Monday, December 29, 2003

Best mysteries of 2003
Oline H. Cogdill

December 21, 2003

1) Shutter Island. Dennis Lehane. (Morrow). Shutter Island is the home of a foreboding federal institution for the criminally insane where, in 1954, two U.S. marshals are assigned to hunt for a female patient who has done the impossible -- disappeared from a prison from which there is no escape. Twists, secret codes, an off-limits hospital ward and a creepy lighthouse lead to a logical, yet totally surprising ending.

2) No Second Chance. Harlan Coben. (Dutton). Coben has become one of the top thriller writers with his emotional, harrowing plots as realistic as your daily routine. In his 10th novel, a doctor's search for his missing infant, kidnapped when his wife was murdered, centers on the foundation of bonds between parents and children, lovers and friends and the consequences of one's actions.

3) Every Secret Thing. Laura Lippman. (Morrow). The death of a child at the hands of two 11-year-old girls launches this tale about how this horrific event could have happened to normal families and how it defines lives. A disturbing subject explored with depth, compassion, heartfelt sincerity and with little violence.

4) Close to Home. Peter Robinson. (Morrow). Teenage memories abound as Yorkshire Detective Inspector Alan Banks realizes just how little of his world he knew when skeletal remains are identified as a friend who disappeared more than 35 years ago. This series keeps getting fresher.

5) The Distant Echo. Val McDermid. (St. Martin's Press). Four British college students are forever tainted when they are falsely accused of murder in this elegantly plotted look at the bonds of friendship and the insidiousness of revenge.

6) Resurrection Men. Ian Rankin. (Little, Brown). Edinburgh detective John Rebus is assigned to The Resurrection Men -- a group of Scottish cops with a propensity for bucking authority -- as this police procedural focuses on the politics and corruption that have seeped into the detective squad.

7) Off the Chart. James W. Hall. (St. Martin's Press). Long considered a leader in the "Florida School of Mystery Writing," Hall delivers a rousing tale of modern-day pirates while excavating the depths of personal change of his singularly named hero, Thorn. A fine addition to the author's superior body of work.

8) The White Road. John Connolly. (Atria Books). Irish author Connolly superbly combines crime fiction with the supernatural for a thoroughly American darker-than-noir series. The White Road leads private investigator Charlie Parker to South Carolina, where a young black man is accused of murder.

9) Winterkill. C.J. Box. (Putnam). Few mystery authors who use the environment as a plot foundation are as even-handed and clear-eyed as Box. In his third novel, Box blends the hot-button issue of survivalists, the FBI interventions at Waco and Ruby Ridge and personal freedom into a thrilling and heart-wrenching plot.

10) Dead Famous. Carol O'Connell. (G.P. Putnam). NYPD Detective Kathy Mallory, a sociopath who's a hard-as-nails cop, navigates the harsh spotlight on shock radio, reality shows and celebrity trials gone terribly awry. Dead Famous pulls together far-flung, often incongruous, story threads that have been finely kneaded into a cohesive plot.

11) Lost Light. Michael Connelly. (Little, Brown). Connelly continues as his generation's answer to Raymond Chandler. Rogue LAPD detective Harry Bosch's career -- and life -- take a drastic turn when he investigates a 4-year-old, once-high-profile case.

12) The Last Detective. Robert Crais. Doubleday. Robert Crais theme of family has never been more evident than in The Last Detective in which the L.A.-based Elvis Cole makes a much welcome return investigating a kidnapping.

13) Done for a Dime. David Corbett. (Ballantine). The murder of an aged black saxophonist who used to play with the greats of blues music lays the foundation for a look at a community under siege, family ties, greed and lost ambitions in Done for a Dime.

14) Man Eater. Ray Shannon. (Putnam); and Scavenger Hunt. Robert Ferrigno. (Pantheon). The cliche of Hollywood as a vapid, back-stabbing, ruthless industry gets fresh turns in these two novels. Each channels Elmore Leonard with realistic characters, snappy dialogue and wry looks at criminals and moviemakers. Sometimes, there's no difference between the two. (Ray Shannon is the pseudonym for Gar Anthony Haywood).

15) Scaredy Cat. Mark Billingham. (Morrow). Heady psychological suspense runs through this flawlessly plotted police procedural in which a squad of dysfunctional London cops hunt a serial killer. British writer Billingham again creates a contemporary twilight zone that feels all too real.

16) Mr. Timothy. Louis Bayard. (HarperCollins). In his mystery debut, novelist and critic Bayard delivers an enthralling, dark thriller that is also full of optimism and the strength of the human heart featuring the iconic characters of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. The hero in Mr. Timothy is "mostly able-bodied" Timothy Cratchit, all grown up at age 23, living in a brothel, teaching its madam to read and, with Christmas nearing, dealing with quite a few ghosts of his own.

17) Blood Is the Sky. Steve Hamilton. (St. Martin's Press). A tale about a missing person ratchets up into a complex novel about friendship, betrayal, hate, heritage and the coldness of revenge.

18) A Faint Cold Fear. Karin Slaughter. (Morrow). The alleged suicide of a student at the local college catapults the residents of a small Georgia town into a tension-laden, often grisly tale about the vagaries of family, the psychology of abuse and the treatment of victims.

19) Dirty Laundry. Paula L. Woods. Ballantine Books. A campaign strategist's murder sets the stage for Paula Wood's continued, forceful look inside Los Angeles' ethnic enclaves.

20) The Da Vinci Code. Dan Brown (Doubleday) This best seller about a symbologist on the trail of a secret society is like a potato chip -- 10 minutes after finishing it I couldn't tell you any plot details. But the pacing, the energy and the characters sure were enjoyable.

Best debuts

Haunted Ground. Erin Hart. (Scribner). The body of a young woman, buried for centuries in Ireland's peat bogs, intensifies the search for a young wife and her infant son who disappeared two years ago. This highly atmospheric mystery is complete with a creepy castle, Irish history and realistic characters.

Rendezvous Eighteenth. Jake Lamar. (St. Martin's Press). Ricky Jenks found a home and a cobbled-together family among other black Americans living in Paris until his arrogant cousin arrives.

Judgment Calls. Alafair Burke. (Henry Holt). Portland, Ore., deputy district attorney Samantha Kincaid is pulled into a swamp of office and sexual politics as she investigates the beating of a teenager. A personal story wrapped around a likable heroine also dives into the ethics of law.

Mystery Columnist Oline H. Cogdill can be reached at
Copyright © 2003, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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