Best mystery books of 2019
Each Jan. 1, the search for my favorite mysteries of the year begins. And each year, narrowing down my favorites gets harder. Of the 150-plus books I read this year, these are the top standouts.
1. “Your House Will Pay” by Steph Cha (Ecco): In Los Angeles, a Korean-American family and an African-American family are torn apart by history and violence in this engrossing story about race, redemption and forgiveness. Racial tensions rear up, even with characters who honestly believe they are not bigoted. Each family learns uncomfortable truths about themselves as they try to rise above the past.
2. “The Lost Man” by Jane Harper (Flatiron Books): The brutality and isolation of the Australian outback is the backdrop for a tale about surviving in a “land of extremes” when the body of a man is found near the landmark grave of an old stockman, an area icon wrapped up in legend. His two brothers try to find out why their sibling, so well-seasoned in the ways of Australia, ended up dead, especially when his well-stocked vehicle, filled with food and water as it should be, is found not far from his body. Here, the nearest neighbor can be 150 miles away. “Too much space” gives way to resentments in this “perfect sea of nothingness. If someone was looking for oblivion, that was the place to find it.”
3. “Lady in the Lake” by Laura Lippman (Morrow): The daring decision of a Baltimore housewife to leave her husband evolves into a look at mid-1960s culture, including racism, sexism and ambition as well as a paean to newspapers and the struggle of women reporters. This unconventional mystery eschews adrenalin-like action for the internal rage that drives its complicated characters. In this era, the times are a’changin’, but the evolution of gender and racial roles don’t come quick enough.
4. “Heaven, My Home” by Attica Locke (Mulholland): African-American Texas Ranger Darren Mathews walks a tightrope of being a good man with the “fear of falling off the cliff of his own morality.” The search for a missing 9-year-old boy, who is the son of an imprisoned captain in the Aryan Brotherhood, leads to a community with an economy based on its antebellum history and a group of white supremacists who live close to the descendants of the town’s original black and Native American settlers. The second in this series by Edgar-winning Locke soars, who also was a writer and producer for the Fox drama “Empire.”
5. “The Night Fire” by Michael Connelly. Little, Brown: The team of retired LAPD Detective Harry Bosch and LAPD Detective Renee Ballard are now full-fledged partners — albeit off the books — as shown by the subtitle “A Renee Ballard and Harry Bosch Novel.” Harry gets second billing but he certainly isn’t in the background as the two look into the unsolved killing of an ex-con, shot to death in his car while parked in an alley nearly 20 years ago. The case was left for Harry by his recently deceased mentor. Insightful and tenacious investigators, Harry and Renee both have “that fire” to solve cases, no matter how many years ago the crimes occurred. Yet their differences make for good tension and a plot that again showcases Connelly’s high standards.
6. (tie) “City of Windows” by Robert Pobi (Minotaur): A decade ago, brilliant astrophysicist Lucas Page was an insightful FBI agent able to reduce crime scene details to figures and algorithms. But a near-fatal shooting ended his FBI career and his first marriage, but not his mental acuity. Lucas’ ability to calculate crime scenes and cities into geometrical landscapes is again needed by the FBI when a seemingly impossible shooting occurs.
6. (tie) “Deception Cove” by Owen Laukkanen (Mulholland Books): A Marine veteran and a newly released convict unite in their love for a mixed-breed dog named Lucy in this launch of a new series. Former Marine Jess Winslow returned to her home of Deception Cove, Washington, with a severe case of PTSD and massive debt because of her late husband. Only Lucy, so in tune with Jess’ moods that the dog can tell when Jess is about to have an attack or is in the midst of a nightmare, keeps the veteran grounded. Jess’ sanity is threatened when Lucy is seized by a corrupt sheriff’s deputy. Lucy also was a salvation for Mason Burke who trained the dog when he was imprisoned, and he will do anything to help Lucy. “Deception Cove” is an insightful view of the recovery of former soldiers, prisoners re-entering society and how one’s tough exterior can obscure fragile emotions.
8. “The Stranger Inside” by Laura Benedict (Mulholland Books): A woman returns from a brief vacation to find a stranger claiming he is renting her St. Louis home. When she accidently knocks him down, he has her arrested for assault, but not before whispering “I was there. I saw what you did,” which may refer to the death of her sister more than 20 years before. Using the unreliable narrator motif, a heroine with a complicated personality and unusual family life drives the excellent plot.
9. “The Better Sister” by Alafair Burke (Harper): Two estranged sisters — both of whom had been married to the same man — reunite when the teenager they both love is accused of killing his father. This insightful, exciting family thriller looks at unconditional love. Plausible twists abound as readers try to figure out just who is the better sister — the successful businesswoman or the unstable alcoholic.
10. “If She Wakes” by Michael Koryta (Little, Brown): A sophisticated plot melds with intense characters, even when the heroine is in a coma. She is suffering from the locked-in syndrome, able to hear what is going on around her in the hospital room but she is unable to communicate. An investigation into the attack on the college student becomes a story about rebuilding one’s life and not giving up despite insurmountable odds.
11. “The Wolf Wants In” by Laura McHugh (Spiegel & Grau): The sudden death of their normally healthy brother links two grieving sisters and a teenager trying to distance herself from her family in an opioid-ravaged rural town. The intelligent thriller focuses on well-sculpted characters struggling to rise above preconceived notions others have about their limitations.
12. “They All Fall Down” by Rachel Howzell Hall (Forge): Hall delivers a unique spin paying homage to Agatha Christie’s classic “And Then There Were None” in which strangers are lured to an isolated island and then start dying. Racially diverse characters with contemporary sensibilities bring a new perspective to this timeless plot.
13. “This Tender Land” by William Kent Krueger (Atria): Four orphans escaping a brutal institution travel down the Minnesota River, planning to connect onto the Mississippi River and a better life in St. Louis. Set during the Depression, this beautifully written, compassionate story offers a tale of hope while overcoming a bad childhood.
14. “The Hidden Things” by Jamie Mason (Gallery Books): A razor-sharp thriller about a con artist whose plan for a fresh start goes awry when the video of a teenager fending off an attacker in her home goes viral. Sly humor elevates the character studies of criminals and the criminally inclined — all of whom are more interested in what that video shows in the background.
15. “Nothing More Dangerous” by Allen Eskens (Little, Brown): A gripping coming of age novel melds with a solid mystery as a teenager re-evaluates the attitude of local whites against blacks during 1976 in his small Missouri town. Boady Sanden’s friendship with a black classmate whose father has just been named head of the local manufacturing plant shows him just how dangerous “sheer ignorance” can be. A heartfelt story about boys on the verge of becoming men.
16. “Thirteen” by Steve Cavanagh (Flatiron): The tagline is the key — “The Serial Killer Isn’t on Trial … He’s on the Jury.”