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Best mystery novels of 2009 chosen by Oline Cogdill, others

December 21, 2009

Michael Connelly

“Mysteries” as a literary genre has long since been a capacious category, embracing everything from traditional cozies and whodunnits to noir detective stories, police procedurals, crime capers, ambitious semi-literary novels — anything with a soupcon of criminality, whether or not it includes a mystery with clues for the reader to figure out along with the protagonist.

It’s not a genre that, as they say, “speaks” to me, even though I cheerfully agree that great work is done within its expansive confines all the time. When I turn to crime fiction, I’m looking for the exceptional novel, the one that bursts or (and I hate this word, too, but we don’t want to be here all day) “transcends” the conventions of the genre.

By contrast, the true aficionado loves the genre for just those familiar tropes and narrative devics, and while often able to recognize the exceptional novel, is better suited to identify the worthwhile mystery that fulfills rather than transcends the conventions.

That’s why I’m turning to my longtime friend and erstwhile colleague, Oline Cogdill, for a list of best mysteries of 2009. No one knows more about the ins-and-outs of crime fiction than Oline, who has served as the Sun Sentinel’s mystery fiction columnist for nigh on 20 years. I’ve found a number of fine authors — Michael Connelly, Laura Lippman, George Pelecanos– on her recommendation.

Denis Johnson

Before considering Oline’s best-of-2009 list, which appeared in yesterday’s Sun Sentinel, let me say that I read only three crime novels in the past year — and each one was outstanding. China Mieville’s The City and the City, a fantasy disguised as a down-to-earth police procedural, was my favorite book of the year. I’ve raved about it elsewhere, often.

In Nobody Move, Denis Johnson avoided the pretentiousness that sinks most literary writers when they slum in a genre, producing a terrific thriller that compares well to the best of Elmore Leonard. And I’ve just finished Dave Seltzerman’s twisted, propulsive and hilarious Pariah, which I will be reviewing somewhere in the very near future. Zeltserman is one sick dude, and I mean that in the nicest possible way.

Attica Locke

None of those books made Oline’s list, which could be an indication of the genre’s breadth, or it just could mean I don’t understand the category well enough. Oline chose Michael Connelly’s two novels, The Scarecrow and Nine Dragons, as a tie for No. 1. Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising is her top debut mystery. And Oline names Otto Penzler’s The World’s Greatest Crime Writers Tell the Inside Story of Their Greatest Detectives as a “must-have” for mystery lovers.

For purposes of comparison, here’s a link to Adam Woog’s “Best Crime Fiction of 2009” column in the Seattle Times. Unlike Oline, he includes Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Played with Fire, one of the most popular books of the year. Otherwise, the two lists overlap to a degree I find astonishing, which is a testimony, I think, of the acumen and knowledge of each reviewer.

Join in — if you’re a mystery lover, or just read a crime novel or two that you really liked, by all means let us know. What was your favorite mystery of 2009?

23 Comments leave one →
  1. Tommy permalink
    December 21, 2009 1:53 pm

    Another list? Is a top ten “top ten” list in the making somewhere on the internets?

    I am looking forward to “Road Dogs” from Leonard. My favorite writer of this genre.

    “The City and The City” again. That’s it, I am going to Borders and picking up a copy today. Hopefully all the hype won’t stop me from giving this book a fair read.

    I really enjoyed “Devil’s garden” which came in at #10 on the Cogdill site. It as you said “spoke to me”.

    Also looking forward to “Pariah” as you seem to have enjoyed it.

    Thank You, Ms. Cogdill and Mr. Mabe.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 21, 2009 2:19 pm

      Like it says in the Bible, “of the making of lists there is no end.” Okay, that’s not exactly what is says, but it could. So many books in so many categories. I would not have done a blog on mysteries if I did not have so much respect for Oline’s judgment.

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        December 21, 2009 2:33 pm

        And Tommy, if you like Elmore Leonard, I’d love to know what you’d think of Nobody Move. I think you’d enjoy it immensely.

      • Tommy permalink
        December 21, 2009 2:44 pm

        It is, what’s the word, mysterious how few (if any) of the titles listed on various top mystery novel lists show up on the Mystery Writers of America website (

        Nobody Move, huh? Maybe you have a copy I can borrow? I have never read anything from that author. If you believe he can hold his own against Leonard (who always satisfies) then I need to give him a shot.

      • Tommy permalink
        December 21, 2009 2:47 pm

        “Okay, that’s not exactly what is says, but it could.”


        Very funny!

        Of course, I think that is how all the trouble started.

  2. Connie permalink
    December 21, 2009 2:11 pm

    I agree, The City & the City has to be at the top of the list. And I am clearly the only reader on the planet who found Michael Connelly’s 9 Dragons to be utterly disposable (liked The Scarecrow, though).

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 21, 2009 2:17 pm

      I seem to remember other reviews slagging Nine Dragons, but can’t recall who or where. I like Connelly. I’d love him if he wrote shorter….but that’s not a criticism so much as a personal preference. Any other crime fiction you want to recommend? I know you are a worshiper at the pagan altar of the Viking god of fire and tattoos…

  3. Alexis permalink
    December 21, 2009 2:26 pm

    The City and the City was one of the best books I have EVER read. I was so so sad when it was over.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 21, 2009 2:31 pm

      Hey, I know you read Dan Choan’s Await Your Reply, which I haven’t gotten to yet. I know it’s literary, but it has crime in it, too. Would you say it could fit on a list of best mysteries or crime novels of the year? Or not.

      And hey, I promise you, you will love Pariah.

  4. Alexis permalink
    December 21, 2009 2:51 pm

    I haven’t read all that much crime fiction this year, so I think that would be hard for me to say. However, it was one of the better books I read this year and I highly recommend it.

    I would start on Pariah RIGHT now, but someone took it and hasn’t returned it yet.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 21, 2009 8:44 pm


      Sad to say — and I do mean “sad” – I lent Nobody Move to some worthless excuse of a human being and have not seen it since. I’m no longer in contact with this “person”, so I don’t expect to get it back. Sigh.


      • Tommy permalink
        December 21, 2009 9:11 pm

        That’s a shame, all around. You lost a book, somewhere their is a creature pretending to be a person, and I don’t get a chance borrow that book from you. That is the worst, though. I’d rather someone tell me “This book sucks and you’re an idiot for liking it!” as long as they say this while handing it back over.

        Maybe a list on the top books lent and never returned is apropos.

  5. Tommy permalink
    December 21, 2009 9:21 pm

    *to* *there instead of their*

    One of those red-ink days.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 23, 2009 12:10 am

      That’s not a bad idea for a column, Tommy, if I can remember all the treasures I’ve unintentionally released into the world…

  6. Oline permalink
    December 22, 2009 12:11 am

    Thanks, Chauncey, for posting this

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 23, 2009 12:07 am

      You’re an authority, Oline, of course I turn to you for information on mysteries/crime fiction/thrillers or whatever.

  7. Connie permalink
    December 22, 2009 3:12 pm

    I’d say you could include Await Your Reply as a crime novel. You know, that book has stayed with me longer than I expected. I’m not sure it’s the best book I ‘ve read all year, but it’s one of the best crime novels I’ve read all year. Definitely a cut above.

    And yes. Of course I love the Super Swede. Lisbeth Salandar is one of the more interesting recurring characters in recent crime fiction, and I kinda like Kalle Blomquist too.

    I haven’t read most of the books on Oline’s list, unfortunately.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 23, 2009 12:09 am

      I’m going to read Dan Choan here any day. Super Swede may have to wait. I have this fear he may turn out to be the Ian McEwan of crime novelists. Not to speak ill of the dead or anything. I think I have the Tattoo book around here somewhere, if only I can find it…

  8. Connie permalink
    December 22, 2009 5:44 pm

    Oh, and I really liked James Lee Burke’s Rain Gods. Forgot about that one.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 23, 2009 12:09 am

      Burke is usually pretty reliable, I’ve found, but I have not read him in recent years. So many books, so blah-blah-blah.

  9. Yvette Taylor permalink
    December 25, 2009 1:56 pm

    I just found your blog and am thrilled. I am a voracious reader and always looking for new books. I plan to get Mieville’s The City and the City tomorrow with my Border’s gift card. Have you written anything on The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein? It was recommended by a friend, and I loved it. Many of my friends felt the same way.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 25, 2009 2:40 pm

      Yvette, welcome, very glad you’re here. I’m afraid I don’t know Garth Stein’s book, but thanks for the recommendation. I’ll keep an eye out for it.

  10. May 19, 2010 6:55 pm

    Did you go to war? What was it like?

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