For the past 20 years Booklist has published a Mystery Showcase issue in spring. For the past seven years, we’ve enhanced that coverage online during May—which we’ve dubbed Mystery Month. As we launch the 2016 edition, we’re reprinting this list from the May 1 issue of Booklist.
Comic caper novels, psychological thrillers, and history-mystery blends dominate the best crime fiction reviewed in Booklist from May 1, 2015, through April 15, 2016. If you love that special brew of light and dark that characterizes the best caper novels, you have to be a little giddy after a year in which three writers of the caliber of Stephen Dobyns (Is Fat Bob Dead Yet?), Timothy Hallinan (King Maybe), and Thomas Perry (Forty Thieves) chose to leaven suspense with laughter. And if your hunger for psychological thrillers hasn’t been sated by books with Girl in the title, the last 12 months will have been very good for you, too, thanks to Lisa Lutz’s The Passenger and Lori Rader-Day’s Little Pretty Things. Historical-thriller fans have been just as happy, what with Sara Moliner’s The Whispering City, set in 1952 Barcelona; Lyndsay Faye’s Jane Steele, a clever homage to Jane Eyre; and a pair of epic-scale novels set primarily in Mexico, James Lee Burke’s House of the Rising Sun and Don Winslow’s The Cartel.
If you’ve been counting, you’ll know that I’ve only mentioned nine books. That’s because the tenth entry in our top 10, Bill Beverly’s Dodgers, forms a kind of bridge, it being the only title to appear on both the year’s top 10 crime novels and our top 10 crime fiction debuts—a rare double, as those who follow these annual lists will know. The other nine top debuts are a mixed bag of excellence, united by one all-important factor: their authors are on our radar now, and we’ll be watching them closely in the future.
Top 10 Crime Novels of the Year
The Cartel, by Don Winslow
Winslow’s riveting epic about the ongoing Mexican drug wars blends fact and fiction to tell the incredible, tragic story of the blood-drenched reign of the notorious El Chapo (Adán Barrera in the novel). Jumping from detailed but never less than compelling discussion of the logistics behind the cartel’s operation to the story of the people involved, Winslow draws the reader in with rich portraits not only of DEA agent Art Keller and Barrera but also of other cartel figures, journalists, and innocent victims.
Dodgers, by Bill Beverly
East, a 15-year-old gang member who has never been out of L.A., joins a crew driving to Wisconsin to kill a witness in a case against his boss. The journey is transformative, forcing East to confront problems inside and outside the van while figuring out who he is and why he was sent along. The premise is terrific, the prose is remarkable, and the characters all live, breathe, and bleed. A searing novel about crime, race, and coming-of-age.
Forty Thieves, by Thomas Perry
This stand-alone thriller combines high-octane suspense with comic capering, as two married couples—one a PI team, the other a hit couple for hire—spar with one another until they both find themselves in the crosshairs of a gang of Russian jewel thieves. Perry delivers a perfect melding of character and plot, light and dark, and he totally immerses the reader in an irresistible narrative.
House of the Rising Sun, by James Lee Burke
Burke fills in more gaps in the lives of the Holland family. This time it’s Hackberry Holland, onetime Texas Ranger and on-again, off-again drunkard, whose backstory is on view, as Hack launches a quest of Arthurian proportions to save his son from an evil arms dealer. The sweeping historical frame proves ideal for Burke’s elegiac style, and his fusillades of moving, lyrical prose make us feel the beating hearts of all his demon-wracked characters.
Is Fat Bob Dead Yet?, by Stephen Dobyns
This uproariously entertaining comic thriller evokes Elmore Leonard and Donald E. Westlake but adds several layers of absurdity and a narrative voice that suggests metafiction meets a Greek chorus meets Groucho Marx (with just a hint of Jane Austen in the authorial interruptions). Now that’s a rich stew indeed, but readers willing to loosen the reigns of realism won’t regret the ride one bit.
Jane Steele, by Lyndsay Faye
The life of Jane Steele in nineteenth-century England parallels that of Jane Eyre, except that Steele’s signature line is, “Reader, I murdered him.” Well, several hims, actually. Faye’s skill at historical mystery was evident in her nineteenth-century New York trilogy, but this slyly satiric stand-alone takes her prowess to new levels. A must for Brontë devotees; wickedly entertaining for all.
King Maybe, by Timothy Hallinan
Junior Bender, full-time thief and part-time sleuth for L.A. crooks in need of detecting, has a way of landing in world-class pickles. This time Junior devises a plan to rob the unrobbable house of a notoriously treacherous movie mogul, the titular King Maybe. The curlicuing plot, the quirky cast of bent supporting characters, and Hallinan’s dazzling, metaphor-rich style add up to one of the best in a sinfully entertaining series.
Little Pretty Things, by Lori Rader-Day
The last person Juliet Townsend expects to see as she works at a budget motel is Madeleine Bell. Still bitter over how it all went bad with Maddy in high school, Juliet rejects a bid for forgiveness only to find her former friend hanging from the lobby balcony. Rader-Day proves herself a deft manipulator of dark atmosphere, witty dialogue, and complex, charismatic characters.
The Passenger, by Lisa Lutz
In a stunning departure from her comic Spellman Files series, Lutz offers a dark psychological thriller. Tanya Dubois finds her husband dead and knows she can’t afford the police scrutiny that is soon to follow. So she hits the road—and not for the first time. Lutz develops riveting suspense by slowly revealing Tanya’s past while white-knuckling the reader with her gritty heroine’s increasingly tenuous bids at survival.
The Whispering City, by Sara Moliner
In 1952 Barcelona, fear of the security police permeates daily life. When newspaper-reporter Ana Martí Noguer’s investigation of the murder of a society widow connects the crime to top regime officials, she must manipulate the city’s constantly shifting political forces to stay alive. Pair this atmospheric thriller with Tom Rob Smith’s novels set in the Stalinist Soviet Union.
Best Crime Fiction Debuts
All That Followed, by Gabriel Urza
It’s five years after the murder of a young politician in Spain’s Basque Country, but the repercussions reverberate still. Urza tells this history-soaked tale through three narrators, who offer different but equally nuanced views of what happened. A compelling look at Basque culture and the lingering effects of violence.
Cambodia Noir, by Nicholas Seeley
Journalist Seeley’s debut stars Will Keller, a once-great war photographer gone to seed. It’s 2003, and he works for a tiny paper in Phnom Penh, doubling as a finder of missing persons. In a fast-moving narrative that feels like riding through Phnom Penh’s streets on the back of a motorcycle, Seeley delivers a moody take on that enduring noir protagonist, the dissolute foreign correspondent.
Dodgers, by Bill Beverly
This outstanding debut novel also appears above, on our overall top 10.
The Do-Right, by Lisa Sandlin
Ex-con Delpha Wade takes a secretarial job with PI Tom Phelan, but quickly the two are working side by side. Sandlin vividly evokes the bayou country of 1973 Beaumont, Texas, while introducing a terrific character in Delpha, who is soaking up her freedom as she gets used to “wearing sky over her head.”
Hangman’s Game, by Bill Syken
Nick Gallow, punter for the Philadelphia Sentinels pro-football team, is present when the team’s first-round draft pick and his agent are killed by a drive-by shooter. Another player is suspected of the killing, but Gallow doesn’t buy it. Syken nails the football milieu in what may be the best sports-themed mystery in years.
Maestra, by L. S. Hilton
Hilton remixes Highsmith’s Ripley novels in a delicious, twenty-first-century psychological thriller that is glamorous, edgy, decadent, erotic, and irresistible. In her “vicious heels,” Judith Rashleigh moves quickly from art-brokerage underling to successful confidence woman. You can bet your Christian Louboutin stilettos that fans of everything from Gone Girl to 50 Shades of Grey will love this one.
The Second Girl, by David Swinson
Retired D.C. cop Frank Marr, a coke addict with a vigilante streak, isn’t your average PI. But he’s a decent guy, and when he finds himself in a tight spot—while robbing a stash house, he comes upon a kidnapped girl in the bathroom—he knows he’s hit a crossroads. Readers will be fascinated by the day-in-the-life perspective of a tormented but oddly appealing antihero.
Shaker, by Scott Frank
Screenwriter Frank delivers a strikingly original debut novel about an off-the-radar hit man who becomes an inadvertent hero. After a video of Roy Cooper intervening in a mugging by a group of teen gangbangers in L.A. goes viral, Roy is the target of both the gang and his former mentor turned enemy. Every one of the characters springs to vivid and tragic life.
The Swede, by Robert Karjel
In an intricate, fast-moving thriller, Karjel explores morally ambiguous views of justice. FBI agent Shauna Friedman asks for the help of Swedish security officer Ernst Grip in determining the nationality of the mysterious N., now imprisoned by the U.S. military. But is Friedman’s real goal to tie N. and Grip to a New York art theft? Add Karjel to your short list of notable Nordic crime writers.
White Crocodile, by K. T. Medina
Afghanistan War vet Tess Hardy now works with Mine Clearance Trust in Cambodia, where she hopes to investigate the suspicious death of her ex-husband, Luke. Medina successfully mixes suspense with disturbing glimpses of civilian mine casualties and a fascinating primer on armaments.