2020 was a strange year for all of us. For many, including me, the best laid plans disappeared. My writing space turned into my working space overnight when the day job sent us all to work from home. It was near impossible to sit in my home office all day and then again at night to pound out the words. And, living in a small townhouse, I had no where that I could sit and write like I needed.
The bright side in all this is my reading went nuts. My Goodreads reading goal was 25 books. In the end, I hit 264% of my goal by reading 66 books. You can see my complete 2020 reading list here. But before I get to my favorite books of the year (listed in no particular order), I want to talk about one book I read but not on my best list that deserves mention.
n 1995, Mystery Writers of America polled their membership and made a list of the Top 100 Mystery Novels of All Time. Despite that fact that it technically isn’t a novel, number one on the list was The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Sixty-two short stories and four novels (today they’d be novellas) make up the collection. First published between 1887 and 1927, Sir Arthur’s stories caught the fancy of people all across England. In fact, when Holmes was killed off, the public demanded more, so Holmes disappearance was explained away and his investigations started up again. I knew that I’d never be able to read Holmes straight through so I planned to read one book, one Holmes, one book, one Holmes, lather, rinse, repeat. Under my original goal, I wouldn’t have finished the book, but thanks to reading more, I finished. I do not rank Holmes anywhere near the best I read this year, but note because at 1077 pages in the edition I have, it’s a big accomplishment.
Best Novels of 2020
One of my favorite authors is Anthony Horowitz. He created the series Foyle’s War and wrote many of the episodes for Midsommer Murders. His book Moonflower Murders is a sequel to his great book Magpie Murders. We again follow Susan Ryeland, now a retired publisher, as she’s called back the the UK to solve the disappearance tied to dead author Alan Conway. Having solved Conway’s murder years before, and as his former publisher, Susan knew Conway best. She returns to the UK to investigate. The great trick of this book is it’s actually two novels in one. You read the first half, containing the story of Susan, then pause while you read the novel “written” by Conway, then return to Susan’s story. It makes for great fiction and is fun to read.
If you haven’t read any of the Flavia de Luce books by Alan Bradley, you’re missing out. Flavia is an eleven year old girl living in one of those quaint English villages just a few years after World War II. She fancies herself a chemist, having discovered her uncle’s lab in an abandoned upper floor of the family mansion. When I need just a delightful, quick read story, I pick up a Flavia story. In A Red Herring Without Mustard, the third book in the series, Flavia asks a gypsy woman to tell her fortune. She later stumbles across her dead body. In typical Flavia fashion, she sets out to solve the murder. Red herrings pile up and it was fun to sort through the clues to figure out who the killer was before Flavia can.
In the Wake of Captain Lord, Johnny Worthen again takes us on a comedic ride with his detective Tony Flaner. This time, Tony is on an Alaska cruise with his stand-up comedian friends. Tony laments the trouble he’ll be in with his girlfriend as he didn’t tell her he was going to cruise. To complicate matters, the ship is filled with rabid groupies who are part of a multi-level marketing pyramid scheme. Of course, a murder occurs, and as the only detective on board, Tony is soon roped in to find the killer. Worthen does a fantastic job of weaving in clues, both real and fake, into the complicated plot. This is the best Tony yet and I look forward to more to come. Worthen is a mostly undiscovered writer who deserves a bigger audience.
You’re likely familiar with stories of quaint English hamlets that have more than their share of murders. Well, murder also occurs in Three Pines, Quebec, Canada and Chief Inspector Armand Gamarche always shows up to solve the crime. In A Fatal Grace, the second novel in Louise Penny’s amazing series, Gamache investigates the killing of writer and self-named self-help guru CC Poitiers who was electrocuted on a frozen lake in plain sight of the entire town. Poitiers had alienated everyone in the town so there is no lack of suspects. Gamache must also find the connection between the victim and a homeless woman who was killed on the streets of Montreal. It all adds up to a great mystery by one of the best writers of our time.
Published in February, 1995, you may have to search to find a copy of Now You See It… by Richard Matheson but if you can get a copy, you’re in for a great read. Delacorte, once one of the greatest magicians, now afflicted by disease that forced him to retire, has called his family and friends to his home. Macabre tricks bring twists and murder and soon not even Delacorte can tell what’s real and what isn’t.
Sophie Hannah writes some of the best psychological murder thrillers today. She doesn’t disappoint with The Next to Die. A serial killer, who the police have called “Billy Dead Mates” seeks out best friends and kills them both. With the public in a panic and some white books with mysterious clues, the police try in vain to identify a suspect. But when stand-up comedian Kim Tribbeck gets one of the white books, she wonders why she’s being targeted. After all, she has no friends and doesn’t trust anyone. Will Kim survive? Will police identify and arrest the killer? Hannah, as usual, does an amazing job building the suspense and keeps you turning the pages.
I read lots of debut novels. Most of them are just okay. Splinter in the Blood is an exception. Ashley Dyer writes a mystery that is down right creepy, but I couldn’t put it down. Detective Greg Carver has spent months looking for the Torn Killer. When he’s shot in his home, his partner, Ruth Lake, cleans up the scene instead of calling for help. She then leaves. But one problem. Carver didn’t die. When he wakes up, he has no memory of the shooting and Lake is now leading the investigation to find the Thorn Killer. Ruth is keeping a deadly secret and isn’t talking and more people will die.
Tara Laskowski’s debut novel One Night Gone is another one of those amazing first timers that you must read. I’m not alone in this recommendation as it won the Agatha Award for Best First Novel and was a finalist for the Lefty Award and the Simon and Schuster Mary Higgins Clark Award. The book jumps back and forth between two stories. Decades ago, Maureen Haddaway arrived at a New Jersey beach town to restart her life. Then, one day, she just disappeared. In the present day, Allison Simpson has gone through a nasty divorce and quit her job as a TV weather reporter. She arrives at the same town, also to restart her life. Soon their two stories intersect in frightening, deadly ways.
Another big prize winner, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Based on a true story, The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead, follows Elwood Curtis, a black boy in 1960s Tallahassee. When he’s wrongly accused and convicted of stealing a car, he’s sent to the Nickel Academy, a reformatory that is anything but pleasant. He makes friends with Turner, who becomes his only salvation. This book is a fascinating look into the racial discrimination of the 60s. The book shows why Whitehead is one of America’s greatest novelists today and his multiple Pulitzer Prizes are evidence that he is.
In the late 50’s, Patricia Moyes was on a ski vacation in the Alps, but after being injured she sat and watched skiers on the hill and the lift and came up with the premise for her debut novel, Dead Men Don’t Ski. Inspector Henry Tibbett and his wife head for their own ski vacation in the Italian Alps. But soon a dead body turns up and Tibbett, who is also there on official business, investigates. I thought I had the killer pegged…until they too turn up dead. Moyes has been compared to Agatha Christie and Dead Men Don’t Ski has that Christie feel. As a skier myself, I was pulled to this book and thoroughly enjoyed it.
Speaking of Agatha Christie, I’ll wrap up my favorite novels list with one that the Grand Dame herself named one of her favorites. But I will tell you that Endless Night is unlike any Christie novel you’ve ever read. First, it’s a romance. Michael Rogers happens on heiress Ellie. They fall madly in love, marry, and buy Gypsy’s Acre, despite a warning from a gypsy that no good will come to those who live there. The second thing that sets this book apart from other Christie novels is that the murder doesn’t happen until late in the book. There are plenty of suspects, but Christie throws in a twist that I never saw coming. If you’re a fan of the greatest novelist who ever lived, you need to read Endless Night.
Best Craft Books of 2020
If you’re a pantser who wants to be a plotter, Take Off Your Pants by Libby Hawker will help. The book is short on pages, but full on content. There is lots of good advice to help you get started plotting your novel.
Gail Bowen is one of the great Canadian writers. In her book Sleuth: Gail Bowen on Writing Mysteries, she imparts much of her process but at the same time lots of advice on writing a mystery. And it has the greatest line I’ve ever read in a craft book. When talking about pacing, she writes “There is no Cialis that will cause a flaccid manuscript to suddenly pulse with life”
Scene and sequel, scene and sequel. Every time I hear a writer talk about scenes, it’s always couple with sequel. In Make A Scene, Jordan Rosenfeld goes way past that, talking about different types of scenes, the beginning, middle, and end of a scene. Hands down, one of the best craft books I’ve ever read. You can’t go wrong here.