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Find more The Year's Best Crime Novels
Let’s start with a little complaining. It gets harder and harder to pick the year’s best crime fiction. There is so much outstanding work in this ever-expanding genre that it’s confounding even to know where to start. It would be easy enough to look to our best ongoing series, most of which add a new entry every year, and keep honoring Michael Connelly, Louise Penny, James Lee Burke, and a handful of others. That would be easy and certainly not unfair, as the giants of the genre continue to do outstanding work. On the other hand, you could ignore the standard-bearers and look only to the new bloods, and you would still find excellence at every turn. So what to do? What we’ve always done: muddle along with no system and no rules, trying to select the books our reviewers liked best over the last 12 months and letting the categories and the trends fall where they may.
This year we have only one repeater on our top 10 list, Jo Nesbo, who shows no signs of abandoning his reserved seat at the table. Of the remaining 9, though, there is only one first novelist, Alice LaPlante, who garners the treasured Mystery Showcase daily double by landing on both our top 10 and best crime-fiction debut lists. The remaining 8 top 10 authors are almost uncategorizable: some are young, some not so much; some write hard-boiled fare; some write psychological thrillers; one turns out classic Golden Age cozies; another seems intent on encompassing every genre and every style in one book. What do all these writers share? They’ve written damn good novels that have something to do with crime, and you’ll be making a sad mistake if you don’t read them all before this time next year. —Bill Ott
Angelmaker. By Nick Harkaway. 2012. Knopf, $26.95 (9780307595959).
Joe Spork, a mild-mannered clockmaker in contemporary London, is trying to live down the legacy of his Mob-boss father when he finds himself forced to rebuild and then disarm a doomsday machine of unimagined power. A tour de force of Dickensian bravura and genre-bending splendor.
Bleed for Me. By Michael Robotham. 2012. Little, Brown/Mulholland, $25.99 (9780316126380).
Psychologist Joe O’Loughlin finds a blood-soaked neighbor on his doorstep in Bath, England, and, attempting to help her, lands in a criminal investigation. Beautiful but understated prose; bright, funny, and touching characters; plotting that is both clever and well thought out—this one has it all.
Blotto, Twinks, and the Dead Dowager Duchess. 2012. By Simon Brett. Felony & Mayhem, paper, $14.95 (9781934609927).
The privileged 1920s sibling pair of Blotto and his sister, Twinks, once again embarks on solving a mystery that drops into their laps. Brett is a devastating social critic and master of equally devastating physical characterization. This is the kind of book you’ll have to put down frequently, as you roar with laughter.
The Devil She Knows. By Bill Loehfelm. 2011. Farrar/Sarah Crichton, $26 (9780374136529).
Tough, street-smart, but vulnerable cocktail waitress Maureen sees a politician in a compromising position and finds her life in danger. One of the most compelling characters to appear in crime fiction this year, Maureen drives a novel that is both suspenseful and remarkably textured.
Iron House. By John Hart. 2011. St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne, $25.95 (9780312380342).
Michael, a New York hit man who spent his early years in an orphanage, returns to North Carolina to settle scores. The present-time plot—Michael trying to carve a new life without endangering those he loves—makes a superb thriller on its own, but it’s what Hart does with the backstory that gives the novel its beyond-genre depth.
The Leopard. By Jo Nesbo. Tr. by Don Bartlett. 2011. Knopf, $26.95 (9780307595874).
Just as we wonder if Nesbo finally has played out the theme of Oslo cop Harry Hole versus his demons, we are sucked in again, drawn by the specter of a good man undone by a bad world and a too-sensitive soul. Harry craves “an armored heart,” and we could use one, too, if we ever hope to turn away from the adventures of crime fiction’s most tortured hero.
Poison Flower. By Thomas Perry. 2012. Mysterious, $24 (9780802126054).
Perry’s series heroine, Jane Whitefield, who helps people who have no other choice but to disappear, continues to be one of the most original and intriguing characters in contemporary crime fiction. This time, Jane’s streak appears to have run out, unless she can escape from the kidnappers who have abducted her.
Red Means Run. By Brad Smith. 2012. Scribner, paper, $12 (9781451645514).
Ex-con Virgil Cain is running a horse farm in upstate New York, trying to live quietly, when suddenly he is arrested for the murder of a slimy lawyer with whom he has a history. Mixing comedy, caper, and suspense in just the right proportions, Smith keeps the narrative cantering along at a comfortable pace, not so fast as to keep us from enjoying the banter but not so slow as to make us want to use the whip.
Turn of Mind. By Alice LaPlante. 2011. Atlantic Monthly, $24 (9780802119773).
Part literary novel, part thriller, LaPlante’s haunting debut traces the deterioration of orthopedic surgeon Jennifer White, who at 64 is suffering severe dementia and just might have killed her best friend. Masterfully written on multiple levels. Wyatt. By Garry Disher. 2011. Soho, $25 (9781569479629).
Wyatt Wareen, a coolheaded, taciturn, unsentimental thief with a code, gets double-crossed on a jewel heist and sets out to send a message. An old-style holdup man uncomfortable with technology, Wyatt may be a man out of time, but crime fiction this good is timeless.
Top 5 Debut Crime Novels
Dove Season. By Johnny Shaw. 2011. AmazonEncore, paper, $13.95 (9781935597643)
Mix some Magnificent Seven–style violence with the freewheeling comedy of a “buddy picture,” and you get this caterwauling caper novel about a thirtysomething drifter who returns to his hometown in Southern California’s Imperial Valley to visit his dying father and winds up going head-to-head with some nasty Mexican drug dealers.
The Expats. By Chris Pavone. 2012. Crown, $26 (9780307956354).
Leaving her clandestine work with the CIA behind, Kate moves to Luxembourg with her banker husband. But something smells fishy. The blending of marital deception and espionage works brilliantly in this intricate, suspenseful, and stunningly assured first novel.
Ranchero. by Rick Gavin. 2011. Minotaur, $24.99 (9780312583187).
Mississippi repo man Nick Reid sets out to reclaim a $20 TV and, instead, gets beaned with a shovel and has his mint 1969 Ranchero stolen. With his enforcer pal in tow, Nick sets off across the Delta to recover his ride. Pitch-perfect dialogue drives the galvanizing chase.
Sister. By Rosamund Lupton. 2011. Crown, $27 (9780307716514).
Murder mystery? Psychological thriller? Medical-ethical exploration? Yes, but so much more, too. Attempting to determine if her sister, Tess, killed herself or was murdered, Beatrice composes a letter to Tess, expressing her puzzlement and tracking her investigation. Innovative narrative technique and remarkable suspense.
See description above.
Small Press Authors to Watch
Edward Cline. Honors Due. 2011. Perfect Crime, paper, $14.95 (9781935797142).
Readers who don’t know Chess Hanrahan, Cline’s book-loving New York gumshoe, need to fix that promptly. Through three books, Hanrahan, a guy who values literature, loves movies, and despises stupidity, has become one of the genre’s quirkiest, most entertaining sleuths.Miles Corwin. Midnight Alley. 2012. Oceanview, $25.95 (9781608090389).
First in Kind of Blue (2010) and now in Midnight Alley, Corwin’s series starring LAPD detective and former Israeli paratrooper Ash Levine has distinguished itself both for hold-your-breath action and thoughtful introspection.
Douglas W. Jacobson. The Katyn Order. 2011. McBooks, $24.95 (9781590135723).
Jacobson’s riveting debut about Polish Resistance fighters in WWII deserves a place alongside Alan Furst and Philip Kerr at the top of the historical espionage genre. Set your Google Alerts on this guy.
John Lantigua. On Hallowed Ground. 2011. Arte Publico, paper, $16.95 (9781558856950).
Lantigua has been turning out rock-solid PI novels starring Miami sleuth Willie Cuesta for some years, but he’s never garnered the recognition he deserves. If contemporary takes on Chandler are your thing, don’t miss him.
Gary McKinney. Darkness Bids the Dead Goodbye. 2011. Kearney Street, $14.95 (9780972370691).
Sheriff Gavin Pruitt, of Elkhorn, Washington, is a former pot-smoking Deadhead turned small-town cop, and he’s a breath of fresh air (remember, he’s a former pot smoker) in the procedural field.
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