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Find more The Year's Best Crime Novels
Rarely does one year in crime fiction deliver swan songs for two classic series. But that’s precisely what seems to have happened in 2009. First, John Harvey brings back the great Charlie Resnick only to leave the Nottingham inspector slouching toward retirement with a new tragedy to bear (Cold in Hand). Then, in Exit Music, Ian Rankin hands a gold watch to the ever-curmudgeonly John Rebus, who is left to ponder his future: “Ciggies, booze, and a little night music. What else did he have?”
Naturally, those two novels nailed down places on this year’s list of top 10 crime novels (defined as books reviewed in Booklist between May 1, 2008, and April 15, 2009). Fortunately, the list isn’t all about saying good-bye. First-timers include Don Winslow, for his atmospheric portrait of a San Diego surfer and reluctant PI, in The Dawn Patrol; Louise Ure, for Liars Anonymous, about a woman who gets away with murder but pays for it in the long run; Adam Davies, for the remarkably imaginative Mine All Mine, about a future where investigators are called “pulses” because they can sense what the bad guys are up to; Louise Penny, for the latest in her Armand Gamache series, A Rule against Murder, starring a detective who harks back to Poirot and Maigret; Tom Rob Smith, whose second novel, Secret Speech, about ugly doings in the former Soviet Union, more than fulfills the promise of last year’s Child 44; and Kate Atkinson, for the third in her acclaimed Jackson Brodie series, the chilling When Will There Be Good News? There is one more first-timer on our top 10 list, but he is hardly a newcomer to the genre. Joe Gores has been writing no-nonsense hard-boiled detective novels for decades, but he hit the Booklist jackpot with Spade & Archer, a perfectly realized prequel to The Maltese Falcon.
The list wraps up with an author who, like Harvey and Rankin, seems to have leased permanent space on best lists. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series sets the standard for action thrillers, and his latest, Gone Tomorrow, inches the bar still higher.
In addition to the best of the year, we have also selected the top 10 debut crime novels. Watch this list closely: its authors have a way of moving up to the best of the year rather quickly. Louise Penny and Tom Rob Smith, for example, appeared on earlier versions of the debut list, in 2007 and 2008, respectively. The class of 2009 represents all manner of crime fiction, from legal thrillers (Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising) to doomsday thrillers (Mark Alpert’s Final Theory) to hard-boiled detective novels with a very big twist (Tim Davys’ Amberville).
Cold in Hand. By John Harvey. 2008. Harcourt/Otto Penzler, $26 (9780151014620).
Harvey ended his brilliant Charlie Resnick series 10 years ago, but now he brings the beleaguered Nottingham detective back for a coda that adds the perfect valedictory note. Harvey’s ability to capture the uncommon determination of a good copper to tease out the truth is on display here (as Resnick, nearing retirement, helps investigate a gang-related knifing), but, behind that, the sense of futility that has lurked in the shadows of every Resnick novel threatens to take over completely. A dark but powerful end to a classic series.
The Dawn Patrol. By Don Winslow. 2008. Knopf, $23.95 (9780307266200).
San Diego PI Boone Daniels would rather surf than work, but with cash low, he agrees to look for a missing stripper. This mainstream hard-boiled detective novel becomes something special thanks to its sandy setting and the panache with which Winslow writes about the light and dark sides of San Diego and the wave-crashing characters who call its coastline home.
Exit Music. By Ian Rankin. 2008. Little, Brown, $24.99 (9780316057585).
With only a few days until he is officially retired, Rankin’s iconic Edinburgh police inspector John Rebus isn’t going gently into any good nights, not with one more meaty case on his plate. Rebus goes out the way he came in, “mistrusting teamwork in all its guises”— or as his partner, Siobhan, says, summing up his career, “decades of bets hedged, lines crossed, rules broken.” We wouldn’t have it any other way. Here’s to Rebus!
Gone Tomorrow. By Lee Child. 2009. Delacorte, $27 (9780385340571).
It all starts on New York’s Number 6 subway train, when Jack Reacher spots a woman exhibiting all 11 of the signs used by Israeli counterintelligence to identify suicide bombers. Reacher is the ultimate man alone, pledging no allegiances in a world gone gray, but put a bully in his face, and he’ll find a reason to stay in town. Child grounds his hero’s hard body and hard-drive brain in believable detail, and he always sets the action in a precisely described landscape.
Liars Anonymous. By Louise Ure. 2009. St. Martin’s/Minotaur, $25.95 (9780312375867).
Jessica Dancing Gamage got away with murder and has been living with it ever since. Now the past comes back full force when she is forced to return to her home turf. This masterfully constructed psychological thriller, which rests on fiercely moral underpinnings, cements Ure’s position alongside such masters as Ruth Rendell and Minette Walters.
Mine All Mine. By Adam Davies. 2008. Riverhead, paper, $14 (9781594483141).
In this fantastically imagined novel, detectives aren’t sleuths; they’re “pulses,” able to sense what the bad guys will do before they do it. Except Otto Starks’ pulse seems to be beating irregularly. In a novel that is equal parts comic monologue, screwball romance, and crime story, Davies employs clichéd suspense devices with results that are wholly original. Don’t worry about plot mechanics; just sit back and enjoy the wonderful word-nerd writing.
A Rule against Murder. By Louise Penny. 2009. St. Martin’s/Minotaur, $24.95 (9780312377021).
Penny’s Armand Gamache novels, starring an intrepid Canadian police inspector in the Quebec village of Three Pines, have quickly established themselves as some of the best traditional mysteries being published today. This fourth entry finds the inspector traveling to a remote resort to celebrate his wedding anniversary; naturally, murder is on the guest list. Despite similarities to Poirot and Maigret, Gamache is a complete original.
Secret Speech. By Tom Rob Smith. 2009. Grand Central, $24.99 (9780446402408).
It’s 1956, and Smith’s long-suffering hero, Leo Demidov, heartsick over his work as a Soviet bureaucrat who sends innocent people to the gulag, has become a prime target of recently released prisoners out to even scores. Smith’s plotting is elaborate, his pacing is relentless, and his characters are wonderfully drawn. This stunning follow-up to last year’s Child 44 makes it completely clear that a major new talent is in the house.
Spade & Archer: The Prequel to Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. By Joe Gores. 2009. Knopf, $24 (9780307262640).
A prequel to The Maltese Falcon sounds like a bad idea in so many ways but not when it’s three-time Edgar winner Gores—author of the novel Hammett (1975), a former PI himself, and a master of the hard-boiled style—at the helm. Gores creates a compelling backstory for Sam Spade and does it so completely in the Hammett style that we suspend disbelief in an instant. A wonderful opportunity to walk the streets of San Francisco one more time with the city’s most memorable fictional character.
When Will There Be Good News? By Kate Atkinson. 2008. Little, Brown, $24.99 (9780316154857).
The third entry in Atkinson’s acclaimed Jackson Brodie series may be the best yet. Atkinson writes about truly horrific matters, often involving violence against women, but she brings such remarkable tonal range to her material—four revolving narrators alternate between biting humor and somber reflection—that we are struck not by the mayhem being described but by the incredible narrative richness.
Best Crime Novel Debuts
Amberville. By Tim Davys. 2009. Harper, $19.95 (9780061625121).
A hard-boiled mystery starring a cast of stuffed animals? It sounds like an over-the-top gimmick, but everything works in Davys’ surprisingly metaphysical take on some classic crime-fiction tropes. The publisher describes it as The Big Sleep meets Animal Farm, and frankly, we can’t do any better than that.
Black Water Rising. By Attica Locke. 2009. Harper, $25.99 (9780061735868).
Far removed from his glory days as a black activist, Jay Porter is a struggling Houston lawyer until a life-changing case falls in his lap. Locke presents a searing portrait of a man struggling to reconcile the bitterness of his experience with the strength of his convictions. Like Dennis Lehane, she skillfully deploys the conventions of the thriller while also presenting biting social commentary, a sure sense of place, and soulful characters.
Echoes from the Dead. By Johan Theorin. 2008. Delacorte, $22 (9780385342216).
In the 1970s, on the island of Oland in Sweden, a boy disappears in the fog. Twenty years later, his mother returns to the island to follow a new clue. Alternating the modern-day search with flashbacks to the time of the disappearance, Theorin skillfully uses dramatic irony to draw the reader into the story. Sweden landed on the crime-fiction map with Henning Mankell’s procedurals, but Marie Jungstedt, Asa Larsson, and now Theorin have added psychological thrillers to the mix.
Final Theory. By Mark Alpert. 2008. Touchstone, $24 (9781416572879).
David Swift, the author of a best-seller about Einstein, learns that the physicist did complete his unified field theory but the results were so catastrophic that he kept them secret. Now the search is on for the hidden notebooks. Alpert, an editor for Scientific American, laces his high-IQ doomsday thriller with clearly explicated and hauntingly beautiful scientific theories.
Nuclear Winter Wonderland. By Joshua Corin. 2008. Kunati, paper, $15.95 (9781601641601).
After his twin sister is kidnapped by a strange man with plans involving a nuclear device, Adam Weiss joins forces with a former Mob enforcer and a Croatian female clown (who only speaks Spanish) to track down the maniac. This richly comic thriller is surreal without being silly and wonderfully playful in its use of language.
Old City Hall. By Robert Rotenberg. 2009. Farrar/Sarah Crichton, $26 (9780374225421).
Did Toronto radio personality Kevin Brace really kill his common-law wife? That’s the question that launches this mix of procedural and courtroom drama, but what makes the novel memorable is Rotenberg’s textured portrait of a polyglot city in the new century. A compelling tale, full of believable twists and turns.
Rules of the Game. By Leonard Downie. 2009. Knopf, $25.95 (9780307269614).
Former Washington Post executive editor Downie makes his novelistic debut with this taut, briskly paced tale of Washington chicanery and perfidy. An elderly Democratic president enters office with an able but inexperienced female vice president and must face all the problems of the post-Bush world. A tense and thrilling exploration of the extended aftermath of 9/11.
Sacrifice. By S. J. Bolton. 2008. St. Martin’s/Minotaur, $24.95 (9780312381134).
Tora Hamilton, an obstetrician relocated to Scotland’s Shetland Islands, discovers the body of a young woman buried in a peat bog. As she investigates the death, a connection to ancient lore emerges, and the Shetlands, once so tranquil, suddenly turn menacing. Bolton combines rich history, precise forensic detail, and breathtaking landscapes in this stunning mix of medical thriller and creepy gothic suspense tale.
Singularity. By Kathryn Casey. 2008. St. Martin’s/Minotaur, $24.95 (9780312379506).
A criminal profiler with the Texas Rangers, Sarah Armstrong catches a psychiatrist’s dream case: a serial killer who poses his victims as if in rapture, with bloody crosses painted on the wall above the bed—clearly the work of someone on a twisted moral mission. This impressive fictional debut from an established true-crime author introduces a memorable heroine with brains, moxie, and heart.
Takeover. By Lisa Black. 2008. Morrow, $24.95 (9780061544453).
Corpse don’t frighten Cleveland forensic scientist Theresa MacLean. Living, breathing criminals do. So why does she agree to become a hostage in exchange for her fiancé, a police officer held at the Federal Reserve Building by two would-be robbers? A tightly plotted, relentlessly suspenseful thriller from a former fingerprint analyst with the Cleveland coroner’s office.
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