John Dwaine McKenna’s
2016 Best Books of the Year
It almost seems impossible after an endlessly long, Will it ever be over?presidential campaign, but 2016 is about to become history . . . which means it’s time for our annual Best Books of the Year list, and what a year it’s been! As usual, there was no end of treachery, murder and mayhem, intricate plots and carefully constructed novels written by some of our old favorites and a bumper crop of outrageously talented newcomers. And hey—just so you know—our web wizard, Jeff, has added hyper-links to all of our BBY lists so that now, you can click on any recommendation and be whisked right through the electronic haze, directly to the complete book report. Pretty awesome! So . . . without further ado . . . here’s the list.
Best Books of the Year 2016
Rebekah Roberts was raised by her Christian father after her Hassidic Jewish mother ran away and disappeared shortly after she was born. Now, Rebekah’s an adult. She’s working as a stringer—a contract reporter for a cheesy New York City tabloid newspaper—and made a name for herself by solving the murder of a Hassidic woman in book one. Now, in book two, she’s contacted by a man from the ultra-orthodox town of Roseville in upstate New York, whose wife’s death was deemed accidental after she was found drowned in the bathtub. He thinks she was murdered and begs Rebekah to investigate before it’s too late. This one’s fascinating. It takes the reader into the heart of a little understood, highly secretive religious sect and it’s an awesome murder mystery to boot!
This underappreciated novel is one of my all-time personal favorites because it’s a variation of the locked-room mystery . . . taking place in a seemingly endless, partially explored group of underground caverns down in the southern tip of Indiana. On the same day private investigator Mark Novak’s wife is murdered in Florida, a teenage girl’s body is pulled from the bewildering cave system by a man the small town locals believe is the killer. He wandered around in the underground caverns for close to a week without food or water; can’t remember where he found her; what happened down there, or how he got out. Ten years have now passed, the case remains unsolved, and the prime suspect is the one who called Novak’s organization to try and find the killer. This one’ll keep you guessing right up to the end!
An awesome historical first novel that takes place during the winter of 1945 in the war torn and devastated city of Munich, Germany. That’s where CWO, Chief Warrant Officer, Mason Collins—a former Chicago homicide cop—is trying to hunt down a serial killer in the American Zone of Occupation. The killer rampages throughout the ruins of the city, staging gruesome, ritualized, and brutal murders that display a surgeon’s knowledge of human anatomy . . . and a butcher’s regard for the victims. As Collins battles the Army bureaucracy, the bitter cold winter weather, the black marketeers, recalcitrant civilians and unrepentant Nazi’s . . . he’s unaware that the monster is quietly stalking him. One of the best debut novels ever!
This intricate, well-plotted debut novel is told from the point-of-view of a nature photographer named Miranda, who’s just won a coveted one-year residency to the remote Farallon Islands, an exotic, rustic, dangerous nature preserve and bird sanctuary located twenty-five miles off the coast of San Francisco, where her job is to photograph the landscape. Her companions, a small group of eccentric scientists, are studying migrating whales, white sharks, seals and the ever-present birds, so numerous that the humans wear raincoats for protection from the guano, and so vicious that the researchers have to wear hard hats to thwart aerial attacks. Less than a week after she arrives, Miranda is raped. Two days later one of the scientists falls to his death, setting the stage for a first rate murder mystery in an alien environment lacking all but the most basic resources for survival.
The Yid takes place in Stalinist Russia. It’s February 1953, just one week before Joseph Stalin’s death, and a great pogrom—of the same magnitude as Hitler’s Final Solution is about to get underway. When three KGB thugs show up to arrest an old Yiddish actor, and a veteran of past wars, his response isn’t at all what they expected. His actions set in motion a mad plan to assassinate Stalin . . . in a plot reminiscent of Shakespeare . . . and a masterpiece of historical fiction. The Yid is a brilliant, complex and erudite debut novel.
MBR # 246 Where It Hurts, by Reed Farrel Coleman
This one’s about the other side of Long Island, New York . . . the gritty places opposite the Hampton’s . . . where the ordinary folks live and the real work gets done. It features a retired Suffolk County cop named Gus Murphy. He’s divorced, on the skids and reduced to driving a courtesy van for a run-down motel, trying to forget the tragedy and disaster that wrecked his life. Then an old ‘skel’, a career criminal he’s arrested many times in the past, a man named Tommy Delcamino, asks Gus to find out who killed his son T.J. and dumped his body in a garbage-strewn vacant lot. The acclaimed and award-winning author’s created a character in Gus Murphy that all hard-boiled crime fiction readers will adore. Here’s a chance to get in on the ground floor.
A tale of treachery, revenge and vendetta from one of the best espionage writers of all time. In it, an off-the-books lone-wolf spy whose father was stiffed by the CIA hierarchy, teams up with an Argentine woman whose parents were sold out by the regime and together they plot revenge in this exquisitely well-crafted, potent and seductive thriller.
A historical bit of crime fiction from a debut author who really impressed us with his vivid imagination and thoughtful explanation of events leading to the assassination of President Kennedy, by combining a kidnapping in 1960 with elements of big oil, organized crime and the destruction of an honest man’s reputation, when an investigative reporter in the early twenty-first century sets out to debunk the conspiracy theory, only to discover that they may in fact be true! Another awesome first novel.
From the two-time Edgar Award winner comes a brand-spanking new character in the first of a twisted, harrowing and diabolic set of stories that’s got every other crime writer in the business sitting up and taking notice. In it, bad guy Nick Mason gets an offer no one would refuse . . . release from a maximum security prison twenty years early. All he has to do is keep a certain cell phone with him at all times, answer when it rings, and do exactly what the caller asks, under penalty of death . . . to his ex-wife and pre-teen daughter . . . after which he’ll be returned to prison and tortured the rest of his life. Do the deeds however and live like a king. It’s the greatest of Faustian bargains, our number-one BBY ’16, and it will leave you going crazy for the next Nick Mason novel.
is a Booklist best crime fiction debut of 2016. It begins in the Cambodian capitol of Phnom Pehn, where a major drug bust has the underworld in a frenzy, the politicians at war with the Army, and a zoned-out, burned-out, broken-hearted and world-class photographer named Will Keller living in a haze of sex, drugs, alcohol and risky, hair-raising, death-defying behavior while working for anyone who’ll pay for a photograph. When a young American woman reporter disappears into the drug-infested underworld while pursuing a crime story, her sister enlists Keller to find her . . . setting off a life-and-death chase in the bowels of the Asian Golden Triangle. We had to towel off after reading this one. It’s hot, hot, hot!
Yet another debut novel (Anyone noticing a pattern here?) which plunks the reader down, dead-center in the drug wars. It’s a winner of a CWA, Crime Writers of America, 2016 Gold Dagger Award for Best Crime Novel of the Year, among others. A noir-ish coming-of-age story in which a young gang-banger and dodger (a lookout for drug dealers) named East, is tasked with three other black teens to drive to the upper midwest, twenty-five hundred miles into the heart of white America, to murder a man. He’s in witness protection, getting ready to testify against East’s uncle, the gang leader and a stone cold killer. East, who’s only fifteen years old, has never been out of Los Angeles in his life. Now he has to make his way in an alien, hostile world while deciding what kind of a man he’s going to be. Bill Beverly is being hailed as a major new voice in American literature and not to be missed by serious readers of crime fiction.
A New York Times bestseller. It’s an alternate history of the United States in which everything is as we know it—cell phones, internet and Big Macs—except the Civil War never happened and slavery is still legal, and practiced, in the ‘Hard Four’, consisting of the combined Carolinas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. The protagonist, an exceptional young black man, has made a deal with the devil, tracking down escaped slaves traveling on the underground airlines so that others may capture and return them under the Fugitive Slave Act. When he’s tasked with a case code-named Jackdaw however, his artfully-crafted, make-believe world is shattered as he discovers secret deals between the US Government and the Hard Four. Arrangements that all concerned are desperate to keep. Cutting edge fiction at it’s best, this one will make you squirm with it’s eerie similarities to our own present day. Wickedly imaginative!
Completing out BBY list for 2016 is perennial and personal favorite James Lee Burke with an atmospheric coming-of-age story set in Houston, Texas in 1952 as the Korean war is raging. In what many are hailing as his best-ever novel, Burke introduces us to seventeen year-old Aaron Holland Broussard and his world of drive-ins, souped up cars, jukeboxes and forever first-loves. But when Aaron comes to the aid of a young woman, he makes an enemy of her former boyfriend . . . who’s the son of a local mob boss and member of one of the richest families in Texas. The conflict that ensues is a stunning tale of class-warfare, and a coming-of-age as a boy becomes a man trying find the same courage his father showed in World War I. A CWA Grand Master, Burke delivers one of his very best.
That’s it, that’s our baker’s dozen list of Best Books for the year 2016. We hope you get a chance to read some or all of them and look forward to 2017, when we’ve got a whole new and exciting list of crime fiction, thrillers, spy yarns and whodunnits to explore together. Until then Merry Christmas, Peace on Earth and Goodwill to all!! See ya next year.
John Dwaine McKenna
Colorado Springs, Colorado