • How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Charles Yu
  • Room, Emma Donoghue
  • By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, Elizabeth Smart (okay, it was a reread, but for a good cause)
  • About 10 novels by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, but especially The Death Wish and The Blank Wall
  • The Dogs and the Wolves, Irene Nemirovsky (I have to read the UK/Canadian editions because Vintage isn’t reissuing these books fast enough for me, dammit)
  • The Leavenworth Case, Anna Katherine Green (one of the first American detective novels and surprisingly, still quite good!)
  • The Lodger, Marie Belloc Lowndes
  • C, Tom McCarthy
  • The Wagon, Martin Prieb (high on the list of “books I wish I had written about in 2010”, but the depiction of what it is really like to be a cop - in all its sadly hilarious glory - is what makes this book work so well.)
  • After Claude, Iris Owens (another gem dug up by the NYRB)
  • The Invisible Bridge, Julie Orringer
  • The complete works of Aimee Bender, but especially The Girl in the Flammable Skirt
  • Kosher Nation, Sue Fishkoff
  • Lord of Misrule, Jaimy Gordon

Eventually I’ll tally up exactly how many I read all year. It will be a lot. Hopefully, not as many as in 2008. Or in 2009.

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