Murder in Retrospect: The Best Mysteries Read in 2013

"Love is such an arbitrary thing. I love my mom. I love pancakes."
- Doug Stanhope (Stand-Up Comedian)
"Give me problems!"

Yesterday, I posted a summary overview of the worst mysteries endured this year and the most inferior examples answer why detectives can be held in such low regard, but today I'll be gushing and talking pompously, like a ranting Napoleon atop a hobbyhorse, on the ingenious mysteries I enjoyed reading in 2013. The detective stories that were the seven-percent solution to my Sherlock Holmes.

You can expect an over representation of everyone's favorite trope, "The Locked Room Mystery," but I like to believe the divergence of styles, sub-genres and international character shows a balanced, in-depth list with an overlapping theme.

Now, without further ado, the List of Best Mysteries Read in 2013:

The "Moth" Murder (1931) by Lynton Blow

The first of merely two mystery novels by Lynton Blow, but as enthusiastic an endeavor in the field of detective fiction as the Wright brothers conquering the skies in 1903. Except that The "Moth" Murder takes off when the blazing remains of a light aircraft plunges from the sky and a post-mortem on the charred pilot reveals an inexplicable bullet wound. These are, however, the first of a train carriage of complications, but Blow holds a firm grip on all the plot threads and understands these kind of complex detective stories gain credibility by including Murphy's Law in the equation. The only letdown is that there's an old trick at the heart of the mystery.

Een afgesloten huis (A Sealed House, 2013) by M.P.O. Books

A figure head of the Dutch criminal underworld, Fred Duijster, is brutally slaughtered in his tightly secured, fortress-like home. The windows were covered with steel shutters and the grounds around the house are monitored with motion sensors that trigger overhead lights, back and front, and cameras – and they captured only one person entering and leaving the home at the time of the murder. But is he guilty? It's an impossible crime story in the same vein (and quality) as Marcia Muller's The Tree of Death (1983) and Herbert Resnicow's The Gold Solution (1983).

Painted for the Kill (1943) by Lucy Cores

A comedic mystery lampooning the daily workload of a prestigious beauty salon, The House of Lais, a popular haunt for women inhabiting the upper crust of New York, but the place is run like a (awkwardly pre-dated) parody on the Stalinist shadow of Big Brother from George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). I guess it's a hallmark of good comedy if you're jokes gain traction over time. However, Cores took a break from satirizing everyone, and everything, to construct a satisfying plot around the death of a valued customer of Lais. Clever and funny. 

The Poison Oracle (1974) by Peter Dickinson

Now here's a tale that would've bought Sheherazade another reprieve from the executioner's sword, if the King had faltered after the One Thousand and One previous nights. A tale of the imaginary sultanate of Q'Kut. A strip of land in cloud-cuckoo land where the Arab rulers share a special bond with the native Marshmen, an isolated tribe with their own unique language, reaffirmed every year in a verbal treaty, "The Bond," which is an epic song telling the history of the Marshmen and the Bond. Dickinson builds a completely new civilization with a history, language, social structure, political system and used as a framework for a first-rate detective story – involving a pre-verbal chimpanzee, skyjacked airliner and an impossible poisoning in the Sultan's private zoo. Undoubtedly, one of the richest mysteries I have read this year. 

Nightshade (2006) by Paul Doherty

A historical mystery novel set in 1304 and centers around the affairs of the perfidious Lord Scrope, whose district has fallen in disorder after ordering the massacre of an entire religious sect, but King Edward I has dispatched Sir Hugh Corbett and Ranulf to restore His Majesty's Rule to the region. However, upon their arrival, they learn matters have worsened with the arrival of a mysterious bowman. In order to protect himself, Scrope erected a sealed structure, a reclusorium, on the Island of Swans, which is encircled by an icy moat and guards posted on the opposite banks – all to no avail. Locked doors and shuttered windows failed to keep his murderer out and Doherty comes up with a better solution than he usually does for his impossible premises. Not ground breaking, but not bad either.

Vultures in the Sky (1935) by Todd Downing

A previous mystery novel I read by Downing, The Cat Screams (1934), ended in disappointment, after the plot failed to live up to its own premise, but there are more than enough redeeming qualities to be found in its successor. Downing's series character, Hugh Rennert of the United States Treasury Department, Custom Services, takes charge of a train bound for Mexico City when one of the passengers dies while passing through a tunnel and Rennert doesn't entertain the idea that the bad air in the tunnel did him in. The plot rattles along at a nice, steady pace and the exploration of the local culture gives the book its authentic touch. This is not a cheat Christie knock-off. 

Ättestupan (Deadly Reunion, 1975) by Jan Ekström

With a nickname like "the Swedish John Dickson Carr," it was bound to attract my attention and I wasn't disappointed, but, stylistically, the book stands closer to Ross MacDonald and Christianna Brand. The problem here finds it roots in the three warring branches of ninety-year-old Aunt Charlotte Lethander's family and summons them all in a last ditch effort to reconsolidate them before passing away – which ends in a tragic murder/suicide. One of her relatives was shot and the murderer was gassed to death in a locked bedroom. The brooding atmosphere and hidden (family) secrets is still today typical for Scandinavian crime fiction, but the classically styled plot and clever impossible crime makes it a noteworthy entry in the annals of locked room mysteries.

The Con Job (2013) by Matt Forbeck

The first tie-in novel continuing the cancelled TV-series Leverage, set during the third season, and the plot would've been a perfect basis for an actual episode. Nathan Ford's crew goes after a disreputable art dealer who has been targeting old comic-book artists, which brings them to Comic-Con and a galore of shenanigans in an attempt to thwart the dealer from robbing Alec Hardison's heroes blind.

La Septième Hypothèse (The Seventh Hypothesis, 1991) by Paul Halter

More than once, I found something to nitpick about in a Paul Halter story and I blame the glowing comments preceding the long-awaited translations, which unfairly drew comparisons with John Dickson Carr and G.K. Chesterton. On the other hand, this particular title can be logged into evidence to back up their claim: the plot is triumphant in reviving the "Baghdad-on-the-Thames" atmosphere of a long-gone London. Plague doctors are seen roaming the streets by moonlight, a deadly duel of wits between a genius playwright and a gifted actor and one or two impossible disappearances. What's not to like?

Moord in de trein (Murder on the Train, 1925) by Herman Heijermans & A.M. de Jong

A dark, twisted gem of a story stained with the irony of history (see review) and opens with Satan visiting three of the characters, but the only thing the rich banker, the ambitious writer and the hotel-rat have in common is a ticket for the D-train to Paris. Nathan Marius Duporc, Inspecteur of the Amsterdamse Centrale Recherche, one of the passengers, has to wrench apart a surprisingly good and Carrian murder plot.

77 Sunset Strip (1959) by Roy Huggins

A curious, but well-done, TV tie-in novel composed of three short stories with bridging material predating the television adaptation, based on these original pulp stories, but the kicker is that private eye Stuart Bailey is confronted with trio of crimes of the impossible variety. It's a fast-paced montage of three cases pitting a street-wise, smart talking detective against a few actual brain crackers and the structure is remarkably similar to Bill Pronzini's Scattershot (1981), which strung three, separate (impossible!) cases for the Nameless Detective in one of his most Hellish weeks at work.

At the Villa Rose (1910) A.E.W. Mason

A story clearly foreshadowing the Golden Age of Mysteries and The Great Detectives After Sherlock Holmes and his imitators, which was accompanied with the publication of G.K. Chesterton's The Innocence of Father Brown (1910), but Mason's contribution was casting a mold for a certain type of Great Detective. Inspector Hanaud of the Sûreté reflects such famous sleuths as Hercule Poirot and Sir Henry Merrivale (or they reflect him), but the problem is certainly up-to-date for the time it was written in. All in all, a classic I should've read before 2013.

De Amsterdamse koffermoord (The Amsterdam Suitcase Murder, 1979) by Seicho Matsumoto

This is a collection of Dutch translations consisting of a single novelette and three additional short stories, but the main showpiece is the novella-length Amusuterudamu-unga satsuyin-jiken (The Amsterdam Canal Murder Case, 1969) and was originally published in the weekly Shukan Asahi. The plot was based on the premise of an actual, unsolved murder case and one that captured the eye of the press in both Europe and Japan. Read the review for more details.

Killer's Wedge (1959) by Ed McBain

A perfect introduction to Ed McBain and my first meeting with the illustrious 87th Precinct, in which the Squad Room suffers from a mild case of breach of security when Virginia Dodge barges in with a handgun and plants a bottle of nitroglycerine on a desk. Dodge demands to see Detective Steve Carella, but he's out on another case that stands in the stark contrast with the hostage situation at the precinct. Carella is looking into the death of a business tycoon at his family mansion, where he apparently hanged himself in a windowless room with the only door dead-bolted on the inside. You get a hostage, cat-and-mouse thriller and a classic locked room mystery for the price of one!

Bimbos of the Death Sun (1987) by Sharon McCrumb

To quote myself from the original review, Bimbos of the Death Sun isn't an elaborate and complicated affair, however, everything came together in the end and made sense. More importantly, McCrumb turned a new leaf on the timeworn dénouement scene and the backdrop of a SF-and Fantasy convention made this a memorable read. The 1988 Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original was more than deserved, IMO.

The follow-up to this book, Zombies of the Gene Pool (1992), a very character-driven mystery novel about "The Dead Sea Scrolls of Science Fiction," shares this place with Bimbos of the Death Sun. Read them both in 2014, if you haven't done so already.

The Voice of the Corpse (1948) by Max Murray

The village shrew of Inching Round, Angela Mason Pewsey, passing the time with mentally torturing her neighbors, sending poison-pen letters and shrieking folk songs, receives her comeuppance when an unknown assailant strikes her down at the spinning wheel. Pewsey's black notebook is missing, but, to the bafflement of Mrs. Sim, the local police prefer to follow the obvious trail of a passing tramp or gypsy. The ending has an excellent, morally ambiguous twist and goes to show that not all village-themed mysteries are by definition cozies.

Dead Man's Gift (1941) by Zelda Popkin

An unconventional, but original, detective story drowning in conventional tropes and added as a counterweight to G.E. Locke's The Red Cavalier (1922) on my worst-of list, in that's a good example of how you could play with tradition – such as the closed-circle of suspects. Here we have the beneficiaries of distant relatives gathering at the house for the reading of eccentric will, but a freak flood cuts them off from the outside world and a murder is committed in a submerged staircase. However, the flood is not just a novel plot device here to keep the house party stranded and Popkin shows the sometimes dramatic effects the water has on local residents, but even more important, there's a genuine, clever twist at the end of the book.

Beyond the Grave (1986) by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller

There aren't many, genuinely well-written crossovers within the mystery genre. Licensing issues, splitting royalties and different modus operandi may've prevented more than one writer from pooling his character with the creation of a friend/colleague. Thankfully, these obstacles are mere trifles for the husband-and-wife writing team of Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller, who snatched enough opportunities to foster a friendship between their respective characters, but the best crossover piece they collaborated on covered a pair of sleuth a century apart – riding the waves of the aftershocks of an even older crime. For the true mystery fan, there's something touching about Elena Oliverez's longing to tell the then long-dead John Quincannon how the case ended. 

The Bughouse Affair (2013) by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller

The first in a new series of full-length mystery novels chronicling the daily caseload of John Quincannon and Sabine Carpenter, a couple of private investigators in San Francisco of the 1890s, in which Pronzini and Muller tie-together the story of two cases and three detectives into one conclusion. Sabina is following the cocktail route and torch lit bazaars on the trail of a high profile pickpocket, while Quincannon is on a stakeout for a burglar and bumps into peculiar character that claims to be Sherlock Holmes! Oh, and there's a murder in a locked room and the killer escaped from the house, under surveillance by Quincannon and Mr. Holmes, unseen.

Murdercon (1982) by Richard Purtill

There surfaced a handful of accidental patterns in my reading this year and these included stories set at SF/Fantasy or writers convention, discovering impossible crimes Robert Adey missed in his locked room autobiography and train-mysteries. Purtill ticked two of three boxes with a detective yarn unwinding at another one of those SF/Fantasy cons, where a surviving copy of a failed magazine, Kosmo Tales, from the 1930s becomes the motive for a couple of bizarre, seemingly impossible murders – one of them apparently committed by Darth Vader.

Cake in the Hat Box (1954) by Arthur W. Upfield

Upfield is one of those rare writers, alongside H.R.F. Keating and Rex Stout, who could write detective stories you can read and enjoy without being a mystery fan, because of the gripping storytelling or the engaging characters – making them stories about detectives rather than detective stories. In these books, it's the evocative depiction of the Australian landscape, which is perhaps the best-drawn character in the series, from the sun blasted Nullarbor Plain to draught stricken cattle ranges. Here Upfield describes Agar's Lagoon, another dried-up desert settlement, hemmed-in by a halo of glass bottles and where meteorites streak across the night sky, but the well-contrived plot explaining the shooting of Constable Stenhouse was the topping on the cake. 

Darkness at Pemberley (1932) by T.H. White

The author of the Arthurian fantasy, The Once and Future King (1958), once wrote a detective story and the first half, concerning a murder at St. Bernard's College, is a typical British, drawing room-style mystery – including maps, floor plans and an impossible crime! The second half is a dangerous cat-and-mouse game between the detective and murderer/master criminal, restricted to house, but presented here on the scale of the worldwide manhunt for Carmen Sandiego.


  1. Thanks for the reviews. I shall have to look for some of these books.

  2. Barring Ed McBain I haven't read any of the authors in both your best and worst mysteries of 2013. Interesting variety in the mystery fiction you read last year.

  3. I haven't read anything by Todd Downing but if Vultures in the Sky is set on board a train I'll have definitely have to read it.