Beltie Mystery Prize
The Beltie Mystery Prize is our annual award given to the best mystery book of the year. Pete Mock, McIntyre's lead buyer and resident Mystery Guru, is the sole judge and jury. We announced this year's winner at our CrimeScene Mystery BookFest on February 3rd: Better the Blood by Michael Bennett!
Set in New Zealand this is the first in what will hopefully be a series featuring detective Hana Westerman who is doubly cursed. First, as a woman in a male dominated profession and, second, as a Maori, the second-class citizens of Kiwi society. Through grit, hard work, and determination she has risen through the ranks to be handed the toughest case of her career. A series of strange ritualistic murders are rocking the capital and she determines they are linked to a hanging, 160 years ago, of a Maori chieftain. All the deaths are relations of those pictured in a grisly sepia-toned photo celebrating the Chief’s death. A smart, cat-and-mouse game that touches on all aspects of modern New Zealand, this is a novel that is as thought-provoking (think Native Americans and other native cultures) as it is entertaining.
This one is a bit of an outlier on the list, a humorous look at upper crust English education only on the more nefarious side. Narrated by the headmaster of the McMaster Conservatory, a school that specializes in the art of deletion, a polite way of saying murder, we learn the various means of polite death that follow the tenets of “Does this person truly deserve to die?” If so, the students take classes on the various means of deletion before majoring in a solution that fits their situation before embarking on their final exam which… well, they’d better pass or else. Told in a plummy British accent with great word play and a very 1950ish feel, this was one of those nice surprises that will enliven many an evening.
David Joy is one of the best young writers around and this, his fifth novel, shows you why. Set in the NC mountains it follows his usual themes of disaffected youth, gentrification, and the supposed pluses of progress uprooting generations of families from the land that they grew up on. But with this one he ups the ante and brings in more contemporary issues that have been affecting us all these past few years like Black Lives Matter, Confederate statues, and everything else that comes with the collisions of past and present. It starts with the death of a young woman who’s visiting her grandmother for the summer and ends with her grandmother ruminating on all those she’s known over her long life in one of the most perfect endings Pete says he’s ever read in all his years of bookselling. This is more of a genre bending novel, as so many are these days, than a true mystery but it definitely belongs on the Beltie list.
This is the second in a fantastic new series set in Colorado featuring Detective Inaya Rahman, a Muslim woman running from her fears and finding herself in Blackwater Falls, a small conservative town quaking with change. Her unit is brought into the fray when a young black graffiti artist is killed, while in nearby Denver a drug raid goes bad, killing a young Latino teen; two seemingly disparate incidents that spark street protests that spread the police thin. Nothing is as it seems and Inaya finds herself walking a thin line as she seeks the truth amongst all the backlash of misguided biases that threaten to derail her investigation. Chock-a-block full of excellent characters, convoluted relationships, and plots that will leave you grasping at air, this is a series to keep an eye on.
This is another good new series set in small town America, this time Minnesota and perfect for fans of William Kent Kruger. Ben Packard was a cop in Minneapolis until a personal tragedy caused him to relocate to the small resort town where he used to spend summers and holidays with his grandparents. Now he’s the interim sheriff and vacillating between running for the job full time or not. He’s a good cop but there are some jealous of his fast rise through the ranks while others don’t like that he’s gay. Then a home invasion goes wrong, a well-liked local is killed, and the spotlight of scrutiny shines brightly upon him; and those who don’t like him are sharpening their proverbial knives. This is the second in the series and an incident in his youth where his older brother disappears helps propel the series forward; but Ben and his fellow cast of characters really don’t need that help to bring us readers back for more.
This is a bit of a departure for the author, who was a finalist for The National Book Award for his short story collection The Yellow Birds, and what a departure it is! As it was with Yellow Birds he leans on his experiences in the Middle East while in the Army from 2004-2005, in this case it’s the story of a former interpreter, Arman Bajalen, who barely escapes an assassination attempt that kills his family. Now in Florida he works as a maintenance man at a cheap motel where every morning he goes for a long swim, the routine, day in and day out, grounding him and keeping his misery at bay. Then one morning he stumbles upon a dead body with a bus ticket in its pocket. This leads us deep down the rabbit hole of the whole military industrial complex with all the money poisoning the air with greed and avarice and the need to kill to keep the money flowing. A propulsive story that plays upon our never-ending wars and lays bare the human costs that are but a footnote in the supposed big picture that is national security.
Of all the titles on this list here’s the closest thing to what we here at McIntyre’s like to call a “palate cleanser”, that is, a fun, entertaining novel that allows you to relax for a few hours at a time. Which is not to say that such a book lacks substance. Far from it! Often times these sneaky good books have themes running through them that will have you thinking long after you’ve read them. Such is the case with this three generational crime solving family. Grandma, a high-powered real estate mogul from L.A., is ill and has to move in with her estranged daughter living far up the coast in a sleepy town with her own teenaged daughter, a situation none expected and none want. But such is life. Then death raises its ugly head and the three are off trying to solve a murder and there’s nothing like someone else’s death to bring a family together. Very fun, but with a nice heft to it, this is a propitious debut from an author worth keeping an eye on.
What is about Ireland that allows it to churn out author after author with novels that can stand a reader on their head? These authors can take the dullest tropes, stories written over and over again, year in and year out, and make them new again and Kala is a great example. Three friends, half of six that met each other one summer and became best buddies, meet again for the first time in fifteen years. Each is in town for different reasons when bones are discovered at a construction site and determined to be those of one of the six who disappeared that long ago summer. Now secrets bubble forth and each of the three have to come to terms with what happened that summer. What sets this above the usual cliché is the fully rendered characters, each with their own faults, each with their own memories of that fateful summer that don’t jive with one another. Then there’s the setting itself, a middle class resort town on the coast that becomes a character all its own. So atmospheric, the tension rising page by page, Kala breathes new life into the old and beaten down.