Crime Books of the Year

It’s been a year of exciting new voices in crime fiction, with assured and perceptive police procedurals from Sarah Hilary (Someone Else’s Skin, Headline) and Eva Dolan (Long Way Home, Harvill Secker), both set in the UK. Paul Mendelson’s vivid Cape-Town based thriller, The First Rule of Survival (C&R Crime), may have a familiar protagonist in the character of the ‘heavy-drinking, weather-beaten’ Colonel Vaughan De Vries, but it’s atmospheric, complex, and definitely worth the read.

American journalist Caroline Kepnes’s first novel, You, (Simon & Schuster), is an unsettling masterpiece of stalker fiction, set in New York with a cast who ‘care more about their status updates than their actual lives’ and whose vanity and neediness lays them open in the most appalling way. Kepnes performs, with great aplomb, the emotional somersault of putting us entirely on the side of creepy bookstore clerk Joe as he stalks creative writing student Beck and plans to eliminate any rivals for her affection.
There have been some splendid historical debuts, including the winner of this year’s Crime Writers’ Association Historical Dagger award, The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson (Hodder & Stoughton), the spellbinding story of a desperate man who must solve a murder to get himself out of gaol. The Axeman’s Jazz, by Ray Celestin (Mantle), which is set in New Orleans in 1919 and takes, as its jumping-off point, the intriguing true story of a jazz-loving serial killer, is also superb. Another excellent first offering with its roots in historical fact is M.J. Carter’s The Strangler Vine (Fig Tree), which uses the background of the British East India Company in 1837 for a richly detailed and thought-provoking fusion of Raj myth and reality with a fast-moving adventure of the John Masters type.

There’s an unusual and fascinating take on a crime novel from the established and endlessly inventive Louise Welsh, whose latest work sets a fairly traditional mystery against an apocalyptic background to great effect. A Lovely Way to Burn (John Murray) is the first of a trilogy set in a dystopian, but uncomfortably plausible, version of contemporary London where a plague-like virus is spreading rapidly. With a strong central character and vivid depictions of the disorder that accompanies social breakdown, it’s a gripping read that tees things up nicely for the next volume.

American best-seller Laura Lippman’s latest standalone novel After I’m Gone (Faber & Faber) uses the framework of a ‘cold case’ – the disappearance of a rich Baltimore businessman and philanthropist who ran an illegal gambling operation – to examine the effect that his absence has had on the lives of his wife, daughters and mistress. The thrills may be low-key, but the time-slips, shifting points of view and delicately drawn details add up to an utterly riveting read.

Another intriguing slow-burner is The Farm by Tom Rob Smith (Simon & Schuster). Set mainly in Sweden, it contains many of the things that we have come to expect from Scandinavian crime fiction – the rural community with its isolated farms, the girl who disappeared, the hidden, fairy-tale world of trolls and goblins – but Smith, with great skill, uses the familiar to wrongfoot the reader as his protagonist, 29-year-old Daniel, tries to work out which of his parents is telling the truth about a murder.
Lastly, two of the most welcome names in the ever-growing pile of re-issues are the wonderful Celia Fremlin (Faber Finds), author of such psychological thrillers as The Hours Before Dawn, originally published in 1958, and the phenomenally prolific Belgian Georges Simenon, creator of the laconic Commissaire Maigret (Penguin Classics).