Saturday, January 2, 2010

Best of 2009 . . . and 1891

By Michael Wiley

Farewell, 2009 – I hardly knew you. Sadly, I also know fewer of the books published in 2009 than I should. I tend to be a bit . . . slow. I plan to work through the past year’s books in future years, as this year my favorites have been from 2003, 1984, 1891, and so on. From the depths of time, I shamelessly set forth my “Best of 2009” list.

Where to start? With murder mysteries, of course – at least a small sampling.

Having lived in the south for the past eleven years, I thought I should read one of the southern masters: James Lee Burke. And I’ve never been happier. Beginning with the first in the Dave Robicheaux series, NEON RAIN (1987), and reading forward – through BLACK CHERRY BLUES (1989), CADILLAC JUKEBOX (1996), JOLIE BLON’S BOUNCE (2002), and LAST CAR TO ELYSIAN FIELDS (2003) – I’ve lived and breathed a southern air (part evil, part sweet) that I knew was all around me but hadn’t yet found words for. I’m a latecomer to Burke. Others who are similarly behind on their reading need to give him a long, deep look.

Worlds apart from Burke is Ross Thomas, who, dead now for fourteen years, maintains a central position in the mystery and thriller pantheon. He’s at his best, I think, in BRIARPATCH (1984). It was published 25 years ago, and the world events are a little dated, but Thomas knows just when to be funny, just how to build suspense, and just what he needs to do to surprise us.

Then, there are Raymond Chandler’s novels, which I can’t keep my hands off and never have been able to. And there are the thirty-seven stories, plus a novel, in THE ORIGINAL SHERLOCK HOLMES (1891-1905), which I read with my children last summer.

But even mystery writers tire of crime fiction occasionally, and what do we turn to then? Crime nonfiction – or something that resembles it. Here, I arrive in 2009, if only accidentally. If you want to know about the web of corruption that led to the decay of urban America (especially Chicago) in the second half of the twentieth century – and you want to read about it in a book that delves into the complicated personal lives of the people involved – you can’t do better than Beryl Satter’s FAMILY PROPERTIES: RACE, REAL ESTATE, AND THE EXPLOITATION OF BLACK URBAN AMERICA. Sound like a dry read? I had a hard time putting it down.

Since I’ve reached back over a hundred years for my “Best of 2009” list, I feel perfectly comfortable reaching forward into 2010. What do I predict will be some of the best for 2010? Start with CITY OF DRAGONS, BLOOD LAW, A NIGHT OF LONG KNIVES, GALILEO, BANISHED, BLACK RAIN, HORSEWHIPPED, TORN APART, (the already-published) URGENT CARE, and anything else the Criminal Minds bloggers publish. If there’s time after all of that, check out my mystery, THE BAD KITTY LOUNGE, coming out on March 2.

Happy New Year!


Sophie Littlefield said...

I was given a copy of an old Clive Cussler book by a dear friend a little while ago. For the last few years my reading list has been almost 100% contemporary so I hadn't had that experience of being transported backward - but to an era I lived through - in a while. (Somehow it's different from reading a book written now about a time a decade or two ago. I don't know if I can detect the difference or if the awareness imposes a difference.)

Anyway there is something delightful about reading a book that no one else is currently reading and that i will not be expected to have an opinion on.

Also it is great when someone you love gives you a favorite book, you read it looking for connections and insights into that person. Which i realize has nothing to do with your post, Michael...but - happy new year anyway!!

Michael Wiley said...

I just returned from Philadelphia and saw Clive Cussler's latest co-authored book, The Wrecker, on the bookshelves of all the airport bookstores. Then I passed a couple of people reading the book. And here he is again. Funny but I've never read anything by him and suddenly I feel left out.

I agree with you about the experience of reading an otherwise little (currently) read book, Sophie, especially if the book is good or very good.

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Remember when we used to be able to read all the time, whatever we wanted? You know, before we were published authors? Now I read the books I have to read for contests, for friends, for research, to review. And even then it's not as much fun.

I worry when I read friends' books that they won't be as good as I want them to be and then life is just going to be awkward (so far, so good).

And then I worry that now that I'm an author I will be expected to have some complicated and intelligent response to the question "What are you reading?" and "What do you think of it?" It's gotten me terrified to even talk about books at all.

That's why I fobbed off the favorites question on Josh who very kindly took it (thanks, Josh!).

Maybe you guys have the right idea and I need to read older books until I get my author sea legs.

Michael Wiley said...

I know what you mean, Rebecca. I get a lot of pleasure from my reading but I rarely read only for pleasure: it's also work.

I have an additional problem. Since I teach British Romantic lit, a lot of what I'm reading -- and liking -- is a couple hundred years old or is about writing that's a couple hundred years old. So, I could add Richard Holmes' AGE OF WONDER or Byron's DON JUAN to my "Best of" list but doing so wouldn't make a lot of sense to do so.

But who's complaining? It's pretty great that we can call mystery-reading -- or any other kind of fiction reading -- "work."

Rebecca Cantrell said...

I certainly don't want to sound like I'm complaining. My fondest hope all my life has been able to spend as much time reading and writing as possible (plus having time for family and friends, of course), and I'm almost there.

This author gig has been AWESOME so far.

Kelli Stanley said...

Ah, Michael--I know what you mean. Old favorites are hard to put down ... they're like comfort food. When I'm lost and frustrated and tempted to reach for the (unopened) bottle of bourbon on my desk, I open my copy of Farewell, My Lovely or read one of Chandler's letters or dig in to a Hammett short story.

Timeless and inspirational.

One of these days I want more reading time, more writing time, more, well, time.:)

Happy New Year!


Gabi said...

The bourbon on the desk is supposed to be unopened? Who knew?

I miss the days I could stay up all night with a great book and it didn't show in my work the next day. Or my face. Or in my mismatched socks. Still, many of your choices (especially a return to Sherlock) are worth the mocking stares.

Happy New Year.

Michael Wiley said...

I seem to have made the same mistake that you have, Gabi: opening the bottle. Chandler tastes pretty good with bourbon. Sherlock is better with scotch or a nice lager. Hell, if you drink enough of any of them, even Nancy Drew can take you for an exciting ride.

Shane Gericke said...

It really IS fun reading older books, Michael. They bring you back to an era you didn't even realized existed. You get there even quicker sipping Old Grand-Dad ...

Thanks for the reminder to look back occasionally. I think I'll crack my old copy of Day of the Jackal. It was my favorite from when I wore bell bottoms, and worth reading again, methinks.

Agreed, definitely, black looks better than red on me. Especially with my legs :-)

Michael Wiley said...

Agreed, Shane: it's a lot of fun. In my case, it's also a practical necessity since I teach books that I need to reread regularly.

As for mysteries and thrillers -- Day of the Jackal etc. -- I like reading them too partly because they show me how others have written scenes and situations really, really well.