Final tally, or close to it, I might squeeze in another book or two, for books read in 2018: 82. I read a lot of commercial thrillers this year, even for me, as I wanted to really try to dig in and look at the mechanics of the genre for my own writing.
This was also the year I took a break from podcasts and tried more audiobooks, mostly while I walked Dash. I ended up listening to 21 books on audio, which accounts for the jump in total books read. I’m usually around 60 or so, about a book a week on average.
So what books left an impression? What are the books I can still remember months later? These are my favorite reads of 2018.
Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
The move is so, rightfully, iconic that it’s easiest to forget just how good the book is and how much of an impact (and blueprint) it’s become for the modern thriller.
The second person perspective intros feel a little wonky, and the technical aspects have not aged well, but everything else from the structure, pacing, and characterization remains impeccable.
While Gumb remains a bit of a cipher, Lecter as the villain/antagonist is a perfect blend of manners, evil and charisma that he remains unchallenged for best/most memorable villian in genre fiction.
If you’ve only seen the movie or only remember Harris from the lesser and later Lecter books, do yourself a favor and set aside a few days to read this classic.
All the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda
The set-up for this one is boilerplate thriller. A woman returns to her hometown 10 years after her childhood best friend vanished. Another girl soon goes missing. Are the two cases related? Have you ever read a thriller? This is prime Coben territory where buried familial secrets come back to haunt those still around. Mix in a dash of psychological Gillian Flynn and a unique hook, the book is mostly told backwards, and you are cooking with gas.
It takes a few chapters (“days”) to sort of wrap your head around the backward telling, but it works remarkably well (I shudder to think of the amount of post-it notes or spreadsheets the author needed to track it all) and sets a good opening hook and keeps you just unbalanced enough for what is mostly a standard plot for a majority of the book. The unexpected climax does a nice job of bumping this up from the norm.
I listened to this on audio and while some of the scene jumps were jarring without the page breaks to anchor you, the voiceover work was well done.
Out of Bounds by Val McDermid
I’m sort of embarrassed to admit I’d forgotten just how good Val McDermid could write. But the embarrassment also gave way to delight this year when I discovered her Karen Pirie series. Typically, I like to read a series from front-to-back, but due to a library catalog error, I jumped into the Pirie series at #4, but the writing, plotting and characterization were so strong I read to the end and immediately requested the first couple in the series.
Pirie is a cranky, whip-smart delight that doesn’t suffer fools, especially her bosses, and sees her job as a cold-case cop more as a mission than a paycheck. In short, she’s very much like a female Harry Bosch with a Scottish accent.
Out of Bounds finds Pirie investigating one cold case on the up-and-up and slowly being drawn into another fresher case that may or may not tie into her cold case. The plotting is deft and twisty. The characters each well drawn, even minor ones. Even reading out of order, I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.
Force of Nature by Jane Harper
The second book in the Aaron Falk series builds on and improves on last year’s debut. Five women from the same workplace go on a hike for a corporate retreat. Only four come back out. They all tell a slightly different story.
That’s a good hook. Both books are set in remote and little seen parts of Australia for crime fiction. If you’re looking for a new series, bring both books. You won’t be disappointed.
The Woman in the Window by AJ Finn
This thriller received a lot of buzz early this year. The cynical reader might find it a slick example of how to produce a commercial bestseller. It was definitely ubiquitous and popular enough to get hit with some backlash and it certainly feels at times that the author is working through a genre checklist, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It meets and often exceeds all the expectations for the genre. I found it a very well-done example of mainstream genre fiction.
You’ll likely see a few of the ‘surprises’ coming long before they are revealed. But if it’s calculating, it’s still a well-constructed story that forces you to keep turning pages.
Dark Sacred Night by Michael Connelly
Some reviews have focused on the disjointed plot as a weakness is this tag-team, but I think it follows the pattern of the last few of Connelly books.
He now seems more interested in the day-to-day life of a detective, balancing lots of competing cases, and their internal motivations to keep doing a mostly thankless job, and its subsequent impact on their psyches rather than the big, sensational book-length case.
Plus, the juggling of the smaller cases didn’t bother me when it’s supported by characters this strong. Can’t wait to see where Bosch and Ballard go next.
Dark of the Moon by John Sanford
I’m officially ticked off at myself for waiting this long to read Sandford’s Flower’s series. I think I might have burned out on the Prey books and mentally catalogued these as re-treads with a different main character. That would be a mistake. While the plots remain dark and full of murder and mayhem like the Prey series, Flowers, as a character, brings a lot of lightness and comedy where Davenport was often dark and brooding.
These books are well-plotted and complex and Virgil brings a lot of sarcastic comedy and unique character traits to the story. I’m looking forward to reading through the rest of the series.
Crimson Lake by Candice Fox
This is one of those books where the individual parts often worked better than the whole. I really enjoyed the strong sense of place and the two leads are unique and well-defined for the genre. I liked seeing them spend time together and have their personalities bounce off each other.
The central mystery of a missing writer is more what I’d call a shaggy dog story that moves along in fits and starts. I was much more interested in the two leads personal mysteries and would have liked more focus on the investigation and discoveries there. Those were wrapped up really, really quickly toward the end.
This is sounding more negative than I perhaps mean it to be. I really enjoyed the book, but I’d characterize more in the vein of Crumley or Elizabeth Hand where the story appears more interested in internal lives and struggles of their damaged characters. The actual mysteries are more mundane and secondary, which is probably more realistic and tougher to pull off as a writer.
I look forward to see where these two mismatched PI’s go in the future.
The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson
Johnson’s Longmire series was one that I had long heard about but just never picked up for some reason. I tried the show, but that adaptation didn’t really work for me. But it did stick the images of the characters in my head, so I when I did finally pick up the first Longmire, I pretty only saw the show characters. I think they did a good job casting Longmire and Henry, but the description of Moretti does not jibe with Starbuck.
The Cold Dish itself falls into the category of what I like to refer to as a Crumley mystery. James Crumley wrote character studies disguised as mysteries. And they are great, but much more interested in the inner world of the characters than with the outward plot. I could also these Robicheaux mysteries after James Lee Burke’s hero.
This is all not to say this book was bad. Not at all. I really enjoyed it, but I needed to adjust my own expectations. I had to sink into the descriptions of Wyoming and get used to going at Longmire’s speed. Chapters or scenes sometimes end or pick up again without warning. No worries, he and his motley crew do eventually get around to saving the day and solving the crime.
The Death of Mrs Westaway by Ruth Ware
Since bursting onto the genre scene in 2015 with In a Dark, Dark Wood, Ruth Ware has quickly proven to be a star in the psychological thriller genre, quickly following that hit with a book a year.
Previous books typically focused on a group of English women with dark pasts or secrets, Westaway does have past secrets in spades, a woman lead, but moves away from the almost cozy style to feature a broader cast.
Hal receives a mysterious letter bequeathing her a substantial inheritance. She realizes very quickly that the letter was sent to the wrong person—but also that the cold-reading skills she’s honed as a tarot card reader might help her claim the money. Hal takes herself to the funeral of the deceased…where it dawns on her that there is something very, very wrong about this strange situation and the inheritance at the center of it.
The book is heavy on atmosphere and doles out its secrets slowly and bloodlessly. The opening hook feels a little contrived to get our character moving, but once she is in motion, the creepiness and dread build convincingly.
Ware does a good job of playing mostly fair and keep the reader unbalanced and guessing as to who is ultimately the villain. The writing is solid and this is a very good example of the psychological thriller firing on almost all cylinders.
The Chalk Man by CJ Tudor
This is a debut mystery/thriller and sometimes hits some story telling speed bumps that often crop up in first novels, but at its best it does conjure that feeling of impending adulthood and one last summer with friends that Stephen King does so well.
While not going supernatural, the atmosphere and dread lurk over the second half of the book as the murderer still lurks among the now grown friends.
How it Happened by Michael Koryta
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Past Tense by Lee Child
Hellbent by Gregg Hurwitz
Lethal White by Robert Galbraith