Best Books of 2003

I have given up on limiting myself to some arbitrary number of favorites in any given year. I like what I like so I’ve included them all. My criteria has little to do with publication date; if I read it this year, it’s on here. What I do consider is the writing, the story, the characters and the author photo. Just kidding on that last one. I read a lot, and I can generally look at a book and know whether I’ve read it or not, and whether I’ve liked it or not, but when I can look at a book after some time has elapsed since I’ve read it and remember the details (Haddon,) the plot (Life Sentence,) the characters (Miracle Life of Edgar Mint) and so on, and I love it – that is the key to the whole thing – then that book ends up on this list.

The Haddon book was probably my favorite for the year, so it’s on top of the list. A close, very close second is the Pedersen book. The rest I tried to put in preferential order but I found I kept changing my mind so it just seemed easier to list them alphabetically by title.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon: This stunning debut novel is the best book I’ve read this year. You know you are in for something different when you open the book to the first chapter, but it is numbered “2.” And the next chapter is 3, then 5, then 7, and so on until it is explained that Christopher, our 15-year-old protagonist, is autistic. As some differently-abled children are, he is a savant, in his particular case with prime numbers and the ability to name every country and its capital, and he has an extremely logical mind, but he also has other issues like he can’t stand to be touched, won’t eat brown or yellow food, and finds comfort in curling up in a corner and groaning. When he finds his neighbor’s dog has been killed, he decides to solve the mystery à la his favorite sleuth, Sherlock Holmes, and that is ostensibly what the book is about. But the reality is a beautifully written book with amazing characters and a great storyline – everything a book is supposed to have but seldom does. A truly remarkable book.

Beginner’s Luck by Laura Pedersen: Sixteen-year old Hallie Palmer is a wise-ass with big plans; as the small Ohio town’s most successful gambler, she’s saving her money to buy a car to take her to Vegas. But she skips school one time too many and gets kicked off the soccer team, gets kicked out of the casino permanently, loses her life savings on a bad bet at the track, and her mother is pregnant with child number eight, the cumulative effect being that Hallie quits school and runs away from home. Fortunately, she doesn’t run far. She answers an ad for a yard person and goes to work for the town eccentrics; Olivia Stockton, a sixty-something radical feminist who alternates writing sonnets with writing pornography; her husband, the Judge, is in the last stages of Alzheimer’s; her son Bernard, an antique dealer and old movie aficionado with an obsession for cooking gourmet meals with a theme; his lover, Gil, the “normal one” (although he is a tooth prognosticator); and Rocky, an alcoholic chimpanzee the Stockton’s saved from a certain death – he was trained to work with a paraplegic, who died. Hallie moves into their summerhouse and into their lives, and gets more of an education than she ever would have at school. This poignant, quirky, unforgettable coming-of-age story is filled with humor, pathos and love.
Note: This is the first trade paperback original published by the Ballantine Reader’s Circle. It comes with the reading group guide, an interview with the author and an excerpt from the author’s next book (which was terrific – a comedic romance between a Scotsman with terminal cancer and a dying nun) all bound in the back.

Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons by Lorna Landvik: Five women, neighbors, meet in the early 1960’s in Minnesota and form the Freesia Court Book Club, but that name evolves into the Angry Housewives from a snide remark of the husband of one of the members. These women share their lives – their marriages, children, politics, and of course their love of reading, over the course of the next thirty-plus years. The characters are an interesting mélange of suburban housewives – Audrey, an independently wealthy woman who doesn’t leave home without baring her cleavage; Slip, the politically motivated feminist rebel; Faith, who has a past she’d rather forget; Kari, a slightly older widow who adopts a bi-racial baby; and Merit, the beauty who is married to the beast. Each chapter is written in the voice of the host (not hostess – Slip feels that feminizing nouns is demeaning to women), which begins each chapter, along with the book they are reading – which ranges from Love Story (they hated it) to The Total Woman (they really hated it – or was that me?) to On the Road (loved it) to A Confederacy of Dunces (thought provoking), along with the reason chosen or food served or highlight of the meeting, bringing a varying perspective to everything going on their lives and a nostalgic (for me) look back on the past few decades. This is obviously a book aimed at reading groups, yet it doesn’t come off as a commercial attempt at such, but rather a creative and fascinating look at the role of women over the last part of the twentieth century – the books are just an added bonus.

Final Verdict by Sheldon Siegel: This newest installment in the Mike Daley & Rosie Fernandez series is terrific and has to have one of the best opening chapters (“Assault with a Deadly Chicken”) of any legal thriller in recent memory. A first chapter sets the mood of the book to come, giving the reader the impetus to keep reading, and this book will not disappoint. It clips along briskly with Siegel’s good natured humor shining through the murder and mayhem: while questioning a potential (and not very helpful) witness, we hear Mike thinking, “If he can spew clichés, I can spout bullshit.” Lines like that just make this a most compelling and enjoyable read.

Former client Leon Walker got Mike & Rosie’s fledgling legal firm more press than they ever dreamed of when they got him off a felony murder charge on a technicality – but it also broke up their marriage. Ten years later he’s been accused of murder and begs Mike to take the case. He’s dying and will never make trial, but wants his name cleared. Rosie is none too happy with the situation, and the cops & District Attorney all have long memories about former defendants who they feel have gotten away with murder. All the evidence points towards Walker, bringing those wonderful “Perry Mason moments” to the courtroom. San Franciscans will love the local color and politics too. Don’t miss it.

First Degree by David Rosenfelt: The Edgar Award nominee for his first novel, Open & Shut, has penned another winner. Andy Carpenter, loveable lawyer (no, that’s not an oxymoron,) is back and suffering from a severe case of “lawyer’s block.” When you’ve inherited $22 million dollars, it takes away your incentive to represent any old criminal who walks through the door. But things change when a cop of questionable ethics is killed. The same cop, Alex Dorsey, that Andy’s lover, PI Laurie Collins, turned in when she was on the police force. Then a man strolls into Andy’s office, confesses, and asks Andy to represent him. Meanwhile the police have arrested someone else, someone Laurie is sure is innocent. One suspect after another fizzles out until Laurie becomes the chief suspect. Circumstantial evidence abounds, and Andy finally has a client he can get behind. It’s personal now and the stakes have never been higher as Andy has to find the real killer and exonerate Laurie. Somehow the laughs keep coming as tension mounts and the bodies pile up, no easy feat but a sure testament to Rosenfelt’s skill. This fast, funny read will keep you on the edge of your seat and leave you wanting more.

Justice Deferred by Len Williams:  First novel inspired by the real life events experienced by the author. Williams is the former CEO of Coca-Cola New Zealand, among other companies, and his son was kidnapped. A prison inmate, in for life on the three strike rule for theft, claimed he had killed the boy and offered to show Williams the grave. It turned out to be a bogus claim being used as an escape attempt, and Williams was horrified by the implications of the three strike law putting a man in prison for life for a nonviolent crime like robbery. He turned that story into this fascinating prison epic/legal thriller. Billy Ray Billings is a cracker from Mobile, Alabama and for the first half of the book we follow his life, starting with reform school and ending with life in prison for stealing small appliances. But the life sentence never should have been given – it was forced by the way the local cops were handling their cases to make their conviction rate look good. Enter Harry Brown, lawyer and free lance crime reporter for the local newspaper, who’s interest in this case is quite personal. The rest of the book deals with the legal maneuverings to get those life sentences overturned and have justice prevail. Williams draws the reader in from the first page and doesn’t let go – even after the last page, these characters will stay with you.

Life Sentence by David Ellis: David Ellis sets a new standard with this superb legal thriller, surpassing his Edgar Award winning debut novel Line of Vision. This multi-layered, tightly woven story breathes new life into the old cliché about revenge being a dish best served cold. Jon Soliday and Grant Tully share a dirty secret leftover from their teenage years; after a night of drinking and drugs, Soliday climbed through the bedroom window of a beautiful young woman, but blacked out and doesn’t remember anything after that – not even how she ended up dead. Family connections get the matter dropped, and twenty years later he is chief legal counsel to Senator Tully, who is in a fierce campaign for Governor. Soliday finds a legal loophole that can get Tully’s opponent disqualified, but a set-up, blackmail, and murder put a definite crimp in their plans. Elegant prose skillfully impels Soliday through a haze of deadly deceit, where no one is who they appear to be and nothing is as it seems, until the smoke finally clears to reveal the stunning ending. Highly recommended. Copyright © 2003 Cahners Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. Reprinted with permission.

Lost Light by Michael Connelly: This may be Connelly’s finest yet. As fans of the Bosch series know, Harry turned in his LAPD badge in City of Bones (which made my favorites list for 2002,) so this one finds Harry with a private investigator permit languishing in the drawer. The other big change is the point of view; this is Connelly’s first attempt at writing in the first person, and he pulls it off beautifully. As a friend (Geoff) pointed out, it’s a lot tougher for Harry to be an asshole when he’s telling the story. And an interesting story it is; another retired cop calls Harry and convinces him to look into a cold case – a murder of a young actress that somehow was tied into a $2,000,000 heist four years earlier and was never solved. This cop retired after his partner was killed and he took a bullet to the neck, rendering him a quadriplegic. The F.B.I.’s little-known-but-oh-so-powerful Homeland Security Department gets involved and things really start happening. Connelly has written a real dilemma of a book – it’s so good you don’t want to put it down, but you don’t want it to end, either.

Lucia, Lucia by Adriana Trigiani: Kit lives in an apartment building in modern day NY with her neighbor, the slightly eccentric 70-year-old Aunt Lu, who is always draped in mink. One afternoon they have tea together, and Aunt Lu proceeds to regale the curious Kit with her life story. Lu is the Lucia of the title; a beautiful 25 year old Italian-American feminist in 1950, an age where feminism was unheard of and good Italian girls did as they were told. Lucia is pursued by Dante, who expects her to give up her job as a seamstress in the couture department of the swanky B. Altman’s department store as soon as they are married. But Lucia wants more out of life than being a baker’s wife, she has her own ambitions. Then she falls for John Talbot, a suave uptown businessman who sweeps her off her feet and adorns her in that infamous mink, but things don’t work out exactly as Lucia planned. This novel is peopled with wonderful characters and offers a fascinating glimpse into the gentile world of Italian-American Catholics of the 1950’s with the values and culture that have long since faded away.

The Miracle Life Of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall: The best first line of the year: “If I could tell you only one thing about my life it would be this: when I was seven years old the mailman ran over my head.” Edgar Mint is a part Apache Indian orphan and this is his coming of age story. By turns laugh-out-loud funny and heartbreakingly sad, this emotional rollercoaster is a ride not easily forgotten. Udall’s writing style is reminiscent of Richard Russo and John Irving, two of my favorites, and I am looking forward to more from this author.

Monkeewrench by P. J. Tracy: This new author is actually a mother-daughter writing team and they are off to a fabulous start. “Monkeewrench” is a software company in Minneapolis, owned by an eclectic and eccentric group of friends. Their newest product, still in the beta testing stage, is a game called “Serial Killer Detective,” with crime scene photos providing the clues through the various levels of the game until the serial killer is found. But somehow one of their carefully staged murder scenes ends up happening on the streets of Minneapolis, so one of the partners, the enigmatic ice princess Grace MacBride, reports it to the police. Turns out this is the third murder and the murderer is playing their game for real. The software team is able to pinpoint the next murder, making themselves suspects in the process. Meanwhile, in a small town in rural Wisconsin, the local sheriff has a rather gristly murder on his hands – an elderly couple is found shot to death in the church. Somehow this all gets tied together – at breakneck speed, no less – and the big city cops and small town sheriff solve their respective cases. Well developed characters and crisp, witty writing make Monkeewrench a great read. Don’t miss it.

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith: I usually prefer murder in my mysteries, or at least the threat of it, and there is none to be found here. Yet I loved this sweet, charming and intelligent book. Precious Ramotswe is one of the most interesting and loveable characters ever – she is aptly named – and the setting of contemporary Botswana is fascinating and unusual.

The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland: This is the fictionalized biography of Artemisia Gentileschi, a feminist Renaissance painter. Who knew there was such a woman? I certainly didn’t, and her life is a fascinating look at an extraordinary time in the art world. Vreeland manages to bring art to life with her skillful story telling.

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd: Beautifully written story dealing with the meaning of family, set against a backdrop of racism, feminism and spirituality in small town South Carolina in the early 1960’s. Lily Owen lives on a peach farm with her abusive father, T. Ray, and her nanny Rosaleen. She lost her mother in a tragic accident when she was four years old, and Rosaleen is as close to a mother, to a parent, that she knows. When Rosaleen tries to register to vote, and she ends up arrested, beaten and hospitalized, fourteen-year-old Lily decides it’s time to escape, and takes Rosaleen with her. They end up at an apiary and the bees make a beautiful metaphor for this sweet, yet somehow not sticky, tale.

Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane: This book had a bit of controversy surrounding it; people either love it or hate it, and frankly a lot of folks who loved Lehane’s Mystic River and his Patrick Kenzie/Angela Gennaro series have hated this book. I read it a week ago and can understand what is driving those passionate responses. Lehane is a virtuoso of the mystery/thriller genre, and that talent shines on every page. This is a fast paced thriller, the kind you can’t put down, with a classic locked room mystery (a woman vanishes out of a locked room) and lots of twists, but it’s the ending of the book that have put people at odds with it. As soon as I finished the last page, I went right back to page one and started reading again, I needed to reassure myself that I hadn’t missed anything, and I hadn’t. I believe it was the Washington Post’s review that compared the style of this book to that of Edgar Allen Poe, and having read it, all I can say is that was right on the money – and that is high praise indeed. This is a book – a genre book, a mystery – that is brilliantly plotted, splendidly written, deliciously confusing and infuriating and thought provoking, and totally transcends the genre.

The Time Traveler’s Wife by by Audrey Niffenegger: This is a powerful love story with a twist of fantasy. Clare has been in love with Henry for most of her life, and she is the center of his world. Henry suffers from a genetic disorder that causes him to time travel, yet he always seems to find his way to Clare. While his life moves in a chaotic, zigzag fashion, hers proceeds linearly, creating an unusual roadblock on their journey to love, yet one that they manage to overcome. Because this is a complicated storyline, it requires close and careful reading, but fortunately the prose is so beautiful that it makes you want to linger over each line.

BONUS: Nonfiction
A Round-Heeled Woman: My Late-Life Adventures in Sex and Romance by Jane Juska
: This is a memoir of a retired English teacher from Berkeley, California who decided to take control of her life. Divorced for many years, she was a single mom raising her son alone. He grew up, and she became lonely, so she placed this personal ad in the New York Review of Books:

“Before I turn 67–next March–I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me.”

She received lots of responses, more than she ever expected, from a variety of men of different age groups and geographic locations. She seemed especially drawn to New York, to the men and the city itself. She met a handful of men, had some heartbreak and some good times, and drew on her experiences to write this book. With various references to classical music and fine literature, this book is alternately intelligent, sweet and salacious, which works for me.

(AKA the winners of Geoff’s Mysteries as Literature category for 2003)

1. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon: The story of an autistic boy who focuses his singlemindedness on solving the mystery of the death of the dog next door. Through the skill and sensitivity of the author, we appreciate the logic behind the boy’s unconventional behaviors. We also come to understand the tremendous responsibility his parents, without any training or preparation, have had to bear. I was almost in tears for them by the end of the book. A remarkable statement of the human condition. A book for the ages.

2. Cypress Grove by James Sallis: In a famous essay, Raymond Chandler argued that the detective novel can be literature. James Sallis proves it. Most recently, in his latest novel, Cypress Grove.
Mr. Sallis writes hard-nosed fiction, but his affinity for poetry can be seen in his careful use of language. The first paragraph of his novel is almost always memorable and Cypress Grove is no exception.
“I heard the jeep a half mile off. It came up around the lake, and when it hit the bend, birds took flight. They boiled up out of the trees, straight up, then, as though heavy wind had caught them, veered abruptly, all at once, sharp right. Most of those trees had been standing forty or fifty years. Most of the birds had been around less than a year and wouldn’t be around much longer. I was somewhere in between.”
The hero of Cypress Grove is a complicated man in search of a simple life and a place to call home. Turner is a Viet Nam survivor, a former policeman, an ex-convict and a retired psychotherapist. He has retreated to a small southern community where he is living in peaceful isolation. He is pulled, gently, from his shell by the local sheriff who requests his assistance in solving a bizarre murder.
His experiences, education and training have given Turner a real insight into the human heart. Flashbacks to incidents in Turner’s past alternate with the progress of the investigation. The lessons of this book are simple, but profound. Human beings are human and place is important. Surely, one of the purposes of literature is to remind us of such truths.
Mr. Sallis is not very well known, although the best contemporary mystery writers are familiar with his work and honor it. The major chains will probably not carry this book. But it is worth the search and if you do locate it, you will have in your hands one of the best-written mysteries of our time. (If you are lucky, you may also find a copy of Black Hornet, one of his Lew Griffin mysteries, which has recently been republished.)

3. Hard As Nails by Dan Simmons: This is a hard-nosed mystery story set in Buffalo, New York and I recommend it without any reservations. Could any town be more appropriate for a tough guy than Buffalo? [Editor’s note: the reviewer is from Buffalo.] And make no mistake about it, Kurtz, the hero, is a tough guy. After seeing all of the references in Ilium, I have to believe that the invocation of Conrad’s character is no accident, as well as a tip of the hat to the ethnic stew that is the best part of the fading Queen City of the Great Lakes.
In previous books in this series, Kurtz has been to Attica, courtesy of the State of New York, for throwing his partner’s killer off a rooftop. He is still on parole, which makes it impossible for him to return officially to his old private eye business. As this book opens, Kurtz and his parole officer are walking into a parking garage when all hell breaks loose. The ride has started and it is exciting as the old wooden roller coaster at Crystal Beach amusement park which Kurtz points out is now defunct.
The story finds Kurtz in the middle of a power struggle between the remnants of two old Mob families for the drug trade in the region, as well as fending off members of the Aryan Brotherhood he offended while in the slammer. The story climaxes in a small company town bearing a strong resemblance to the Coudersport of the Rigas family. And in this case, the roller coaster is filled with bodies.
This is the book I am sending to friends for Christmas with a note, saying “I found him first.”

4. Office of Innocence by Thomas Keneally: After side trips into history-writing and biography with The Great Shame and American Scoundrel, Mr. Keneally has again turned his hand back to fiction with Office of Innocence which should be nominated for several major awards by the end of the year.
Keneally’s story-telling often involves an ordinary man placed in extraordinary circumstances. In To Asmara, it was a journalist heading to battlelines in Eritrea and in Flying Hero Class (my personal favorite and a book ahead of its time) it was the manager of a troupe of indigenous dancers caught up in an air hi-jacking. Schlinder’s List, involving similar issues, became better known because of the movie that was made from it.
In Office of Innocence, the ordinary man is Frank Darragh, a young Australian priest caught up in the turmoil of the Second World War as the Japanese march ever southward through Asia, towards Darwin and Northern Australia.
Frank is a simple man, from a rural family and has not had a lot of experience with life or any great yearning for such experience. In other words, he was prime seminary fodder. Mr. Keneally’s ear as a story teller seems to ring true when he has more jaundiced seminarians translating “Memento homo quia cines es, et ad cinerem reverteris” into “Remember, squirt, that thou are dirt, and unto dirt thou shalt revert.” Frank’s innocence is bemused but not distracted by such by-play.
During his initial assignment as a parish priest, Father Frank finds hearing confessions rewarding and it becomes his forte. While his contemporaries and seniors are hardened to the routine sins they must hear over and over again, Frank responds to those on the other side of the screen and quickly becomes the most popular confessor in the area.
His lack of worldliness presents problems for Frank as he confronts the loneliness and selfishness that reach extreme levels under the stresses of wartime. It also presents problems for his superiors who fear scandal and wish that he would spend more time learning the “business” of the church.
At the heart of the story is the testing of Father Darragh’s faith and his innocence by a variety of parishioners and others – a dying woman in a non-traditional relationship, a trade union rabble-rouser, the lonely wife of a prisoner of war and an aggressive American military policeman. Frank’s background simply does not equip him to understand such people, but his desire to help is such that he must get involved. The core issue is whether he will gain understanding at the cost of his faith.
There is also a late-developing murder mystery contained within the story, the resolution of which costs Father Frank his position and his reputation, but gains him a new knowledge of himself and how he may play a meaningful role in the world.
This is another fine book from an extraordinary author.

5. Lost Light – Michael Connelly: . I am such a big fan of Michael Connelly’s work that I didn’t think that I could do a fair review of this book.  He is one of the two best mystery writers we have now and this was one of his better books. (If you like this, go back and catch The Concrete Blonde and Bloodwork).

6. Everglades by Randy Wayne White: Whenever a new Randy Wayne White book comes out, I push everything else on my stack to one side. Everglades proved, again, that this preferential treatment is well deserved. I find myself getting seriously annoyed these days when the blurbs on anyone else’s book covers talk about the author being “the new John D. MacDonald.” There is only one legitimate heir and Mr. White is it.
Per the MacDonald method, Everglades begins with a damsel in distress. (Remember the woman dropped from the bridge in MacDonald’s Darker Than Amber?) In this case, it is Doc Ford’s old friend Sally Carmel (hmmm-colored names) Minister. Sally’s husband has disappeared and she is being followed and terrorized.
In an effort to find out who is following her, Doc gets involved in a tussle which evokes a thorough discussion of amateur wrestling which would do John Irving proud. (At that point, I had to e-mail the BookBitch™ to rave to her.)
The bad guys prove to be the principals in a TV cult combining elements of the Bagwan and the Church of Scientology with canny real estate development and investing.
Strangely, however, after all the elements for the quintessential MacDonald story were in place, the book seemed to drag. Mostly because Doc Ford is feeling sorry for himself, remembering long dead friends and drinking so much that even his hippy sidekick, Tomlinson, feels compelled to intervene.
One of my favorite subplots has Tomlinson becoming an internet idol as a result of an essay he wrote as an undergraduate entitled “One Fathom Above Sea Level.” To his dismay, the essay has recently become the subject of favorable critical acclaim internationally. Sample – “Pain is an inescapable part of the human experience. Misery, however, is not. Misery is an option.” Some of the lighter moments in the book arise from his trying to flee those who are seeking wisdom from him.
I am pleased to report that Doc eventually does have a moment of clarity in which he is able to put everything back into perspective again. It is an exciting scene and I don’t want to spoil it for readers. In the process, Doc Ford pretty much fully becomes Travis McGee. The finish of the book is thoroughly satisfying.
And of course, there is intellectual sustenance in Mr. White’s writing as well. Discussions of marine life, the geology of Florida and the difficulties tribes face being recognized by the U.S. Government all have places in Doc Ford’s inquiring mind.
All in all, Everglades is a wonderful read and deserving of priority on your stack of books too.

7. Death in Dublin by Bartholomew Gill: I should confess from the outset that I am a big McGarr fan. One of my favorite lines comes from an earlier book and involved the questioning of a bartender by the Irish police. He explains that at the time in question, he was at the trough in the bathroom. The policeman responds “I guess you have a cast-iron alibi, then.” Death in Dublin was the last book written by Bartholomew Gill before his passing and I am going to miss him and his characters.
The book starts with the theft of The Book of Kells from Trinity College and the literal sucking the life out of the watchman who admitted the crooks. Atlhough the signs point to a cult proclaiming itself to be the New Druids, the plot grows increasingly more complicated. It involves such current matters as oxycontin addiction and the Opus Dei organization and such old themes as lust, politics and money.
McGarr’s progress throughout this maze is monitored, assisted and hindered by a young aggressive female reporter and the rich, despicable, but politically-connected publisher of the newspaper for which she is working.
McGarr is assisted in his investigation by two former members of his squad who were forced to resign from the Garda Soichana when their communal marriage was exposed by that newspaper. They become vital when a “pretty boy” on the way up is put in charge of the Guarda.
By the end of the story, McGarr has not only solved the crime, but exposed corruption at the highest levels of government, religion and industry. And as a bonus, learned the true facts surrounding the earlier murder of his wife and father-in-law.
As to whether he would have found love or happiness afterwards, we can only speculate. I hope so.

8. The Silence of the Rain by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza: I happened to pick up The Silence of the Rain a couple of weeks ago. I hadn’t heard anything about it and I like trying new stuff that is under the radar. It was a fortuitous choice. Silence charmed me. The plot involves the death of a corporate executive in a parking garage in Rio de Janeiro. The case is assigned to Inspector Espinosa who deduces that it was a murder because there is no weapon with the body. However, things are not as they appear. And that is the rule of this book. Every time I got comfortable with the plot, it took another delightful twist. Not a big jump, but just the disclosure of an additional fact that gave new meaning to the death and the characters around it.
Espinosa is the Brazilian version of the cop who has seen it all. He has resisted the temptations of corruption and thus has secured for himself his own investigative niche, as well as insuring that he will never advance any further in the power structure. And just to sweeten the pot a little more, the good Inspector is a reader – haunting used bookstores and unable to control the stacks piling up in his apartment.
As I was nearing the homestretch on Silence, a review of Garcia-Roza’s new second book, December Heat, appeared in the Crime page of the NY Times Book Review. I added it to the stack. While the plot is not as tightly managed in Heat as it was in Silence, Espinosa is just as delightful the second time out. In Heat, he is investigating the murder of a hooker friend of a retired policeman who is a Brazilian Andy Sipowicz. If a contemporary United States author had written this book, it might have been titled The Case of the Three Hookers. The women are treated gently but fairly, without any judgments being made about them. They are what they are and they do what they do. And what would Rio be without heat and sex?
If you are looking for a change of pace and an interesting pair of books, these should do the job and may well exceed your expectations. I am looking forward to the third book in this series.

9. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith: I am normally a fan of hard, edgy, big city private eye stories and this book is none of those things. What it is is charming. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is the story of Mma Precious Ramotswe who takes the money from the sale of her late father’s cattle and opens the only women’s detective agency in her town of Gaborone, Botswana. It is written in straight-forward and (there is that darn word again) charming fashion.
The people of Botswana are treated with dignity and their day to day problems are taken seriously. Mma Precious solves the problems of her townspeople with logic and common sense. Missing persons, con men and philanderers are grist for her mill.
Her wisdom reminded me of Mark Twain’s Puddinhead Wilson, but her humor is gentler. I loved (darn, there is another of those words) this book and am looking forward to the sequels, Tears of the Giraffe, Morality for Beautiful Girls, and The Kalahari Typing School for Men.
This book is a great change of pace and a wonderful reaffirmation of the human spirit that exists in everyone regardless of their color or their nation. It came as especially welcome in these troubled times when we are trying to figure out what makes people alike and what makes them different.
I think that you will be charmed by it, too.

10. Judgment Calls – Alafair Burke:   Who knew that James Lee Burke really had a daughter named Alafair? Who knew that she would grow up and be a prosecuter and then write mysteries? What a great thing to have happen for mystery fans in any year. She has written a hard-nosed first book about the adventures of a woman prosecuter, Samantha Kincaid. Ms. Kincaid is as tough as they come. My favorite line – “I suppressed the urge to mow her down with the Jetta. I would’ve opened a six-pack of Fahrfegnugen on her ass over the c-word, but under the circumstances I could handle the b-word.”

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