'Tis the season for lists, and here is one that can save you from wasting hours of your life, and help trade the bitterness of disappointment for the thrill of discovery.
In the run-up to the Christmas shopping season, "blockbuster" thrillers were the order of the day. If your wish list included the latest filler by James Patterson or David Baldacci, then you deserve what you get.
However, some authors who dumped slag in the mega-bookstore displays this year have track records that justified their exalted status and audience expectations of great winter reading.
Before you crack the binding on your favorite pop-fiction writer's seasonal lump of coal, heed this fair warning and consider a list of lesser-known alternative gems worth prospecting for.
Lumps of Coal to Return
Wildfire by Nelson DeMille
What's worse than a book with a climax where the bad guy sneeringly goes on and on about the brilliance of his plan, giving our hero time to recover and foil the plot? How about a book that begins that way — and prattles on for well over a hundred pages?
Here's what's worse: The bad guy is the super-patriotic, gun-loving head of a bunch of racist neocons who meet in an upstate New York hunt club, and among their members is a defense-department official named "Wolfer." No kidding.
What's stunning is that this travesty is written by one of this generation's great pop-thriller writers, Nelson DeMille, whose work sounded the alarm on Islamofascism back when many in his genre were still writing bad guys who were, well, like the ones in Wildfire.
DeMille's first book over 25 years ago, By the Rivers of Babylon, featured a downed airliner filled with dignitaries on their way to a peace conference beset by Palestinians who feared peace and Israeli commandos mounting a rescue. The first book in his current series was about a Libyan terrorist foiled by a member of New York's Joint Terrorist Task Force. His spy thriller The Charm School is one of the great Cold War classics, and Up Country had autobiographical elements in the emotionally authentic story of a Vietnam combat vet returning to the scene and shining the cold light of reality on the current Communist government.
In Wildfire, DeMille borrows from Season 2 of 24, but instead of the Russian mafia provoking a war in the Middle East, it is the American Right that is willing to nuke four American cities (wouldn't one do?) in order to provoke a nuclear strike against nearly all Arab countries. They aim to remove the Islamic threat, turn blue states red, and (of course) drive up the price of oil.
Nearly every MSM review of Michael Crichton's State of Fear warned of its being a political polemic; there have been no such warnings with DeMille's generally well-reviewed trash. So here is your warning now.
Hannibal Rising by Thomas Harris
Thomas Harris also began his career writing about Islamic terror in the 70s, with his classic Black Sunday. His next book, Red Dragon, was — and still is — the best serial-killer novel ever written, terrifying and with a moral gravity that sets it apart.
His follow-up, The Silence of the Lambs, is probably the runner-up for that prize. Unfortunately, Anthony Hopkins so dominated the movie adaptation that Hannibal Lecter has become an American celebrity. Americans tend to like characters who make them laugh, no matter how sociopathic — remember the outpouring of affection for the self-involved Seinfeld characters and the lengths the series creators went to in the last episode to correct that?
It was bad enough that Harris fell prey to the temptation of making Lecter a series anti-hero who only killed the annoying in the despicable Hannibal (the movie is faithful to the book in that way). In Hannibal Rising, he gives goes a step farther and gives the standard excuse for Lecter's bad behavior — a terrible childhood in WWII-era Eastern Europe.
His newfound affection for depravity finally caught up with him in the reviews, and Hannibal Rising is earning Harris the scorn that Hannibal should have. If there is one book you avoid reading this year…
Nature Girl by Carl Hiaasen
I once described Carl Hiaasen's comic thrillers set in Florida as John D. MacDonald meets Monty Python. Unfortunately, like a three-year-old who can't get enough of his one joke, Hiaasen has all but dropped the mystery part of his books and taken to writing collections of sight gags that not only don't work, but are mere variations on previous material.
Hiaasen's early classics, such as Tourist Season and Striptease, had sympathetic characters and logical plots. They were only slightly wackier than Donald Westlake and just as good. However, in the last decade, Hiaasen has moved his supporting cast of unbelievable comic relief to the forefront and tried to top himself. In Nature Girl, he's having fun while delivering his environmentalist sermons, but the joke is on readers who keep hoping for his return to glory.
Brother Odd by Dean Koontz
This is the third time for Dean Koontz's hero Odd Thomas, and it is not the charm — though that is what Koontz is going for. Koontz has a lot of affection for this character, who can see the spirits of the dead and demonic shapes that precede tragedy, but the books are among the most uneven of his last prolific decade.
While I love the fact that Koontz takes potshots at nearly every political, educational, and pop-culture trend that I despise, Brother Odd is a deadly dull treatise on the creation of life as Odd investigates menace at a monastery. If you can, trade this up for Koontz's other book this year, The Husband, an ultra-violent meditation on marriage which he dedicated to pro-life author Wesley J. Smith.
Capital Crimes by Jonathan and Faye Kellerman
Jonathan Kellerman is one of mystery fiction's most reliable — and least politically correct — authors, and his wife, Faye, is occasionally brilliant but wildly inconsistent. Together, however, they are consistently forgettable. Their second collaboration on two stories for the price of one is as flat and routine as the first. Grab anything Jonathan wrote in the last decade instead, or one of Faye's early books about an LAPD detective converting to Orthodox Judaism with the help of a beautiful widow.
Diamonds in the Rough Worth Reading
Liberation Movements by Olen Steinhauer
Conservatives should be lining up to purchase the work of Olen Steinhauer. However, his series of Gorky Park-like police procedurals set in a composite East Bloc country sometime after the Hungarian Revolution remain largely undiscovered treasures.
In his latest, Liberation Movements directly explores the aftermath of Budapest and communist influence in the beginnings of terrorist networks, in a thriller about the investigation into an airliner explosion over Turkey.
Steinhauer's device of the unspecified time and place give him more freedom to explore life under communist rule. It's said that combat consists of hours of boredom broken up by short bursts of sheer terror. In Steinhauer's communist states, life is melancholia punctuated by terror, where the choice too often is between physical safety and a healthy soul.
Dying Light by Stuart MacBride
The best—and the least known—of the Scottish police procedural writers, Stuart MacBride's excellence comes close to making him Michael Connelly with a burr.
American readers of tough-guy crime may be disoriented at first by the trouble of MacBride's series hero, Aberdeen detective Logan MacRae. Only the outlaws have guns in Scotland, to an extent that even Brady Bill aficionados haven't dreamed of.
MacRae is banished to "the screw-up squad" for not anticipating that a burglary ring might actually possess a pistol. One of his team members, who is armed with only a warrant card, is shot. While police politics sort themselves out, MacRae hunts a serial arsonist in this darkly funny, moody, and suspenseful mystery.
A Stolen Season by Steve Hamilton
Steve Hamilton's retired cop and ex-Tiger catcher Alex McKnight is fast becoming the Travis McGee of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Like John D. MacDonald's "knight in slightly tarnished armor," McKnight loves his surroundings, is devoted to his friends, has an interesting sidekick, and is the kind of guy people seek out when they are in trouble. The series packs an emotional wallop as each punch produces real pain, and relationships are the mixed blessings of real life.
No good deed goes unpunished when Alex rescues three men from a boat wreck in Lake Superior. He soon finds himself embroiled with gunrunners and prescription-drug smuggling in a plot that reminds us that Michigan is a border state, too.
The Night Gardener by George Pelecanos
If you're a fan of American cop novels, you probably already know to pick up Joseph Wambaugh's latest, Hollywood Station, where he decries the post-Rodney King gutting of the LAPD and defends the choke hold; and Michael Connelly's Echo Park has probably already registered on your radar gun.
But you should also round up George Pelecanos's first police procedural, The Night Gardener. Pelecanos, who was a principal writer on HBO's superlative series The Wire in the seasons that focused on black politicians' responsibility for the state of urban decay, proposes in this melancholy redemption story that the breakdown of the family and the crime that results—not racism—is the real problem of the American inner city.
The Night Gardener is clear-eyed and heartbreaking, and one of the very finest American novels of 2006.