The Year’s Best Crime Novels: 2018

If you’re looking for trends in today’s crime fiction, look no further than one word: stand-alone. Was it Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train—the explanation du jour for everything in the genre—that prompted the explosion of stand-alone thrillers, and especially those utilizing unreliable narrators and emphasizing psychological suspense? Time will tell, of course, but for the moment there’s no doubt that stand-alones of every kind are swamping the playing field. Fortunately, many of them are very good indeed, which is why this year’s compilation of our best crime novels and best crime debuts contains more than its share. The books here were reviewed in Booklist between May 1, 2017, and April 15, 2018. [Ed note: This article appears in the May 1 issue of Booklist.]


 Down the River unto the Sea, by Walter Mosley

Mosley, author of the celebrated Easy Rawlins novels, launches a new series starring Joe King Oliver, who was an NYPD detective until he was framed for sexual assault. Out of jail and getting by as a PI, Joe is reenergized when the woman who accused him of assault admits off the record to taking part in the frame-up. Mosley writes with great power here about themes that have permeated his work: institutional racism, political corruption, and the ways that both of these issues affect not only society at large but also the inner lives of individual men and women.





 Exit Strategy, by Steve Hamilton

Chicago crime boss Darius Cole engineered Nick Mason’s release from prison, but, in exchange, Mason is now Cole’s designated killer. To escape this deal with the devil, he devises his exit strategy. The intensity Hamilton generates here feels like a like a wailing siren growing steadily louder. Noir is all about characters attempting to find options for themselves where none exist. The brilliance of this uncompromising novel lies in the way Hamilton, with the legerdemain of a master conjurer, turns despair to hope and back again, finally blending the two into their own unique nightmare world.


 The Forceby Don Winslow

It’s rare for a writer to produce two career-defining masterpieces back-to-back, but that’s what Winslow has done by following The Cartel (2015) with The Force. In an era rife with racially motivated police brutality, Winslow examines what cops do right and wrong with clear-eyed realism and passionate humanity. The story of Denny Malone, who leads an elite NYPD task force, moves back and forward in time, showing how Malone’s assault on drugs and guns began as something good but eventually became something very bad. Grand in scope and equally grand in execution.





 Hellbent, by Gregg Hurwitz

The latest in Hurwitz’s Evan Smoak series may be the best yet. The former Orphan X has cut his ties with the deep-cover Orphan Program and has reinvented himself as the Nowhere Man, helping those with nowhere else to turn. Now, though, he’s out to avenge the death of his former mentor, but can he do so without putting at risk a young woman he rescued from the program? The story moves as fast as a bullet train, and we’ve never seen Smoak as emotionally exposed as he is here. As the character of Smoak becomes steadily more complex, the humanity at the core of the man emerges forcefully.


 Let Me Lie, by Clare Mackintosh

Anna Johnson’s parents committed suicide within months of each other, but were the deaths really suicide? An anonymous note sends Anna on the trail of the truth, drawing retired detective into the hunt but then attempting to retreat when it looks like finding the killer will mean exposing family secrets. Mackintosh’s three bar-raising psychological thrillers have proven her adept at crafting compellingly flawed, authority-bucking characters and creating twists from the ripple effects of their relationships and personal issues.





 The Lying Game, by Ruth Ware

Isa Wilde and two long-estranged friends gather at a boarding school they all attended and where the fourth member of their group still lives in a decrepit millhouse. A body has been discovered in the nearby marsh, and the girls fear it will be identified as the art teacher who disappeared in their final year at school. Once the group is together, the memories of their deceptive pastime, called the Lying Game, force them to confront the horrible secret they have all been hiding. Ware masterfully combines gothic atmosphere with a chilling contemporary story of psychological suspense.


 Sunburn, by Laura Lippman

In this stunning homage to James M. Cain, Lippman takes the mood and some of the themes from Cain’s classic noirs and brilliantly refashions them into a thoroughly contemporary story of a hard-luck woman trying to right her life by whatever means necessary. In this ingeniously constructed and extremely suspenseful tale, Lippman parcels out information slowly, allowing us to process one revelation before she confronts us with another. This is Lippman working at the height of her considerable powers.





 The Switch, by Joseph Finder

Finder is a master at placing ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Michael Tanner, who runs a gourmet-coffee business, is returning from a business trip when he picks up the wrong laptop from the security tray. A U.S. senator needs that laptop back immediately, but Tanner senses his life will be at risk if he returns it. Finder shuttles between the points of view of Tanner and the senator’s chief of staff, with every move by one of the two creating more tension in the other. Great characterization, a plot that never flags, and even a few fascinating facts about coffee sourcing.


 The Woman in the Window, by A. J. Finn

Like Laura Lippman’s Sunburn, Finn’s novel draws on classic source material—Hitchcock’s Rear Window—to craft an entirely original take on the theme of a housebound person armed with binoculars observing a murder. In this case, though, that person, Anna Fox, is agoraphobic and what she thinks she sees may or may not be real. As Finn gradually separates reality from illusion, bit by agonizing bit, the reader gives way completely to the turmoil in Anna’s mind. This utterly compelling psychological thriller makes Hitchcock’s plot—perfectly sane guy with a broken leg sees bad stuff and sorts it out—seem like child’s play.




 Y Is for Yesterday, by Sue Grafton

Grafton’s recent death left her landmark alphabet series one volume shy of full completion, but her legion of fans can take solace in the fact that what would have been the penultimate volume is one of the series’ true standouts. Tracking down a blackmailer who is attempting to profit from a 10-year-old scandal involving high-schoolers, a sex tape, and stolen test answers, Kinsey Millhone stirs up a hornet’s nest of resentment and rage. All of the things that made Kinsey beloved are on view here, from her self-deprecating humor through her signature blend of tender and tough.



Best Debuts

 Anatomy of a Scandal, by Sarah Vaughan

It won’t be easy for Kate Woodcroft to convict MP James Whitehouse of rape, but Kate is determined because many years before, while a student at Oxford, she, too, was raped by Whitehouse. Now, unrecognizable after changing her name and appearance, Kate hides the conflict of interest, bent on revenge. Vaughan offers gripping insight into a political scandal’s hidden machinations and the tension between justice and privilege.





 The Driver, by Hart Hanson

Hanson, creator of the TV series Bones, delivers all the punch of a classic crime show from the 1970s (think The Rockford Files) in this remarkable debut. Michael Skellig, the proprietor of Oasis Limo Services, drives the mean streets of Los Angeles, a twenty-first-century Philip Marlowe. The dialogue is crisp and street-tough, and the action redefines relentless.


 Final Girls, by Riley Sager

Quincy Carpenter became a “Final Girl” when she and two others survived a massacre that killed five of their college friends. Years later, one of the other survivors dies in mysterious circumstances, leaving only Quinn and Samantha. The two bond after a long time apart until suspicion poisons the relationship. Sager cleverly plays on familiar horror-movie themes, but she delves deeper, both with her characters and with her exploration of rebirth and redemption.





 The Last Place You Look, by Kristen Lepionka

PI Roxane Weary is a lot like her dead father, Frank, who was also a cop: she looks like him and drinks like him, and she’s taken to sleeping with his former partner. So she turns to Frank’s notebooks when she attempts to solve several murders in her small Ohio town. Roxane is a wonderfully rich character, deeply flawed but absolutely dogged in her pursuit of the truth. Sensitive character development and a heart-stopping denouement.


 Need to Know, by Karen Cleveland

What would you do if you found out that your entire life, including your husband, your children, and your career, might be part of an orchestrated effort on the part of the Russian government to infiltrate the CIA? Vivian Miller, a CIA agent, faces just that dilemma. Cleveland, with a background in CIA counterterrorism, makes the most of today’s Russia-soaked headlines in a ferociously readable thriller.





 Our Little Secret, by Roz Nay

Angela Petitjean realizes that she’s a suspect in the disappearance of her first love’s wife during a prolonged interrogation by Detective J. Novak, whom she agrees to tell what she knows but only on her terms. Quickly, the narrative becomes a psychological duel. Is Angela a calculating killer or a woman scorned? A sneaky-smart, charismatic debut.


 Sirens, by Joseph Knox

Detective Constable Aidan Waits agrees to infiltrate a Manchester drug gang, but matters are complicated by the presence there of an MP’s runaway daughter. Waits’ voice is a compelling mix of realism and regret, which plays well against the gritty Manchester setting. A deep dive into the underworld and a perfect choice for readers who like their heroes a bit battered.






 Tangerine, by Christine Mangan

Patricia Highsmith’s Mr. Ripley has become a femme fatale named Lucy in Mangan’s mesmerizing thriller. Newly married Alice, a fragile Englishwoman, has landed in 1950s Tangier, hoping to escape a scandal that forced her to leave college. Then Lucy, Alice’s roommate at school and the cause of the scandal, turns up in Tangier, and a deadly pas de deux begins. A brilliant blending of landscape and character.


 Weeping Waters, by Karin Brynard, translated by Maya Fowler

Johannesburg cop Albertus Beeslaar has transferred to a post on the edge of the Kalahari Desert, hoping to escape big-city violence but finding instead that brutal crimes are being committed on small farms in the area. A brilliant ensemble cast, well-measured suspense, straightforward dialogue, and nice pacing add up to an outstanding thriller from an author known as “the Afrikaans Stieg Larsson.”





 The Woman in the Window, by A. J. Finn

Finn’s debut is this year’s only winner of the coveted Booklist daily double—a slot on both our top 10 and crime-fiction debut lists. See above for a description of this remarkable novel, which has been optioned for a film with Tracy Letts writing the screenplay.

About the Author:

After more than 30 years at Booklist, editor and publisher Bill Ott continues to edit the crime fiction section of the magazine and still delights in discovering new hard-boiled writers. Follow him on Twitter at @Booklist_Bill.

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  1.' Pat Roher says:

    I love a page turner….suggestions????

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