It’s time, once again, for the annual list of the crime novels I most admired 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.
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.
Cook, one of our finest literary crime novelists, writes disturbing, convoluted tales of families haunted by past acts of violence and betrayal that they don’t fully comprehend, either because important details have been hidden from them or because they have been deceiving themselves. He puts his characters into situations that compel them to reexamine the past, peeling it back layer by layer to discover the painful truth. Sandrine’s Case opens with Samuel Madison, a mediocre literature professor at a mediocre Georgia college, on trial for the murder of his brilliant and beautiful wife Sandrine. As witnesses parade to the stand to tell their stories to the jury, Madison, too, sits in judgment of his life, realizing that whether he killed Sandrine or not, he is most certainly guilty of something. The flashback-rich, intricately-plotted story is brilliantly structured, and the prose, as always in a Cook novel, is a thing of beauty.
This might be the bleakest noir tale since Dope (2006), and Sara Gran wrote that one, too. Although the novel includes several intriguing sub-plots, the central mystery is the murder of Paul Casablancas, a musician Claire once dated, abandoned out of fear of intimacy, and still loves. She roams the seamy underworld of greater San Francisco searching for clues, abusing drugs, indiscriminately bedding casual acquaintances of both sexes, and mistreating her eager young assistant. Claire proclaims that she seeks truth, not justice, and in the end, she manages to achieve a measure of both — but only at great cost to herself and everyone around her. The result is a novel that is wise, chilling, and reeking with despair, yet written in such a beautiful, stunningly original style that it is impossible to resist. Gran takes the noir form to dark places rarely seen since Jim Thompson and David Goodis were writing more than a half-century ago.
This novel finds Burke’s most popular protagonists, Iberia, Louisiana, Sheriff’s Deputy Dave Robicheaux and his menacing sidekick, Clete Purcel, vacationing in Montana with their grown daughters, Alafair and Gretchen. But when someone tries to kill Alafair with an arrow, it is apparent that trouble has followed them there. The themes in Burke’s lyrical, allegorical crime novels rarely change, but with each book written in his eighth decade, he delves more deeply into them, revealing both his growing despair over human nature and the American character and his unwillingness to abandon hope for redemption. Here, he returns to his themes of racism, the hijacking of Christianity by hateful bigots, and the nature of evil, asking us to consider whether its source is the Devil himself or men who, as he once put it, make “a conscious choice to erase God’s thumbprint from their souls.” Once again, Burke creates villains who view avarice as a virtue. Again, he demonstrates how easily they corrupt the police and politicians. As always, the law is corrupted and outgunned. As victims pile up, Dave, Clete, and their daughters recognize that if they want justice, they will have to get it for themselves. The result is perhaps Burke’s boldest and most complex novel to date, at once a superb crime story and a literary masterpiece from an author who has been named a Mystery Writers of America Grand Master.
The protagonist in Gordon’s debut novel, The Serialist (an Edgar Award finalist), was a novelist hired to write a serial killer’s memoir. Now he returns with the story of Sam Kornberg, an experimental novelist who finds work as an assistant to a obese and not entirely sane private detective. Gordon writes about writers because one of the things his books are about is the nature of storytelling itself. As the story opens, Sam is assigned the task of tailing a mysterious young woman. What seems at first to be a simple job soon snares him in a murder case that takes him on a wild ride from Los Angeles to a poor village in rural Mexico and involves Satanists, free love advocates, doppelgangers, and underground filmmakers. The result is a darkly comic, stylishly-written literary thriller peppered with references to literature ( Shakespeare, Phillip K. Dick, Proust, Kafka) and classic movies (Vertigo, The Wild Bunch, They Live By Night.) Along the way, Gordon explores issues of faith, personal identity, friendship, and the decline of civilization. Be forewarned that the author, whose previous jobs include writing for magazines with names like Hustler and Barely Legal, has included a fair amount of explicit sex.
As the story opens, Los Angeles Police Officer Scott James and his partner, Stephanie Anders, blunder into a back street where five masked men are raking a Bentley with automatic weapons. When the shooting stops, Stephanie lies dead in the street and Scott has been badly wounded. Meanwhile, in Iraq, an 85-pound German shepherd trained to sniff out explosives is wounded and her Marine handler killed by a suicide bomber. Months later, Scott and Maggie, both still recovering from their wounds, are united as a new team in the LAPD’s K-9 Platoon. In defiance of orders, they set out together to solve Stephanie’s murder. The most compelling passages in the novel describe the interactions between Scott and Maggie as they struggle to overcome their PTSD (yes, dogs get it, too); learn to trust, love, and rely on one another; and discover that each offers the other their best chance for a new start in life. Crais writes several chapters from Maggie’s point of view. “She had ranged ahead to protect him, but now her heart soared when Scott entered the room. They were pack. A pack of two, they were one.” This risky device would be a disaster in a lesser writer’s hands, but Crais, who did a lot of research about doggie behavior, pulls it off brilliantly. The result is a novel that is at once deeply touching and as action-packed as a Lethal Weapon movie.
Spero Lucas, first introduced by George Pelecanos in The Cut (2011), is a Marine vet who saw action in Fallujah, returned to his hometown of Washington, D.C., and found part-time work as an investigator for a criminal defense attorney. On the side, he helps people recover stolen goods in return for a finder’s fee. Sometimes the work requires killing, and Spero, who still has nightmares about the war, is capable of doing that without remorse–most of the time. This sequel pits Spero against a gang of thieves led by a swaggering sociopath. To track them down, he leans on some old war buddies, but when the brutal confrontations come, he prefers to work alone. The Double, written in Pelecanos’s spare but vivid prose, is throwback, hardboiled story that will remind readers of the best of the Parker novels Donald Westlake produced under the pen name Richard Stark.
When Loehfelm first introduced Maureen Coughlin in The Devil She Knows (2011), the petite Staten Island, N.Y., cocktail waitress was drifting through life, fearful that she lacked the gumption to ever become anything more. But by the end of that novel, her confrontation with a vicious, mobbed-up politician had irrevocably changed her. Now, two years later, we find her living in New Orleans and freshly graduated from the city’s police academy. Responding to a routine disturbance, Maureen’s attention is drawn to a couple of young boys who seem unnaturally interested in the proceedings. As she tries to discover what they are up to, she uncovers a criminal conspiracy that threatens the boys’ lives–and also her own. Maureen’s inexperience gets her into trouble, but she’s spunky and eager to get on the fast track to the homicide division. Post-Katrina New Orleans, with its thriving French Quarter, its still-ruined neighborhoods, its scandal-riddled police force, and its often-obnoxious tourists, is so beautifully drawn that it emerges as a full-blown character in its own right. And as always in a Loehfelm novel, the prose is both taut and lyrical.
Jake Fisher and Natalie Avery fell in love at an artist’s colony in Vermont; but then she inexplicably broke it off, married an older man named Todd Sanderson, and made Jake promise he would never come looking for her. Todd ached for Natalie, but for six years, he kept his promise–until, one day, he stumbled onto Todd Sanderson’s obituary. So Jake, a political science professor at a small Massachusetts college, sets out to track Natalie down and promptly makes a series of frightening discoveries. Sanderson did not die of natural causes; he was tortured and murdered. And there is no trace of Natalie anywhere. The day she married Sanderson, she vanished from the face of the earth. Todd’s best bud urges him to forget Natalie and move on with his life, but he can’t let it go. Soon his persistence puts his own life in danger. Coben, the author of twenty-three thrillers, has long been a fixture on the best-seller lists, but Six Years is easily his most compelling and suspenseful novel to date. The prose is first rate. The characters, a remarkable collection of saints and sinners, are so well-drawn that that you can hear their hearts beating. And the plot has so many stunning surprises that it is impossible to put down.
The Downeast locals despise Elizabeth Morse, a woman who made a fortune selling worthless herbal remedies and is using it to buy up huge parcels of Maine woodland. The locals–timber barons, saw-mill workers, and poachers–have long made their livings from this land, but Morse hopes to persuade the federal government to turn it into a national park. So trouble is sure to come to this backwater of lakes and forests patrolled by Maine Game Warden Mike Bowditch, the hero of three earlier Doiron novels. It does so in the form of intruders who slip onto Morse’s property, shoot ten moose, and leave the carcasses for scavengers. Bowditch itches to dive into the investigation, but his boss, self-serving Lt. Rivard, keeps him on the periphery with make-work assignments. Trying to live down a reputation for insubordination, Bowditch seethes but follows orders for a time, but eventually he can’t resist sticking his nose where it does not belong. Doiron fashions a tense mystery peopled by characters you could meet by wandering into the wrong Down East bar. As usual, he peppers his story with evocative descriptions of the state he and Bowditch call home.
Six years after the publication of his much-celebrated eighth novel, Winter’s Bone, the poet laureate of country noir returns with a 164-page novelette that holds more truth and human emotion than most writers can pack into three times as many pages. The yarn was inspired by a true story, a West Plains, Missouri, dance hall explosion that killed dozens of young people in 1928. Growing up in the Ozarks, Woodrell heard the back-porch stories–whispers that the tragedy was no accident and that someone a member of his family once worked for might have been to blame. The author tells the tale through the memories of Alma DeGeer Dunahew, a bitter, vengeful, somewhat dotty old woman whose promiscuous sister died in the blast. Alma blames the tragedy on a banker whom she once worked for as a maid, but Woodrell offers up a host of other suspects including mobsters from St. Louis, a troupe of gypsies, and a preacher who considered the dance hall a den of iniquity. The complex, beautifully-written story unfolds as Alma gradually reveals facts, rumors, and suspicions to her grandson.
That makes ten, but I would be remiss If I did not also recommend: