When I first posted my list of the ten best crime novels of 2012, I forgot to include one of my favorites, Joseph Olshan’s brilliant literary tale, Cloudland. I don’t have the heart to delete any of the others to make room for it, so my revised list is now the top eleven.
My list includes two debut novels, work by several writers who have never made the best-seller lists, and the latest offerings from a few of the most popular writers in the business.
A couple of caveats: 1. These are the books I most enjoyed this year. Of course I haven’t read everything, so I’m sure I missed some great work. Don’t hesitate to list your favorites in the comment section below. 2. I prefer hardboiled, noir, and literary crime fiction, so such books dominate my list. I’m not a big fan of espionage novels, I loathe cozies, and I refuse to read books in which crimes are solved by little old ladies, hairdressers, or cats.
Cloudland by Joseph Olshan. Catherine Winslow, a former investigative reporter for a big-city newspaper, has withdrawn to a remote cabin in rural Vermont to write a household hints column. But one spring day, she discovers a frozen corpse in a thawing snowbank near her home. It turns out to be the latest victim of a serial killer who’s been terrorizing the state. Catherine’s investigation makes for gripping reading, but the true appeal of this novel is the elegant, haunting prose of a masterful stylist.
Dead Anyway by Chris Knopf. A hit man invades Arthur Cathcart’s posh Connecticut home, kills his wife, and nearly does the same to Arthur. After he recovers, Arthur lets everyone think he is dead, too, and sets out to discover who was behind the attack and why. The novel is brilliantly plotted with lots of twists and turns, and the writing so tight that I wouldn’t cut a word.
Creole Belle by James Lee Burke. New Iberia, LA, police detective Dave Robicheaux and his violent sidekick, Clete Purcell, are back at it, battling the forces that corrupt and despoil their beloved Southern Louisiana. As the story unfolds, the two friends discover that the troubles of a missing lounge singer are somehow connected to a conspiracy involving an art-theft ring, sex slavery, and corrupt oil company executives. In their 19 books together, Clete has always been the second banana, but this time he plays such large role that this is more his book than Dave’s.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. On their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick and Amy Dunne’s marriage is in trouble. So when Amy disappears and their house in North Carthage, Missouri, shows signs of a struggle, Nick finds himself suspected of murder in this diabolically clever psychological thriller. The tightly-written story is told with alternating narrators, both major characters taking a turn.
Bad Little Falls by Paul Doiron. Mike Bowditch’s duties as a Maine game warden do not include investigating murders, so when a frozen body is found near a remote cottage, his boss warns him to butt out. But when the police seem intent on pinning the murder on Mike’s new girlfriend’s brother, he jumps into the case. The plot is riveting; but as always in a Doiron novel, the greatest attraction is the stark beauty of the language and the vivid portrayal of his native Maine.
Flat Spin by David Freed. Cordell Logan, a former assassin for a top-secret military squad, is scraping out a living by giving flying lessons to spoiled rich kids. He’s haunted by his past, longing for his beautiful ex-wife Savanna, and failing miserably–and hilariously–to find peace through his recent conversion to Buddhism. When Savannah’s new husband is gunned down, Logan is briefly elated, but the mood evaporates when he finds himself a suspect. So he sets out to solve the crime himself. This debut novel is written in superb prose that is at once muscular and musical — and sometimes verges on poetry.
Live By Night by Dennis Lehane. Joe Coughlin, the lawless son of a Boston police commander, robs a speakeasy owned by the city’s top mobster, does a turn in state prison, and then flees to Florida where he winds up taking over the bootlegging racket in Prohibition-era Tampa. The novel is the sequel to the author’s fine historical crime novel, The Given Day, which introduced us to the Coughlin clan. The new novel lacks the historic and generational sweep of the earlier book, but it succeeds on its own terms, portraying a lawless era in swashbuckling prose.
The Lost Ones by Ace Atkins. Former U.S. Army Ranger Quinn Colson has just been elected sheriff of rural Tibbehah County, Mississippi; and given the area’s legacy of lawlessness and corruption, he’s got his work cut out for him. Soon he’s on the trail of a gang that’s selling Mexican babies and hoping that his old army buddy Donnie Varner is not behind a plot to supply military firearms to drug dealers. As with every Atkins novel, the setting is superbly drawn, the characters are so real that you could reach out and shake their hands, and the writing is as precise as a sniper rifle.
The Skeleton Box by Bryan Gruley. Gus Carpenter is the newspaper editor in Starvation Lake, Michigan, an authentic realm of piney woods, working-class bars, lakefront cottages, rampant gossip, and small-town cops where everyone is obsessed with a junior hockey team called The River Rats. The townspeople are in a panic about a series of house breaks dubbed the “Bingo Night Robberies” because on each game night, someone ransacks the empty home of an elderly resident. The weird part? The burglar never takes anything. Things take a turn for the worse when an elderly resident skips bingo and ends up dead–and one of Gus’s friends becomes the prime suspect. The plot is emotionally wrenching and filled with more twists and turns than the little town’s winding, snow-choked roads.
Crashed by Timothy Hallinan. The first novel in a series featuring professional burglar Junior Bender is today’s Los Angeles as Raymond Chandler might have written it. Tim is a master at tossing out the kind of hard-boiled lines that I wish I thought of first. A sample: She wore the kind of distressed jeans they distress by rubbing money on them. It’s not exactly a 2012 novel because it was previously published as an e-book, but it was recently released in hardcover by Soho Crime.
Hope’s Road by William Wells. It has been two years since Hope, Jack Tanner’s bright and beautiful only child, walked out of her apartment at the University of Wisconsin and vanished into the night. Police think she was murdered by her boyfriend, a rich kid now living the high life in Key West; but they can’t prove it. Jack has lived the most ordinary of lives and he’s not one for confrontation. Still, he feels compelled to track down the old boyfriend and get him to reveal what he did to Hope. Jack knows he’s not up to the task, so he buys a motorcycle and sets off on a 1,700 journey to Key West, hoping he will become man enough to do what needs to be done by the time he arrives. This debut novel is a remarkable tale of heartbreak, healing, and self-discovery superbly written in an elegant, lyrical style. The story is romantic yet unwaveringly clear-eyed about life–and death.
That makes eleven, but I would be remiss if I didn’t also give a tip of the hat to:
Taken by Robert Crais
All I Did Was Shoot My Man by Walter Mosley
The Black Box by Michael Connelly
Robert B. Parker’s Lullaby by Ace Atkins, who did a superb job of resurrecting the late Parker’s popular Boston P.I., Spenser.