OK, who gets 12 days off at Christmas, anyway? And who reads a book a day?
With that disclaimer, here’s a baker’s dozen (with a tie for first) of the year’s best thrillers, mysteries and crime novels — the 12 Days of Suspense — to spice up the stocking of any favourite whodunit fan on Santa Day.
Day No. 12: Cell 8, by Anders Roslund and Borge Hellstrom (SilverOak, 376 pages, $28): A riveting death-penalty thriller by Swedish duo Anders Roslund and Borge Hellstrom, starring truly idiosyncratic Det. Supt. Ewert Grens.
How a convicted murderer lives under an assumed name in Stockholm, six years after his supposed death at an Ohio prison, gets pretty convoluted. But the sleazy international bartering that returns him to Death Row is chillingly plausible, and the ending is inspired.
No. 11: Broken Harbour, by Tana French (Hodder & Stoughton, 496 pages, $35): In a new but recession-stalled Dublin suburb, detective Mick Kennedy discovers the insidious role of broken dreams in the murders of a typical family man and his two children, as well as the frailty of his own memories. A gripping dissection of real folks buried in the rubble of the imploded Irish Tiger economy.
No. 10: Hard Knocks, by Howie Carr (Forge, 352 pages, $29): Jack Reilly, a disgraced ex-cop and former city hall fixer, now works for slippery politicians, digging up dirt on rivals. Then he hits a motherlode he doesn’t want — ledgers recording three decades of payoffs and dirty deals that put deranged mobsters, crooked pols, bent cops and a hot reporter on his tail. Ya gotta love heroes with feet of clay, and this scrappy Boston crime journo’s seamy debut novel is a rollicking good show from start to finish.
No. 9: The Placebo Effect, by David Rotenberg (Touchstone, 352 pages, $30): Decker Roberts is a "synesthete," whose awareness mixes several senses and allows him to detect lies infallibly. That makes him a modern-day truthsayer — and the target of a pharmaceutical kingpin and a National Security Agency operative trying to protect (and use) such "special talents." Ranging from Rotenberg’s Toronto to a racetrack of U.S. cities, it’s a moody, one-step-removed thriller starring a harried and haunted hero in the first of what promises to be a smart, intriguing trilogy.
No. 8: Woman Chased by Crows, by Marc Strange (ECW, 416 pages, $25): Published just days before his death from cancer at age 70, this second Orwell Brennan mystery by celebrated Toronto actor, director and screenwriter Marc Strange (The Beachcombers) is vivid, emotionally complex and elegantly crafted.
No. 7: The Prophet, by Michael Koryta (Little, Brown, 416 pages, $29): The Crown Prince of Creepy swaps supernatural dread for Shakespearean morality play, proving can serve up both terror and tragedy with equal vigour and elan.
Still driven by guilt over the decades-old slaying of their sister, two estranged brothers — one a God-fearing high-school football coach, the other a bad-seed bail bondsman — find themselves threatened and engaged by a new, similar murder.
No. 6: Hanging Hill, by Mo Hayder (HarperCollins, 432 pages, $23): This Brit rising star pens character-driven anti-thrillers, where tension is subtly ratcheted into a lingering pall of menace.
The ritual-like murder of a popular teen in the West Country city of Bath sparks a tale of two sisters — outré and factious Det. Insp. Zoe Benedict and her struggling, divorced sister Sally. A top-notch cliffhanger.
No. 5: Creole Belle, by James Lee Burke (Simon & Schuster, 544 pages, $32): The 19th tag-team bout featuring iconic Louisiana cop Dave Robicheaux and hair-trigger PI Clete Purcel against Burke’s familiar targets — corrupt politicians, venal corporations and amoral rich folks, all despoilers of his cherished bayou.
It may not be the Montana-Louisiana legend’s absolute best, but all that matters is that Burke speaks in the most richly lyrical of regional voices.
No. 4: The Gods of Gotham, by Lindsay Faye (Amy Einhorn, 432 pages, $28): This blazing historical thriller is so thoroughly researched, brilliantly conceived and viscerally executed that the "brutal, greedy, frenzied, and secretive" streets of 1845 New York are wholly reborn, down to their "flash" patois.
Smart, gritty and funny, with a uniformly memorable cast of characters, Gods is simply spellbinding.
No. 3: The Beautiful Mystery, by Louise Penny (Minotaur, 384 pages, $28): The heavenly balm of Gregorian chant versus the quite earthly murder of a remote Quebec monastery’s choirmaster — that’s the thematic crux of Louise Penny’s eighth literary policier starring Sûreté Chief Inspector Armand Gamache.
It’s fair to say the motive is in the music, providing a novel vehicle for Penny to again explore familiar themes of alienation, personal tragedy and dissolution, loyalty, jealousy and love in all its varied and sometimes deadly dimensions.
No. 2: Standing in Another Man’s Grave, by Ian Rankin (Orion, 352 pages, $35): Rejoice, all ye faithful fans of iconic Edinburgh copper John Rebus: The return of the taciturn, whisky-loving, boss-baiting Tartan Noir curmudgeon has been worth the five-year wait.
Now a retired civilian working in a soon-to-be disbanded cold-case unit, Rebus reluctantly hears the pleas of a woman who won’t give up on finding her daughter, missing for a dozen years. But when that leads to the discovery of a mass grave near a remote Highlands village, it’s all classic Rebus.
No. 1 (tie): Phantom and The Bat, by Jo Nesbø (both Random House Canada, $25): The seventh and eighth of the crafty Norwegian author’s Harry Hole series to be released in English (only 1998’s The Cockroaches has yet to reach our shores), these two not only share top honours for 2012 but offer a fascinating glimpse into the development of (arguably) the world’s best crimewriter.
Conceived by Nesbø, then a stockbroker and sometime-rocker, back in 1997, The Bat finds the Oslo copper’s famously self-destructive demons just starting to emerge. Assigned to "observe" the Aussie investigation of a murdered Norwegian in Sydney, Harry is soon knee-deep in rampant angst and red-herrings.
Jump forward 15 years to Phantom, and our aging anti-hero, now an ex-cop, is grappling with corrupt cops and a shady drug lord to clear the son of an estranged lover on a murder charge. Battered by two horrific, near-fatal cases (2010’s The Snowman and last year’s The Leopard) and racked by fever from the work of an assassin’s blade, Harry stumbles through the mean streets of Oslo on a nightmarish odyssey full of multifarious plot twists and intimate dissections of friend and foe alike.
In Phantom, Nesbø takes the ultimate risk with his creation. It’s a bet that pays off.
John Sullivan is editor of the Free Press Autos, Homes and Travel sections and specialty websites.