Meike’s Top 10 Reads of 2020

Bookseller, former Events Host, and avid mystery reader Meike dishes on her ten favorite reads of the year. How does your stack compare?


2020 saw the (hopefully temporary) elimination of my role as an Event Host at BookPeople, but the folks over there were kind enough to ask me to weigh in on some of my favorite titles of the year. If there was any silver lining to this otherwise miserable year, it was the remarkable quality and diversity of the crime fiction titles that were released—and the extra free time allowed me to take full advantage by reading  more widely than I might have otherwise. Narrowing my favorites down to only 10 was a challenge—there are many more that deserve to be mentioned in any summary of the year’s best. Below are some highlights which I’ve listed in alphabetical order only because rating them in any other manner would be almost impossible.

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And Now She’s Gone by Rachel Howzell Hall

Private investigator Grayson Sykes is hired for her first big case at Rader Consulting—to find Isabel Lincoln, the missing wife of Dr. Ian O’Donnell. But Isabel seems to have left virtually no trace, so part of the mystery is whether her absence is intentional. While this is a cleverly-plotted PI procedural, Howzell Hall tackles issues ranging from race to domestic abuse to toxic masculinity to the lasting effects of childhood trauma—all of which to conspire to leave the reader solidly hooked into a compelling and eye-opening drama.

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Blacktop Wasteland by S. A. Cosby

This will be on almost every top 10 list you see this year, and with good reason—it’s an adrenaline rush that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let up. Beauregard “Bug” Montage, like his father before him, was once one of the best getaway drivers in the South but he’s worked hard to leave that life behind. He wants to succeed where his own father failed–he loves his wife and kids deeply and desperately wants to make an honest living. More than anything he wants to give them the stable family life he himself missed out on. But the odds are stacked against people like Bug, and he just can’t resist that one more “can’t miss” opportunity—which of course does exactly that to spectacular effect. 

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The Bright Lands by John Fram

I was living in a small Texas town when my sons’ football team won the state football championship, so I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this debut. Joel Whitley couldn’t get out of his home town of Bentley fast enough when his homosexuality was outed in a most humiliating way. But when he receives a troubling message from his younger brother Dylan, the star quarterback of Bentley’s high school football team, he reluctantly returns—only to have Dylan go missing a short time later. As he hunts for Dylan some long-buried secrets come to light—and some people will go to any lengths to make sure those secrets stay deeply buried. Framm nails the small town obsession with high school football but this is no Friday Night Lights—Friday Night Darkness might be more apt.

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Goodnight Beautiful by Aimee Molloy

Newlyweds Sam and Annie leave NYC behind so that Sam can establish a therapy practice in his small upstate New York hometown. The practice is thriving—Sam’s a popular therapist, especially with his female clients—but Sam doesn’t realize that every word of his sessions can be heard in the room upstairs through a vent in his office ceiling. One day he leaves for work and doesn’t come home, and Annie is left wondering how well she really knows her husband. It’s tough to say more about this book without revealing spoilers, but there are some fantastic twists that absolutely blindsided me.

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Hard Cash Valley by Brian Panowich

This is the third installment in Panowich’s Southern Noir trilogy set in the fictional North Georgia McFalls County. Ex-arson investigator Dane Kirby is pulled into an FBI investigation when a mutilated body is found in Jacksonville, Florida. The investigation circles around to a gambling ring run by some of the baddest Southern outlaws imaginable; Dane has a history with these men and must learn to come to terms with a tragedy that threatens to destroy him. It’s a dark and gritty tale filled with bad men, but balanced by complex female characters that give heart to the saga.

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He Started It by Samantha Downing

Downing’s My Lovely Wife (about a married couple keeping things spicy by committing murder) made my list in 2019, and her sophomore effort does not disappoint. Siblings Beth, Portia, and Eddie haven’t seen each other in years but when their wealthy grandfather dies they are not only forced to reconnect—they’re required to reenact the road trip their grandfather took them on as kids. As if a long car ride with your siblings isn’t enough reason to commit murder, some long buried secrets come to light and confrontations ensue. (Personal note: I raised 3 kids and loved seeing someone explore the fraught emotions of adult sibling rivalry. I’m considering re-writing my will.)

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Long Bright River by Liz Moore

This gritty and gripping police procedural illuminates multiple aspects of the opioid crisis and its wide-ranging effects. Michaela “Mickey” Fitzpatrick is a Philly beat cop patrolling the deteriorating Kensington neighborhood where she grew up, and where almost every resident’s life has been affected by the booming drug trade. When a series of murders rocks the neighborhood Mickey realizes that she hasn’t seen her younger sister Kacey in several weeks. Kacey has been living rough, turning tricks to support her addiction. Although the adult sisters are estranged, as children they were inseparable and Mickey has always felt responsible for Kacey. As she hunts for both Kacey and the killer, Mickey is forced to come to terms with the long tail of trauma both girls experienced as children.

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The French Widow by Mark Pryor

As a bookseller, I absolutely love Pryor’s Hugo Marston series because I can recommend it to just about anyone looking for a good mystery. The series is set in Paris and features Hugo Marston, a cowboy-boot wearing Texan transplant who works as head of security for the American embassy—so lovers of espionage enjoy the international intrigue. The books have just the right amount of violence—they satisfy lovers of darker tales while not upsetting devotees of more cozy fiction. Although the main characters are the straight arrow Hugo and his freewheeling best friend Tom, they’re balanced by the sophisticated and independent Claudia—the kind of strong, complex female character that’s often under-represented crime fiction. And then there’s the setting–Pryor’s deep love of Paris is evident in his references to its beauty and history (not to mention the occasional glowing descriptions of its culinary offerings). Hugo’s latest challenge is to find out who attacked a young woman at a historic Paris chateau on the same night four valuable paintings are stolen while facing considerable media and police attention. Pryor’s books are best enjoyed with a café-au-lait and croissant at hand—you are welcome.

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These Women by Ivy Pochoda

Five very different women who live in the West Adams neighborhood of South LA are connected by a serial killer—but this is their story, not his. Told in a kaleidoscope of overlapping viewpoints, this beautiful story shines a light on women who are frequently overlooked and examines why their stories often don’t seem to matter to everyone.

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Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden

I love reading about the history of indigenous people and I love reading crime fiction—so I was thrilled by this debut novel that both entertains and educates. (It was my pick for this year’s BookPeople Holiday Catalog.) Virgil Wounded Horse works as a kind of private enforcer on the Rosebud Indian Reservation is South Dakota—when the tribal council and US law enforcement fail to prosecute crimes (often those committed against women and children) family members hire Virgil to exact his own unique type of punishment. (The book kicks off with a bang as Virgil beats the CRAP out of a rapist behind a bar!) His vigilantism takes a personal turn when his nephew becomes ensnared by the booming drug trade on the reservation. Wanbli Weiden is an enrolled member of the Sicangu Lakota nation and brings an authenticity to the issues faced by his Native American characters. The fact that he’s such a talented storyteller results in one of the most exciting debuts of 2020.


You can find each title listed in-store and online at BookPeople.

Interview with Mark Pryor, author of ‘The French Widow’

9781645060239Mark Pryor’s latest Hugo Marston novel, The French Widow, has the head of our Paris embassy’s security involved in a public incident where he takes down a gunman firing into the public, the matter becomes more controversial when evidence points to the man being an American citizen. He also has to deal with a murder on an estate of a family that takes dysfunction to new heights. Mark was kind enough to talk about the book and his hero.

 

Scott Montgomery: You have Hugo involved in a shooting that pushes him into the public spotlight. As someone you have described as “a watcher’ how does this affect him?

Mark Pryor: He hates it. He’s fine being a hero if no one knows but, as you point out, he does NOT want to be in the spotlight. That makes this plot rather mean, I know, but it’s very intentional: because Hugo is a harder person to get to know, in each book I try to drop him into a new situation, one that makes him uncomfortable and gives us a closer look at a different aspect of his character (in previous books I had him find a recording of his dead wife’s voice, for example). It also allows me to put him in conflict with his best friend, Tom, who just LOVES attention and to that end sticks his oar into Hugo’s business, purporting to make things better for his friend but actually making them worse.

SM: Once again you have him up against two different killers. How does this structure help you as an author?

MP: In this book I wanted to give the Lambourd family a reason to dislike Hugo, and while I didn’t plan it necessarily, his involvement in a high-profile incident like a shooting gave the secretive family every reason to want nothing to do with him (quite apart from protecting each other from law enforcement and consequences). I also think it ups the pressure on Hugo because whichever storyline I’m telling, the other one is hanging like a sword over his head. His attention is always being dragged away from what he’s doing toward the other thing, and I think that tension and pressure helps keep the plot moving along.

SM: There are a handful of chapters in the point of view of one of the killers. How did that decision come about?

MP: I think the only other time I did this in a Hugo book was in The Crypt Thief. Honestly, it’s just plain fun. It’s also a personal challenge to me, in that first chapter which I tell from the killer’s perspective I want to include little nuggets of information, some relevant and some distractions, that the reader can latch onto and begin to figure out who the killer might be. Mostly, though, it’s just good fun writing from the point of a view of a psycho…!

SM: The main mystery is a play on the murder on a country estate. What made you want to play in that sandbox? 

MP: Several reasons, really. First, it’s what I grew up reading — Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes books, where country estates were ten-a-penny. In this case, the chateau is based on a real place, both the building and its location. Even the history of the family is taken from a real Parisian family, and I plumped on them because I visited what is now a museum but what used to be their home. It’s the Musee Nissim de Camondo for anyone who wants to look it up. Lovely house with fascinating furniture and art, and nary a tourist in sight!

SM: You have some wonderful moments with Hugo’s girlfriend (though he’s not ready to admit that) Claudia. As a writer what do you enjoy about her as a character?

MP: I like how what we think of as the traditional courting roles are reversed. Here’s the reticent, laid-back Hugo chasing the girl instead of the pretty girl chasing the handsome hunk. I think he likes it that way, too, that’s part of her attraction for him and he doesn’t really mind. I also love that she’s not dependent on him in any way, except when she wants to be — she has more money than him, a bigger house, a great job… yet she’s like him in that these things are accoutrements to her life, not part of her personality. They are both very real, honest, and strong people and they have a genuine admiration and respect for each other. Sure, there’s a physical attraction but their friendship/relationship is so much more than that.

SM: Am I reading (no pun intended) more into this or is Hugo coming out of his shell more in the previous books?

MP: I think that’s a smart observation, and a couple of people have asked similar questions, but I have to admit to that not being intentional. Maybe it’s the natural arc of a series, where the main characters reveal more and more of themselves as the series goes on, such that a point comes where the reader puts down a book feeling like they suddenly know the person better. Again, I’m not clever enough to conjure that process intentionally, let’s be clear about that!


The French Widow is available now from BookPeople in-store and online. You can shop Pryor’s other titles here.

About the Author: Mark Pryor is the author of the Hugo Marston novels The Bookseller, The Crypt Thief, The Blood Promise, The Button Man, The Reluctant Matador, and The Paris Librarian, as well as the novels Hollow Man and the forthcoming Dominic. He has also published the true-crime book As She Lay Sleeping. A native of Hertfordshire, England, he is an assistant district attorney in Austin, Texas, where he lives with his wife and three children.