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Find more The Year's Best Crime Novels
Picking the best crime novels of the year is fraught with its own special ambiguity. How do we factor in series books versus stand-alones? Cozies versus hard-boiled detective novels? And, if we’re extending the crime-fiction umbrella, as I believe it should be extended, to cover any work with a crime at its center—whether thriller, espionage, whodunit, historical, or genre-benders of every stripe—well, what is a simple mystery fan to do? First of all, it’s impossible to compare one kind of excellence to another: a perfect village cozy isn’t worse than a perfect noir just because it’s cozy. That said, there are only 10 spots on a top-10 list. Finally, we make our decisions on which books in the preceding 12 months had the greatest impact on their intended audience.
Our top 10 is nothing if not diverse. Here’s a list of subgenres represented: village cozy mixed with procedural (Louise Penny); psychological thrillers (Johan Theorin and Simon Lelic); espionage (Olen Steinhauer); cowboy-cop mystery (Craig Johnson); forensic thriller (Erin Hart); historical mystery (Laurie R. King); stand-alone thriller (Gar Anthony Haywood); Buddhist cop mystery (John Burdett); and sui generis thriller (Stieg Larsson). I admit some of those “subgenres” may not appear in your favorite mystery-readers’ handbook, but after all, taxonomy is an organic science.
Let’s not forget that, in this issue, we don’t stop with a top 10. We also select the best debut mysteries of the year. Take careful note of these writers, as you can expect that, soon enough, some of them will segue into future top 10s (as Johan Theorin did from 2009 to 2010). And if you’re looking for diversity, note only that the titles of two of our best first mysteries are Bad Things Happen and The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (both great books, but you only have to hear the titles to know they aren’t read-alikes for one another).
The Brutal Telling. By Louise Penny. 2009. Minotaur, $24.99 (9780312377038).
The fifth in Penny’s celebrated Armand Gamache series again brings the chief inspector of the Sureté du Quebec back to the Christie-like village of Twin Pines. But comparisons to Dame Agatha sell Penny short. Her characters are too rich, her grasp of nuance and human psychology too sure for the formula-bound Christie. Compare her instead to P. D. James and Donna Leon, writers who use police stories to explore depth of character and the intrigue of human relationships.
Cemetery Road. By Gar Anthony Haywood. 2010. Severn, $28.95 (9780727868510).
This gripping stand-alone thriller marks the long-awaited return of Haywood, author of the critically acclaimed Aaron Gunner series. When a handyman in the Twin Cities learns that an old friend has been murdered in L.A., he knows he must return to his hometown and face a long-buried secret. Haywood melds an intricately plotted but highly suspenseful thriller to a moving story of belated coming-of-age.
The Dark Horse. By Craig Johnson. 2009. Viking, $24.95 (9780670020874).
Absaroka County, Wyoming, sheriff Walt Longmire goes undercover in his latest adventure, posing as an insurance adjustor in the next county over. From the motel backdrop (think Touch of Evil on the high plains), through the indelibly inked characters, and on to the set piece ending (in snow and lightning atop a mesa), this is one of Johnson’s best.
The Darkest Room. By Johan Theorin. Tr. by Marlaine Delargy. 2009. Dell/Delta, paper, $15.99 (9780385342223).
Swedish author Theorin’s latest thriller begins with the drowning death of a woman on the remote island of Oland, but it quickly spirals both backward into the past and downward into the troubled minds of its characters, especially the victim’s husband, a lighthouse keeper left alone in a large and possibly haunted house. A wonderfully atmospheric psychological study of crime and grief.
False Mermaid. By Erin Hart. 2010. Scribner, $26 (9781416563761).
In her third novel, Hart skillfully combines two plotlines, taking her heroine, Nora Gavin, from Ireland back to Minneapolis to solve the years-old murder of her sister, and leaving Nora’s lover, Cormac Maguire, in Ireland to wrestle with an even-older mystery involving a woman believed to be a selkie. Few writers combine as seamlessly as Hart does the subtlety, lyrical language, and melancholy of literary fiction with the pulse-pounding suspense of the best thrillers.
The Girl Who Played with Fire. By Stieg Larsson. Tr. by Reg Keeland. 2009. Knopf, $25.95 (9780307269980).
Because this second novel in Larsson’s celebrated trilogy spends the most time on the life of the charismatic computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, it is arguably the best of the bunch. As Salander attempts to clear herself of two murders, we learn more about her troubled past and her ferocious will. Salander is one of those characters who comes along only rarely in fiction: a true original, larger than life yet firmly grounded in realistic detail. Perhaps the best Scandinavian novel to appear in the U.S. since Smilla’s Sense of Snow.
The God of the Hive. By Laurie R. King. 2010. Bantam, $25 (9780553805543).
This complex second half to last year’s Language of Bees finds Sherlock Holmes and his family—wife Mary Russell, brother Mycroft, son Damien—under siege on multiple fronts. What makes King’s series the absolute best of all the latter-day Holmes novels isn’t just the focus on the compelling Russell but the way the novels create their own world, standing almost independently of Conan Doyle.
The Godfather of Kathmandu. By John Burdett. 2009. Knopf, $25.99 (9780307263193).
The fourth novel starring Sonchai Jitplecheep, the Thai police detective whose mother runs a brothel and whose boss is a drug kingpin, is stuffed with a dizzying array of story lines, all of which exude the moral ambiguity and cognitive dissonance that have become the series’ hallmarks. A whirlwind of a novel that, for some Western readers, may stretch the woefully narrow boundaries of what Sonchai would call our limited farang consciousness.
The Nearest Exit. By Olen Steinhauer. 2010. Minotaur, $25.99 (9780312622879).
This is Steinhauer’s second espionage novel with a contemporary setting, and it proves unquestionably that he is as comfortable in the present as he was when writing about the cold war era. The world of the CIA black-ops unit called the Tourists is a dazzling, dizzying, complex web of clandestine warfare that is complicated further by affairs of the heart. Steinhauer’s hero, Milo Weaver, does his best to save the thing he most despises, a conundrum that sums up the shades of gray that color this espionage masterpiece.
A Thousand Cuts. By Simon Lelic. 2010. Viking, $24.95 (9780670021505).
A recently hired history teacher walks into a school assembly, shoots three students and one teacher, and then turns the gun on himself. An open-and-shut case, right? It’s anything but in Lelic’s gripping thriller, a searing indictment of a toxic school culture in which everyone is inured to cruelty: “Why were the weak obliged to be so brave when the strong had license to behave like such cowards?”
Best Crime Novel Debuts
Bad Things Happen. By Harry Dolan. 2009. Putnam/Amy Einhorn, $24.95 (9780399155635).
Take a ride on the mean streets of . . . Ann Arbor? This tasty tale employs the somewhat common trope of crime among crime writers to decidedly uncommon effect. This murderers’ row of writers, editors, and interns would kill for good editing—or maybe because of it. Tight plotting, crisp dialogue, and wry humor.
Bait. By Nick Brownlee. 2009. Minotaur, $24.95 (9780312550219).
A retired Scotland Yard detective sets up a charter-boat business in Kenya but soon finds himself partnering with a Mombasa policeman to solve a murder. Brownlee creates an overwhelming sense of dread with his portrait of a civil war–torn society whose institutions are crumbling and whose citizens must rely only on their own cunning and toughness.
The Case of the Missing Servant. By Tarquin Hall. 2009. Simon & Schuster, $24 (9781416583684).
Hall debuts what looks to be an outstanding series starring Vish Puri, the overweight (and reluctantly dieting) owner of Most Private Investigations (if you’re thinking a male version of Precious Ramotswe, you’re right on the mark). Set in modern-day Delhi, the novel is dense with atmosphere, creating a delightful mix of the exotic and familiar through wildly idiomatic American English dialogue and nicely integrated references to food, customs, and clothing.
Gutshot Straight. By Lou Berney. 2010. Morrow, $24.99 (9780061766046).
Charles “Shake” Bouchon leaves prison intending to go straight, but, within hours, lovely, lethal Lexy Ilandryan makes him an offer he can’t refuse. The plot turns are constant, the dialogue is sharp, and the bad guys are deliciously bad. We’re in Elmore Leonard territory, but this is no pale imitation. Leonard himself might be very pleased to call Gutshot Straight his own.
The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. By Katherine Howe. 2009. Hyperion/Voice, $25.99 (9781401340902).
A Harvard graduate student stumbles upon an obscure reference in a long-abandoned Massachusetts house and soon finds herself obsessed with learning more about the seventeenth-century woman who lived there and was accused of being a witch. A keen and magical historical mystery laced with romance and sly digs at society’s persistent underestimation of women.
The Poacher’s Son. By Paul Doiron. 2010. Minotaur, $24.99 (9780312558468).
Rookie game warden Mike Bowditch has his hands full with fallout from the sale of forest land in Maine’s North Woods to an out-of-state developer. Doiron, editor of Down State magazine, knows his region well, and it shows in this engaging, vividly written debut. Bowditch could become the East Coast version of C. J. Box’s Joe Pickett, who patrols the range in Wyoming.
Red to Black. By Alex Dryden. 2009. Ecco, $25.99 (9780061803864).
Anna, a Russian spy, is assigned to seduce Finn, a British spy, in Moscow. Finn allows it to happen, and they soon fall in love. So begins a terrific espionage novel wrapped in a moving story of fated love. Oozing timely, chilling verisimilitude while simultaneously evoking Graham Greene, this sterling debut vaults Dryden directly into the top rank of spy novelists.
Snow Angels. By James Thompson. 2010. Putnam, $24.95 (9780399156175).
Thompson’s first novel is set in northern Finland during kaamos, the country’s two weeks of complete darkness. Thompson’s portrait of Lapland in the depths of winter is starkly and realistically drawn, and his hero, Inspector Vaara, will remind readers of Hakan Nesser’s Inspector Van Veeteren. A must for fans of the international crime novel.
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. By Alan Bradley. 2009. Delacorte, $23 (9780385342308).
Canadian Bradley’s first full-length crime novel introduces a wily sleuth who is only 11 years old. Flavia, a precocious and extremely literate young girl being raised by an English widower in 1950, has a passion for chemistry (with a special interest in poisons). That comes in handy in the matter of a lethal custard pie. Flavia may be the most engaging child sleuth since Harriet the Spy.
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