Tag Archives: Henning Mankell

My 21 favorite mystery and thriller writers

Over the course of the past three and a half years, I’ve reviewed well over 100 mysteries and thrillers. A great many of these novels were written by well-established authors with long lists of widely read books to their names. In every case of the 21 writers listed below, I’ve read several of their books (some of them before I launched this blog in January 2010). 

If 21 seems a large number of “favorite” writers, consider all the names you won’t find on this list. Those include several — Ross McDonald, Graham Greene, and Eric Ambler, for example — whom I last read years ago. Also excluded are the potboilers and slapdash works by the likes of James Patterson, Mary Higgins Clark, Patricia Cornwell, Robert Crais, Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton, Tony Hillerman, Val McDermid, and Robert B. Parker. I read most of these when younger and am happy to leave them behind. 

What follows here is a list of links to my reviews of individual mysteries or thrillers by the 21 prolific authors I most enjoy. The list is in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names.

The Midnight House, by Alex Berenson

Berenson is a former New York Times reporter who writes beautifully researched stories about soldier-spy John Wells, featuring plots centered on contemporary military and foreign policy issues.

The Drop, by Michael Connelly

Most of Connelly’s 30 novels to date center on the life and work of Los Angeles Police Detective Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch and criminal defense attorney Mickey Haller. 

Now May You Weep, by Deborah Crombie

Crombie, a Texan who spends extended periods in Great Britain, has written 15 English detective novels that read as though she was born and bred in England.

The Trinty Six, by Charles Cumming

A Briton who has written superior six spy novels, Cumming is often mentioned as a spiritual heir to John Le Carre.

Buried Secrets, by Joseph Finder

Finder is the American author of 11 beautifully crafted thrillers. So far, just two of his novels feature Nick Heller in what appears to be the beginning of a series.

Mission to Paris, by Alan Furst

Since 1976, Furst has written 16 historical spy novels, most of them set in Europe between 1933 and 1944. Furst’s work recreates the mood and atmosphere of the Continent in that era like few others.

Believing the Lie, by Elizabeth George

An American, George has written 18 complex and well-written novels featuring Scotland Yard Inspector Thomas Lynley (plus four other novels).

Long Time Coming, by Robert Goddard

Goddard is an English novelist whose two dozen excellent novels are typically set in rural towns, with the origins of their plots found decades in the past.

The Racketeer, by John Grisham

Most of Grisham’s 26 crime novels are set in the American South and involve lawyers and legal shenanigans. He has also written 7 other books since he began writing full-time in 1989.

John Le Carre

Though I wasn’t impressed with Le Carre’s recent novel, Our Kind of Traitor, I can’t help but include him in this list. I’m now immersed in his latest work, A Delicate Truth, which strikes me as on a par with his earlier, much praised novels. (To be reviewed soon.)

The Man From Beijing, by Henning Mankell

A Swede, Mankell’s 11 Kurt Wallander crime stories are dark, complex, and often politically tinged novels that reflect his experience as a long-time progressive activist. He has also written 25 other books.

The Leopard: A Harry Hole Novel, by Jo Nesbo

Nesbo, a Norwegian, has written 10 complexly plotted mystery novels about the troubled Detective Harry Hole as well as 8 other novels.

Breakdown, by Sara Paretsky

All but two of Paretsky’s 17 novels feature private detective V. I. (Victoria) Warshawski, who tackles Chicago’s corrupt establishment without compunction.

The Cut, by George Pelecanos

Pelecanos, best known for his writing on the HBO series “The Wire,” is the author of 21 novels, most of them gritty detective stories set on the streets of Washington, D.C.

Silken Prey, by John Sandford

Sandford has written 23 crime novels with the word “Prey” in their titles, all featuring Lucas Davenport, an independently wealthy senior investigator for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Sandford has written 13 additional novels, 7 of them featuring Virgil Flowers, a colorful member of Davenport’s team.

Criminal, by Karin Slaughter

Of Slaughter’s 17 books, 14 are haunting crime stories set in Georgia about the lives of a set of interrelated characters in Atlanta and fictional Grant County.

The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, by Alexander McCall Smith

Smith’s 14 adult novels (so far) about the #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Gaborone, Botswana, comprise just one of many series in a list of works that’s almost too numerous to count. The man must turn them all out through automatic writing in his sleep!

Three Stations: An Arkady Renko Novel by Martin Cruz Smith

The 8 fascinating novels in Smith’s Arkady Renko series about the Soviet, later Russian crime investigator are among a total of 27 he’s written under several pseudonyms.

Victory Square, by Olen Steinhauer

Steinhauer, an American who has spent extensive periods in Eastern Europe, is the author of a brilliant five-book series about the members of the murder squad in the capital of a fictional country in that region. More recently, the young author has written three thrillers about an American spy and his fictional agency.

Harbor Nocturne, by Joseph Wambaugh

A former Los Angeles police officer, Wambaugh has written 16 novels and 5 nonfiction accounts about crime and crimefighters since 1971. Nearly all his novels are police procedurals set in L.A., bringing the authentic experience on the streets to life.

Get Real, by Donald E. Westlake

Writing under his own name as well as 16 pseudonyms, Westlake produced a total of 111 novels from 1959 until his death in 2008, nearly all of them set in New York City, two of them published posthumously. My favorites are the many humorous caper tales about the sardonic master criminal, John Dortmunder.

In addition to these 21 writers, I’ve read excellent mysteries and thrillers by 12 other authors whose output is more limited either because they’re young and just beginning their careers, they write primarily in other genres, or, in at least the case of Stieg Larsson, they’re dead. 

Among the younger writers here that show special promise are Gillian Flynn, Tana French, and Tom Rob Smith.  

Following are links to my reviews of individual novels by these 12 authors. 

Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson

Disciple of the Dog, by R. Scott Bakker

A Trace of Smoke by Rebecca Cantrell

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

Faithful Place, by Tana French

So Much Pretty, by Cara Hoffman

The Silent Oligarch, by Chris Morgan Jones

Shaman Pass: A Nathan Active Mystery, by Stan Jones

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, by Stieg Larsson

The Ghosts of Belfast, by Stuart Neville

Primitive by Mark Nykanen

Agent 6, by Tom Rob Smith

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My most-visited reviews

If you’ve been reading this blog for more than week or two, you’ve seen the pattern — that I typically post twice a week, including one nonfiction book and one novel. All told, in the three years I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve produced a total of more than 250 book reviews out of 308 posts. Below, I’m listing the 10 most popular reviews in descending order of the number of visits. Six are nonfiction books and four are novels (including, uncharacteristically, one collection of short stories, which I tend to shun). 

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1. A review of 99 to 1: How Wealth Inequality Is Wrecking the World and What We Can Do About It, by Chuck Collins. A lucid analysis of how the 1% got to be that way, and how the 99% can fight back. Written by the founder and former executive Director of United for a Fair Economy, who made a study of this topic for many years before the Occupy Wall Street movement came to the fore.

2. A review of In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson. In telling the story of the U.S. ambassador to Nazi Germany in the 1930s and of the anti-semitic officials who headed the State Department, makes clear why the U.S. failed to speak out against the rise of Hitler.

3. A review of The Pyramid and Four Other Kurt Wallender Mysteries, by Henning Mankell. A collection of five stories that span the time from Swedish detective Kurt Wallender’s rookie year on the police force to his retirement decades later. The Pyramid lays bare the roots of his many, complex psychological problems. For any Kurt Wallender fan, it’s well worth reading.

4. A review of The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War, by James Bradley. Explores the racism rampant in America, and in Teddy Roosevelt’s administration, that dominated U.S. imperial policy in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Focuses on the cruise of a U.S. battleship in 1905 carrying Secretary of War and Roosevelt’s “assistant president” William Howard Taft and a passel of Congressmen and Senators to extend the U.S. empire beyond the Philippines and onto the Asian mainland. 

5. A review of The Litigators, by John Grisham. If you’re a John Griisham fan, as I am, you’ll probably be surprised at how many chuckles and guffaws his latest novel forces out of you. The Litigators, on one level a legal procedural like so many other Grisham works, is also a comedy. Even the title is a joke, as you’ll learn once you’ve made your way into the meat of this book.

6. A review of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander. One of the most important books in English published so far in the 21st Century. Lays bare the ugly reality of the “War on Drugs” and the mass incarceration it brought about, exploring both how they came about and how deeply they wound communities of color in the United States.

7. A review of The Self-Made Myth, and the Truth About How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed, by Brian Miller and Mike Lapham. A timely and brilliant contribution to the public debate about politics and the economy. Dissects the mythology that lies at the heart of Right-Wing economic ideology in America today, making it unmistakably clear that the so-called “job creators” lionized by Republicans achieved their success not through rugged individualism but within a society in which government lent them support in dozens of crucial ways.

8. A review of Agent 6, by Tom Rob Smith. A superb suspense novel set in the USSR, the U.S., and Afghanistan. The compelling conclusion of a trilogy that tells the story of Leo Demidov, a member of Stalin’s secret police as a young man. Involves a central character who closely resembles the legendary African-American Communist singer and activist Paul Robeson.

9. A review of Creative Community Organizing: A Guide for Rabble-Rousers, Activists, & Quiet Lovers of Justice, by Si Kahn. In this delightful and illuminating memoir, the celebrated singer-organizer provides the reader with a front-row seat on history from the vantage-point of SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, one of the most militant elements in the civil rights struggle) to the UMWA (the Mineworkers Union) to the recent nationwide campaign to end immigrant family detention.

10. A review of Believing the Lie, by Elizabeth George. The latest installment in the running saga of hereditary earl and Scotland Yard Inspector Thomas Lynley, picking up the tale after a long hiatus following the murder of his wife.

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Nazis in Norway, a mysterious assassin, and an insubordinate detective


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A review of The Redbreast, by Jo Nesbo

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

For many years, Americans have been dipping into the seemingly bottomless store of crime novels from Scandinavia with noteworthy enthusiasm. Not so long ago, Stieg Larson’s trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, dominated the best-seller lists almost as surely as have Harry Potter and the various Shades of Gray. Earlier, many of us got hooked on Henning Mankell’s brilliant creation, Kurt Wallander — certainly, I did, having read all of those superb Swedish detective novels. Earlier still (1990s), the best-selling Danish thriller Smilla’s Sense of Snow captured wide attention, and in the 1960s and 70s there was the Swedish writing team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.

Most recently, there’s been a lot of buzz about a Norwegian novelist, Jo Nesbo, and his anti-hero, detective Harry Hole. The Redbreast is my introduction to Jo Nesbo’s nine novels about his complex and often exasperating fictional detective. I have to say I’m impressed. Nesbo’s plotting is fiendishly complex, and his insight into character runs deep. As a writer, he (or perhaps his translator, Don Bartlett) matches up to any of the other Scandinavian crime writers, and he’s a damn sight better novelist than most of the Americans who write best-selling murder mysteries.

In The Redbreast, Harry Hole finds himself on the trail of a would-be assassin. Not only is the assassin’s identity unknown to him, but so is the target. To begin with, all he knows is that someone has paid a fortune to acquire what is described as the assassin’s rifle of choice, and he’s determined to discover who bought it, and why. Meanwhile, having screwed up a major assignment and created an international incident in the process, Hole is ordered to investigate a neo-Nazi organization and sidetrack his work on the rifle. Naturally, he ignores the orders and doggedly pursues the trail of the overpriced murder weapon. His journey yields a new perspective on Norway during World War II, when the country was occupied by Nazi Germany and many misguided young Norwegians volunteered to fight for the Third Reich. The historical references are both integral to the story and fascinating for an American whose experience of Nazism has come exclusively from books and film.

Previously, I reviewed the second and third books in Larson’s trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. I’ve also reviewed Mankell’s The Man from BeijingThe Pyramid and Four Other Kurt Wallender Mysteries, and The Troubled Man, the last of the Kurt Wallander novels. (The titles are linked to my reviews.)

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Which reviews do you read?

It’s a puzzle.

When I review a book I’m convinced is both important and unusually well written. what happens? Few people read the review.

Then I post a review of something fun but trivial, and — voila! — lots of readers take it in. Or not. It’s entirely unpredictable.

Here, in descending order of the number of reads, are the ten most popular reviews I’ve posted in the two-and-a-half years since I began this blog:

  1. 99 to 1: How Wealth Inequality Is Wrecking the World and What We Can Do About It, by Chuck Collins
  2. The Pyramid and Four Other Kurt Wallender Mysteries, by Henning Mankell. 
  3. In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson
  4. Creative Community Organizing: A Guide for Rabble-Rousers, Activists, and Quiet Lovers of Justice, by Si Kahn
  5. The Self-Made Myth, and the Truth About How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed, by Brian Miller and Mike Lapham
  6. The Litigators, by John Grisham
  7. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander
  8. The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War, by James Bradley
  9. Social Entrepreneurship: What Everyone Needs to Know, by David Bornstein and Susan Davis
  10. Kill the Messenger: The Media’s Role in the Fate of the World, by Maria Armoudian

Admittedly, only two works of fiction appear on this list of ten books, despite the fact that I read and review about equal numbers of nonfiction and fiction.

As you’re probably aware, from time to time I also construct lists of books by topic or for some other reason. Here are the most-read of those posts, in descending order again:

  1. Social Enterprise: A Resource List
  2. Third World development: A reading list
  3. The 30 best books of 2010-2011
  4. The best books I’ve read so far this year (2012)
  5. Books that helped me understand the world
  6. My 20 all-time favorite science fiction novels
  7. Eight recent books that illuminate the state of affairs in America today

As one of my all-time favorite writers, Kurt Vonnegut, frequently wrote, So it goes.

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What is it about Swedish mystery writers?

A review of The Pyramid and Four Other Kurt Wallender Mysteries, by Henning Mankell

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

First (at least in my consciousness) there were the ten Martin Beck police procedurals of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, published from 1965 to 1975. Now we flock to bookstores and movie theaters to enter the world of Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomqvist, who sprang from the mind of the late Stieg Larsson in the captivating form of the Millennium Trilogy.

In between there was Kurt Wallender, the moody small-town police inspector created by another masterful Swedish writer, Henning Mankell. Wallender made his first appearance (in English) in 1997 in the novel Faceless Killers. Wallender lived on through seven other novels, the last of which, Firewall, appeared in English translation in 2002. (An eighth, and reportedly last, Wallender novel is due in 2011 under the title The Troubled Man.) The series has won numerous awards and gained a large audience in the English-speaking world — deservedly so, in my opinion.

The Pyramid is something of an afterthought but no less worth reading than the Wallender novels. It’s a collection of five stories that span the time from Wallender’s rookie year on the police force until the period when, a mature and respected inspector, the crimes detailed in Faceless Killers took place. As he ages from his early 20s to his 50s, Wallender grows increasingly morose in the face of his dysfunctional family relationships and the senseless crimes he is called upon to solve.  The Pyramid lays bare the roots of his problems. For any Kurt Wallender fan, it’s well worth reading.

Mankell is a serious writer. Like Sjowall, Wahloo, and Larsson, he is a man of the Left, and his writing explores the changes in Swedish society that have come about under the impact of drugs, immigration, and the newly competitive political environment which has brought conservatives as well as socialists into power.

ISBN-10: 1565849949

ISBN-13: 978-1565849945

ASIN: B00457X876

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Around the world with detective fiction

As I followed private investigator Vish Puri and his team through the streets of Jaipur in Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant (review forthcoming), it suddenly occurred to me that a fair amount of what I’ve learned about life and culture in other countries has come from my reading of detective fiction. And, given the depth of research conducted by so many of my favorite crime writers, I suspect this isn’t such a bad way to learn about the world around me.

  • Alexander McCall Smith immerses the reader in the laid-back civility of Botswana through the continuing exploits of Mma Precious Ramotswe in the #1 Ladies Detective Agency series, providing a fascinating vantage-point on the only former colony in sub-Saharan Africa to have avoided military coups or civil war.
  • Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti delves into the corruption and mulish bureaucracy of Venetian society, giving a sense from the inside looking out on the impact of unending waves of tourists who invade his beautiful city.
  • In the Inspector Rebus novels of Ian Rankin, set in Edinburgh, we view the workings of politics in Scotland’s capital and the interplay of the criminal underworld with the city’s establishment — noting in the process just how different is Scottish society from English.
  • Royal Thai police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, the creation of John Burdett, guides us through the rotten underbelly of Bangkok, with its ever-present sex for sale and police officers moonlighting as drug kingpins.
  • Racing through the streets of Moscow, Senior Investigator Arkady Renko explores crime-ridden post-Soviet Russia in Martin Cruz Smith’s excellent novels.
  • Henning Mankell’s alter ego, small-town police detective Kurt Wallender, probes the dark recesses of Swedish society, exploring the widespread racism, alcoholism, and depression.
  • Elizabeth George’s series of novels about Inspector Thomas Lynley provides a window on English society, both in London, where Lynley is based at New Scotland Yard, and in the countryside, where he and his investigative team are called so often to tackle the country’s toughest murder cases.

Every one of these series of detective novels is well worth reading for sheer enjoyment. Yet they all help illuminate the world we live in.

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