The books we’ve read in the past 12 months have been packed with murder and mayhem, crime and punishment, despair and redemption – the very essence of the human condition, boiled down to brilliant crime-thriller fiction. We read more than 200 mystery and thriller books in 2019, from literary fiction by big-name bestsellers to dazzling debuts by indie authors.
Only a very select few of those books, less than 10%, achieve a full-on five-star MMM rating. Here, then, are our top ten rip-snorting reads which came close to delivering the perfect payoff. For your consideration, these brilliant books range from Japanese noir to contemporary American thrillers, Scandi crime to a historical shocker; gritty British mystery to international espionage. Settle down with any of them and you’ll start 2020 in fine style…
RED SNOW by Will Dean
Red Snow has the pace and panache of a mainstream thriller combined with the stark sensibilities of Scandinavian crime fiction – and that genre’s particular ability to explore ambiguous moral enigmas without passing judgement. Nor does the story suffer for the sake of the ethical dilemma: both elements get equal airtime and are anchored by a remarkable protagonist, Tuva Moodyson, a touchstone for her time. In this chilling depiction of industrial decline and its impact on an isolated community, a suicide is swiftly followed by several ‘accidents’, and only Tuva – herself an outsider – can see the deadly bigger picture.
THIS IS WHAT HAPPENED by Mick Herron
A slim, standalone story book which crams a taut, tightly-knitted tale into not many pages. Herron eschews his more grandiose form of stunt writing to craft a sinister, haunting mystery of exploitation and abuse. Just when you think you’ve see the whole of the picture, a new chapter reveals that you’ve only been viewing one aspect from an obscure angle, and nasty things are hiding in the shadows. The result is a masterclass in the teasing reveal – a genuinely suspenseful psychological thriller. We suspect that Herron read a ‘domestic noir’ novel with an unreliable protagonist, figured he could do better and… knocked that ball right outta the park.
GREASY BEND by Kris Lackey
Ostensibly, Greasy Bend is a murder-mystery, a plot in perpetual motion chasing bad guys back and forth across remote gravel backroads of the Chickasaw nation in rural Oklahoma, where mid-winter sleet strafes the washed-out wastelands. Tribal detective Bill Maytubby and local police officer Hannah Bond form the yang and yin linchpins of this backwoods manhunt. Beneath that artifice lie the author’s love of language and his intimate acquaintance with the history, place and people he describes. Greasy Bend oozes real-world detail; the faint scent of creosote from creaking bridge timbers, the inevitable dereliction of abandoned gas stations and run-down, rattleshack roadhouses.
THE SEVEN EXPERIMENTS by Stephen Kanicki
While the premise of The Seven Experiments is pretty straightforward, and it’s delivered in the accessible format of a flat-out page-turner, this is a novel of quiet accomplishment. The apparently shallow waters of the power of positive thinking, making success manifest through visualisation, rapidly reveal some satisfyingly murky depths in this suspense-thriller which veers into speculative / supernatural territory. The superficial story serves as a springboard for a challenging conversation about moral philosophy and the human capacity for greedy self-deception; all very relevant at a time when we’re questioning the ethics of our consumer society. Just how much is enough? And if you could have it all, but someone else had to carry the consequences, would you hesitate?
PERFECT KILLER by Robb T White
Stylish, chilling and more than a little bit challenging, this American manhunt mixes a really remarkable serial murderer who has a penchant for peculiar philosophy with an intense, beleaguered FBI investigator. Superficially it owes a lot to Silence of The Lambs, but Perfect Killer stands apart as an enthralling novel in its own right. Jade Hui is a powerful female protagonist, beset but never beaten by personal and professional obstacles. She’s evenly matched against by weirdly compelling killer, Charles Wöissell, who’s one of the most scarily credible fictional psychopaths we’ve ever encountered. Gruesome in places, the story’s strength comes from the complexity of its characters.
UNKNOWN MALE by Nicolás Obregón
Nicolás Obregón has crafted a clever investigative tangle which retains the hallmarks of its genre – an implacable killer, a genuinely perplexing mystery, complex characters motivated by conflicting experiences – but it’s not as outright bizarre as some Japanese fiction can be. Even so, this sophisticated story is definitely more challenging than the average police procedural. There are many moments of savage brutality, quiet poetry and oblique misery. Don’t expect to be spoon-fed a straightforward story: much is understated or ambiguous… like that brilliant title, for instance.
THE RIGHTEOUS SPY by Merle Nygate
A 21st century spy story which weaves together the critical threads of geopolitical crisis and inter-agency rivalry between supposed allies, The Righteous Spy is elegant and well-constructed. Populated by three-dimensional characters who smoothly defy the usual genre and gender boundaries, it’s a captivating read with an extensive exploration of detailed tradecraft. Ambiguous, intricate and deliberately deceptive, this should satisfy any true espionage enthusiast. It’s the literary equivalent of a painstaking jigsaw puzzle: one where you can’t see the true picture until the very last piece is in place. Wonderful to see so much of the inner workings of modern Mossad, too.
THE WOLF & THE WATCHMAN by Niklas Natt och Dag
Two favourite genres collide in this historical episode of Nordic noir, which is every bit as grim and grisly as contemporary Scandi crime, and reveals characters as morally corrupt and callously cruel as any modern serial-killer thriller. Set in the squalid backstreets of 18th century Stockholm, the mismatched detectives are an antisocial intellectual who’s literally on his last legs and a crippled soldier plagued by his past. Their gruesome task is to see justice done for a murdered man, mutilated beyond recognition. Many books are described as ‘unputdownable’ but in this case it’s true: at the end you can hardly bear to look – but won’t sleep until it’s over.
BLUE MOON by Lee Child
Some folk say that Jack Reacher has passed his sell-by date, but this year’s episode kept us as enthralled as ever. Reacher is older, slower and somewhat wiser but he’s still the guy – the guy who doesn’t walk away when an underdog is about to take an undeserved kicking. A simple mugging escalates into gang warfare and, ultimately, transnational manipulation of social media – with Reacher slugging away at its centre, bringing military methods to civilian criminality. As ever, lee Child makes it look easy with a fluid, flowing narrative, meaty characters you can relate to and perfectly polished dialogue.
CHANGELING by Matt Wesolowski
Set a whole day aside to be absorbed by Wesolowski’s oh-so-clever storytelling technique, the convincing characters, and the seductive mystery of a missing child told through conflicting perspectives. You decide which witness is more credible; who is stretching the truth, who has something sinister to hide. Wesolowski is immensely skilled at sneaking myth and superstition into the mix of a modern whodunit, and here he makes the ancient woodlands of England feel genuinely threatening. There certainly could be some dread creature in the deep, dark forest, a thing responsible for a frightened mother’s bizarre behaviour, a thing which stole a troubled little boy. You definitely can’t trust the trees…
Note for puzzled pedants: this list reflects the books we read in 2019. Most of them were published that year, but a few were issued earlier – we recommend you don’t let that stop you, and seek them out anyway
Looking for a new hardboiled crime-thriller series?
Meet a complex contract killer in THE STONER STORIES at Amazon