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Originally published Sunday, December 9, 2012 at 5:06 AM

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Adam Woog’s best mysteries of 2012

Crime-fiction columnist Adam Woog nominates his best mysteries of 2012, including works by Dennis Lehane, Peter Robinson and Spokane’s Bruce Holbert.

Special to The Seattle Times

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Choosing the best crime novels of the past year never gets easier, but here’s a well-placed stab at it. Here’s a list of favorites, alphabetically by author:

Harry Bingham,“Talking to the Dead” (Delacorte). This remarkable book’s secret weapon is its protagonist, Welsh police detective Fiona Griffiths: blunt, blue collar, slightly unhinged — and with an unnamed, haunting “illness” in her past. But she’s also deeply compassionate toward the saddest of life’s victims, a trait well paired with her obsessive nature as she hunts the killer of an addict and her young daughter.

Barbara Cleverly, “Not My Blood” (Soho). Cleverly’s books about ’30s era Scotland Yard detective Joe Sandilands are reliably intricate, erudite and witty. The young son of Sandilands’ old friends takes refuge with the detective, convinced that he accidentally killed a brutish teacher. Sandilands’ investigation reveals a harrowing story of, among other monstrous topics, abuse and eugenics.

Dan Fesperman,“The Double Game”(Knopf). As fiendishly clever a spy story as you could hope for. Bill Cage’s magazine profile of Edwin Lemaster, a retired spy turned novelist, unwittingly damaged Lemaster’s reputation and trashed Cage’s own career. Years later, cryptic messages send Cage barreling across Europe, hunting for secrets about his diplomat father, long-buried espionage and Lemaster himself. These messages, based on passages from classic spy novels, are a guaranteed delight for any espionage fan.

Nick Harkaway, “Angelmaker”(Knopf). This gleeful mashup of genres throws together, among other bits and pieces, killer monks, mechanical bees, an elderly assassin, a fiend in human form, a doomsday machine, and a clock repairman who channels his gangster father. (It’s complicated.) Amazing stuff — wholly original, deeply strange and funny as hell.

Bruce Holbert, “Lonesome Animals”(Counterpoint). A gripping murder story and incandescent moral fable, set in hardscrabble Eastern Washington during the Great Depression. Retired lawman Russell Strawl is literally back in the saddle, hired to roam the land and find the brutal killer of local Indians. What he learns is shocking but, in retrospect, inevitable. Added punch: Spokane resident Holbert loosely based Strawl on his great-grandfather — Indian scout, early settler and all-around tough old bastard.

Dennis Lehane, “Live by Night”(Morrow). Set during wide-open Prohibition, Lehane’s rip-roaring book is part gangster story, part grand romance. It traces Joe Coughlin’s career in organized crime, from petty Boston crook to Florida-based bootlegging mogul. Joe’s progress unfolds into a moving story of love, loss, well-plotted revenge and a shot at redemption.

Rosamund Lupton,“Afterwards”(Crown). A woman and her daughter are near death in a London hospital after an arson fire. But their spirits are somehow able to move around, seeking answers to the crime as their grieving husband/father seeks healing for his family. Lupton’s blend of psychological suspense, literary thriller and the paranormal confirms something her first book, “Sister,” promised: she’s not just good — she’s wicked good.

Peter Robinson, “Before the Poison” (Morrow). Best known for his series starring British police inspector Alan Banks, Robinson here offers a superb, Gothic-tinged psychological thriller. A composer returns to his native England and finds that the mansion he bought, sight unseen, once belonged to a woman executed for murdering her husband. The composer, a specialist in film scores, becomes increasingly obsessed with the dead woman’s story — so it’s time to cue up the soundtracks for unsettling movie classics like “Laura” and “Rebecca.”

Adam Woog's column on crime and mystery fiction appears on the second Sunday of the month in The Seattle Times.

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