This year has produced a bumper crop of first novels. Norwegian By Night by Derek B. Miller (Faber), winner of the Crime Writers’ Association John Creasey Dagger, is the funny, moving and gripping story of cantankerous 82 year-old-widower and ex-marine Sheldon Horowitz, uprooted from his native New York to Oslo, who finds himself on the run with the six-year-old son of a murdered neighbour and the ghosts from his past. Equally original and convincing is Mollel, the Maasai-warrior-turned-policeman protagonist of Richard Crompton’s debut, The Honey Guide (Weidenfeld & Nicholson), which is set against the background of Kenya’s 2007 general election and the subsequent eruption of ethnic violence. Also set in Africa, MD Villier’s first novel, City of Blood (Harvill Secker), is both a touching coming-of-age story and a vivid picture of the Johannesburg underworld.

Inspector Avi Avraham, protagonist of the prosaically-titled The Missing File (Quercus) by D. A. Mishani, translated by Steven Cohen, has a theory about why there are no detective novels in Hebrew. ‘We don’t have crimes like that… serial killers, kidnappings,’ he says, so, when a sixteen-year-old boy goes missing from a Tel Aviv suburb, he’s not too bothered – the kid’s bound to turn up soon. He doesn’t, of course, and it becomes clear that things are not all that they seem… An assured debut, with a wholly unexpected resolution.

Every bit as compelling and unnerving as last year’s psychological crime fiction hit, Gone Girl, The Silent Wife (Headline) is the first novel from Canadian author A.S.A. Harrison – and also, sadly for us, the last, as she died in April. The cracks in Jodi and Todd’s twenty-year-old relationship are carefully plastered over to create the veneer of two successful lives well lived. The slow, insidious disintegration towards the point where murder makes perfect sense is appalling, and appallingly plausible, in its predictability.

It’s hard to believe that Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (Picador) is a first novel. Based on the last case of capital punishment in Iceland, in 1830, it’s meticulously researched, with the past so strongly evoked that one can almost smell it: a simple, moving story, told with confidence. Another essential read for those who enjoy historical crime is The Scent of Death by the consistently excellent Andrew Taylor (Harper Collins), winner of this year’s CWA Ellis Peters Award. Set in New York during the American war of independence, exciting and atmospheric in equal measure, it’s the tale of British civil servant Edward Savill, whose brief is to ‘report on the administration of justice’ and who finds himself investigating a murder in a city made lawless and desperate by conflict.

Writing an emotionally disconnected protagonist is a difficult trick to pull off, but Belinda Bauer manages it with Patrick, a young man with Asperger’s syndrome, who becomes an anatomy student because he is obsessed with death. Her fourth novel, Rubbernecker, is intriguing, disturbing and intelligent.
It’s been a very good year for thrillers, too, especially those dealing with recent history. Ratlines by Stuart Neville (Harvill Secker) and Ostland by David Thomas (Quercus) both address the aftermath of the Second World War, and The Twelfth Department by William Ryan (Mantle) is set in 1930s Stalinist Russia. Roger Hobbs’s stunning debut Ghostman (Doubleday), winner of the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger for Best Thriller, is set in present-day Atlantic City, where a casino heist goes spectacularly wrong. With ‘bodies everywhere, loot missing, feds circling’, the eponymous ghostman, Jack (not his real name, of course) is called in by criminal mastermind Marcus Hayes to sort things out, and some serious violence results. Taut and stylish, this is an outstanding read.

Re-issues of crime classics of yesteryear continue apace, and one of the most welcome this year has been Laidlaw by William McIlvanney (Canongate). First published in 1977, this is the original tartan noir with the original Scottish maverick cop – beautifully written, and well worth the read.

© Laura Wilson, 2013