21 December 2023

Not Just Another Year’s End “Best Of” List

 First things first: Happy Holidays!

Here we are, half-a-week before Christmas, and Year's End "Best Of" lists are bustin' out all over, as usual. Is this going to be one of those lists?




I always admire people who dedicate themselves to spending the year making a point of reading deeply and broadly across a genre for the duration of the calendar year, in order to be able to authoritatively fill out this sort of list.

Mostly because I don't possess that sort of dedication.

Over the course of my writing career I have allowed myself to be talked in to judging for established writing awards a number of times (which number? TOO MANY! That's the number!), and have borne the sacrifices made in exchange for access to a staggering number of recently published mystery/crime fiction books. The year I judged the best novel award for Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Awards, the members of the committee I served on each received 512 (Yes, you read right: FIVE-HUNDRED-AND-TWELVE) separate entries for Best Novel that year. I read all or part of each of them.

In light of this experience, I tend to take year-end "Best Of" lists with a heavy dose of salt. Because no one in their right mind is going to stay much on top of what's getting published that year unless they're getting free copies shoved down their collective throats by publishers eager to win the lottery of having a prize-winning author they can promote and whose sales an award such as this could only add to.

Does that mean I don't value year-end "Best Of" lists? Or that I suspect them of somehow being "fake"?

Absolutely not.

I cannot, however, escape the notion that lists such as this, no matter how authoritative, cannot be either objective or in any meaningful way comprehensive. This is assuming, of course, that said list is compiled by a single person, and not, say, a team of people. That sort of list would be a different animal altogether.

And so I make the following disclaimer: what you will see below is a subjective list of the books I enjoyed reading most, over the course of this year, 2023. Some of these books were published this year, and some weren't. Some are mystery/crime fiction and some are not. For my money each of the entries below is well-written and thus, well worth your time.

And Now For a Brief (and completely RANDOM) "Best Of" List:


Best PI Novel: Sunset and Jericho by Sam Wiebe

1920s San Francisco had Dashiell Hammett. '30s/'40s/'50s Los Angeles had Raymond Chandler. New York City has....well...take your pick: Matt Scudder, Mike Hammer, Nero Wolfe, etc.

And 21st century Vancouver has Sam Wiebe.

This book, the latest in Wiebe's incredible "Wakeland" series, does to the city of Vancouver what director John Ford's cavalry movies did to Monument Valley: it takes the setting of the story and makes of it another character. 

And it was actually published this year!

All of Sam Wiebe's books are great. This one is no exception. Highest recommendation.

Benjamin Brown French
Best Memoir I Read NOT Written in 2023: Witness to the Young Republic: A Yankee's Journal, 1828-1870 by Benjamin Brown French

First a state legislator in New Hampshire, then for several years Clerk of the United States House of Representatives, and eventually the long-serving Commissioner of Public Buildings in Washington, D.C., first under old friend and fellow New Hampshire Democrat President Franklin Pierce (whom French felt had every advantage in seeking reelection, and squandered it all, and whom French eventually dismissed as a "fool.") and eventually under both Abraham Lincoln (whose wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, ever referred to as "The Queen") and Andrew Johnson during the American Civil War, Benjamin Brown French was an interesting character, who brought a ready wit, an incisive view of humanity and a skilled diarist's approach to serving as an eye witness to History over the course of nearly 40 years spent in public service. For anyone who thinks Washington, D.C. has never been quite like it is now, French's writings tend to reinforce the notion that quite the contrary, nothing much seems to have changed over the past 150 plus years.

Best Book About a Mutiny: Sailing the Graveyard Sea: The Deathly Voyage of the Somers, the U.S. Navy's Only Mutiny, and the Trial That Gripped the Nation by Richard Snow

Historian Richard Snow, who went to work right out of college at Columbia University for American Heritage Magazine, where he eventually worked his way up to editor of the publication (1990-2007) has, since his retirement, carved a second career as an author of riveting accounts of such signal events in maritime history as the World War II Battle of the Atlantic (A Measureless Peril: America in the Fight for the Atlantic, the Longest Battle of World War II) and the Civil War clash between ironclads the C.S.S Virginia, and the U.S.S. Monitor (Iron Dawn: the Monitor, the Merrimack, and the Civil War Sea Battle that Changed History). Published this year, Sailing the Graveyard Sea is a welcome addition his previous works of maritime history: an authoritative account of the only "attempted mutiny" in the history of the United States Navy. And the "mutiny" is only the beginning. The resulting scandal rocked the nation, even causing fist-fight during a presidential cabinet meeting between the Secretary of the Navy and the Secretary of the Treasury (who just happened to be the father of one of the hanged "mutineers."). A must-read for students of history and politics alike!

Best Historical Mystery: The Second Murderer: a Philip Marlowe Novel by Denise Mina 

Best-selling Scottish crime novelist Denise Mina is likely best known for her award-winning series featuring Glasgow journalist Paddy Meehan. And rightly so. It's a great series, and Mina has demonstrated herself time and again to be one hell of a writer.

Mina has also demonstrated her unwillingness to be boxed in as a writer of just one kind of fiction. In addition to her novels, she's penned a number of plays–including a radio play broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in 2009–and several comic books for DC Comics' Vertigo imprint.

So of course it ought to come as no surprise that she is game for taking a whack at writing a novel continuing one of the most successful PI novel series of all time: Raymond Chandler's iconic Philip Marlowe series. I read this novel (released this year, 2023), in addition to the others commissioned in turn by the Chandler estate. I reviewed Mina's work here (and the work of the likes of Robert B. Parker, Benjamin Black and Lawrence Osborne in their takes on Chandler's "tarnished knight errant" here.).

To be brief: The Second Murderer is, for me, the best of the lot, hands down.

But don't just take my word for it: read it for yourself. You'll be glad you did!

And this concludes my oddly specific unspecific, completely random listing of books I enjoyed the Hell out of this year. 

Next time around it will be 2024, and we'll have all new things to talk about.

Until then, Happy Holidays, and Safe Travels for those of you traveling during this holiday season!

See you in two weeks!


  1. I'm definitely going to have to read French's Journal. I love diaries - so informative on so many levels. Happy Solstice, all!

    1. Eve- French also actually called John Quincy Adams one of the most “evil” men he had met (shortly before JQA’s own death in the 1840s). Really juicy stuff!

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