Mystery/Thriller Recommendations

It’s that time of year! A time for reflection on the past year and anticipation of the new. If you’re like me, you hear a lot of people mention a good book or movie and you think to yourself, “That sounds good! I gotta remember that.” And then you don’t.

So, since I have a lot of friends on Facebook who like mysteries and thrillers, I’ve asked them to recommend at least one good book or movie they discovered this year. And of course, each of us here at AMW has a recommendation too.

Here they are, in no particular order:

1. Mandy Eve Barnett (author): mandyevebarnett.com – Lucy – it is unusual, exciting and a great twist at the end! A woman, accidentally caught in a dark deal, turns the tables on her captors and transforms into a merciless warrior evolved beyond human logic.

2. Beverly Nelms (personal and book club friend) – A Most Wanted Man with Philip Seymour Hoffman from a John LeCarre book. It’s about a (most likely) innocent Muslim man being ground up in the system by the Taliban, then by us. PSH plays a German operative with a small group of “assets” who is trying to help him. Underdogs helping the underdog. The view of agents, especially ours, is devastating.

3. Laura Wilson (personal and book club friend) – I liked The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, book much better than the movie, by Stieg Larsson. The main character is a girl with a troubled background who is brilliant with technology and a research savant. There is torture, murder, blackmail and deceit all over this book.

4. Billy Kring (mystery author) www.billykring.com – Suspect by Robert Crais. One of my top reads of the year, and highly recommended. LAPD cop Scott James and his female partner are ambushed, and Scott is wounded, his partner killed. He is broken, suffering, and angry, textbook PTSD. As a last chance, he is partnered with a german shepherd with her own problems. Maggie is a two-tour bomb-sniffing dog who lost her handler in an ambush. She is also suffering from PTSD, and it is her last chance, too. When they begin to investigate the case where Scott’s partner was murdered, they have to rely on each other, and what they encounter in the case could well break both of them.

5. David B. Schlosser (writer, editor) – www.dbschlosser.com – The Broken Shore by Peter Temple. This terrific Australian mystery explores the traditional aspects of a crime/cop story — good guys, bad guys, and their travails — as well as some really interesting cultural challenges in Australia.

6. Kelly Pustejovsky (personal friend) – I watched Dream House yesterday on Netflix, surprisingly good.

7. Tara Madden (personal friend) – Wilde’s The Gods of Gotham and it’s sequel. Fairly new mystery series about the very beginnings of the NYPD set in the 1840s. Very good. Really pulls you into the story. Great richly created characters.

8. Jeanne Kisacky (writer) – It’s been out a while, but Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity defied my ability to see where the plot was going. It was truly remarkable to read a book and not have any of my guesses pan out.

9. H.M. Bouwmann (author and professor) – www.hmbouwman.com – I’ll second the Code Name Verity recommendation. And I enjoyed both Robert Galbraith (Rowling) mysteries–though I loved the first more than the second. Also, just as an FYI, the opening couple of pages are not great. Then: very good.

10. Roger Cuevas (personal friend) – I love Alice LaPlant’s “Turn of Mind.” It’s narrated by a woman, a former hand surgeon with Alzheimer’s. Then one day her neighbor and long-time friend is found dead and the body’s hands have been expertly removed. Did she do it? Our narrator just can’t remember…

11. Morris Nelms (personal, book club friend, professor of fine arts, and musician) (Yea, he’s a cool guy) – The Afghan, by Forsyth. Frequencies, a sci-fi whodunit movie. Crescent City Rhapsody, a sci-fi thriller about what happens when an EMP disables everything.

12. Joseph Huerta (personal friend) – The two “Blood” books by James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell that feature warfare against the forces of Armageddon, including angels and devils and a secret band of priests who were once vampires. Yes, it doesn’t really sound like a Joe-book but it was truly fascinating. The third book will be out this Spring.

13. Angie Kinsey (writer) – www.angiekinsey.com – The Martian by Andy Weir – a not too far fetched sci-fi thriller about an engineer who gets stranded on Mars. He has to figure out how to stay alive with the resources he has until he can connect with home. Entertaining and thrilling!

14. Debbie Woodard (personal friend) –  I discovered the BBC’S Sherlock this year. Fantastic production, great actors, character-driven-well-written scripts.

15. Elizabeth Buhmann (AMW member) – I’ve read a lot of good mysteries this year. I think I’ll go for Present Darkness, the latest by Malla Nunn, but my recommendation is not to start here but to start with her first, A Beautiful Place to Die. The setting for these books is South Africa in the 1950s, at the height of the Apartheid era.

16. Laura Oles (AMW member) – My favorite this year isn’t a traditional mystery but I loved it because it had a strong mystery component and very strong storytelling. It was Leaving Time by Judy Picoult.

17. Gale Albright (AMW member) – I was fascinated and awed by Tana French’s In the Woods, from the very first paragraph because her writing is lyrical and compelling. It’s set in Ireland and is her first book about the “Dublin Murder Squad.”

18. Kaye George (AMW member) – I’m JUST like that. I vow to remember the good books I’ve read, but, alas, my memory doesn’t really go back 12 months. I know that every Harlan Coben I read is my favorite. Recently I read “Iron Lake” by William Kent Krueger and it was terrific. It’s the first Cork O’Connor book. I’ve read others, but had never read this one.

19. Kathy Waller (AMW member) – Terry Shames’ A Killing at Cotton Hill. She captures small town life in a southern town while mixing humor with suspense and mystery. I couldn’t put it down. It won the 2014 Macavity Award. 

20. My favorite book that I read this past year was Jackaby by William Ritter. I loved the mix of historical fantasy and mystery. Jackaby is an investigator of unexplained phenomena and the story is told from the POV of his new assistant, Abigail Rook. It’s a bit like Sherlock Holmes meets Harry Potter. It was delightful and intriguing.

So there you have it! A whole slew of books to add to your TBR (To Be Read) list.

THE GARDINER CHRONICLES: PART TWO

SINC August Meg Gardiner 003Or who let the deus ex machina out, what’s a plot, and is this about cannibalism?

hutto oct. 1 2014 023 (2)By Gale Albright

“Plot is soylent green. It’s made up of people!”
Is Edgar award-winning thriller writer Meg Gardiner talking about cannibalism?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soylent_Green

No, she did not advocate turning people into crackers in a malnourished dystopian future. She talked about plotting novels during her August 10 presentation at the Sisters in Crime: Heart of Texas chapter monthly meeting.

“Plot or characters are largely the same thing. The story is all about what the characters do. You should know what the ending is. The seeds of the ending must be sown at the beginning of the book.”

She used Jaws as an example. “The first chapter shows what needs to happen at the end of the story. There’s a set up there. The protagonist must defeat the antagonist.” You know from the beginning that somebody has to do something about that shark—pronto! That shark can’t be washed ashore six months later on a beach in South Carolina and die of indigestion. The protagonist and antagonist must engage in hand to hand combat, or hand to fin, as it were.

According to Gardiner, thrillers have a fairly linear, straightforward plot. There’s an “inciting incident” that throws life out of whack for the protagonist, which in turn causes complications. It sets off a chain of events. The essence of plotting is “thwarting desire.”

The protagonist desires something and the job of the antagonist is to throw a monkey wrench into the works. The antagonist is a critical character who keeps the protagonist from getting what she wants.
You need a strong, active protagonist. If everything happens easily for a protagonist, it’s not a story. She doesn’t need to be Sylvester Stallone, but she’s not going to fold when the going gets tough. The protagonist doesn’t go with the flow, she’s willing to put herself out there and take action.SINC August Meg Gardiner 007

Is the heroine an amateur sleuth? Why does she feel compelled to look for answers? Is the villain a murderer? The villain has strong motivations and feels he is the hero of his own story. They must have compelling characteristics. Gardiner likes Moriarty as a villain as he clashes with Sherlock Holmes. Both men are obviously the heroes of their own stories.

Even if you don’t know who the killer is until the end of the novel, you know there is someone out there doing bad things, perhaps a minion of the main villain. In Gardiner’s Dirty Secrets Club, someone is committing murder by forcing the victims to kill themselves. Forensic psychiatrist Jo Beckett, one of Gardiner’s serial heroines, has to track down the killer.

The story must build bigger and bigger with plot twists and escalating pressure. There is continual revelation and shock. The characters have to make decisions under pressure.

The key to the plot is action. Figure out what the chase is and cut to it. Start with action, not a lot of back story–no dream sequences. The plot has to be emotionally coherent or the reader will feel cheated and put the book down.

To prevent that “sag in middle,” keep the tension up, develop the story, and build in progressive complications with big scenes, time pressure, and a ticking clock of some kind.

The ending must be surprising, yet inevitable. You need some surprise, otherwise the result might be vaguely dissatisfying. Create a dilemma at the ending, forcing the protagonist to choose the lesser of two evils by making a difficult decision.

Always make sure the protagonist is the one who takes action to resolve the issues. The hero/heroine has to take active steps at the end of the novel. Don’t try to pull a deus ex machina out of the bag at the end.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deus_ex_machina

What is a deus ex machina, you ask? In ancient Greek plays, an actor playing a god was literally cranked out from the wings onto the stage to resolve the ending of the story. He was sitting in a “god machine” made by ancient Greek stage hands, no doubt. This form of achieving a satisfying ending to the story is frowned upon in modern times. The protagonist must defeat the antagonist with her own smarts and heroism.

Meg Gardiner is an Edgar award-winning American crime writer who lives in Austin, Texas. Her best-known books are the Evan Delaney novels. In June 2008, she published the first novel in a new series, featuring forensic psychiatrist Jo Beckett. More recently she has published three stand-alone novels: Ransom River (June 2012), The Shadow Tracer (June 2013), and Phantom Instinct (June 2014).SINC August Meg Gardiner 005