The Top Ten Crime and Mystery Novels of 2009

Lists Mystery Reviews

You may be wondering why someone would write a top ten of 2009 list three months into 2010. Well I have two excuses. One: I didn't want to write a list until I was absolutely certain I had read every book that had a chance of making it on the list. All that reading takes a lot of time. Now, with my eyes blurry and my dreams dark, I can honestly say that I've read every book worth considering (with one exception, which I will admit to later) for the top ten.

Reason two is a tad more subjective: I've noticed with horror that nearly every Top 10 of 2009 list on the internet picks Michael Connelly's mediocre thriller The Scarecrow as one of the best of the year. Come on, folks! We can do better than that! I trust that anyone who included that one (not to mention some of the other stinkers I saw) on their list didn't have a chance to read the following titles. So, I finally decided to break my silence. 2009 was a banner year for crime fiction, and the following books deserve to be talked about. Enjoy.

Box 21 by Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström

This masterful Swedish crime novel examines one of today's most pervasive evils, human trafficking, in the stark light of day. The systematic and brutal process used to turn young girls into throwaway sex slaves is portrayed in graphic detail without being exploitive or cheap. At its heart, Box 21 is a meditation on loss and truth. Surly Stockholm detective Ewert Grens struggles to accept the loss of his lover 25 years ago in a moment of senseless violence and a young Lithuanian woman, Lydia Grajauskas, is consumed with rage after losing her freedom to three years of forced prostitution. Each flounders under the weight of their loss, and when they collide, the impact rips the lid off years of lies and police corruption, opening a chasm beneath Ewert Grens' feet. One of Box 21's authors, Börge Hellström, is a self-described ex-criminal. Whether it's because or despite of this, this portrayal of human beings living on the razor edge is intensely compelling and believable.

1974 by David Peace

The English language, eloquent and expressive as it is, contains only two words that accurately convey my reaction to this book: holy shit. David Peace's 1974 shot right past my 2009 list and on to my list of favorite crime novels of all time. This is the first installment of the groundbreaking Red Riding Quartet, and the first to be published in the US. It's a story about a Yorkshire crime journalist who follows the gruesome trail of a serial killer right down the rabbit hole into a world of sadism, corruption and greed where no one can be trusted and most should be feared. Peace employs a staccato style that's similar to Ellroy at the peak of his game, mercilessly chopping each sentence down to its essence, mimicking thought and frantic action so convincingly it's unnerving. Unrelentingly dark and truly frightening, 1974 is a book that hard-boiled fans will worship.

Nemesis by Jo Nesbø

Jo Nesbø is undoubtedly one of the freshest, most inventive voices in mystery/crime today. His protagonist Harry Hole is a gifted Oslo detective, battling his own demons while hunting down Norway's most dangerous criminals. Nemesis finds Hole investigating a string of brutal bank robberies and joining forces with an arch-crook to find the culprit. Before the investigation gets off the ground, Hole finds himself accused of murdering his ex-girlfriend. Problem is, he can't remember if he did it or not. If that sounds familiar, never fear. Nesbø has a way of surprising you, even when he's telling a story you think you've heard before. Nemesis is my least favorite of the three Harry Hole's I've read (including the masterful The Redbreast, and the utterly addictive Devil's Star), but it's still heads and tails above 95% of the cheap juvenilia masquerading as mystery nowadays.

Mind's Eye by Håkan Nesser

My other favorite Scandinavian crime author is Swedish scribe Håkan Nesser. Inspector Van Veeteren, Nesser's leading man, is that rarest of finds in crime fiction: a unique character. He's philosophical, self-effacing, and ultimately relentless, but with a playful attitude that contrasts with the serious crimes he investigates. Think of an idiot savant whose skill is finding guilty parties. It's endlessly entertaining watching Van Veeteren take in all the information surrounding a murder, shake it around, and then let it marinate in his brain -- subconsciously exploring multiple scenarios and possibilities -- until the answer pops out of his mouth. There are some much-needed light moments to be had watching the other, more normal, characters, relate to Van Veeteren's eccentricities. Mind's Eye is the first novel starring Van Veeteren, though it was the fourth one released in the US. It's a perfect place to start, and a nice preparation for the even-better Borkmann's Point.

Blood's a Rover by James Ellroy

What can I say about Ellroy that hasn't already been said? The man is an institution. And love him or hate him -- you can't deny that he is the premier crime author still sucking wind. Each Ellroy book is a like a submarine, plumbing the depths of the 50's and 60's, sifting through layers of dirt and grime left out of the history books. Like most of Ellroy's books, Blood's features a potent mix of high political intrigue and street-level dirt, focusing on the smoky backrooms where the two meet -- a place where powerful politicians and bent cops shake hands with infamous mobsters and two-bit pimps and everybody but everybody is on the take. Though I still prefer the L.A. quartet (particularly the middle two installments, The Big Nowhere and L.A. Confidential), Blood's a Rover, the final book in the mammoth Underworld USA trilogy, still ranks as one of the best crime novels of last or any year.

Spade and Archer: The Prequel to Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon by Joe Gores

In lesser hands, this book would have been an utter disaster. From trillions of fan-fiction sites catering to obsessed weirdos who just can't accept that Buffy and Xena are make believe, to more high-falutin' attempts to modernize or prequel-ize classic works of literature -- when you hear that someone other than the original author has created a prequel or sequel to a masterpiece, it's hard to take it seriously. That's why Joe Gores had nothing to lose with the prequel to The Maltese Falcon. And why he totally pulled it off. Spade and Archer gives us a better understanding of Spade's motivations and the events that led to the icy tension between the title characters in Falcon. The language is entirely legit -- you'll feel like you're back in the pulp-era where rhythmic back and forth was a hallmark of any great detective narrative. If you've got a place in your heart for Spade or Hammett, you'll love it. If you don't - try a defibrillator.

The Long Fall by Walter Mosley

It’s always cool when an author whose bag of tricks you’ve committed to memory pulls something new out of the hat. The Long Fall is the best thing Mosley’s written in years. Leonid McGill is a surly Private Investigator struggling to “go from crooked to only slightly bent” in a city not known for granting second chances. At the beginning of the book, McGill is completing a seemingly simple assignment: track down four men and deliver their whereabouts to an Albany PI. Even though his spidey sense is tingling, Leonid hands over the information. When the men rather predictably start turning up dead, Leonid tracks down the Albany PI for answers. Unfortunately for Leonid, dead men rarely have the answers. But the condition of his previous employer does tell Leonid one thing: he’s probably next on the list. The pleasure in this book lies in Leonid’s internal monologue as he tries to navigate through a brutal world of treachery and greed without getting his hands too dirty. McGill is a throwback, a strong, silent type who talks with his fists and always gets the girl –- the kind of guy you want on your side in a barroom scuffle. Think Mike Hammer with more melanin and less self-regard. I, for one, will be anxiously awaiting his next appearance.

Exit Music by Ian Rankin

This is the swan song of one of mystery's most beloved protagonists, Scottish Inspector John Rebus. Rankin's books breathed fresh life into the genre at a time when it was sorely needed. By focusing not only on the crimes his hero is trying to solve, but on the hero's personal life and internal struggles, Rankin creates a character who feels three-dimensional. This has the effect of tightening the tension when Rebus finds himself in a dicey situation. Exit Music is a fitting end to a series that will long hold a place of prominence in the annals of detective fiction.

Lush Life by Richard Price

For those who hadn't already added Richard Price to their list of most talented urban crime writers, Lush Life should have sealed the deal. I'm sure bookstore owners have a hard time deciding whether to put Price's works in with literary fiction or mystery -- and the truth is, he's the perfect mix of both. Price's dialogue is so real, his descriptions so apt, his wit so sharp, the scenes feel more like something you witnessed through an open window than something you read off a page. Lush Life is not so much about a murder as it is about the repercussions of that murder, how they ripple outwards, inexorably changing the lives of those who knew the victim and those accused of the crime. Price is hands-down one of the most promising voices in urban crime fiction today -- and Lush Life just might be his masterpiece.

The Girl who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson

I'm about to admit to something shocking here, so tighten your monocles and cover the top of your champagne glass: I don't care for Stieg Larsson. Yeah, I said it. Bring on the hate mail. I welcome the inferno. Seriously, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was a pretty good book. Pretty good. But from the hype, you would have thought Larsson was the second coming of James Joyce, writing about Swedes instead of Dubliners, murders instead of funerals. By page 250 I was starting to wonder if anything of note was ever going to happen -- and my wait wasn't over by a long shot. Shocking Admission Number Two: I didn't finish The Girl Who Played with Fire. I know, I know...blasphemy, right? I was about 20 pages in when I got fed up with learning about the history of mathematics and the ancient lives of its pre-eminent practitioners. At that point, I dramatically flung the book against the wall (something I've always wanted to do) and said, in my best Rhett Butler voice, "Frankly, Stieg, I don't give a damn!" If I want to read history, I'll read history. If I want mystery, thrills, suspense, I sure as hell won't pick up a book whose author seems determined to cram every interesting fact he's ever heard into each book. That said, I'm including Played with Fire on this list because it's had a major impact on the mystery/crime genre. Any book that brings thousands of more readers into the fold earns a spot on my list.

That's my list. Feel free to disagree, to tell me what I missed, to send hate mail to garrettkenyon@yahoo.com or to list your own favorites below. The illustration is by Clayton Douglas.

25 Responses to "The Top Ten Crime and Mystery Novels of 2009"

by Mireshka on

I disagree with you on Stieg Larsson, but it's still a good list. I loved "The Girl Who Played With Fire" although, you're right about it going off on irrelevant tangents. I see three other Scandinavians made your list this year, I wonder if they've always had this many great writers and us in the West are just catching on, or if it's a new phenomenon? Thanks for the recommendations!

by Shott Gunn on

Always a helpful contribution to my reading list. I intend to check out several of these. Thanks.

For a mix of crime and noir surrealism, I recommend Finch by Jeff VanderMeer.

by Laney on

Thanks for the lists. I too have been a little confused by some of the lists I've seen online. Usually, the Top Ten lists are a good way to catch up on the great books you may have missed, but this year I seem to keep seeing the same books on every list and some of them were terrible.

One question though I notice there are no women on your list. Is there a reason for that? Surely Karin Fossum or Ruth Rendell deserved a spot.

by Marcy on

Great reviews--I intend to check out a couple and totally agree with you on 4 of them.

by Rafo on

1974 by David Peace -

The spirit of the book beckons

the promise of a thrill incites

the literary palette holds a promise

my curiosity is mocked

my queue grows

Who do I have to thank?

- GK my gratitude for your List -

by Abram Goldman on

I agree with most of your selections. I also definitely had the same feelings about Larsson. I like good plots and surprises, etc., but do not like to have to wade through details and "background" information. I want to be entertained--not necessarily educated.

by Garrett on

Laney - in answer to your question about why there are no women on the list -- I don't really have a good answer. Karin Fossum didn't have a title translated to English this year, otherwise she very well might have been added. I do have to admit, though, if I listed out my top 20 crime and mystery writers, they would all be males. I'm not really sure why that is. Maybe it has to do with the fact that it has traditionally been a male-dominate genre -- so there are just more men to choose from. Also -- when you look at the top selling women in crime fiction -- Janet Evanovich, Patricia Cornwell, etc. -- they don't really write the kind of stuff I get in to.

Primarily, I'm a reader of classic European literature. This diversion I've taken over the last couple years into crime fiction has to do with me getting fed up with boring pomo plots where the writer's ability to put together a difficult sentence is far more important than telling a good story with believable characters. If you've read any of the above books -- or any others that I've mentioned in past articles -- you'll notice that my taste in crime and mystery veers far away from the bestseller list. Authors that put out a book every year that all go by the same formula and a rotating set of themes and villains have no place on my bookshelf. I like crime fiction that could easily be mistaken for literary fiction if you didn't read the blurbs on the back. It seems like most the women writing crime today -- at least in America -- aren't heading in that direction. There are a few notable exceptions, that I will perhaps cover someday if Levi will indulge me.

Thanks for all your supportive comments so far.

by Rochelle Walsh on

Thanks for the insightful, not to mention, well written reviews.

by Labeeb on

Thanks for the list. I'll be searching these books. I really needed best mystery/crime stuff. I'm not a fan of Stieg Larsson, either. I started reading 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' and it seemed interesting in the begining with the guy getting a pack and calling his old detective but then the story strayed too far from the plot and I stopped reading it.

by Becky on

Could NOT agree more about Stieg Larsson. But, I feel exactly the same way about Jonathan Franzen, so apparently I'm not to be trusted.

by Laura on

Hi,

I just read your reviews, and I'm wondering if you can help me. Do you have any recommendations for drama/mystery/suspense novels that aren't centered around murder? I like a good murder mystery as much as the next person. But, I think other events can be much more intriguing. Welcome any suggestions.

Thanks,
Laura

by Jalyn on

That's a tall task, to find a mystery/suspense not centered around murder...but may I recommend Mary Stewart? While her novels do involve a murder or two, there is also substantial plot devoted to culture, characters, and romance. All her novels are fast-paced and many are set on islands of Greece. They are free of the "noir" fascination with gritty, raw violence found in many mysteries written today.

The Moon-Spinners by Mary Stewart
My Brother Michael by Mary Stewart

Also, try Dorothy L. Sayers. There are deaths, but the plots have more to do with theft, vandalism, secret codes, and ingenious wordplay.

Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers
Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers

Enjoy!
~ Jalyn

by Kit on

Thank you for the list. I've read several of the books you chose and intend to read the others. I'm a big fan of Jo Nesbo and suggest another Swedish crime writer for you to check out: Johan Theorin. He has written two books, Echoes of the Dead and, in 2009, The Darkest Room. Another good one, which was published in January 2010 and just missed your deadline, is Snow Angels (set in Finland) by James Thompson.

by ruvi zamora on

Thank you for the list. It seems that I am not the only one who appreciates a good Scandinavian mystery novel. The last few books I've read have been from Swedish and Dutch authors. Have you ever read anything from Latin American authors. Leonardro Padura remains one of my favorites! Amazingly gritty and self indulgent with gorgeous depictions of Cuba. Look him up and enjoy!

by elsa garcia on

You need to read the Black Prince of France, a kindle book, to get a real kick.

by Sam on

I'd have to add With Cold Hearts by David Hurst. It's original and a brilliant fast-paced read. Number One international bestselling author Peter James praised it: "Great insight, energy and really good pace… very topical and very engaging to a lot of people – especially the tens of thousands out there who have a book in them."

by Ger on

I thought that Dragon Tattoo was excellent. Then Larson confused Lisbeth with Supergirl, and the plot stretched believability. Attacked by two bikers with guns? No problem. Shot three times and buried? No sweat.

by Lorene on

Thank you for the list, I'm constantly looking for new crime/mystery fiction, preferably literary in nature.

I agree with your take on Larsson, I skimmed through so much of it, I felt like I was back in high school, using Cliff Notes to read Moby Dick for the exam on Friday. I actually think the first movie was better than the book.

I was trying to remember if James Lee Burke published anything this year, as he is always worth checking out. And Berlin Noir, by Phillip Kerr I thought was a good read, especially if you're into the aftermath of WWII Germany, which I am.

As far as stand-out women writers of this genre are concerned, it's sad to say, but there aren't all that many. Rendell is always great, as is P.D. James, but I'm pretty sure P.D.'s getting up there in age, and probably just hangs out a lot lately, slurping tea and farting through silk, bless her. Elizabeth George is fun, but kind of a one trick pony, in my humble. Being a woman, I try to read at least one of all the more popular, mainstream women mystery authors, just to be fair, but most of them make me feel like I have to cleanse my pallette with a heavy dose of Henry James afterwards. (I wish I had written The Turn of the Screw.)

I just ordered 2 Karim Fossum novels from the library (thank you, Laney) and I'm hoping they'll be good, because, frankly, the titles and the covers wouldn't have moved me to pick them out on my own. Hey, they're free. Thanks again, Garrett.

by Susi on

Loved your list! I had never heard of these books before but after reading what you had to say about them I am definetly going to read Box 21 & 1974. Thanks!

by moneyballs on

David Lindsey should be on the list.

by Lee on

If you're looking to include women, look no further than Fred Vargas

by Andy on

Haha Good one Garrett.

I am responding because your comment of looking for a diversion from "classic" literature, yet also wanting something somewhat literary and not totally dumbed-down, is exactly the point i am at. I am going to try one of your titles, and am hoping that i can have a pool of interesting mystery novels that satisfies in both decent writing and good story, hence thanks for the book suggestions.

Andy

by Donato N. Rizzo on

Do not give up...read "The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest" by Larsson...I found it to be the best in the trilogy...more detail. Also, you might want to watch the Swedish trilogy on HBO...not as good as the novels, of course, but helps with pronunciation. I am reading "Abuse of Power" by Michael Savage...it's a very good novel, thus far.

by patrick on

Stieg Larsson ? 3 incredible books.
I strongly recommend the 10 books by Per Wahloo & Maj Sjowall.
Read in order of release.
Arnaldur Indridason an other wonderful writer.Start on Tainted Blood[aka Jar City]

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