BRAD’S BEST READS OF 2021

As book bloggers go, in sheer number of reads I’m a dismal failure. Don’t even try and compare me, say, to my friend Kate over at Cross Examining Crime who, even in a bad month (May, when she had to tend to the birth of five baby goats), reviewed thirteen books, ten more than my monthly average of – gulp! – three. I can only lay so much blame on the exigencies of COVID, but I will say in my defense that you’d be surprised how little reading you get done when you have little much else you can do but read. Ironically, all the rooms in my tiny home are filling up with books, and since most of them are mysteries and I keep promising to get around to them – well, I have promises to keep and miles to go before I . . . yada yada yada. 

That said, when I made a list of what I read in 2021, I was quite pleased at the breadth of my choices. Yes, there were three reads by my #2 go-to author, John Dickson Carr, but two of them were new to me, and one of those is new to every ravenous Carr fan in the whole wide world! There was one “new” Christianna Brand novel, Shadowed Sunlight, tucked in the middle of the grand Bodies from the Library IV collection. I also tackled my second title by Francis Beeding (Death Walks in Eastrepps), which was even better than the first, and my second Anthony Berkeley novel (The Wychford Poisoning Case) which was, oh, so much worse than The Poisoned Chocolates Case

I also managed to get my first taste of quite a few all-but-forgotten authors who have reemerged thanks to the work of various small presses on both sides of the Atlantic. One writer, Moray Dalton, proved with The Condamine Case to be highly promising for future reads. Towards the end of the year came the reprint of the historically important The Invisible Host by Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning, and it intrigued me enough to ask for their other three titles, now available from Dean Street Press, for Christmas. (I managed to score one!) There was also the bonkers experience of reading Theodore Roscoe’s Murder on the Way along with two Aussie podcasters and my bestie JJ, the man responsible for this murderous “crazy town” of a novel being reissued. I’m not sure if I’ll ever again feel comfortable about setting foot in a Haitian deathtrap mansion besieged by zombies during a political revolution. Sorry, but I’m a very sensitive reader. 

I can’t say A Shroud for Rowena by Virginia Rath made me hunger for more of her adventures, despite their charming San Francisco setting. Nor did I have much much with classic writers (other than Mr. Beeding) with the first name of Francis: both F. Duncan and F. Vivian left me cold. (I’m hoping for more luck next year with F. Crane!) And then there’s Brian Flynn. Frankly I’m torn about Flynn. I didn’t like The Edge of Terror at all, but the man was prolific and deserves another chance. Plus, there’s the issue of Book Club, where every month I come Zoom face to Zoom face with the man responsible for Flynn’s reissue and the PD fixes me with his steeliest glare (one brown eye, one blue, eyebrows shaved and repainted for a more sardonic effect), shakes his withered fist (injured in a stunt involving a stuffed donkey, a bucket of beer foam, and a ball peen hammer), and asks me which of Flynn’s first thirty I intend to read next! It’s galling, I tell you, especially since he knows where I live!!!!!!!

I even found time to read some modern mysteries, and while that can always be a mixed bag for a classic crime novel, I have managed to pick and choose my way through some gems. Of course, there was Locked Room International’s latest translation of a Paul Halter mystery, Penelope’s Web, which I place somewhere in the middle of my enjoyment range of Halter: nice group of suspects, heartbreaking (and maybe unneeded?) second murder, interesting problem (how do you get out of a window and leave the spider’s web intact?) but all in all it didn’t rock me like, say, The Demon of Dartmoor orThe Gold Watch.

Then there were the pair of shin honkaku mysteries, also thanks to LRI, that appeared this year. One of them, Lending the Key to the Locked Room by Tokuya Higashigawa, was a fun read but left me wanting, while the other, Masahiro Imamura’s best-selling debut novel Death Among the Undead was bloody good. Imagine reading TWO mysteries about zombies during this plague year. I wanted to read some honkaku this year, but The Village of Eight Graves, the latest translation of a classic Detective Kindaichi mystery by Seishi Yokomizo, did not arrive here until last week. It will have to wait until next year, but the good news is that it will soon be joined by another Kindaichi tale released by Pushkin Vertigo: Gokumon Island. I have heard great things about that one!

Of course there were the occasional disappointments, like The Mystery of Mrs. Christie by Marie Benedict, but they were made up for by fun reads like The Line Is Murder, the latest installment in Anthony Horowitz’ saga about Daniel Hawthorne and his Watson (some guy named Horowitz.) And some of my favorite modern reads came from the ever-growing category of the juvenile mystery, which tends to embrace the classic tropes of GAD crime stories while adult mysteries focus on the psychological chaos surrounding a damaged sleuth. 

That brings us to the top awards of the evening . . . . (drum roll):

BEST CLASSIC MYSTERY

The Island of Coffins by John Dickson Carr

Could it have been anything but?!? This is a serious coup for Crippen and Landru and a massive boon for Carr fans worldwide. Even though reprints are a dime a dozen these days (sometimes not far from that price if you stick to e-books), finding previously unread material from someone as beloved as Carr is indeed a rarity. Knowing what I know about his great work on radio, these scripts are a treasure which, in all honesty, I am reading slowly, in order to savor them since all but a few are not available for listening and because more than one utilizes tricks from novels I have not yet read.

BEST NOIR MYSTERY

The Red Right Hand by Joel Townsley Rogers

I truly enjoyed C.W. Grafton’s The Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope, and Roscoe’s book might have snagged the title for “Most Bonkers Read” of the year. But this noir nightmare is one-of-a-kind, nearly as gonzo as Murder Along the Way, but possessed of a well-wrought puzzle lying beneath the nightmarish surface that beats out Roscoe by a mile. Plus, Hand is so beautifully written that your mind finds itself along for the ride in the middle of a road trip gone really bad with a narrator you’re not sure you can trust is sane. One of these days, I look forward to reading this one again to savor how Rogers manages to grip you and take you along for a wild ride, all the way to a surprise ending which honors classic detective fiction even as it wears its conventions in a whole other suit. 

BEST KIDDIE KRIME

Murder on the Safari Star by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman

As mentioned above, I had a blast with juvenile mysteries this year. There was First Class Murder, part of the Murder Most Ladylike series by Robin Stevens. It’s her take on Murder on the Orient Express, and while her actual mysteries are easily solvable by older kids like me, any time spent with Hazel Wong (a most reluctant Watson) is a delight, and the evolving relationship between her and her businessman father is the highpoint of this entry. I also got through the first two books of Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious trilogy. Book One was intriguing, but the whole thing took a bit of a dive in the middle volume. Here’s hoping she can bring it all home with Book Three. 

All other writers for kids pale this year beside Leonard and Sedgman, whose Adventures on Trains series showcases their passion for . . . . well, adventures on trains!! The series features 11-year-old artist and budding sleuth Harrison “Hal” Beck and his journalist uncle Nat, who seem to find criminals whenever they ride the rails. Starting with The Highland Falcon Thief and then Kidnap on the California Comet, these are wonderful entry level mysteries for future Christie fans (and highly enjoyable to this veteran!) that combine well-developed puzzle mysteries with a travel book. The delightful illustrations by Elisa Paganelli represent Hal’s artistry, which means they are the things he has witnessed, and these provide some of the best clues in each case.

It was gutsy of the authors to give Hal a murder to solve, and this one has locked room elements and a fine international assortment of suspects, as well as some great things to say about animal preservation. I’m excited that there are two more adventures awaiting us next year. May this fabulous series never end!

BEST MODERN MYSTERY

The Appeal by Janice Hallett

Janice Hallett’s debut mystery was easily the most fun I had with a book all year, and Isobel “Izzy” Beck might be 2021’s best literary creation. Told completely in e-mails, texts, and announcements, the story of a British community theatre company rocked by a familial tragedy that leads to murder is both a fine whodunnit and a hilarious take on the world of amateur theatrics, village politics, and the seriously disturbed people who straddle both worlds. As far as I can tell, The Appeal will finally make its way to the U.S. next month, and I predict it will be a favorite of American mystery fans for its well-crafted mystery, cleverly told, and its wonderful sense of humor. Hallett’s second book, The Twyford Code, drops next month in the UK. Fingers crossed, it’ll be winging its way to me by the end of January. I’ve got a feeling it’s already a contender for my favorite book of ’22!

And that is that, as far as living in the past. Next time: my resolutions for 2022!

BRAD’S READS OF 2021

(Click any title to link to the review)

Lending the Key to the Locked Room by Tokuya Higashigawa

The Red Right Hand by Joel Townsley Rogers

The Condamine Case by Moray Dalton

The Island of Coffins by John Dickson Carr

Death Walks in Eastrepps by Francis Beeding

The Edge of Terror by Brian Flynn

The Highland Falcon Thief by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman

Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson

A Shroud for Rowena by Virginia Rath

Kidnap on the California Comet by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman

The Vanishing Stair by Maureen Johnson

The Mystery of Mrs. Christie by Marie Benedict

The Wychford Poisoning Case by Anthony Berkeley

Penelope’s Web by Paul Halter

Death in Five Boxes by John Dickson Carr

So Pretty a Problem by Francis Duncan

The Appeal by Janice Hallett

Death Among the Undead by Mashiro Imamura

The Ninth Enemy by Francis Vivian

Murder on the Way by Theodore Roscoe

The Invisible Host by Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning

The Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope by C. W. Grafton

Shadowed Sunlight by Christianna Brand

Murder on the Safari Star by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman

First Class Murder by Robin Stevens

The Eight of Swords by John Dickson Carr

The Line Is Murder by Anthony Horowitz

21 thoughts on “BRAD’S BEST READS OF 2021

  1. Merry Christmas, Brad! Wasn’t expecting another post until the new year, so this was like discovering on Boxing Day that I had still had one gift left to unwrap. Of those you’ve listed I’ve read four. Lending the Key, Penelope’s Web, Death in Five Boxes and Death Among the Undead, that last of which, on reflection, was my best read of 2021 by some margin. I like the idea of The Appeal, but having sampled Dorothy Sayers The Documents in the Case and being swiftly bored to tears, I’m not sure I would enjoy it in practice. Speaking of torturous tedium, that was my tragic experience of The Plague Court Murders, Death-Watch and The Bowstring Murders this year, so I’ll be taking a lengthy sabbatical from JDC until deep into 2022. You’ve got me very curious about The Red Right Hand, mind, as much as it seems to have divided the blogging community down the middle. Noirish quality aside, the much lauded fair play aspect of it means the inveterate puzzler in me will only be able to resist so long before pulling the trigger.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Brace yourself, gw, for there will be one more post before the old year ends. I have to make my resolutions on the 31st, so that I can begin immediately following to be a Kinder and Better Blogger! As for The Appeal, I haven’t read Sayers’ version of that kind of thing, but everything she wrote has a measure of tedium for me, so I’m going to be biased. You either like or dislike the e-mail format. What I love about it is how each person’s version of the other characters and events clashes with their views on themselves and what happened. Plus, some of it is hilariously funny to those of us who have dealt with the clashing egos of community theatre communities.

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  2. “Imagine reading TWO mysteries about zombies during this plague year. I wanted to read some honkaku this year,”

    Yamaguchi’s Death of the Living Dead could’ve been a third 😉

    Have a great new year!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Brad, I like retrospective lists so thanks for this one. It is great to look back at what others have read knowing I might find a book that I otherwise never would have know. Thanks for your blog – I enjoy every post and am impressed with your insights as well as your humour. Best wishes for health and success in 2022.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Which Bristow and Manning did you get, the one you’re least likely to like, probably, is Mardi Gras Murders. 2 and 2 Make 22 has an old lady detective and Gutenberg bizarre murders.

    Virginia Rath had another series sleuth, maybe you should look at Death at Dayton’s Folly or Murder on the Day of Judgment.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I reviewed The Red Right Hand a few years ago, Brad, and reached much the same conclusion as you have. It is a total one off and I loved it. I’d like to read it again one day. Though as my TBR pile is likely to collapse on me like a book avalanche any day, I had better leave it a while. All my best wishes for 2020 and I hope we’ll perhaps meet next year. Who knows …

    Liked by 1 person

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