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January 1&15, 2017 BOOKLIST
Find more The Year's Best Crime Novels
Series versus stand-alone, hard-boiled versus cozy, historical versus contemporary, a carefully planned menu versus potluck? Picking the best crime novels of the year is no easy trick. There is so much to consider beyond the book in front of you, which is why we choose to forget all that, just pick our favorites, and let them stand together.
That’s what we did, and it worked out pretty well. Our top 10 includes six stand-alones, two series entries, and two books that seem to be the first volumes in new series. There are three titles set in the past, six in the present, and one in the future; four take place in the U.S., with one each in Budapest, Quebec, Ireland, France, England, and Mexico. It’s true there are no true cozies in our top 10, but there are no unabashed noirs either.
Our Best Crime Debuts (the second list below) is even more of a mixed bag, which is abundantly clear if you look at the protagonists. Yes, there are two Italian cops, but there is also a scientist, a bond analyst, a Chinese cryptographer, a garbage collector, a fisherman, a lexicographer, and a delusional homeless man. Imagine having that crew over for cocktails.
The books on these lists were reviewed in Booklist from May 1, 2013, through April 15, 2014. No, that’s not a calendar year, but it is a Booklist crime fiction year. Happy New Year!
Top 10 Crime Fiction
The Cairo Affair. By Olen Steinhauer. 2014. Minotaur, $26.95 (9781250036131).
Steinhauer follows his acclaimed Milo Weaver trilogy with a stand-alone that is as emotionally rich as it is layered with intrigue. A career diplomat is shot dead in Budapest in front of his disbelieving wife, who is determined to find out why. This complex tale leaves us with the feeling that, despite all the information won, lost, hoarded, and put to use, the world of intelligence is no stronger than the fragile, fallible human beings who navigate it.
How the Light Gets In. By Louise Penny. 2013. Minotaur, $25.99 (9780312655471).
Chief Inspector Armand Gamache has a new case involving the murder of the last surviving sister of quintuplets, a woman with ties to Three Pines, the idyllic, off-the-grid village outside Montreal where several of Gamache’s previous adventures have been set. The novel not only puts Gamache in harm’s way but also exposes Three Pines to defilement—a cozy setting under attack from a decidedly hard-boiled world. Another bravura performance from the magnificent Penny.
In the Morning I’ll Be Gone. By Adrian McKinty. 2014. Prometheus/Seventh Street, $15.95 (9781616148775).
This powerful conclusion to McKinty’s Troubles trilogy finds Royal Ulster Constabulary detective Sean Duffy tracking a childhood friend, now an IRA leader, who has escaped from prison. To find his friend, Duffy must first solve a locked-room mystery. McKinty’s exceptionally smart police procedural brilliantly sets a familiar device from the Golden Age of British mysteries against the gritty backdrop of 1980s Belfast.
Natchez Burning. By Greg Iles. 2014. Morrow, $27.99 (9780062311078).
After learning that his father is to be charged with murder, Penn Cage, mayor of Natchez, Mississippi, digs into the past and discovers long-buried secrets about his community and his own family. This first in a planned trilogy represents perhaps the author’s finest work, with remarkably sharp characterizations and a story of deep emotional resonance.
Night Film. By Marisha Pessl. 2013. Random, $28 (9781400067886).
When piano prodigy Ashley Cordova is found dead in New York, an apparent suicide, investigative reporter Scott McGrath attempts to penetrate the heart of darkness that engulfs the dead woman’s father, notorious film director Stanislas Cordova. Pessl’s writing is always under control in this multifaceted, byzantine exploration of truth and illusion, and her characters draw us fully into the maelstrom of the story.
An Officer and a Spy. 2014. By Robert R. Harris. Knopf, $27.95 (9780385349581).
Harris’ instantly absorbing thriller reanimates the Dreyfus Affair of 1895 through the character of Colonel Georges Picquart, who exposed the conspiracy to frame Dreyfus for supplying the Germans with French Army secrets. Best-selling historical novelist Harris looks behind a well-known event to find a world of fascinating detail and remarkably complex intrigue.
The Orphan Choir. By Sophie Hannah. 2014. Picador, $25 (9781250041029).
Teetering on the edge of sanity, Louise Beeston retreats to a country home in England, hoping to escape the haunting choir music she hears continually. This riveting stand-alone, in which suspense snowballs to a climax that is all the more dire for its everyday contemporary English setting, is absolutely haunting, in every sense of the word.
The Rules of Wolfe. By James Carlos Blake. 2013. Mysterious, $24 (9780802121295).
Building on his quasi-autobiographical saga Country of the Bad Wolfes (2012), Blake uses the characters of his sprawling Mexican American clan to offer a new spin on the hard-edged outlaw tale. The Wolfe family succeeds in cross-border smuggling by following rules, but young Eddie has broken a bunch of them and is now on the run from a drug cartel. Blake’s prose is muscular, his details are keenly observed, and his plot offers one hell of a ride.
Shovel Ready. By Adam Sternbergh. 2014. Crown, $24 (9780385348997).
This galvanizing debut thriller boasts a compelling antiheroic protagonist—a garbage collector turned hit man—and a vividly evoked landscape in which Manhattan is reeling from a dirty bomb. Mixing edgy science and urban noir with a Palahniuk swagger, Sternbergh creates flesh-and-blood characters who bring humor and a resilient humanity to their torn-asunder world.
The Thicket. By Joe R. Lansdale. 2013. Little, Brown/Mulholland, $26 (9780316188456).
In this turn-of-the-century coming-of-age tale, 16-year-old Jack Parker—accompanied by a pair of eccentric bounty hunters—tracks the outlaws who have killed his parents and abducted his sister. The trail leads the trio deep into the primordial and lawless deep woods of East Texas’ Big Thicket. Memorable characters, a vivid sense of place, and an impressive body count make The Thicket another Lansdale treasure.
Best Crime Fiction Debuts
The Abomination. By Jonathan Holt. 2013. Harper, $25.99 (9780062264336).
This remarkable debut starts off like a lot of Venetian crime novels, with a body found in a canal, but it quickly leads Carabinieri captain Kat Tapo and American army lieutenant Holly Boland into much deeper and more treacherous waters than even Venetians are accustomed to. Think Dan Brown without the clunky prose and the pompous PhD hero but with the fascinating mix of history, paranoia, and real-life terror.
The Ascendant. By Drew Chapman. 2014. Simon & Schuster, $25 (9781476725888).
When bond analyst Garrett Reilly spots a massive off-loading of U.S. Treasury bonds by the Chinese, he’s expecting impending riches, but he’s about to become the target of assassins from his own government. Chapman skillfully renders complex technology and political ideology accessible, smoothly folding it into a high-octane narrative.
The Curiosity. By Stephen P. Kiernan. 2013. Morrow, $25.99 (9780062221063).
In this smart, irresistible science thriller, newbie scientist Kate Philo makes an astounding find in the Arctic—a frozen man, who is successfully brought back to life. Kiernan gets every element right in this breakneck and thought-provoking tale about the ethics of science and the meaning of life.
Decoded. By Mai Jia. Tr. by Olivia Milburn. 2014. Farrar, $26 (9780374135805).
Yan-Shi, an aging Chinese code-cracker, views his life labor as “a sort of madness that pulls you close to insanity and to genius.” We skate that line separating insanity from genius in this riveting tale of cryptographic warfare. In a narrative challenging readers to do their own decoding of its ruptures and inversions, Mai leaves us pondering the collective sanity of a world shrouding knowledge in enigmas.
The Deliverance of Evil. By Roberto Constantini. Tr. by N. S. Thompson. 2014. Quercus, $26.95 (9781623650025).
Bracketed by World Cup fever, first in 1986 and then in 2006, this first in a highly anticipated trilogy, set in Rome, delivers a highly complex tale of corruption that encompasses the Vatican, the police, and the Italian government. The antiheroic lead character, an Italian policeman in search of personal redemption, evokes Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen.
The Last of the Smoking Bartenders. 2013. By C. J. Howell. New Pulp, $14.95 (9780985578688).
Tom, who may be a delusional homeless man, faces many obstacles in his crusade to prevent terrorists from blowing up Hoover Dam. Howell’s character-driven debut features a Crumleyesque road trip through dying tank towns in Utah, Arizona, and Nevada. His portrait of six-lane-wide main streets and mobile homes baking under a nuclear sun will stay with readers for a long, long time.
North of Boston. By Elisabeth Elo. 2014. Viking/Paula Dorman, $27.95 (9780670015658).
A fishing boat is demolished by an outlaw ship that somehow vanishes after the collision. One of the survivors, Pirio Kasparov, sets out to determine what happened and why. There’s something of Erin Brockovich in Pirio’s hell-bent fury to find the truth, but she is a more compelling character, combining a surly sexiness with a penchant for melancholy reflection.
Precious Thing. By Colette McBeth. 2014. Minotaur, $24.99 (9781250041197).
When they met in high school, awkward Rachel and beautiful Clara formed an unlikely bond. Now the question is whether Clara, who has disappeared, is trying to frame Rachel, or whether Rachel has gone mad. McBeth’s Gone Girl–style psychological thriller will be an instant hit with readers who favor dark drama with possibly unreliable narrators.
Sternbergh, culture editor for the New York Times Magazine, hits the debut author jackpot by landing his gripping dystopian thriller on both our Top 10 and Best Crime Fiction Debut lists. See annotation above.
The Word Exchange. By Alena Graedon. 2014. Doubleday, $26.95 (9780385537650).
What if we became so dependent on our gadgets that we lost our ability to speak? That’s the big idea in Graedon’s entertainingly scary debut, a bibliothriller of epidemic proportions. Combining a vividly imagined future with a fondly remembered past, the novel offers a chilling prediction of where our unthinking reliance on technology is leading us.
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