Even though I recently released my Best Books of 2011, it is necessary to make a smallish amendment to that list. Why? Because in the last couple of weeks I read two of the best books of the year - and both were written in 2011. Eat your heart out Amazon.com!
The Whore of Akron by Scott Raab - I desperately did not want to love this book. I like LeBron James and want to see him win the NBA Championship. Raab shattered any illusions I had, but then he did something else: he shattered any illusions I had about his book as well. The main reason this book is so great? Raab is an amazing writer. This entire text plays out like a primal, existential scream about the slow death of Cleveland (personified through the villainous LeBron) and Raab's own tortured history. The man lives for Cleveland sports but it is passages like the following that will keep me rereading this book for years to come:
"Was it easy LeBron? Did it go down smooth and sweet as peach cobbler? I almost feel bad for you, son. You're not a grown man. You're a kid and you're afraid. What are you so afraid of LeBron, the losing or the winning? Do you finally understand that it's not easy? That it's not meant to be easy. Hard is the only thing that makes it worth anything, the only thing that makes losing or winning worth the pain of trying, the only thing that makes living and dying worth the suffering". I dare you to attempt to find a better written passage that came out this year. When all is said and done with the Miami Heat and dozens of books have been written I have no doubt that this will withstand the test of time as the best.
Prague Fatale by Philip Kerr (Only released in the UK!) - How did I manage to get my hands on the best mystery of the year when I do not live in the UK? An amazing girlfriend who figured out how to get it shipped over. The last Bernie Gunther outing (Field Gray) had its moments, but was mostly disappointing. I wondered, briefly if Kerr was finally going to run out of steam and end the series. Instead, Kerr reinvents his formula again and absolutely crushes a hell of a book. After the opening scenes set in Berling in 1942, Kerr rips into a 2 chapter, 200 page mini-book within a book that features one of the twistiest whodunits since Agatha Christie. The book is a slow burning, gut wrenching roller coaster that is impossible to put down. Trust me. I tried and failed. All I will say about the plot is that is set during Heydrich's reign in Czechslovakia and near the time of his assassination. This is also the first Kerr book to be set exclusively during WW2. Just when I had written him off, Kerr pulls out a taut, staggering novel that easily ranks among the best of the year (and the best he has written). How would I rank his books now (using only the titles):
1) The One from the Other (#4) - After a 17 year break, Kerr reached back and brought a tormented Bernie Gunther out of the war and straight into the most complex plot this side of James Ellroy. The end is so twisty and the rug pulled out so expertly that there is no way to prepare for the astounding finish.
2) A Quiet Flame (#5) - Set in Argentina, this novel featured Bernie's shot at redemption and a new life...which he promptly destroyed.
3) A Pale Criminal (#2) - This book, set during Kristalnacht is still the only book that I woke up early in the morning to read before work. The ending also made me feel sick to my stomach...it is that visceral.
4) Prague Fatale (#8) - See above.
5)If the Dead Rise Not (#6) - Kerr's Bernie Gunther schtick was beginning to get a little thin around this point, but the theme of good and evil (not to mention just how bad Bernie had to be to survive the Nazi years) push this to another level. Originally planned as the final book, I am sure glad Kerr kept writing.
6) A German Requiem (#3) - Originally intended to be the conclusion of the series, this book deals with the direct aftermath of the war and Nazi war criminals. Bernie has to flee to Vienna where he gets caught up in Soviet / American spy games. This book touches on the Cold War more than WW2, and is very informative. The final twist is jaw dropping.
7) March Violets (#1) - The series opener was a great book, but Bernie took some time to develop as a character. A complex, literary thriller, this book is a dark meditation on the excesses of power.
8) Field Grey (#7) - This book is good, but not quite up to the usual Kerr standards. The main reason is all the jumping around: no other book in the series moves around quite as much.
I believe it may be time that Kerr enter the Mystery Writers Mount Rushmore and the Pantheon, 8 great books - more than Pelecanos, more than Lehane, inching up on Lee Burke.