Six Mystery Bookstores Recommend Novels
You May Have Missed
By Barry Lancet
With the holidays approaching, the rush is on to find a seemingly endless string of perfect gifts. If you are passionate about thrillers and mysteries, why not pass on your enthusiasm to others? And what better way to do so, then introduce them to a new voice or a new discovery?
With that thought in mind, THE BIG THRILL asked a half dozen renowned mystery bookstores across the country to recommend the perfect gift. Our only criteria: they had to be books the stores loved—novels they regularly recommend to customers—that might have slipped below the radar this year.
The bookstores responded enthusiastically with an impressive array of twenty titles. So if you’re looking for gifts this year, check out the books below. And if you’re in the neighborhood, do yourself a favor and visit these iconic stores. Or visit them online, as every shop has a number of additional offerings, from book clubs to signed books to rare editions that can be sent anywhere—for a gift, or to add to your own collection.
MYSTERIOUS BOOKSHOP · New York City
This store is a required stopover for any crime-novel enthusiast heading to New York City. Founded by owner, editor, writer, and publisher Otto Penzler in 1979, the shop is celebrating its thirty-fifth anniversary this year. Aside from carrying an extensive catalog of mysteries and thrillers of every stripe, Mysterious Bookshop also stocks signed first editions, collector’s items, and “the largest collection of Sherlockiana in the world.” And should you be looking for a more expansive gift, consider a one-year subscription to one of its book clubs. Penzler and his crew also run Mysterious Press, which publishes books in paperback and digital editions. Ian Kern supplied these store picks for the holidays:
THE ENCHANTED by Rene Denfeld (Harper)—“Subtly entrancing and perfectly balanced, Denfeld’s debut shows an author with great promise. While ostensibly a ‘prison’ story, Denfeld’s novel brings so much more to the plot, keeping you hooked with a lyrical style and a unique voice. Told from the point of a view of a mentally ill death row inmate, several stories are weaved into one feverish tale of redemption and failure.”
SHOVEL READY by Adam Sternbergh (Crown)—“A near-future hitman who haunts the damaged streets of New York City? Sign me up! Pulpy, fast, and fun, SHOVEL READY was just the thing this genre needed to shake it out of its doldrums. Can’t wait to see what Spademan has in store for us next!”
THE LAST DEAD GIRL by Harry Dolan (Putnam)—“We’ve been hooked on Dolan’s David Loogan series since the very beginning and recommend them to everyone. Doesn’t matter which subgenre you prefer, these books have it all. This latest is a prequel and shows us just what David Loogan has been hiding all of these years. Superb!”
THE DARK ROAD TO MERCY by Wiley Cash (William Morrow)—“While this may have won the 2014 CWA Gold Dagger for Best Novel, it seems that word of this author’s prodigious talents hasn’t reached everyone yet. A little bit rural noir, a little bit literary suspense, Cash’s second novel is a complex and twisting tale about righting wrongs and those who get caught in between. Fans of Ron Rash, John Hart, and Stewart O’Nan will be pleased to discover this great new author.”
THE POISONED PEN · Scotsdale (Phoenix), Arizona
This independent bookstore is another formidable presence on the American mystery scene. Celebrating twenty-five years in the business, it, too, has book clubs, events and more. Known for its selection of crime fiction, the Poisoned Pen is also one of the most active importers of books from the United Kingdom and has expanded into “a general full-service bookstore focusing on fiction of all kinds.”
Right out of the gate, owner Barbara Peters enthused over a trio of titles: “JACK OF SPIES was one of my faves this year, and so was Timothy Hallinan’s brilliant FOR THE DEAD. Both are from Soho Press. And I have to mention Jeffrey Siger’s SONS OF SPARTA, one of my own authors [from Poisoned Pen Press].”
Twenty-year veteran bookseller Patrick Millikin supplied three more intriguing titles:
CRY FATHER by Benjamin Whitmer (Gallery Books)—“I loved Whitmer’s debut, Pike, but this one is even better. A beautifully wrought slice of modern America: maladjusted outsiders, damaged souls, loss, violence, and alcohol. What’s not to like?”
CHANCE by Kem Nunn (Scribner)—“He gets a lot of justly deserved critical acclaim, but he is still virtually unknown to the general readership. This is a crime, as his books are so damn good. This is basically the story of a forensic psychiatrist who makes a series of really bad decisions and watches his life unravel into chaos, but for the first time he’s really participating in life. Great stuff.”
THE WHITE VAN by Patrick Hoffman (Atlantic Monthly)—“In the crowded field of modern noir, this guy stands out above the pack with his wry take on the classic ‘girl meets the wrong guy in a bar and things get very bad very quickly’ set-up.”
MYSTERY MIKE · Online & Carmel (Indianapolis), Indiana
Mike Bursaw, the proprietor of Mystery Mike’s, is looking forward to celebrating his fiftieth year in the book business in 2016. He was still in high school when he convinced a local bookseller to hire him. The lesson he still carries from his first job? “How my first boss treated people,” Mike says. “His customers were king, and he handled each and every book like it was a treasure.”
Today, Bursaw specializes in signed first editions of newly published and harder-to-find books. Not surprisingly, his focus is on his clients. “It’s all about the relationships we build,” he says. Many of his clients rely on Bursaw to scout for them—for both rare books and new voices in the genre. Seventy percent of the books he sells are signed editions, but it is an ongoing process. With more than ten thousand books in stock, Bursaw encourages customers to stop by his shop (at a new location, 101 E. Carmel Drive, Suite 206) or peruse titles online, whichever is easier.
When Bursaw lays out his books at a convention like Bouchercon, it is not uncommon for an enthusiastic customer to walk away with a handful of books, in part because Bursaw thinks in terms of authors, rather than single books. Here are two of his latest discoveries:
MARC CAMERON (Pinnacle)—“Cameron is a retired law-enforcement officer. He’s got five novels out but I only just recently discovered his books. He writes very much like Vince Flynn. On a recent trip with my wife, she ran out of books to read. I passed her one of Cameron’s novels, the fourth, I think. And that was the last word I heard from her for two days.”
IAN HAMILTON (Picador)—“This author is published in Canada by a small publisher, and in the States by Picador. In Ava Lee, he’s got one of the strongest female protagonists I’ve ever run across, and she’s great. She’s a Chinese-Canadian forensic accountant, has martial arts skills, and is very petit. A mere five-foot-one. But she’s got an ‘uncle’ who is linked with a Chinese Triad gang, a connection that comes in handy. Ava Lee a fascinating character and appeals both to male and female readers.”
MYSTERIOUS GALAXY · San Diego, California
Started in 1993, Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego is entering its third decade of operation by opening at a new location (5943 Balboa Avenue, Suite 100) on December 6. Happily, the new shop has twice the floor space “for more books and more events.”
As if to prove the point, the store will host a signing that very afternoon, “even if we are still in the process of moving.” Only a few of their original customers will remember the store’s first mascot, the “late lamented” Edbear Allan Poe. “Fortunately,” says Maryelizabeth Hart, “our dragon and most importantly our Raven are still intact!” Here are their selections:
NO STONE UNTURNED by James W. Ziskin (Seventh Street)—“Ellie Stone is a quick-witted twenty-four-year-old reporter in 1960s upstate New York who investigates the shocking death of a young high society girl. This second title in the Ellie Stone series is just as fresh, smart, and exquisitely written as the first, Styx & Stone.” (Sarah M. Chen, author and bookseller)
WINTER PEOPLE by Jennifer McMahon (Doubleday)—“McMahon excels at stories of people haunted by the past, by regrets, and by their passions, all of which are in play in this book. She weaves two timelines together, along with multiple perspectives of characters touched by loss and seeking gain, in a creepy suspenseful thriller.” (Maryelizabeth Hart)
THE WEIGHT OF BLOOD by Laura McHugh (Spiegel & Grau)—“The search for her missing friend leads seventeen-year-old Lucy to uncover chilling secrets about her own mother’s disappearance. The menace in this Ozark noir creeps up on you until you no longer want to do anything else except finish this book.” (Sarah M. Chen, author and bookseller)
MURDER BY THE BOOK · Houston, Texas
This Houston-based mystery store opened its doors in 1980, so its thirty-fifth anniversary is just around the corner. In 2009, long-time employee McKenna Jordan purchased the shop from Martha Farrington, who had her eye set on retirement.
But there is nothing retiring about Murder by the Book. “We host three or four author events a week,” says John Kwiatkowski, “and we ship books all over the world. Our focus is allowing fans to meet their favorite authors, but also helping them discover a new author or series that could quickly become their favorite.” Kwiatkowski sent along these titles:
THE OUTSMARTING OF CRIMINALS by Steven Rigolosi (Ransom Note Press)—“It’s a wonderful twist on the spinster sleuth.”
THE BUTTON MAN by Mark Pryor (Seventh Street)—“A prequel to his Hugo Marsten series. Mark’s books are full of atmosphere and have become staff and customer favorites.”
DIRTY MAGIC by Jaye Wells (Orbit)—“It’s part police procedural, part urban fantasy. Jaye Wells blends the genres together effortlessly.”
MYSTERYSCAPE · Overland Park (Kansas City), Kansas
This newcomer to the mystery scene has begun with style. Opening in 2012, Mysteryscape soon attracted the attention of crime writers and readers alike. It is not hard to see why. There is something endearing about booksellers who bill themselves as “Local Escapologists”—and have the line printed on their business cards. “Nothing gives us more pleasure than hooking customers to a new series they adore,” Cheri LeBlond says. “We recognize the addicts when they walk in the store.”
But co-owners LeBlond and Acia Morley go even further. “Events bring our store alive,” LeBlond adds, mentioning that next year will herald the third season of Chamber Theater. “A local, professional director-playwright adapts short stories into short plays, which are performed with minimal costumes and props, but with plenty of intrigue. Our cast comes from our customer base, which can include both amateur and professional actors.”
Mysteryscape also has book clubs and, to make things even cozier, “sells locally roasted coffee, iced coffee drinks, loose-leaf teas and soft drinks.” Here are two of their favorites:
WEIGHT OF BLOOD by Laura McHugh (Spiegel & Grau). “McHugh takes you on a rough country ride down several timelines, each a hazardous, potholed story of a young woman caught in a local evil that twists her life and, often, ends her life. A fast, suspenseful read that picks up speed the further you head in, the book asks whether even tainted blood is thicker than water.” (Cheri LeBlond)
LOCK IN by John Scalzi (Tor)—“In this plausible near-future mystery, millions are afflicted with a disease known as ‘Lock In’ and can no longer communicate with the world at large except through cyberspace. Within this closed community, a murder has been committed, but how do you track a killer who leaves literally no footprints or fingerprints? If you enjoyed The Last Policeman trilogy by Ben H. Winters, you will like this thrilling science-fiction police procedural.” (Acia Morley)
Barry Lancet is the author of JAPANTOWN and TOKYO KILL, the first two mystery-thrillers in the Jim Brodie series. JAPANTOWN won the Barry Award for Best First Mystery Novel of 2013, was selected as a Best Debut of Year both by Suspense Magazine and mystery critic Oline Cogdill, shortlisted for Silver Falchion awards, and optioned by J. J. Abrams/Warner Bros for a TV drama. The New York Times/AP said that “Lancet…continues his winning streak with TOKYO KILL.” It was also selected as a must-read for Asian leaders by Forbes magazine. Lancet has lived in Tokyo for more than twenty-five years, though he makes frequent trips to the U.S. His access to the inner circles in traditional and other areas of Japan informs his writing. In 2014, he also signed on as a Managing Editor for The Big Thrill.