Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

The Big Dime: Ten Best Crime Novels of the Past Year

By Garrett Kenyon on Wednesday, January 19, 2011 08:07 pm

2010 was a banner year for crime fiction. The final installment of Stieg Larsson's seminal Girl trilogy continued raising the genre’s status and the film release of Winter’s Bone opened millions of eyes to crime’s literary underground, where virtuosos like Daniel Woodrell, Jim Nesbit and David Peace — today’s Dostoevsky, Kafka, and Poe – write crime as high art, but whose works are often obscured by the formulaic claptrap of bestsellerdom.

Here, in my lowly opinion, are the top ten crime novels of 2010. Please Note: I don’t claim to have read every novel in which crime plays a central role published last year – daddy needs to keep his day job – but I sure as hell tried. So throw the quick-lime and shovels in the trunk, get your gloves on and masks up, and let’s get gritty ...

Truth by Peter Temple

If last year’s Broken Shore earned Peter Temple a seat at the table with crime’s heavy-hitters, Truth should ensure he doesn’t get stuck with the check. It’s the story of Homicide Chief Steve Villani’s internal and external struggle to expose a young woman’s murderer and sift the ashes of his past to salvage relationships with his father and three adult children. Set in a scorching Australian summer in which two impending catastrophes threaten to erase Villani's past (a raging forest fire headed for his boyhood home) and future (a ministerial election that could destroy his career), Truth hums with tension from page one. Villani's attempts to investigate the murder of a prostitute in an upscale high-rise development are met with stiff resistance by a pack of politicians, powerbrokers and police brass who wish the case to remain unsolved. Meanwhile, Villani’s father refuses to evacuate his home before the fire and his youngest daughter slips down the rabbit hole into Melbourne's druggie underground. Villani’s grim determination to unravel this tapestry of violence, guilt and regret make for a powerful tale that announces the arrival of literary crime’s new heavy-hitter.

Do They Know I'm Running by David Corbett

One of 2010's most memorable and timely works of literary crime offers a harrowing look at issues dominating the news (illegal immigration, human trafficking, PTSD, south-of-the-border gang violence, etc.) through the eyes of a young man touched by them all. When Roque Montalvo's uncle is deported to El Salvador, his outlaw cousin strikes a deal with über gang, MS-13, to buy his passage home. Roque heads South to accompany his aging uncle on the treacherous journey - one made even more risky when they find they’re to be accompanied by a beautiful young girl being shuffled from one abusive gang-leader to another and an Arab man with mysterious motives for entering the US illegally. Soon this unlikely foursome is on the run, relying on each other to survive the predators who feed on the flow of defenseless immigrants, including gangsters, cops and a crooked Mexican general. Running is a panoramic novel of breadth and insight from a writer who has a gift for breathing life into his characters and the savage, beautiful world they inhabit.

Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane

Years before Mystic River made him a household name; Dennis Lehane was revered by mystery readers for creating one of the most consistently enjoyable PI series' in decades. It starred Patrick Kenzie and Angela Genarro, an on-again, off-again couple of Boston PIs perpetually getting in over their heads to help society's underdogs find justice or some semblance thereof. It's been 11 years since the series’ last installment, and Lehane fills its comeback with everything that made it so memorable in the first place: a fluid narrative; a plot that seamlessly incorporates current events into an intriguing mystery with an ethical dilemma at its core. Lehane peoples his books with interesting characters who have enough humorous insights and witty dialogue to keep things moving without feeling forced. Moonlight Mile marks the triumphant return of mystery's most beloved couple since Nic and Nora.

Expiration Date by Duane Scwierczynski

Duane Scwierczynski is one of the modern crime’s most talented, consistent writers and Expiration Date is one of his most imaginative books yet. When out-of-work reporter Mickey Wade moves to his comatose grandpop's apartment in the downtrodden Phillie neighborhood he long ago escaped, he discovers a strange bottle of pills that send him back to the year he was born, where he’s soon racing to unravel the mysteries surrounding his father’s murder. Scwierczynski doesn't waste time on the mechanics - he lays down the ground rules quickly and gets on with the story. And what a story. Shady government experiments, a serial killer with links to Mickey's past, and a man given the chance to see – and perhaps alter – the events that shaped his life. Expiration sat unread on my shelf for months (the time-travel angle made me hesitant), but Scwierczynski’s incapable of writing a bad book. The kind of writer you never regret giving the benefit of the doubt. He could write about paint drying and it'd be exciting, hilarious and poignant. That's just how he rolls.

Wake Up Dead by Roger Smith

Like his debut, Roger Smith's sophomore effort is not for the faint of heart. Once again, Smith leads us down the cracked sidewalks of a chaotic Cape Town, where classic noir themes (greed, lust, vengeance, etc.) lead a large cast of disparate and desperate characters to scheme, steal and kill their way through a series of convulsively violent interactions leading to the inevitable Grand Guignol finish. And it’s absolutely brilliant. Smith creates characters who are simultaneously repulsive and sympathetic - from a greedy gold-digger and a meth-ruined gangbanger to a killcrazy convict whose turn-ons include brutal sex, ominous brooding, and opening people up from crotch to clavicle. Smith’s recipe mixes incongruous beauty and human frailty with jarring violence and unrelenting grimness – he slowly brings it to a boil and serves it up sizzling off the page like hell's own master chef. If Roger Smith is neo-noir’s future, I see dark days ahead.

The Deputy by Victor Gischler

For the past decade, Gischler's been churning out entertaining, genre-bending fiction good for single-sitting reads. Spastic tales of hit men, pistol-packing poets and fiendish go-go girls replete with comic dialogue and cartoonish violence, they're the literary equivalent of a roller-coaster that's all loops. With The Deputy Gischler dials it down a notch without losing the exhilarating momentum his readers have come to expect. Toby Sawyer, our badge-carrying protagonist, is a champion loafer who spends his time mourning his inability to escape his shithole hometown and ignoring his crumbling marriage to a deceitful she-devil. That all changes the night Toby accidentally discovers that his seemingly-pulseless town is a stop on a domestic slave route. To survive, he'll have learn how to use his trigger finger for more than mining his nasal cavity and his long-neglected brain to tell his friends (nobody) from his foes (the rest). The Deputy is more than a fun read - it's a satire of wit and precision, a fight song for generation slack-ass.

Collusion by Stuart Neville

In Collusion, we return to post-Troubles Belfast, where resentments simmer beneath the surface and two communities divided by years of bloodshed maintain a fragile peace. In 2009's Ghosts of Belfast, ex-paramilitary Gerry Fegan returned from prison to hunt and kill the Republican thugs who once gave him marching orders. Along the way, he formed a bond with a woman named Marie – who was shunned by her Catholic family for having the child of an Ulster policeman – and her daughter, Ellen. Collusion begins where Ghosts left off - only this time the hero is Jack Lennon, the same detective who abandoned Marie when she was pregnant. Now Jack’s determined to find Marie and Ellen, but learns they went into hiding after Fegan’s killing spree made them targets for paramilitary thugs looking for revenge. But they didn’t hide deep enough. Jack’s investigation reveals the mother and daughter are being held as bate by a partisan crime intent on luring Gerry Fegan into the open. To rescue Marie and the daughter he never knew, Lennon forges an uneasy alliance with Fegan. Collusion is exhilarating and powerful -- a white-knuckled ride through a country that’s out of the news, but not the woods.

The Devil's Star by Jo Nesbo

With the American release of The Devil's Star, Nesbo’s finally getting the attention Stateside he enjoys in Europe. Of the three books released in the U.S. starring Nesbo's surly, alcoholic detective, Harry Hole, Devil's Star is the strongest yet. Not only does it include a devious serial killer who seems to disappear at will - it features Harry's showdown with Tom Waaler, the sociopathic cop who's sabotaged Hole's life and career. Nesbo's prowess is on display from the intro, in which a bead of water from an overflowing sink in a murder-victim's apartment works its way through cracks in an old house, eventually dropping onto the downstairs neighbor's dinner. If you're already hooked on Nesbo, just wait 'til you get your hands on his next two English translations - The Snowman (which Knopf is bringing out in 2011) and The Redeemer. If you haven’t yet been inducted into the Harry Hole fan club, Devil’s Star is a good place to start.

Savages by Don Winslow

Winslow is one of the unsung masters of modern crime. His panoramic masterpieces have garnered critical acclaim - yet he somehow seems to just miss best-of lists like this one. Savages returns to a subject Winslow examined in his epic The Power of the Dog – cross-border drug trafficking and the lives it destroys. While Savages doesn’t go as deep as Dog, it's a hell of a lot more fun to read. Starring a likeable trio - two lifetime buddies turned marijuana kingpins and their girl friend/girlfriend – Savages’ narrative is spare and powerful, with a plot that moves at a brisk clip, building the characters enough to make us care without slowing the action. The strongest point here is the spot-on, often-hilarious dialogue. Hopeless do-gooder Ben and his cynical, war-hardened partner Chon run a pot empire that's made them rich, but when they run afoul of the Baja cartel, the stakes suddenly get higher than they were prepared for. When they refuse to become a cartel franchise, Ophelia, the girl they love like a sister (and a little more), is kidnapped and held for ransom. To get her back, Ben and Chon will risk their lives and (in Ben's case) their naïve altruism. If Savages represents a new direction for Winslow, he might finally start seeing the readership his books deserve.

No More Heroes by Ray Banks

In the 70+ years since Spade and Marlowe, thousands of writers have tried and failed to create PI series’ that feel fresh. That’s what makes Ray Banks’ Cal Innes series such a remarkable achievement, and Heroes continues the winning streak. When emotionally-stunted and nihilistic ex-con Callum takes a job evicting tenants for Manchester’s worst slumlord, he ends up rescuing a young boy from a house fire and becoming a local hero. Soon he’s scouring the political fringe to track down the arsonist before he sparks tensions seething barely under the surface into a full-blown race riot. Set in a stark Northern England where young men without futures use anger and violence as a means of escape, Heroes careens forward with unstoppable momentum, fueled by Cal’s growing dependence on painkillers and peppered with so much Northern slang and casual violence it feels like a continuation of Clockwork Orange. Catch this series while it's still got its newly-stolen car smell.

City of Dragons by Kelli Stanley

This year's standout period mystery is a rip-roaring ride through the smoke and sin-filled streets of 40's era San Francisco. When private detective and ex-prostitute, Miranda Corbie, witnesses the brash murder of a Japanese numbers runner on a crowded Chinatown street, she seems the only one interested in finding his killer. Unable to find help from the police, Miranda decides to seek justice on her own. She sets out through the vibrant city using her wits, charm, and underworld familiarity to track down the triggerman and uncover his motive. Filled with period detail and set during Chinese New Year, City of Dragons brings us back to the roots of noir and detective fiction with a confident tour guide and a brash new heroine we'll surely be hearing more from in coming years. Right now, über-talented Megan Abbot is the alpha-female of hardboiled noir. But if Stanley can keep the momentum, she might soon provide some competition for the queenpin.

Okay – so that was 11. Like I said, banner year. Honorable mentions: Elmore Leonard’s Djibouti, William Ryan’s The Holy Thief, Simon Lelac’s A Thousand Cuts, Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter and many, many more. Stay tuned for a sneak-peak at some upcoming 2011 releases that are sure to be the biz.

17 Responses to "The Big Dime: Ten Best Crime Novels of the Past Year"

by Seanto on

Nice list, Kenyon. I was wondering when we'd see one. I agree w/almost all your picks. Need to check out Banks and Szrywynski. Thanks.

by Bill_Ectric on

I'm half-way through Thomas Pynchon's hippie crime novel, "Inherent Vice." Does anyone remember a board game called Feds & Heads? This is like Feds & Heads meet Clue. Sort of. It manages to be a lot of fun in spite of taking place shortly after Manson murders in '69 brought a dark cloud over the summer of love. It's not about the Manson murders, that's just the backdrop, along with surf music, groupies, and dope.

Garrett, it's good to know there are present-day writers who can be compared to Dostoevsky, Kafka, and Poe. That's high praise for Woodrell, Nesbit and Peace. Could you tell us a bit about them?

by Garrett on

Going by the broadest definition of crime fiction - any work in which a crime plays a prominent role - most of Dostoevsky's work fits (Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, The Gambler, etc.). A good portion of the classic canon could. The difference being that the dividing of fiction into micro-specific genres and sub-genres is a relatively new phenomenon.

Don't get me wrong - genre categorizations aren't all bad. They can help readers find books they'll enjoy more easily. But a lot of writers are unfairly shackled with these labels, too, which makes it easy for critics to narrow their field and potential readers to dismiss them out of hand. If you have a chance, pick up "Tomato Red," "The Death of Sweet Mister" or "Winter's Bone" by Daniel Woodrell. He writes with every bit of the depth and power of description as the old masters - and his work carries an equal amount of weight and social relevance. The only difference is, he writes about the bitterly poor, disenfranchised people of the Ozarks instead of the corrupted wealthy and desperate peasants of Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Aha! Thanks, Garrett.

by Steve Plonk on

Another great recent book is 206 BONES by Kathy Reichs. It is one of the series of books from which the Fox TV series, BONES, was inspired from. I really got into it and read it in four days, which is nearly a record for me. Ms. Reichs is a real life forensic anthropologist, among other things...

It takes place in Chicago, Quebec, and Charlotte, NC. It concerns murder mysteries and anthropology & immediate attempted murder of "Tempe", the heroine.

Anyone who likes the series would love the book. It has both CSI and office politics. There are also some very earthy love scenes in the book. Not too graphic, but the language is spicy... I would recommend it to anyone who likes any of the CSI programs.

by Laney on

Somehow I don't think that's the kind of fiction he's talking about in this list.

by Steve Plonk on

Laney, I disagree, or I wouldn't have posted 206 BONES as a good book about crime. Why don't you read the above book and see?

by Bill_Ectric on

I do like Emily Deschanel, I must say!

by Garrett on

I generally avoid fiction with TV tie-ins and work by mainstream best-sellers like Grisham, Reichs, Patterson, etc. Not that there's anything wrong with them. But reaching that level of mass popularity usually requires appealing to the lowest common denominator. They follow a very specific formula -- simple plot structure, just the prescribed amount of mystery, sex, violence and currently-popular forensic jargon - to ensure that anyone, regardless of intelligence or depth of commitment, can fully grasp their books with a surface reading. As reading becomes less common and attention spans shrink, writers shooting for Danielle Steele-sized fortunes revert to more obtuse gimmickry and watered-down language so as to appeal to the broadest audience popular.

That kind of fiction might make a good beach read. But if you're looking for something profound - something that's not just entertaining, but enlightening - something with a unique linguistic style or an original story - you have to go a bit deeper. Someone here asked why the books in my articles are never in their local bookstores - and rarely on bestseller lists. That's your answer. That kind of fiction just isn't my cup of tea.

by helen s. on

I appreciate Steve Plonk's sincere effort to participate in this discussion. There were a lot of best selling authors that became mainstream that were also great classical writers of fiction. Often, their books were written for commercial reasons (dickens, Twain, Poe, let's not forget Churchill and even Cicero, based on a recent biography I read).

Then there are the writers who produced mass fiction that was later recognized as great writing (and became great movies: Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath", Conrad's "Heart of Darkness", even Stephen King's finer novellas such as "The Shawshank Redemption" and "The Apt Pupil", "Crime and PUnishment", even Hawthorne's "Scarlet Letter"). Most of these books have an element of horror or crime to "appeal to the masses" but they're not pablum formulas by any means.

I don't know if CSI or the other crime shows rise to this level but I think some screenwriters come up with some pretty good shit. Remember nathaniel West?

I think profundity can be found in a lot of unexpected places, and it wouldn't be fair to dismiss things based on their lowest common denominator. sometimes the bar is higher than you think.

by Garrett on

No book should be dismissed out-of-hand based on a subjective label or its publisher's intent. Individual works of every stripe occasionally rise above their origins to create lasting literary landmarks. But seriously...

The fact that generalizations aren't ALWAYS right doesn't make them invalid. If it did, we'd go to bookstores blindfolded and buy the first thing we bump into. We'd pay equal attention to T.S. Eliot and the TV Guide. The sad truth is: there's an unlimited amount of garbage and a limited amount of time to sift through it to find the gems. We ALL resort generalizations about the kind of thing that’s likely to preclude a book from being worldclass literature.

True, a paperback with a picture of Fabio ravishing a hungry-eyed blonde on the cover MIGHT provide shattering insights to the universal issues of mankind...but it’s more likely to contain bad penis metaphors.

by helen s. on

Surely bad penis metaphors have their place in the literary pantheon?

On the other hand I get very tired of intellectual literarians touting bloated, verbose, boring books. I see a lot of that and I would point out that they deserve to be categorized with the same generalization brush. A lot of these books don't deserve the recognition they get. Add to that pompous literary magazines which I don't want to mention. But nobody points that out nearly as freely.

I have printed out your book lists from your last several posts with your list of annual favorites. I'm reading them as I have time. I have enjoyed your selections.

by Garrett on

Thanks, Helen. I agree. If genres are going to be used to discount anything, then there should be a "Middle-Aged White Male Teacher/Writer Has Gin-Soaked Affair" genre. Or an "Intellectual Youth Feels Disassociated From Contemporary Culture and Ruminates About Same" genre. Oh, wait...they do...it's called post-modernism...

Thanks for giving these books a chance. And for recognizing that beauty and meaning come in many guises...

by helen s. on

I'm looking for Box 21 at the library but there's just one copy. It's a bit of a wait. I look forward to your next column! I wish there was a bigger forum for this genre of books as I love these kinds of discussions. I guess I have to do more digging on the internet.

I'd also like to find a good site for historical, especially foreign, fiction. SOme of them aren't quite crime fiction but are still quite suspenseful and informative. Maybe there's a website somewhere for that subject as well.

Thanks for your response.

by Garrett on

I don't read a lot of historical fiction - but I just finished "The Tenderness of Wolves" - a historical crime novel set in the Canadian wilderness in the mid-19th Century. That was excellent. And of course, "The Alienist" and "Angel of Darkness" by Caleb Carr were brilliant. I'm working on a LitKicks article now about literary crime fiction and its roots in the classic canon, but it got postponed by the birth of our first child last Wednesday. Thanks for the kind words!

by Laura on

Thanks for the great list! Have you read Confessions of a Catholic Cop by Thomas Fitzsimmons? Great NYC crime novel - I would definitely recommend checking it out!

http://www.thomasfitzsimmons.com/index.html

by Jenna Rose on

After reading your well written comment here I have but one question for you...will you marry me? (laughs!)
No seriously though Garrett I throughly enjoy me a good crime fiction novel! They are my "guilty-pleasure" reads (as some may call it) and I have made it a point to read every book that you recommended on your big dime list (like you said some of them are hard to find. I had to special order a few of them because both the library and most bookstores didn't have them!) Just got done with Expiration Date and am in the middle of reading The Deputy! You have fine taste in this genre to be exact and I'm looking forward to reading more of your blogs about crime fiction to be exact. :)

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