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Book Digest: November 27, 2006

Mystery books for holiday shopping, broken down by reader type: Bookius Nerdius, The Hollywood Reader, Mrs. Elbow Patches, For Those Wounded in Afghanistan.

By Christmas Eve, I never feel like I’ve bought enough. The arms race catches up with me, it tugs at my anxiety and my wallet. At some point on the 24th I end up at a stripmall bookstore in Connecticut or North Carolina wondering what I can walk out with to suit my relatives.

That’s the first problem. The second problem is, by that point I’ve already wrapped several books as gifts. Each year there seems to be one novel I can’t imagine my life without, and I insist on everyone reading it as well. (I’m a lot of fun.) The Last Samurai and The Known World both won high marks across the family trees in past years, but will everyone enjoy must-read as much as I did?

Relatives of mine, please don’t click that link.

The trick is to combine Turgenev in the stocking with sticky pudding under the tree. Everyone likes mystery novels, including almost all of my relatives—at least, certain relatives like certain types of mystery novels. My father enjoys procedurals and thrillers and Alan Furst-ish historical espionage books. My mother-in-law prefers a more literary story or a cats-and-crosswords cozy. My wife’s cousin has discovered a latent Sherlock Holmes interest, my brother-in-law wants a thoughtful page-turner, and my own sister, like me, is omnivorous, as long as the writing snaps.

This is not a catch-all, just a basket of my recent favorites, (almost) all road-tested and found to be extremely good. One note: If you live in New York City, won’t you consider picking up your book gifts at Three Lives & Co. or Partners & Crime? Or if you don’t live in hell, won’t you support your own independent bookstore? And if you don’t trust me on picks, will you consider The Mysterious Bookshop?

Mysteries for the Literary Reader
Nicolas Freeling’s Love in Amsterdam is probably the most exciting new detective book I’ve read in years—very stylish and experimental, and slightly demented. I’ve given away and re-bought and given away again several editions of Michael Malone’s “Justin & Cuddy” series, a very well-written and spellbinding trilogy set in North Carolina, starring a southern Felix-and-Oscar pair of detectives; start with Uncivil Seasons. John le Carré is a superb novelist, and apparently he also writes mysteries. The new globetrotter, The Mission Song, is exciting and twisty, and packing heavy diction. One last one I haven’t read yet but hope to get to soon: Kate Atkinson’s detective follow-up, One Good Turn is being raved about by mystery booksellers with taste buds I trust. It’s in the mail on the way to my headboard.

Mysteries for Those Who Desire Entertainment
I pre-order Andrea Camilleri’s Montalbano books; I’m more happy reading them than much else. We’ve loaned them out so much, my wife and I have probably bought three editions of each book. Start with The Shape of Water and culminate with the most recent, Rounding the Mark. Then there’s Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. Perhaps you’ve watched the Today show recently? If you haven’t heard of them or read them all in a single night, they are African meringues. If we’re talking blood, cuts, and serial killers, the new Harry Bosch book by Michael Connelly, Echo Park, pays out big dividends. And I wouldn’t be a good friend, or an honest reader, if I didn’t recommend Kevin Guilfoile’s recent thriller, Cast of Shadows.

Mysteries for the History Reader
Let’s assume our imagined customer has already gone through her Alan Furst phase, shaken off her sepia goggles, and gotten hungry for something new. Recent favorites of mine include Rebecca Pawel’s Sergeant Tejada Alonzo y León investigations (from Soho Crime, a generally excellent line). Death of a Nationalist comes first, though this year we also got the fourth installment, The Summer Snow. Also, post-Furst-thirst, Ron Rosenbaum in the Observer pointed me to the wonderful Philip Kerr. Rosenbaum recommends kicking it off with A German Requiem.

Mysteries for The Budding Sherlock Fan
There are wonderful, small-run analyses of Sherlock’s world or books of Holmes-inspired fiction published all the time, but rarely does the scholarship go global. Leslie Klinger’s annotated stories and novels do an enormous job extremely well. Another way to knock at 221B is to subscribe to the Baker Street Journal, a quarterly for Doyle-heads. But what if your niece or nephew has never been spooked by “The Speckled Band?” For a $20 check mailed to Stanford’s “Discovering Sherlock Holmes” project, you can receive 12 re-issues of The Strand Magazine with a new mystery in each packet.


Rosecrans Baldwin co-founded TMN with publisher Andrew Womack in 1999. His latest book is Everything Now: Lessons From the City-State of Los Angeles. More information can be found at More by Rosecrans Baldwin

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