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The 20 best crime novels of the year

Summer reading just got dark

The 20 best crime novels of the year

After the heady ascent of DCI Morse, things in crime fiction took, well, a little turn for the timid, which is the only way we can account for the inexplicable popularity of Midsomer Murders. But thanks to the sudden surge in Scandinavian crime fiction led by Stieg Larsson, the gritty world of murder, untold psychopathy and coffee-stained detectives has recovered from its temporary lull. In fact, a crime boom is upon us, and what better accompaniment could you want for your impending wholesome beach holiday than a dark, visceral blood-laden thriller?

Here are 2011’s 20 best new books, plus five big-name authors reveal the crime novel to which they keep returning.

(Main Image: Getty)


The Affair by Lee Child

If you’re planning a late getaway, this will just be hitting the shelves as you’re called to the boarding gate. A murder on a railroad track in deepest Mississippi is the scene for Jack Reacher’s 16th odyssey as he reluctantly forms an uneasy alliance with a local female sheriff in order to gain access to the evidence. A soldier from the nearby military base is clearly in the frame, but someone in Washington DC is trying to cover things up. Once again, nothing and no one gets in the way of Reacher’s pursuit of answers. Except for the occasional cup of coffee.

The police procedural

Dead Man’s Grip by Peter James

A Mafia hitman in Brighton? Not as far-fetched as it sounds when you read the seventh outing for Sussex DSI Roy Grace, an entirely convincing copper thanks to the author’s meticulous research. James has a practice of letting a real-life DSI read every 100 pages first for authenticity, and this makes the seaside-based torture and murder more believable for a town that’s better known for selling vegetarian shoes.


The Fatal Touch by Conor Fitzgerald

A thriller based within the cobbled streets of Rome following hot on the heels of Alec Blume, an American who has become a commissario with the Italian police. The book kicks off with a dead art forger (hey, it is Rome) but before long Blume’s up to his Italian leather brogues in corrupt Caribinieri and La Cosa Nostra.


An Uncertain Place by Fred Vargas

Any book that begins with 18 decaying feet arranged in an OCD fashion in Highgate Cemetery and ends with a spot of vampire bashing in far-flung Eastern Europe has our vote. The multi-award-winning Vargas and her Gallic crimestopper Commissaire Adamsberg are back for their seventh murder hunt that continues to get bloodier and more bizarre with every passing chapter. As usual, Vargas deftly sidesteps cliché and populates the book with supremely odd characters, from dog-food-eating teens to blood-sucking Serbians, who all serve as a fantastic foil for her hero, a classic French detective.


You’re Next by Gregg Hurwitz

Set over a period of three days, this is a classic piece of pulp fiction from one of the US’s most prolific crime scribes. At its heart is a story about a guy going all out to protect his family, but Hurwitz’s other talents for writing graphic novels and Jerry Bruckheimer scripts means that the dialogue crackles and raises it above other pulp efforts.


White Heat by MJ McGrath

Proving that it’s never too cold for crime (and that Inuits eat seal blood soup), this has the most unusual setting for all the books on our list — the Arctic. And it’s a superb backdrop for an absorbing plot and well-crafted prose that transports you instantly to the tundra, which could be handy if you’re baking on the beach.


The Leopard by Jo Nesbo

It’s a good job that this latest Harry Hole tome is such a wickedly inventive and ultra-violent page-turner, as there are 600-plus pages of Nordic noir to get through. Nesbo has a skill in dispatching his victims with increasing inventiveness, and he barely lets you draw breath before delivering a virtuoso torture and death scene in the opening chapter. Then you’re off and following the trail of another multiple murderer running amok in the snowscapes of Norway.


The Devotion Of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

When a single mother murders her abusive ex-husband to protect her daughter, a neighbour — who also happens to be a maths genius — offers to help her cover up the crime. This reads like an anti-Sherlock Holmes as the neighbour uses logic to try to conceal the killing while locking intellects with Detective Kusangi and Doctor Yukawa, a physics professor, who are both determined to find out the truth.


Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane

Everything Lehane writes turns to celluloid, from Mystic River to Shutter Island to Gone Baby Gone. This is a follow-up to the latter with private eye Patrick Kenzie desperate to atone for the mistakes he made in returning the kidnapped Amanda McCready to her uncaring mother.


The Hypnotist by Lars Kepler

OK, it’s a crime book and yes, it’s Swedish. But the Stieg Larsson comparisons end there. For a start, this is written by a husband-and-wife team who distance themselves from the stylised violence of the Millennium Trilogy. Instead, the angle is more psychological, as the one surviving teenage witness to a mass murder is so traumatised by the events that only Erik Bark, a retired hypnotist, can tease out the truth. A terrific debut laced with some truly unsettling revelations.


The Cut by George Pelecanos

After a string of standalone titles, Pelecanos and his publishers have realised that he should have a franchise character to his name. Enter Spero Lucas, a man of mercurial talents (most notably recovering stolen goods) and a moral compass that usually points directly to the money. As you’d expect from a writer with credits for both The Wire and Treme, Pelecanos expertly renders the streets of the US capital and succeeds where many have failed of late: creating a fully formed antihero whom readers will want to meet again.


The Hollow Man by Oliver Harris

Just when he thought he was out, a Russian oligarch’s disappearance pulls DCI Nick Belsey back into Hampstead CID. Belsey doesn’t so much as bend the rule of law in his search for the tycoon as belt it repeatedly with a blunt instrument until it breaks. You can imagine Rhys Ifans playing him in the TV adaptation, of which there will surely be one.


Live Wire by Harlan Coben

Usually, the more outrageously-named a central character, the more derivative the plot. That’s certainly not the case for the much-loved Myron Bolitar, a sports agent who also dabbles in private dickery, cast again by Coben to clean up the consequences of a malicious Facebook posting. A high point in the series.


Rogue Island by Bruce DeSilva

DeSilva is a local news reporter in Providence, Rhode Island, whose years of beating the streets are now paying off in his prose. He has clearly met half the characters who populate his first foray into crime fiction — a clever, fast-paced account of a string of arson attacks that are scorching the landscape and costing locals their lives.


Last Chance To Die by Noah Boyd

The plot may occasionally veer towards the absurd, but there’s no better man to accompany you on your flight to Dubrovnik than ex-FBI agent Steve Vail. Brick-wall-tough and skilled in violent arts, the third novel from Boyd (who is a former agent himself) is a must-read if you’re ever going to answer the question of who’s harder: Vail or Reacher?


The Troubled Man by Henning Mankell

The first new Wallander book in 10 years is a bittersweet experience, as it also signals the end of our time with the sorrowful sleuth. The investigative narrative sees him looking into the disappearance of a retired naval officer, but it’s the portrayal of the inspector’s mental and physical frailties that makes this an unexpectedly emotional read.


Luther: The Calling by Neil Cross

Penned by series creator Cross, this, thankfully, isn’t some hastily written cash-in off the back of the successful BBC TV series. Cross delivers a brooding piece of back-story for fans of the character inhabited by Idris Elba on screen. However, if you’re not already a DCI Luther convert, it also serves as a good jumping off point into his tortured world.


Trackers by Deon Meyer

The South African scribe’s great skill is making connected events read as random, and skilfully bringing them all to a conclusion to deliver a complex piece of fiction that won’t leave you with a headache. Here, he ambitiously links black rhino smuggling, gang warfare, al-Qaida and Fifa — and it’s about time they showed up in a crime novel.


Darkside by Belinda Bauer

After her expertly devised, executed and, ultimately, award-winning debut Blacklands, Bauer defies all expectations and does it again with a book that piles on the tension while remaining credible. It says something about the author that this novel can sit happily next to some of the more hard-boiled heavyweights even with plot devices including Exmoor ponies, Dubonnet and old folks’ homes. You’ll never feel comfortable in Somerset again, and that’s the highest compliment we can pay Bauer.


Agent 6 by Tom Rob Smith

If you’re a crime-fiction addict then you will have heard of, and devoured, Child 44 and The Secret Speech, the first two books in the series. If you haven’t, don’t let that stop you from picking up the final book, as reformed KGB officer Leo Demidov finds himself coming up against his greatest enemy to date: Mother Russia.