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Originally published Saturday, December 7, 2013 at 3:03 AM

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Adam Woog’s 10 best mysteries of 2013

The 10 best mysteries of 2013 tell thrilling stories from all over the map, says crime-fiction columnist Adam Woog, including books by Michael Gruber (America), Tarquin Hall (India), Ruth Rendell (Great Britain) and Fred Vargas (France).

Special to The Seattle Times

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2013 has been a stellar year for crime fiction. The increasing trend toward settings in foreign locations (besides that old standby, Great Britain) is especially noticeable.

Here’s a small sample of what caught my attention in the past year:

“Deadly Virtues” by Jo Bannister (Minotaur). In this gripping police procedural, a young black man, jailed for a minor offense in a sleepy British village, is murdered in his cell. The village hermit hears the victim’s last words — a coded message — and it’s up to rookie cop Hazel Best to pierce the hermit’s formidable psychic defenses and solve the puzzle.

“Speaking from Among the Bones” by Alan Bradley (Delacorte). Flavia de Luce, England’s premiere adolescent chemist-detective-smartypants, balances torturing her snotty sisters with helping the befuddled local constabulary. She’s excited about the opening of an ancient tomb in her village church, but then something even better pops up: the corpse of the church’s organist, lying atop a crypt and wearing a gas mask.

“The Return” by Michael Gruber (Henry Holt). Seattleite Gruber combines vigorous action and vivid characters with smart reflections on stuff like death, sex, religious faith and compassion. A Manhattan book editor with a strong stomach for violence, a powerful need for vengeance and nothing to lose — he’s dying — vows to eliminate the Mexican drug lords responsible for his wife’s death.

“The Case of the Love Commandos” by Tarquin Hall (Simon & Schuster). Vish Puri, “India’s Most Private Detective,” searches for a woman’s missing sweetheart. Hall rejoices in the pungent flavors India adds to our language, and his whimsical tale has a serious subtext: the violence that can result from forced marriages.

“Ghostman” by Roger Hobbs (Knopf). Portlander Hobbs’ debut is lightning quick and smart as anything. The quiet private life of an awesomely knowledgeable and resourceful robber shatters when he’s forced to tidy up a heist gone wrong. Think of him as a Jack Reacher (Lee Child’s knight-errant hero) who uses his powers for evil and not good.

“Play Dead” by Bill James (Crème de la Crime). British coppers Harpur and Iles have one seriously odd and darkly funny relationship: The former is stolid and droll, the latter brilliant but crazier than a road lizard, and both excel at sheathing stiletto-sharp insults within ornate dialogue. Their task — exposing police corruption — expands on one of James’ enduring themes: the porous boundary between cop and villain.

“The Shanghai Factor” by Charles McCarry (Mysterious). McCarry may be the best-kept secret, so to speak, in spy fiction. In this wily and often very funny story of double- and triple-crosses, a young CIA operative in Shanghai gets entangled with an enigmatic lover and an equally enigmatic businessman, either one or both possible spies.

“Critical Mass” by Sara Paretsky (Putnam). The intense private eye V.I. Warshawski, always ready to wage war against injustice, tracks a missing mother and son whose compelling story reaches back to pre-WWII Austria and encompasses nuclear secrets past and present.

“No Man’s Nightingale” by Ruth Rendell (Scribner). In this 24th entry in a remarkable series, an idealistic vicar in Inspector Wexford’s village has been strangled, and the inspector, compassionate and thoughtful as always, doesn’t need persuading to abandon retirement and aid his former colleagues.

“The Ghost Riders of Ordebec” by Fred Vargas, translated by Sian Reynolds (Penguin). Commissaire Adamsberg, hands down, is Paris’ quirkiest cop. Here, the Zen-like inspector uses his intuitive, seemingly random methods to investigate a modern mystery linked to a legend of otherworldly horsemen who drive people to murder.

Honorable mentions:

M urder Below Montparnasse” by Cara Black (Soho).

“Hit Me” by Lawrence Block (Mulholland).

“The Fame Thief” by Timothy Hallinan (Soho).

“The Small Hand and Dolly” by Susan Hill (Vintage).

“Then We Take Berlin” by John Lawton (Atlantic Monthly).

“Pale Horses” by Jassy Mackenzie (Soho).

“Standing in Another Man’s Grave” by Ian Rankin (Little, Brown).

“Tatiana” by Martin Cruz Smith (Simon & Schuster).

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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