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Originally published December 11, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 11, 2008 at 10:41 AM

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The year's best mystery books

Seattle Times crime-fiction columnist Adam Woog's picks for best mysteries of 2008 include works by Tana French, Alan Furst, P.D. James, John le Carré, Richard Price and other authors whose books will keep readers turning the pages well into 2009.

Special to The Seattle Times

Choosing the year's best mysteries among all the books I've read this year is always tough — so many contenders, so little space! Still, we soldier on:

"The Likeness" by Tana French (Viking). A murder victim is the near-double of Dublin detective Cassie Maddox, and to find the killer Cassie "becomes" Lexie and joins her college roommates, concocting a story of survival. Truth and untruth then blur in this mesmerizing blend of cop story, character study and psychological suspense.

"The Spies of Warsaw" by Alan Furst (Random House). Furst still hits gold with his atmospheric, intelligent and heartfelt espionage novels set in Europe before and during World War II. Amid the chaos of Warsaw in 1937, the French embassy's military attaché protects a nervous German turncoat.

"The Private Patient" by P.D. James (Knopf). Top-notch work from a master. A journalist enters an exclusive hospital to lose a disfiguring scar — and is strangled in her bed after the operation. Enter Adam Dalgliesh, a Scotland Yard detective with a poet's soul, a keen eye for the truth and a steel spine. They don't call him Commander Dalgliesh for nothing.

"The Night Following" by Morag Joss (Delacorte). A driver accidentally kills an elderly bicyclist and leaves the scene. Overcome with guilt, she spies on the grieving widower, then starts sneaking in to cook and clean for him. The widower, increasingly unhinged, thinks his dead wife does the work. Psychological suspense at its most unsettling.

"Touchstone" by Laurie R. King (Bantam). In this smart and nuanced historical tale, an agent for the FBI's precursor hunts for an anarchist post-WWI. The search takes him to England and Bennett Grey, whose war injury gave him an unusual power — he knows, unerringly, if people are telling the truth.

"A Most Wanted Man" by John le Carré (Scribner). Espionage's reigning master chronicles the story of a Muslim refugee who feverishly insists that he owns a fortune concealed in a Hamburg bank. The intricacies of post-9/11 spydom around him pull a British banker and an idealistic German lawyer into this deft story.

"Another Thing to Fall" by Laura Lippman (Morrow). Smarty-pants private eye Tess Monaghan baby-sits a TV miniseries' wayward star. Tess — an irreverent, empathetic, and colorful storyteller — is a wonderful companion through Lippman's beloved Baltimore.

"L.A. Outlaws" by T. Jefferson Parker (Dutton). By night, a schoolteacher morphs into a high-end car thief. She loves educating teens almost as much as she loves donating much of her ill-gotten profit to charity. But this good bad girl enters a world of trouble when she stumbles on 10 dead guys and a fortune in diamonds.

"The Turnaround" by George Pelecanos (Little, Brown). Pelecanos is a virtuoso at finding the darker corners of love, loyalty, racism, rivalry and hope. Three white teens drive into a black neighborhood in D.C.; only two leave alive. Decades later the principals cross paths, with shattering results.

"Lush Life" by Richard Price (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Price has two degrees in dialogue and a Ph.D. in deadpan humor, and this brash, brainy, emotionally fluent book is serious literature that is also a wicked pleasure. In Manhattan's Lower East Side, where gentrification is pushing out ethnic groups, criminals and housing projects, a single event — a street robbery gone bad — lights a fuse that ignites the whole city.

"Exit Music" by Ian Rankin (Little, Brown). Tough copper John Rebus, days from retirement, is still incapable of playing nice with authorities. Trolling the seamy edges of Edinburgh, he investigates the death of an expatriate Russian poet. A splendid end to Rebus' long, gritty career.

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"Salt River" by James Sallis (Walker). Turner — ex-con and ex-therapist turned sheriff — is lounging around his Tennessee town, philosophizing with the local doctor, when the former sheriff's son crashes a car into City Hall. Hell of a note, and that's just the beginning of Turner's troubles in this lean, elegiac gem.

"This Night's Foul Work" by Fred Vargas (Penguin). Commissaire Adamsberg of the Paris police is a delight — sloppy, ironic and an intuitive genius at connecting seemingly random events. He grapples here with murdered drug dealers, an "angel of death," animal mutilations in rustic Normandy and a vengeful fellow from his past.

Honorable mentions

"Hit and Run" by Lawrence Block (Morrow); "Nothing to Lose" by Lee Child (Delacorte); "The Brass Verdict" by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown); "Sins of the Assassin" by Robert Ferrigno (Scribner); "Cold In Hand" by John Harvey (Harcourt); "House Rules" by Mike Lawson (Atlantic); "The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday" by Alexander McCall Smith (Pantheon); "Dirty Money" by Richard Stark (Grand Central); "The Big Both Ways" by John Straley (Alaska Northwest); "The Dawn Patrol" by Don Winslow (Knopf); "An Incomplete Revenge" by Jacqueline Winspear (Holt).

Seattle writer Adam Woog's column

on crime fiction appears on the second Sunday of the month in The Seattle Times.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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