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Find more The Year's Best Crime Novels
It gets harder and harder to limit our selection of the year’s best crime novels to 20 books, but we persevere. This year, to help narrow the field, we have weighted our choices in the top 10 to stand-alones and titles in relatively new series. Inevitably, this excludes many outstanding crime novels in much-loved series by some of the most revered authors in the field—Louise Penny, Michael Connelly, Donna Leon, and James Lee Burke, to mention only a few who wrote great books over the last 12 months. The titles below were reviewed in Booklist from May 1, 2016, through April 15, 2017.
TOP 10 CRIME NOVELS
The Boy Who Escaped Paradise. By J. M. Lee. Tr. by Chi-Young Kim. 2016. Pegasus, $24.95 (9781681772523).
Is apparent North Korean defector Gil-mo really an assassin or an autistic mathematical savant? As Lee slowly reveals Gil-mo’s story, he creates a dignified and moving portrait of North Koreans’ struggle for freedom at home and abroad, intertwining it with the compelling adventure of a rogue-genius—all without sacrificing the appeal of either plotline.
Celine. By Peter Heller. 2017. Knopf, $25.95 (9780451493897).
Celine, a nearly 70-year-old sculptor, emphysema sufferer, and eccentric PI, sets off from Brooklyn to California to determine if a famous photographer was really killed by a bear in Yosemite National Park. This captivating, brainy, and funny tale about the mysterious powers of beauty and grief will leave readers hoping that Heller is planning a National Park series featuring the irrepressible Celine and her laconic husband, Pete, who always has his beloved’s back (and her oxygen).
Dark Side of the Moon. By Les Wood. 2017. IPG/Freight, $14.95 (9781911332008).
Yes, this is a caper novel in which the dialogue zings like that of Donald E. Westlake, but there is something darker lurking below the immensely readable surface of Wood’s story about a Glasgow crime boss out to steal a diamond from its display, where it sits “like a drop of blood on a dagger point.” The revelations in the twisty finale are backdropped by a conflagration that is a magnificent piece of writing purely on its own. A fiercely beautiful novel.
Darktown. By Thomas Mullen. 2016. Atria/37Ink, $26.95 (9781501133862).
In this riveting mix of historical mystery and police procedural, Mullen depicts the treatment of black cops by their white counterparts in 1948 Atlanta. Two of the city’s first African American officers investigate the murder of a young black woman, overcoming both the indifference of the department and the overt racism of their fellow officers. A terrific series opener and a vivid evocation of the pre–civil rights South.
Dr. Knox. By Peter Spiegelman. 2016. Knopf, $26.95 (9780307961273).
Dr. Adam Knox, who runs a clinic in L.A.’s skid row, rashly decides to take in a young boy abandoned at the clinic—and immediately finds himself in a whirlwind of trouble. Spiegelman’s ability to burst his characters into throbbing life in a few short paragraphs—combined with a prose style capable of snapping our heads with a staccato succession of perfectly landed prose jabs—will leave readers rubbing their jaws in wonderment.
Let the Devil Out. By Bill Loehfelm. 2016.Farrar/Sarah Crichton, $26 (9780374298579).
New Orleans rookie cop and loose cannon Maureen Coughlin is tasked with helping the FBI track a white supremacist group. Will Maureen go rogue again, or will she channel what she calls her “killing feeling” into doing good police work? Not only has Loehfelm created the most compelling, complex patrol cop in the genre; he has also reenergized New Orleans as a setting for the best in crime fiction, edgy, dangerous, but pulsing with life.
Razor Girl. By Carl Hiaasen. 2016. Knopf, $27.95 (9780385349741).
Merry Mansfield, the Razor Girl, is sharp, that’s for sure, and one of the coolest characters Hiaasen has ever brought to the page. She runs car-crash scams but has the proverbial heart of gold, which lands her bejeweled flip-flops in a diabolically complicated story that skewers phony reality shows and the fine folks who bring them to us. This is the ultimate beach read for anyone with a taste for Hiaasen’s skewed view of a Florida slouching toward Armageddon.
Revolver. By Duane Swierczynski. 2016. Little, Brown/Mulholland, $26 (9780316403238).
Swierczynski, who enjoys high-concept high-wire acts, attempts what might be his riskiest move yet: a three-generation crime saga told in chapters that alternate between 1965, 1995, and 2015. Each story line features full-blooded characters and intrigue that work both on their own and in the larger context. Race plays a large role and is thoughtfully handled in this bleak, powerful tale of corruption and the lasting effects of crime in the City of Brotherly Love.
Since We Fell. By Dennis Lehane. 2017. Ecco, $27.99 (9780062129383).
The ever-versatile Lehane adds psychological thrillers to his résumé with this slalom course of a twisty tale starring Rachel Childs, a once-promising TV journalist who learns that the man of her dreams is hiding another life. The mood and pace of the novel change directions as quickly as the plot, but Lehane never lets his narrative vehicle veer out of control, and when he hits the afterburners in the last 50 pages, he produces an incredibly exciting and well-orchestrated finale.
What We Become. By Arturo Pérez-Reverte. 2016. Atria, $27 (9781476751986).
Born in the Buenos Aires slums in the early twentieth century, Max has reinvented himself as a thief and a bit of a roué, employed on ocean liners as a tango dancer. Then he meets Mecha, sees her pearl necklace, and finds himself torn between business and pleasure. Pérez-Reverte has written a hypnotic rhapsody of a novel that drinks freely from many genres: historical epic, Hitchcockian thriller, and deliciously sexy love story.
BEST CRIME FICTION DEBUTS
The Dry. By Jane Harper. 2017. Flatiron, $25.95 (9781250105608).
Harper’s small-town, big-secrets page-turner tells the story of Aaron Falk, who returns to his Australian hometown to attend the funeral of a friend believed to have shot his wife and son and then killed himself. Falk begins to question the details of the crime and, together with the town’s police sergeant, undertakes an investigation that unearths secrets new and old, some involving Falk’s father. A stunning debut reminiscent of Peter Corliss’ Cliff Hardy series.
The Girl Before. By Rena Olsen. 2016. Putnam, $15 (9781101982358).
Clara Lawson is in her kitchen brushing her daughter’s hair when armed men dressed in black break in and take her family. The last words Clara hears from her beloved husband, Glenn, are, “Say nothing.” A powerful psychological thriller that explores the line between victim and victimizer and shows how cruelty can be counterbalanced by compassion and love.
IQ. By Joe Ide. 2016. Little, Brown/Mulholland, $26 (9780316267724).
Isaiah Quintabe, known as IQ in his East Long Beach neighborhood, is a Sherlock-inspired, off-the-grid sleuth. Ide, whose own background is similar to Isaiah’s (bright kid growing up in the ghetto and loving Sherlock for his ability to triumph on intelligence alone), dexterously juggles multiple styles and tones to create a seamless, utterly entertaining blend of coming-of-age saga, old-school detective story, and comic caper novel.
Little Deaths. By Emma Flint. 2017. Hachette, $26 (9780316272476).
This compelling crime-fiction debut is clearly based on the Alice Crimmins case, in which the New York woman was convicted and served a prison sentence for the 1965 deaths of her children. This is absolutely absorbing literary crime fiction, perfect for fans of Megan Abbott and Sarah Waters. Look forward to more from the gifted Flint, who has revealed in interviews that she has been a reader of true crime since childhood.
Long Black Veil. By Jennifer Finney Boylan. 2017. Crown, $25 (9780451496324).
Thirty years ago, six college friends set out to explore an abandoned prison. One of the group disappeared, and his body has now been found. Boylan, the author of acclaimed memoirs exploring her transgender experience, doesn’t miss a storytelling beat here, blending atmospheric elements of a Shirley Jackson–like haunting, a secret-laden murder tale featuring an ensemble cast, and an eye-opening glimpse into the complex choices transgender people face.
My Husband’s Wife. By Jane Corry. 2017. Viking/Pamela Dorman, $26 (9780735220599).
Lies fester and multiply, undermining intimate relationships in this psychological thriller. Lawyer Lilly Hall and artist Ed McDonald are hiding plenty about their pasts even before Ed’s painting of nine-year-old Carla brings him fame. When the manipulative Carla, now a grown woman, reenters their lives, very bad things happen. Corry skillfully intertwines plotlines and jumps back and forth in time, shrewdly building suspense until the end.
Shadow Man. By Alan Drew. 2017. Random, $27 (9781400067800).
Drew’s psychological thriller beats to multiple hearts of darkness as a former cop and a forensic specialist, both with their own demons, struggle to find a serial killer who has brought terror to a Southern California town in the 1980s. Drew treats young victims and troubled investigators with the same sensitivity while offering a powerful eulogy to a California landscape under assault from rampant development.
She Rides Shotgun. By Jordan Harper. 2017. Ecco, $26.99 (9780062394408).
After short-timer Nate McClusky kills a member of the Aryan Steel prison gang, he is released from jail to find the gang has put a death warrant on his head. Taking to the road with his 11-year-old daughter, Nate sets out to hit the gang where it hurts. Reading like mid-period James Ellroy, this is both a dark, original take on the chase novel and a strangely touching portrait of a father-daughter relationship framed in barbed wire.
Three Years with the Rat. By Jay Hosking. 2017. St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne, $25.99 (9781250116307).
Neuroscientist Hosking turns in a startlingly fine performance with his first novel, about a man so determined to find his missing sister that he risks his own reality to solve the mystery of her disappearance. It’s quickly apparent that this is one of those mind-bending thrillers in which time and space are fluid concepts, but Hosking draws us in completely to his labyrinthine narrative.
The Trouble with Goats and Sheep. By Joanna Cannon. 2016. Scribner, $26 (9781501121890).
During the hot English summer of 1976, Margaret Creasy goes missing, and 10-year-old Gracie Bennett and her best friend, Tilly, set out to find her. In a masterfully constructed plot, Gracie—who sniffs out the lies told by her adult neighbors—learns a lesson about loyalty and true friendship, as secrets born of shame are gradually revealed. An understated, quirky debut distinguished by its pitch-perfect prose and intriguing structure.
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