The best novels with memorable, morally complicated characters

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a former magazine journalist and nonfiction book writer who now only writes crime novels. I try to write about a world that exists in varying degrees and shades of black and white. The characters in my books are flawed, sometimes deeply, trying their best to navigate a complex world while grappling with their own psychological and emotional scars. As a result, they often make decisions that wind up not being in their (or anyone else’s) best interest. In trying to breathe life into these characters, I get to know them better than I know myself, and it’s this I think allows me to admire the five books I’ve chosen.

I wrote...

Second Story Man

By Charles Salzberg,

Book cover of Second Story Man

What is my book about?

Francis Hoyt, arrogant, athletic, brilliant, manipulative, ruthless is a master burglar who specializes in stealing high-end jewelry, breaking into homes that seem impenetrable while his victims are in the house. Although he did a stint in prison, he’s never been caught in the act. Recently retired Connecticut State investigator, Charlie Floyd, brilliant, and just as ruthless as Hoyt, teams up with Manny Perez, a strait-laced Cuban-American Miami police detective, in an effort to bring Hoyt to justice. Told in alternating chapters, Second Story Man is a cat-and-mouse thriller as the two lawmen are pitted against this master burglar. Having been compared to Michael Mann’s To Live and Die in L.A., Second Story Man won the Beverly Hills Book Award and was nominated for a Shamus Award and a David Award.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Carolina Moonset

Charles Salzberg Why did I love this book?

Matt Goldman has led an interesting career. His roots are in comedy, having been a successful Hollywood TV writer on shows like Seinfeld, The New Adventures of Old Christine, and Ellen. But he made the unlikely career shift becoming a successful crime writer with his Nils Shapiro detective series. Carolina Moonset, his latest, is a standalone novel that tells the story of a young man who visits his family in his childhood home, Beaufort, South Carolina. His father suffers from Lewy Body dementia. He has trouble remembering what he had for breakfast but still connects to rich, childhood memories, some of which concern both a past and present-day crime.

Goldman is especially strong when it comes to depicting a family torn apart by the ravages of this insidious disease. But Goldman skillfully creates a mystery that grabs the reader and won’t let go. As someone who fortunately hasn’t had personal experiences with the devastating effects of disintegration of memory, my own or close family, it provides a dramatic example of how sad, frustrating and destructive this kind of disease can be, and how a simple act from the past reverberates years later.

By Matt Goldman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Carolina Moonset as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Both suspenseful and deeply moving, Carolina Moonset is an engrossing novel about family, memories both golden and terrible, and secrets too dangerous to stay hidden forever, from New York Times bestselling and Emmy Award-winning author, Matt Goldman.

Joey Green has returned to Beaufort, South Carolina, with its palmettos and shrimp boats, to look after his ailing father, who is succumbing to dementia, while his overstressed mother takes a break. Marshall Green’s short-term memory has all but evaporated, but, as if in compensation, his oldest memories are more vivid than ever. His mind keeps slipping backwards in time, retreating into long-ago…

Book cover of Where It Hurts

Charles Salzberg Why did I love this book?

Reed Farrel Coleman, called “a hard-boiled poet,” and a “noir laureate” has written somewhere in the neighborhood of thirty crime novels, including a number of Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone novels. One of my favorites is Where it Hurts, which features divorced, retired cop Gus Murphy who’s picked up part-time work as a courtesy van driver for a run-down hotel. The only thing that interrupts his mindless routine comes when ex-con Tommy Delcamino asks Gus to investigate the mysterious death of his son. Coleman is particularly strong when it comes to character. This book especially resonates with me because of Coleman’s ability to dig deep inside his character’s psyche, not only examining how they tick but why they tick. His books, especially this one, are tightly plotted but for me the real attraction is his examination of personal, moral dilemmas. I’m especially attracted to and admiring of Coleman’s books, especially this one, because, as in my book, I try hard to create characters who struggle with personal issues that color their behavior, sometimes for the good but often for the not-so-good.

By Reed Farrel Coleman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Where It Hurts as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Nominated for the 2017 Edgar Award for Best Novel

From the critically acclaimed and award-winning author comes a gritty, atmospheric new series about the other side of Long Island, far from the wealth of the Hamptons, where real people live—and die. 
Gus Murphy thought he had the world all figured out. A retired Suffolk County cop, Gus had everything a man could want: a great marriage, two kids, a nice house, and the rest of his life ahead of him. But when tragedy strikes, his life is thrown into complete disarray. In the course of a single deadly moment, his…

Book cover of Buzz Killer

Charles Salzberg Why did I love this book?

Tom Straw is another one who came to crime writing via a circuitous route. For many years, he’s been a very successful TV writer for shows like Night Court, Nurse Jackie, Grace Under Fire, Craig Ferguson (he still is) but when asked to become “Richard Castle,” the fictional crime writer who works alongside a New York City female cop for the ABC-TV series Castle, he said yes and immediately became a best-selling crime writer. Buzz Killer is the first novel he wrote under his own name and he makes good use of all those skills he honed as a TV writer. NYC public defender Maci Wild takes on the homicide case of a burglar the tabloids call the Buzz Killer because of MO of lobby-buzzing apartments to select his targets. She forms a partnership with Gunnar Cody, an ex-cop from NYPD’s elite surveillance unit. Along the way, they cross paths with a bunch of weird characters. Straw knows how to not only hold onto an audience, but how to give them a wild ride to a surprising conclusion. Like Straw, I try populating my books with unique characters—one of my novels, based on a true mass murder, is told in the first person by two dozen different narrators. Straw has a rare gift of having the ability to make every character different in his or her own way.

By Tom Straw,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Buzz Killer as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From Tom Straw, the author of seven New York Times Bestsellers writing as Richard Castle, comes BUZZ KILLER, his first mystery since the Nikki Heat series.

New York City public defender Macie Wild takes the homicide case of a burglar the tabloids nickname the Buzz Killer for his MO of lobby-buzzing apartments to select his targets. But when he is the victim of an attempted jailhouse killing and then someone tries to kill Macie, her murder case reveals itself to be something bigger.

Stonewalled by a hostile DA and shut down by a code of silence from the Buzz Killer’s…

Book cover of Monument Road

Charles Salzberg Why did I love this book?

This is the first in the Franky Dast series and it was nominated for a Shamus Award. Dast was convicted and sentenced to Death Row when he was 18, for the rape and murder of two adolescent boys. Eight years later, the verdict is overturned, in part as a result of the relationship Dast has established with the Justice Now Initiative, an organization specializing in cases of wrongful imprisonment. On his release, Dast joins the group and becomes involved in a case that hits close to home: the cop who arrested and coerced a confession from him is accused of shooting the son of a prominent judge. In Dast, Wiley has created the kind of complex character I’m drawn to, both as a writer and a reader. Wiley’s ability to dive deep into the psyche of complicated characters is something I’m always striving for.

By Michael Wiley,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Monument Road as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Introducing former death-row inmate turned private investigator Franky Dast in the first of an intriguing new crime noir series. Having spent eight years on death row for a crime he didn't commit, Franky Dast now works as an investigator for the Justice Now Initiative, seeking to help others in the same situation. But when he learns that Bill Higby, the detective whose testimony helped convict him, is facing his own murder charge, Franky is torn. Should he help the man he hates more than any other, the man who remains convinced of Franky's guilt to this day? As Franky delves…

Book cover of The Line That Held Us

Charles Salzberg Why did I love this book?

David Joy, an Edgar Award finalist for his first novel, Where All the Light Tends to Go, is a master of character, mood, and setting. This novel is set in Appalachia and immediately we’re pulled into a dangerous world that has its own set of fierce rules for survival. The novel opens with Darl Moody hunting for a monster buck which if snagged can mean the difference between meat for the winter and an empty freezer. Hunting for men like Moody is not about sport but survival. Unfortunately, he’s followed his prey onto private land, where not only shouldn’t he be but where he certainly be hunting. When he accidentally kills not a buck but a man—it turns out he’s killed a Brewer, a member of a family notorious for vengeance and violence—his life is turned upside down and it’s touch and go as to whether he’ll survive. From here, the plot takes off and never lets go, presenting moral, ethical, and practical issues that ultimately become a matter of life and death. Joy’s characters straddle the same moral line as the characters in my book, each of whom has to make hard choices that bend the usual ethical and moral code we’re supposed to live by.

By David Joy,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Line That Held Us as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An accidental death, and the cover-up that follows, sparks a dark series of events that reverberates through the lives of four people who will never be the same again.

When Darl Moody went hunting after a monster buck, a kill that could make the difference between meat for the winter and an empty freezer, he never expected he'd accidentally shoot a man digging ginseng. Worse yet, he's killed a Brewer, a family notorious for vengeance and violence. 

With nowhere to turn, Darl calls on the help of the only man he knows will answer, his best friend, Calvin Hooper. But…

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A Theory of Expanded Love

By Caitlin Hicks,

Book cover of A Theory of Expanded Love

Caitlin Hicks Author Of A Theory of Expanded Love

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

My life and work have been profoundly affected by the central circumstance of my existence: I was born into a very large military Catholic family in the United States of America. As a child surrounded by many others in the 60s, I wrote, performed, and directed family plays with my numerous brothers and sisters. Although I fell in love with a Canadian and moved to Canada, my family of origin still exerts considerable personal influence. My central struggle, coming from that place of chaos, order, and conformity, is to have the courage to live an authentic life based on my own experience of connectedness and individuality, to speak and be heard. 

Caitlin's book list on coming-of-age books that explore belonging, identity, family, and beat with an emotional and/or humorous pulse

What is my book about?

Trapped in her enormous, devout Catholic family in 1963, Annie creates a hilarious campaign of lies when the pope dies and their family friend, Cardinal Stefanucci, is unexpectedly on the shortlist to be elected the first American pope.

Driven to elevate her family to the holiest of holy rollers in the parish, Annie is tortured by her own dishonesty. But when “The Hands” visits her in her bed and when her sister finds herself facing a scandal, Annie discovers her parents will do almost anything to uphold their reputation and keep their secrets safe. 

Questioning all she has believed and torn between her own gut instinct and years of Catholic guilt, Annie takes courageous risks to wrest salvation from the tragic sequence of events set in motion by her parents’ betrayal.

A Theory of Expanded Love

By Caitlin Hicks,

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