Saturday, January 04, 2003

This list is an annual keeper.,0,2337725.story?coll=sfla%2Dfeatures%2Dbooks
The year's best, from veterans and newcomers
By Oline H. Cogdill

December 22, 2002

In his Washington, D.C.-based thrillers, George Pelecanos combines the social historian's eye for detail with the entertainment of a good mystery. Hell to Pay continues to plot the progress and decline of a multiracial, multicultural capital city, where people in the shadow of Congress live on the grinding edge of poverty, crime and social disenfranchizement.

Seven years ago, Pelecanos was considered a cult figure, author of gritty mysteries such as King Suckerman and The Big Blowdown. Now his cinematic writing also has put him in the mainstream. His skillful novels rival those of literary authors like Richard Price.

In his 10th book, Hell to Pay, Pelecanos pulls together a taut story driven by two cops-turned-private detectives. Derek Strange is a black man in his 50s, wrestling with the city's demons as well as his own, while Terry Quinn is a white man in his 30s with a propensity for violence.

Hell to Pay easily takes the spot for best mystery of 2002, but in a better world it would be considered for both mystery and mainstream prizes.

The most compelling mysteries are those in which the story keeps a hold on the reader long after the plot has been resolved. The following is the best that mystery fiction offered in 2002.

1) Hell to Pay. George Pelecanos. Little, Brown. $24.95. 353 pp. Pulling together a cohesive, taut story that echoes Richard Price's Clockers, Hell to Pay is a look at an inner-city society driven by characters who are under siege from the drugs and violence that have infiltrated their world.

2) City of Bones. Michael Connelly. Little, Brown. $25.95. 393 pp. 2002 could have been considered the year of the Connelly with two thrillers -- City of Bones and the high-tech world of Chasing the Dime -- plus an average Clint Eastwood movie based on Connelly's Blood Work. But City of Bones, in which Harry Bosch investigates a 20-year-old murder, is his year's standout as Connelly solidly blends the details of a police procedural with the character study of a man on the edge and his city of L.A.

3) Nine. Jan Burke. Simon & Schuster. $24. 369 pp. Nine is nearly a perfect 10 as Jan Burke, best known for her Irene Kelly mysteries, delivers a multilayered stand-alone thriller about a group of spoiled rich kids who turn vigilante to target the FBI's most-wanted list.

4) The Last Place. Laura Lippman. Morrow. $23.95. 341 pp. The Baltimore-based author continues to push the edges of the traditional private eye novel as she takes an unconventional look at the anger and maliciousness behind domestic violence.

5) Gone for Good. Harlan Coben. Delacorte. $23.95. 342 pp. Few suspense writers are as solid as Harlan Coben as he delivers an unstoppable whirlwind that hinges on deception, revenge and identity. In Gone for Good, a man struggles with the knowledge that his brother is a murderer.

6) Kisscut. Karin Slaughter. Morrow. $24.95. 352 pp. Engaging, likable characters in small-town Georgia balance chilling terror as the author unflinchingly looks at the beginnings of violence and how sometimes predators live too close to their victims.

7) Winter and Night. S.J. Rozan. St. Martin's/Minotaur. $24.95. 338 pp. Much has been written and debated about the tragedy of school violence, and what makes students kill. Using a well-plotted private eye mystery, S.J. Rozan compassionately delves into a town's mindset that makes one set of students royalty, saps the self-esteem of others and makes revenge the goal of still others.

8) The Killing Kind. John Connolly. Atria Books/Simon & Schuster. $25. 376 pp. Irish author John Connolly masters the totally American private-eye novel in this pitch-perfect noir vision with undertones of the supernatural. Mournful ex-cop Charlie Parker battles religious fanaticism as he investigates the death of a young grad student in the dark crevices of Maine.

9) Acid Row. Minette Walters. Putnam. $24.95. 339 pp. During 24 hours in an English housing project, a riot, fueled by rumors, ignorance, hate and a few drug-crazed teens escalates into a war. Out of the rubble, the unlikeliest of heroes and villains will emerge; the frailest elderly will show their inner strength. Shaped as an in-depth Sunday magazine piece, this journalistic approach lets us see the entire situation, and then zooms in for a close-up, as we become one with the story.

10) Blood on the Tongue. Stephen Booth. Scribner. $24. 400 pp. Set in England's Peak District, Booth mixes the British police procedural with the conventions of a historical to produce a solid psychological suspense tale in which an investigation of a new murder intersects with a mysterious WWII crash. Booth takes a decidedly hard-boiled approach that he then tempers with all-encompassing character studies rather than violence.

11) Bad Boy Brawly Brown. Walter Mosley. Little, Brown. $24.95. 320 pp. Walter Mosley made the year Easy. It's been six years since Mosley wrote about the reluctant detective Easy Rawlins, but his return is a smooth transition. Here, revolution's in the air as Easy searches for a young man who may have been caught up in an underground civil rights group.

12) Blackwater Sound. James W. Hall. St. Martin's Press/ Minotaur. $24.95. 339 pp. Man's manipulation of -- and often careless disregard for -- nature has long been a favorite theme of South Florida author James W. Hall. In his 11th novel, Hall combines a retelling of Moby-Dick with a dash of The Old Man and the Sea into a superior thriller while bringing together two of the author's most popular characters to battle a ruthless and secretive family out for destruction.

13) No Good Deed. Manda Scott. Bantam. $22.95. 304 pp. British author Manda Scott immediately plunges the reader into a harrowing world of deep undercover police detectives whose assignment to ferret out one of Glasgow's vicious crime lords hinges on a frightened 9-year-old boy. Unflinching in its exploration of cops and criminals, No Good Deed's dark tale still offers a glimmer of hope for its characters.

14) Black Jack Point. Jeff Abbott. Onyx. $6.99. 400 pp; and A Killing Sky. Andy Straka. Signet. $5.99. 288 pp. Many paperback originals are up to the standards of hardcover novels. Greed, family secrets, ruthless treasure hunters and centuries-old pirates, and a compelling look at the historical legends of Texas' Gulf Coast intertwine in Black Jack Point. An ex-cop's passion for falconry is the springboard that makes A Killing Sky soar with three-dimensional characters and a plausible story.

15) Dead Midnight. Marcia Muller. Mysterious Press. $24.95. 289 pp. Before Sue Grafton or Sara Paresky, Marcia Muller created a successful female private detective. In her 21st novel, Muller looks at the demise of the dot-com industry as she investigates the alleged suicide of a young Internet journalist.


Sleepyhead. Mark Billingham. Morrow. $24.95. 320 pp. It's no joke that Mark Billingham -- who's well-known in his native England as a stand-up comedian and television writer -- debuts with a dark, intense thriller that funnels its solid plot through a contemporary nightmare.

The Devil's Redhead. David Corbett. Ballantine Books. $24.95. 373 pp. A hard-boiled, gritty mystery set against the background of California's early 1990s drug wars and organized crime, The Devil's Redhead is essentially a love story about two ex-cons willing to risk everything.

The Blue Edge of Midnight. Jonathon King. Dutton. $22.95. 260 pp. Sun-Sentinel reporter Jonathon King melds an evocative look at Florida history with a contemporary, fresh view of South Florida -- from Palm Beach to Miami-Dade counties -- in this hard-boiled tale of an ex-cop seeking redemption in the Everglades.

Surface Tension. Christine Kling. Ballantine. $23.95. 304 pp. Christine Kling travels Fort Lauderdale's waterways with a strong, no-nonsense female tugboat captain. Confidently dipping into Travis McGee territory, the author creates realistic people who comprise the multifaceted boating community and offers a showcase of South Florida.

The Edge of Justice. Clinton McKinzie. Delacorte Press. $21.95. 326 pp. Clinton McKinzie takes us to the mountaintop and dangles us over the precipice with good plotting and realistic characters. The author makes the most of his breathtaking knowledge of mountain climbing as his flawed and quite appealing hero looks into the death of a young woman killed while mountain climbing.

Oline H. Cogdill can be reached at or 954-356-4886.

Copyright © 2003, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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