It has been something of a vintage year and I am able to supply two lists – the first of mysteries published in 2009 (or at least the editions I read were published in 2009) and a second of mysteries published in previous years. I should be clear that the latter list does not include re-reads which accounts for the complete absence of any Golden Age material.

So here goes…

Top 5 Mysteries of 2009

  1. James EllroyBlood’s A Rover
  2. Alan BradleyThe Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
  3. Laura WilsonAn Empty Death
  4. Reginald HillMidnight Fugue
  5. R.T. RaichevThe Little Victim

Just failing to make this top 5 were Kaye C. Hill’s The Fall Girl and Matthew D’Ancona’s Nothing to Fear. My reviews of all these books with the exception of the Reginald Hill may be found at Reviewing the Evidence (http://www.reviewingtheevidence.com/) – the Hill is on this site.

Top 5 Mysteries Read in 2009 (but published earlier)

  1. Robert WilsonA Small Death in Lisbon
  2. Stieg LarssonThe Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
  3. Vikas SwarupSix Suspects
  4. Ann CleevesTelling Tales
  5. Ann CleevesHidden Depths

Reviews of all these books may be found here (the Search facility is pretty good) with the exception of the Swarup which is on rte.

What a wonderful richness! These lists really demonstrate above all the almost dazzling variety which can be found within the portals of ‘mystery fiction’ – from the extraordinary historical and political vision of Ellroy, Robert Wilson and Larsson through the brilliant historical recreation and psychological insight of Laura Wilson to the wit, elegance, poise and literacy of Hill and Raichev, the sociological analysis of Cleeves and satire of Swarup to Alan Bradley’s extraordinary feat in pulling off the voice of an 11-year old girl narrator in 1950’s England. Although of course these are only some aspects of these books and the one thing which all have in common (they would not feature otherwise!) is very strong plotting.

Of these books I would award both Robert Wilson and Ellroy the – for me very rare – accolade of masterpiece. They are simply essential. The Bradley was the biggest surprise (it also romps home as debut novel of the year!) and delight. Laura Wilson appears for the second year running with the second entry in the Stratton series which was even better than the first, and in particular managed to make the use of the criminal’s perspective (now the most tiresome and overused device in mystery fiction) really effective and compelling. So Reginald Hill gets relegated to fourth. Last year I wrote of these lists…

>>A new Dalziel and Pascoe is pretty well guaranteed to be number one for me<

which shows why I should never attempt to forecast! The reason for his relegation is to do with both the quality of the competition and the fact that in my view Midnight Fugue is not Hill at his best (though even not at his best he is a delight). Having said that I am bad at forecasting I will go on and say that I expect R.T.Raichev’s books to be consistent entries in these lists – quite apart from the dexterity of his plotting, his books are a delight in terms of their humour and elegance.

The Larsson is very good but I am not as bowled over as some people are. I would certainly not put the book in the masterpiece category and frankly his political analysis and insight does not really stand up when placed against Ellroy in particular. However The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was exceptional because of the way in which it combined a traditional plot with political analysis (this is also one of the great strengths of A Small Death in Lisbon); because the subsequent entries in the Millenium trilogy abandon this for straight thriller plots they do not feature in these lists. The greatest strength of all is the creation of Salander of course.

In fact Swarup’s book is another which manages to combine a really excellent mystery plot with political and social analysis. In fact really he does these things better than Larsson. But he doesn’t come up with Salander. However I may have got these placings the wrong way round!

Finally Ann Cleeves has now really hit her stride as a writer of traditional British mysteries – excellent on sociological observation, location writing and an engaging detective (in both cases here Vera Stanhope – and I really hope television does her justice).

All in all 2009 was definitely a vintage year – however there I did, as usual, have to plough through a number of clunkers as well. My coveted award for the Worst Mysteries of 2009 has to be shared by M.C.Beaton’s A Spoonful of Poison and David Levien’s City of the Sun : this duo at least prove that it is not any particular sub-genre or type which I dislike, the Beaton being a ‘cosy’ and the Levien a noir American child-abduction story – what they share is being very bad!

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