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Find more The Year's Best Crime Novels
In addition to being the title of one of this year’s 10 best crime novels, Down into Darkness also captures the mood of much of our list. Before all you cozy fans start writing letters of protest, let’s face this issue squarely. As crime fiction continues to attract more and more writers of a distinctly literary bent who want to use the genre to build multifaceted characters and to explore sensitive social issues and address questions of profound moral ambiguity, it is almost inevitable that darker worldviews and less formulaic plots will come to dominate “best” lists. Our annual top 10 list is not a roundup of subgenres; it’s one magazine’s opinion as to the richest crime fiction of the year, and given who’s writing crime novels today and what they’re writing about, it’s a simple fact that the dice are loaded, for the moment at least, in the direction of darker, more complex fare. But don’t get us wrong: sometimes a good cozy hits the spot just perfectly. Just not this year on this list.
With outstanding new entries in long-running series now occupying their own category (see below), the field is opened considerably to new or relatively new talent, and sure enough, this year’s top 10 is dominated by writers who are making their first appearance on our annual honor roll. Only Kent Harrington has appeared on the top 10 before, his Red Jungle (2005) preparing the soil for this year’s The Good Physician. That leaves nine new faces—at least new to this list—and what a stellar group it is.
Domenic Stansberry has been turning out superior hard-boiled fare for some years, but he’s really hit his stride with the Dante Mancuso series, the third of which, The Ancient Rain, leads off our list. Like Stansberry, John Burdett is hardly a new name to mystery fans, and it was inevitable that an installment in his Sonchai Jitpleecheep series, starring the Bangkok police detective and brothel owner, would find this list eventually. Similarly, we spotted David Lawrence’s Stella Mooney series a few years ago and named The Dead Sit round in a Ring to our best crime debut list in May 2005. Now Lawrence takes the next step upward with, ironically, Down into Darkness. Like Lawerence, Olen Steinhauer has been lurking about on the fringes of our top 10 list for quite a while, having been named as one of our emerging espionage stars in both 2006 and 2007. With Victory Square slipping into the top 10, his emerging days are over. So, too, for South African Deon Meyer, who has quietly been amassing starred reviews until his breakthrough this year with Devil’s Peak.
The rest of the top 10 belongs to genuine new faces. Chelsea Cain jumped from a Nancy Drew parody to one of the most original serial-killer novels in many years with Heartsick; Jo Nesbo, long a star in Norway, became the latest Scandinavian to hit the U.S. ground running with The Redbreast; Mark Frost—after a hiatus from writing thrillers during which he turned to golf history—returned to crime with a flourish in The Second Objective, about a German plot to assassinate Eisenhower; and, finally, Ronan Bennett gives us murder in 1914 Russia in Zugzwang.
Those 10 novels, along with our 6 best crime fiction debuts and 5 best new installments in long-running series, should be more than enough to take mystery fans through a full course of summer reading. The sunshine and the sand in your shoes should help offset any lingering effects from Lawrence’s darkness, Stansberry’s ancient rain, and Cain’s heartsickness. —Bill Ott
The Ancient Rain. By Domenic Stansberry. 2008. St. Martin’s/Minotaur, $24.95 (9780312364533).
The third volume in Stansberry’s Dante Mancuso series again draws effectively on the rich history of San Francisco’s North Beach. Mancuso resurrects old wounds and simmering resentments as he investigates a politically charged case in which a fellow PI is charged with a murder during a bank robbery more than 30 years earlier. What makes Stansberry stand out from the crowd is the genuine noir sensibility he brings to his work, that overwhelming feeling that things will, even must, go wrong.
. By John Burdett. 2007. Knopf, $24.95 (9780307263186).
Burdett’s third Sonchai Jitpleecheep novel, starring the Bangkok police detective and co-owner, with his mother, of a brothel in the city’s notorious District 8, builds on the exquisite moral ambiguity implicit in both setting and hero with his tightest plot yet and an even more potent mix of underworld seaminess, startling tenderness, and Buddhist wisdom. Sonchai—an improbable mix of East and West, the fact-seeking investigator meets the tranquil Buddhist—may be the genre’s most intriguing sleuth.
Devil’s Peak. By Deon Meyer. Tr. by T. L. Seegers. 2008. Little, Brown, $24.99 (9780316017855).
A former counterintelligence operative for the anti-apartheid movement, Thobela Mpayipheli, turns vigilante after his son is killed and begins murdering pedophiles. With Thobela becoming a folk hero in Cape Town, the police need to capture him quickly. Meyer weds his plot to deeper social issues and to flawed but compelling characters in a novel that is almost unbearably suspenseful.
Down into Darkness
. By David Lawrence. 2007. St. Martin’s/Minotaur/Thomas Dunne, $24.95 (9780312347420).
Stella Mooney, the tough London cop at the center of Lawrence’s noir-driven series, is merely one in a cast of uniformly strong players—Lawrence treats good guys and bad, leads and bit parts, with the same respect, showing interest in their strengths and weaknesses, and especially in their fears. An award-winning poet, Lawrence uses spare language to create images that hint at the very mysteries of life.
The Good Physician
. By Kent Harrington. 2008. Dennis McMillan, $35 (9780939767601).
Harrington’s unflinching examination of the humanity of the terrorist and the inhumanity of terrorism follows the transformation of a doctor at the American embassy in Mexico City, who is also a diffident CIA employee, from dilettante to reluctant antiterrorist to disgusted man of action. A powerful yet remarkably subtle novel in which Harrington heaps plagues upon all the ideological houses whose bombs spray their shrapnel across our landscape.
Heartsick. By Chelsea Cain. 2007. St. Martin’s/Minotaur, $23.95 (9780312368463).
In one of the most original serial-killer thriller to appear in years, Cain combines Portland, Oregon, cop Archie Sheridan’s investigation into the death of several high-school girls with a psychodrama involving Sheridan’s relationship with a notorious sociopath, now in prison, who captured and tortured him before, inexplicably, letting him live. Cain never misses a beat here, turning the psychological screws ever tighter and introducing us to the genre’s most compelling villain since Hannibal Lecter.
The Redbreast. By Jo Nesbo. Tr. by Don Bartlett. 2007. HarperCollins, $24.95 (9780061133992).
Nesbo has been among Norway’s leading crime-fiction writers for the last decade, and his American debut shows why. Moving from World War II into the early days of the new century, the novel unfurls a complex plot in which the wounds of history continue to bleed in the present. The hero, alcoholic Oslo police detective Harry Hole, while akin to many similarly melancholic modern cops, carves a place of distinction for himself in a crowded field.
The Second Objective
. By Mark Frost. 2007. Hyperion, $24.95 (9781401302221).
Frost’s full-throttle World War II thriller draws on an actual Nazi scheme to send English-speaking Germans behind the lines prior to the Battle of the Bulge, adding the fictional component of a “second objective”: an elite corps tasked with assassinating Eisenhower. Frost builds character beautifully—including an American-born German who wants no part of killing Ike—and manages to generate incredible suspense in the face of historical fact.
. By Olen Steinhauer. 2007. St. Martin’s/Minotaur, $24.95 (9780312369712).
In the final installment of Steinhauer’s masterful Eastern European series, set in 1989, Emil Brod, now chief of the People’s Militia, must find out why his name is on a hit list while dodging riots and sniper fire. In this piece of remarkable storytelling, Steinhauer explores the life cycle of a state through the eyes of political idealists, government informants, and good cops, like Brod, who just want to solve crimes.
Zugzwang. By Ronan Bennett. 2007. Bloomsbury, $24.95 (9781596912533).
Remaining apolitical is a tall order for a Jew in 1914 Russia, yet that’s just what psychoanalyst Otto Spethmann is attempting to do—until he’s thrust into the middle of a murder plot involving power players across the political spectrum of prerevolutionary St. Petersburg. Readers who love Anna Karenina as much as they do a gripping mystery will find a little slice of heaven here.
Best New Installments in Long-Running Series
The 47th Samurai
. By Stephen Hunter. 2007. Simon & Schuster, $26 (9780743238090).
The seventh in the Earl and Bob Lee Swagger series.
. By Randy Wayne White. 2008. Putnam, $24.95 (9780399154560).
The fifteenth in the Doc Ford series.
The Girl of His Dreams
. By Donna Leon. 2008. Atlantic, $24 (9780871139801).
The seventeenth in the Guido Brunetti series.
Hell’s Bay. By James W. Hall. 2008. St. Martin’s/Minotaur, $24.95 (9780312359584).
The tenth in the Thorn series.
The Tin Roof Blowdown
. By James Lee Burke. 2007. Simon & Schuster, $26 (9781416548485).
The sixteenth in the Dave Robicheaux series.
Best Crime Novel Debuts
Calumet City. By Charlie Newton. 2008. Touchstone, paper, $14 (9781416533221).
Child 44. By Tom Rob Smith. 2008. Grand Central, $24.99 (9780446402385).
Circumference of Darkness. By Jack Henderson. 2007. Bantam, $23 (9780553805154).
. By Rebecca Stott. 2007. Random/Spiegel & Grau, $24.95 (9780385521062).
In the Woods. By Tana French. 2007. Viking, $24.95 (9780670038602).
The Somnambulist. By Jonathan Barnes. 2008. Morrow, $23.95 (9780061375385).
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