Sunday 30 December 2012

The Existential Ennui Review of the Year in Books and Comics: The Ten Best Books I Read in 2012

And so, suitably stuffed with turkey and sausages and Christmas pudding and the entire contents of a confectionery selection pack – and consequently suffering with the meat 'n' fruit 'n' chocolate sweats – we reach the final post in the three-part Existential Ennui Review of the Year in Books and Comics – and indeed the final post for the year. And having presented a big long list of the sixty-four books I read this year – a list which, as usual, largely comprised books published well before 2012 (over sixty years before in some cases), and which, incidentally, this year was linked by both The Rap Sheet and The Comics Reporter – it's time to pick my ten favourites from that list.

I've elected to exclude any rereads, for the simple reason that if I hadn't, a third of the top ten would have been taken up by Patricia Highsmith Ripley novels, and I've endeavoured to restrict myself to just one appearance per author – although achieving that wasn't as hard as you might imagine: the only real candidates for two appearances were Donald E. Westlake with his Tucker Coe novel Murder Among Children, and Elmore Leonard with Mr. Majestyk. But there were other books besides those that could have quite easily made the cut in a less competitive year: John D. MacDonald's debut Travis McGee mystery The Deep Blue Goodbye; Anthony Price's fine espionage novel Other Paths to Glory; Brian Garfield's Death Wish; William Goldman's Marathon Man; P. M. Hubbard's A Thirsty Evil; and from 2012 itself, George Pelecanos's stylish '70s crime spree What it Was and Jeremy Duns's third Paul Dark spy thriller, The Moscow Option. And were I to expand the top ten to a top twenty, well: there's numbers eleven to nineteen right there.

As it is, I've cheated anyway: I couldn't separate the two books vying for the number ten spot, so I've made them equal tenth. If you have a problem with that, you could perhaps take a moment to consider that a) the top ten is drawn from a list of books which were published across seven decades, which makes it a fairly meaningless selection anyway (although arguably no more meaningless than other, more traditional "best of the year" lists); and b) it's my blog and ultimately I'll do what the bloody hell I like. So ner.

In ascending order, then, with links to whatever I wrote about them this year, here are the ten (ish) best books I read in 2012. Happy new year.

=10. Restless by William Boyd (2006)
The Human Factor by Graham Greene (1978)
I read a number of books this year over which Kim Philby cast his long shadow – including his autobiography – but these two were the best. Graham Greene's sad and moving portrait of a man who betrays his country for love clearly isn't, as Greene himself was at pains to point out, a roman a clef, but it's hard not to detect traces of Greene's old friend Philby in Maurice Castle's actions, if not his motivations and character. As for Restless, I read that one right after reading Ian McEwan's disappointing Sweet Tooth, in the hope that it would prove a more satisfying spy novel. In the event, it was a more satisfying novel overall, something I'll be exploring in a post in the new year in which I'll be comparing it to its recent BBC TV adaptation.

9. The Big Bounce by Elmore Leonard (1969)
Elmore Leonard's debut crime novel, this meandering, surprising story, peopled with believable yet still idiosyncratic characters and peppered with choice dialogue, set the template for what was to come.

8. The Lovely Horrible Stuff by Eddie Campbell (2012)
I've loved Eddie Campbell's comics since I first came across them in the 1980s; to my mind he's one of the most important creators ever to work in the medium, and The Lovely Horrible Stuff is as good as anything he's done: an extended meditation on the pernicious influence of filthy lucre, drawing on the history of the Pacific island of Yap as well as some very personal, not to mention raw, episodes.

7. A Rough Shoot by Geoffrey Household (1951)
Fast-paced, light, thrilling, a joy to read. Plus: badger ham. Yes: badger ham.

6. This Sweet Sickness by Patricia Highsmith (1960)
One of Highsmith's most powerful novels: an intense study of the mad impulses and justifications behind stalking.

5. Commander-1 by Peter George (1965)
An overlooked post-apocalyptic gem, as good as, if not better than, On the Beach and Alas, Babylon. I urge you to seek it out.

4. 361 by Donald E. Westlake (1962)
Westlake's third novel under his own name, and his first crime fiction masterpiece.

3. The Twelve by Justin Cronin (2012)
Beautifully written, epic in scope, and probably the most gripping novel I read all year.

2. Game Without Rules by Michael Gilbert (1968)
Eleven short stories starring devious middle-aged intelligence operatives Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens. Sublime.

1. Towards the End of the Morning by Michael Frayn (1967)
I stated back in May that Towards the End of the Morning was the best book I'd read so far this year, and as 2012 draws to a close, it still is. Follow the links to find out why.


  1. A non-thriller tops your list this year - most unusual, given what you typically read. But I understand - I love Michael Frayn. When people ask who my favorite writers are, he always makes my short list (though over here, his name often meets with a blank stare). In fact, if I could be reincarnated I think I would love to come back as Michael Frayn.

    A few other thoughts:
    1. Badger ham - there's your 2013 holiday menu for you.
    2. What happened to William Boyd's Waiting for Sunrise? I thought you were reading it - did you not finish it?
    3. Maybe a list of all the books you started but didn't finish? Sort like the deleted scenes they put in DVDs for die-hard fans.

    Congrats on a great year of blogging and reading I hope there is much more of it in 2013. Happy New Year!

  2. I think the only book I started but didn't finish was a Peter Cheyney one – not sure if it was him or me on that one, but I intend to return to it. As for Waiting for Sunrise, I didn't even start it – I got distracted by Restless instead. Have you tried Waiting yet?

    And Happy New Year to you too, Brian!

  3. I read about 30 pages of Waiting for Sunrise before setting it aside. Wasn't in the mood for it then but after listening to an interview with Boyd on Front Row, I'm in the mood to read him again.

    I'm surprised you only had one book you started but didn't finish. I have dozens.

    Also - inspired by your list I just bought Michael Gilbert's two Calder and Behrens books. Thanks!

  4. Never read any of Frayn's novels--never knew he wrote any--but I did see the original Broadway production of "Noises Off". Funniest play I ever saw in my life (with the exception of three one-man shows, and do one-man shows really count as plays?). And it even had Linda Thorson in it (you know, she played Tara King in "The Avengers"--no, not THOSE Avengers--oh never mind).

    So anyway, I missed your original review, but I'll be looking for this one, and then comparing it to "Trust Me on This".

  5. Great job! Sorry I haven't been as participatory this year. I've been following quietly along and you are delivering the top-quality goods as ever. Congrats on a great year of blogging and good luck for 2013!

  6. *Sigh* Highsmith. I love her writing so much that I haven't read all of her books. I dole them out -- only one or two a year. I don't want to be done.

  7. There's quite a few I haven't read yet either, Kelly, mostly from the back half of her career, although from her earlier works, I still haven't tried Deep Water.

  8. Big Bounce - read it a few years ago - will need to get some more Leonard read this year or re-read!

    Highsmith - I need to try again with after giving up on one of the Ripley's

    Frayn - I have Spies and something else to get to, as well as Household's Rogue Male.

    I've cleansed my started never finished pile from abotu 30 at the beginning of last year down to 2 - some books didn't suit the mood of the moment and turned out ok - others would have been better left alone,