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Find more The Year's Best Crime Novels
So what kind of a year has it been in crime fiction? There has been lots of genre bending, that’s for sure, with the distinctions between crime, horror, and urban fantasy becoming more and more fluid as the vampires, zombies, and shape-shifters jump from genre to genre like the former headmasters of Hogwarts strolling between paintings. Beyond that, though, mainstream crime writers have done what they always do: turn out superior work in a multitude of styles and degrees of light and dark. Eight of our 20 honored titles star cops of one kind or another, with the remaining 12 split between PIs, amateur sleuths, and ordinary Joes and Janes trapped in one hellish nightmare or another.
There is a perfect split in the top 10 among first-timers and repeaters, with Louise Penny (Bury Your Dead) extending her streak to three years in a row. She’s joined on the repeater roll by Kate Atkinson (Started Early, Took My Dog—the year’s catchiest title, hands down), Jo Nesbo (The Snowman), Henning Mankell (The Troubled Man), and the late, great Robert B. Parker (Painted Ladies).
Our work here is done, but yours is only beginning, just in time for the summer reading season.
The Anniversary Man. By R. J. Ellory. 2010. Overlook, $24.95 (9781590203279).
NYPD Detective Ray Irving—overworked, underpaid, and absolutely dedicated to his job—risks his sense of ethics and, ultimately, his life to track down a serial killer who is imitating the crimes of some of the worst monsters in history. Entirely free of formula, Ellory’s breakthrough procedural should give him the kind of acclaim in the U.S. that he enjoys in his native Britain.
Bury Your Dead. By Louis Penny. 2010. Minotaur, $24.99 (9780312377045).
Penny’s sixth Armande Gamache novel is her best yet, a true tour de force of storytelling. Juggling three freestanding but subtly intertwined stories, Penny moves seamlessly from present to past as Gamache, the chief inspector of the Sûreté du Quebec, investigates a murder in Quebec City, tries to determine if he jailed the wrong man in an earlier case, and struggles with his memories of a third case that went horribly wrong. Penny hits every note perfectly in what is one of the most elaborately constructed mysteries in years.
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. By Tom Franklin. Morrow, $24.95 (9780060594664).
Silas and Larry, two poor kids in 1970s Mississippi, were close until they drifted apart after Larry’s date disappeared one night and never returned. Now, 20 years later, Silas is the new town constable, and another girl disappears in similar circumstances. Edgar winner Franklin delivers luminous prose and a cast of unforgettable characters in this moody, masterful mix of crime and literary fiction.
Gone. By Mo Hayder. 2011. Atlantic Monthly, $23 (9780802119643).
In this fifth riveting entry in Hayder’s series starring haunted homicide detective Jack Caffery, the disappearance of an 11-year-old girl leaves police playing catch-up against an adversary who seems to anticipate all their moves. The meticulously crafted plot is heightened by Hayder’s skillful evocation of mood in this utterly gripping thriller.
Painted Ladies. By Robert B. Parker. 2010. Putnam, $26.95 (9780399156854).
Are we honoring the late Parker’s career here or is this really one of his best books in its own right? Well, both. His penultimate Spenser novel captures all the charm of the landmark series. The iconic Boston PI can still nail a person’s foibles on first meeting, still whip up a gourmet meal in a few minutes, still dispatch the thugs who haunt his office and his home, and still do it all while maintaining a fierce love of Susan Silverman and English poetry. Parker was one of the first to show us that a hard-boiled hero doesn’t have to frown all the time, and we’ve been smiling along with Spenser ever since.
The Snowman. By Jo Nesbo. Tr. by Don Bartlett. 2011. Knopf, $25.95 (9780307595867).
Norway’s maverick detective Harry Hole is back in this fourth installment of Nesbo’s uniformly outstanding series. A new case puts Harry on the track of another serial killer, and once again his obsessive approach to crime-solving puts him at odds with his peers. Nesbo layers the suspense skillfully, deftly mixing scenes from the investigation with glimpses into Harry’s always compelling personal life. With the conclusion of Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series, the Harry Hole novels now assume the top spot in the Scandinavian crime-fiction universe.
Spiral. By Paul McEuen. 2011. Dial, $25 (9780385342117).
Cornell physicist McEuen, writing his first novel in his “spare time,” may have created the most engrossing thriller of the year. With the murder of an 85-year-old physicist, it’s left to one of his colleagues, the victim’s granddaughter, and her nine-year-old son to thwart a complex scheme to launch the “most devastating terrorist attack in human history.” McEuen offers lucid disquisitions on science; posits that “synthetic biology” will surpass silicon microelectronics as the next big technological wave; and, remarkably, he makes these ideas accessible to the average thriller fan.
Started Early, Took My Dog. By Kate Atkinson. 2011. Little, Brown/Reagan Arthur, $24.99 (9780316066730).
In the latest entry in Atkinson’s brilliant Jackson Brodie series, the semiretired detective is touring abbeys in northern England, but soon enough he becomes involved in several interrelated cases, one of which concerns a police detective who has rescued a child from a prostitute by paying cash for her. Her odyssey as a new parent, relayed with tenderness and wry wit, must be one of the grandest love affairs in crime fiction. For its singular melding of radiant humor and dark deeds, this is must-reading for fans of literary crime fiction.
The Terrorist. By Peter Steiner. 2010. Minotaur, $23.99 (9780312373443).
American expat Louis Morgon’s retirement in a Loire Valley village is upset by cancer and by the life he left decades before. The former CIA agent has helped a young Algerian boy get a scholarship, but now the boy has been deposited in a secret prison. Weakened by cancer, Louis must uncover valuable information about al-Qaeda that he can trade for the boy’s release. The Terrorist is a deeply human story of a man in the last years of his life, who, unexpectedly, has again found love but who is sucked back into a cynical, dangerous milieu he abhors. An espionage gem with strong echoes of Greene and le Carré.
The Troubled Man. By Henning Mankell. Tr. by Laurie Thompson. 2011. Knopf, $25.95 (9780307593498).
The final volume in Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series represents a landmark moment in the genre. As Wallander strives to find his daughter-in-law’s disappeared father, he launches another, more poignant investigation into his own past. This is a deeply melancholy novel, but Mankell, sweeping gracefully between reflections on international politics and meditations on the inevitable arc of human life, never lets his story become engulfed by darkness. Always a reticent man, Wallander shows an intensity of emotion here, a last gasp of felt life, which is both moving and oddly inspiring.
Top 10 First Crime Novels
The Black Minutes. By Martín Solares. 2010. Black Cat, $14 (9780802170682).
The sheer exuberant inventiveness of this remarkable Mexican debut may mystify some American crime-fiction fans, used to tamer fare. Set in the made-up port city of Paracuán, on the Gulf of Mexico, the story starts in present time, with policeman Ramón “El Macetón” Cabrera assigned to investigate a journalist’s murder. Soon, though, the story leaps back in time to another investigation in the 1970s. As the plot paths converge, we see how the tragic past becomes the tragic present, but it’s Solares’ prose—alternately playful, poetic, and plainspoken—that propels the pages.
Crossing. By Andrew Xia Fukuda. 2010. AmazonEncore, $12.95 (9781935597032).
It’s freshman year for Kris Xu, but the usual indignities have followed him to high school: bullying, racism, and underestimation. Then two things happen: he stumbles into an audition for the school musical, and other students start turning up dead. In this carefully observed, remarkably deft debut, Fukuda wraps his thriller plot around Kris’ sense of racial and emotional identity. Sad, elegant, and creepy.
The Detroit Electric Scheme. By D. E. Johnson. 2010. Minotaur, $24.99 (9780312644567).
In 1910 Detroit, Will Anderson’s father owns the electric-car factory where Will finds the body of a onetime friend and rival. As Will narrates the sordid details, the finger of blame points in all directions. The surprise ending leaves you gasping over Johnson’s masterful plotting and the menacing tension that forces otherwise good characters to behave despicably. A noir period piece every bit as powerful as Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley series, this gem of a debut showcases an author to watch very closely.
The Ice Princess. By Camilla Lackberg. Tr. by Steven Murray. 2010. Pegasus, $25.95 (9781605980928).
Murray, who has translated the works of both Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson, adds another Scandinavian crime star to his résumé. While visiting her hometown on the Swedish coast, Erica finds one of her oldest friends dead and begins to poke around in his past. Set in winter in the largely empty vacation village, the novel uses the off-season quiet to create a chilling atmosphere in which silence drives suspense.
Kind of Blue. By Miles Corwin. 2010. Oceanview, $25.95 (9781608090075).
Shortly after leaving the LAPD, Ash Levine is lured back to solve the murder of an ex-cop, but his real reason for returning is the opportunity to dig into another case, the one that led to his resignation. Corwin’s procedural details are spot-on, but he also knows how to generate adrenaline-producing action, and he gets into the very heart and soul of his multifaceted protagonist.
Mr. Peanut. By Adam Ross. 2010. Knopf, $25.95 (9780307270702).
Despite the fact that David declares that he has been in love with wife Alice ever since he first spotted her in a film class, he is continually imagining her death via everything from carjackings to “convenient acts of God.” Naturally, when she is found dead at the kitchen table, he is the leading suspect. Ross is interested in all the soul-killing ways men and women try and fail to achieve intimacy, and he explores his age-old theme (marriage as one “long double homicide”) in eloquent prose and with a beguiling noirish sensibility.
Red on Red. By Edward Conlon. 2011. Spiegel & Grau, $36 (9780385519175).
Former NYPD cop Conlon wrote about his experiences in the memoir Blue Blood (2004), and now, like Joseph Wambaugh, he turns to fiction with equally strong results. This gritty, episodic chronicle follows Irishman Meehan and his partner Esposito as they work their beat in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood. Conlon captures the herky-jerky nature of a policeman’s daily routine as it swings between farce and tragedy, all the while detailing the way cops talk, joke, and stress.
Rogue Island. By Bruce DeSilva. 2010. Tor, $24.99 (9780765327260).
Journalist Liam Mulligan launches his own investigation into the arsons that are crippling the Mount Hope section of Providence. DeSilva’s debut has everything a crime fan could want: a stubborn, street-smart hero with a snarky sense of humor; a fast-paced plot; a realistic, postmillennium newspaper setting; mean, pot-holed streets; and, best of all, a knowing portrait of a small city and a tiny state famous for jiggery-pokery and corruption.
First-novelist McEuen pulls off a rare Booklist double-double: listings on both our top 10 crime novels of the year and our top 10 debuts. See annotation above.
The Terror of Living. By Urban Waite. 2011. Little, Brown, $24.95 (9780316097895).
Phil Hunt, a horse farmer in Washington State, supplements his income with a little low-impact drug smuggling. When a deputy marshal stumbles upon a drop-off, however, Hunt finds himself playing Richard Kimble to the marshal’s Lieutenant Gerard, with a psycho-killer hit man somewhere in the middle. In a blood-spattered chase that winds from the mountains to Seattle and back again, Waite never eases the throttle, but even at high speed, it’s the interplay between the characters that gives the novel its rare power.
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