Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Love List #10: Keith Raffel

Keith Raffel is one of our most enthusiastic local authors. He is a familiar sight at Kepler's, and can sometimes be found taking the time to introduce himself to readers in the mystery section. His novels Smasher and Dot Dead are both set in Silicon Valley, and readers get a thrill out of meeting a guy who injected some local color into the world of crime fiction. They get even more excited when they discover that Keith is actually a resident of Palo Alto, a veteran of the local tech world, and a roaring fan of crime novels. They often leave the Kepler's with both of his novels clutched tight in their hands.

Keith was kind enough to send us a very detailed list of ten crime novels that he enjoyed this year. He also included a brief introduction that reminded me how perfect stories of fictional murder and mayhem can be at this time of year. There's something peculiarly comforting and refreshing about sitting down with a good mystery novel in the middle of some holiday whirlwind.

This is Keith Raffel.

What To Give for Christmas and Chanukah? Why Not Crime?

Back when Agatha Christie was the bestselling author in the world, she used to advise her fans to give “A Christie for Christmas.”  Receiving a book filled with deceit, darkness, and death has become a very much accepted and appreciated part of the holiday season.  My brother and sister subscribed to this approach – on my living room bookshelves squat a decade’s worth of Dick Francis horseracing mysteries.

What is it that makes murder mix so mellifluously with the merriment? Maybe it’s the contrast in flavor as with the hot pepper-flavored chocolate I’m so fond of.  The season would just be too saccharine without the piquancy of a good crime novel.  If someone had just sent Scrooge a gift-wrapped copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue, I’ll bet the phrase “Bah, Humbug” would have never entered the holiday lexicon.

Now, I’m a huge fan of crime fiction.  Not only do I write it, I read it.  So then, I’ve compiled a list of mysteries and thrillers for holiday giving.  All are hard covers published this year – I figured they would make the best gifts.  I have distinctive tastes, but I’ll try to give you an idea of what to expect in each.  Here are 10 books listed in alphabetical order by author.  I loved them all.

The Trinity 6
by: Charles Cumming
I admit to a streak of anglophilia.  I confess that LeCarré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (a new movie version is just out) is my favorite spy thriller of all time.  You can put Trinity Six on the shelf next to it without being embarrassed.  The book has a terrific premise.  Sam Gaddis, a divorced academic down on his luck, stumbles on a sixth  member of the notorious Cambridge spy ring that included Philby, Maclean, Burgess, Blunt, and Cairncross.  As he starts chasing the story of a lifetime, people start dying.  And then he starts running.

Love You More
by: Lisa Gardner 
This one grew on me.  A state trooper kills her husband.  The main character in Gardner’s series, Detective D.D. Warren, is assigned to the case.  I thought I had this one pegged by page 10.  Wrong!  Gardner twisted the end of the kaleidoscope inch by inch and showed me how the pieces came together far differently than I expected.

by: Mo Hayder
When I took a creative writing course years ago, the instructor asked us to write down what we were most afraid of.  Maybe Hayder’s teacher did the same.  Gone, set in England’s West Country, is about child abduction.  And it terrorized me.  There must be a pattern in the kids who are snatched, but what is it?  With compelling characters, a narrative driven by urgency, insight into how police think, and a hard-to-solve mystery, Gone might be the best police procedural of 2011.

by: David Ignatius
Ignatius writes for The Washington Post where he’s covered the CIA and Middle East politics for years.  What he does just about better than anyone writing today is bring a sense of verisimilitude to his novels.  In this one, Sophie Marx is assigned the job of figuring who’s betraying members of a new CIA unit in Pakistan.  The action ping-pongs between the CIA bureaucracy and the hard facts on the ground in the Middle East.  Maybe we Americans just aren’t that good at this spy business.

Among the Missing 
by: Morag Joss 
An Englishwoman marries because she’s lonely.  The marriage is sterile in every meaning of the word.  A bridge collapses and she’s assumed to have been washed away.  She takes the opportunity to walk away from her old life into a new one.  Now as you’ll see in the other books on this list, I love fast-moving mysteries and thrillers.  If you do, too, I’m not sure this one is for you.  Joss takes us inside the souls of her characters to make us understand the effects of loneliness and the thirst for human connections that is universal.

The Devil She Knows 
by: Bill Loehfelm  
At 29, Maureen Coughlin’s hard-living is taking a toll on her youth and looks, her two meal tickets.  A barmaid, Maureen discovers she has a sense of justice when her boss is killed.  I love foreign settings and the working class neighborhood of Staten Island where Maureen lives is as far from Silicon Valley as Islamabad or Oslo.  This book is gritty, dark, and compelling.  I had never read anything by Loehfelm before, but he has a big fan now.

The Snowman 
by: Jo Nesbø  
What with the phenomenon of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Scandinavian noir is all the rage.  I had not read anything by Nesbo before The Snowman, and I was entering his Harry Hole (what kind of name is that for a Norwegian?) series in the seventh book.  On top of that, I am no fan of serial killer novels.  None of that mattered.  I could not put this one down.  Why are snowmen showing up just outside people’s windows?  Does that make them a target for the killer?  Like the best of Ross Macdonald, the answer is shrouded in past sins.

The Strange Death of Father Candy 
by: Les Roberts
I pulled this one out of a briefcase while on a flight back home from Boston.  My hopes were not high.  The title kind of stinks and the cover is worse.  But I read a page and then another and then another.  I finished before the plane crossed the Mississippi.  The set-up is pretty ordinary. A beloved priest, commits suicide in Youngstown, Ohio in 1985.  His younger brother comes back home for the funeral.  But the insights into family relations, lost love, corruption, and a dying town along with the writing makes this one special.

On Borrowed Time 
by: David Rosenfelt
Richard Kilmer and his fiancée crash on the way home from her parents.  When he wakes up, she’s gone.  Okay.  But her parents say they have never seen him before.  And his best friends back in New York City say they have never met her.  What the heck is going on?  The pace is frenetic and I do love fast-moving page-turners.  Even my friends who didn’t like the book quite as much as I did admitted they read it in one sitting.

The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayes 
by: Marcus Sakey
Marcus is a pal of mine, but I decided his questionable taste in friends should not disqualify this remarkable book from being listed.  What Marcus does best is show what happens to ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances.  And this one opens right smack dab in the middle of something extraordinary.  A man, barely alive, is washed up on a Maine seashore with no idea who he is or how he got there.  Bad news for him -- when he figures out who he is, he also discovers that he’s wanted for murder.  Compared to most thrillers, Two Deaths is Secretariat racing against a plow horse.

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