As a new year begins we love looking back on the highlights of the past twelve months, the very best crime-thrillers and murder-mysteries which we read in 2020. These books include hardboiled American noir, skin-crawling Scandi crime, a superb Cold War spy story, culture shock in the Arabian desert, hard-hitting Brit grit and utterly immersive murder mysteries. Some of these are brand-new books, published in 2020, but others are overlooked back-catalogue classics which you should definitely seek out. Read on to discover new writers, indie authors and little-known works from big-name bestsellers…
THE CONCRETE BLONDE by Michael Connelly
Let’s begin with an older publication which reveals a pivotal moment in the career of Hollywood detective Harry Bosch. This is actually the third in the series but it marks the moment where Connelly really hits his stride with the character and his style of police procedural. We also meet Harry’s legal opponent, the defence lawyer ‘Money’ Chandler, a superb creation in her own right, as Bosch is forced to defend himself in a homicide trial – accused of murdering a serial killer.
The story neatly divides into an intricate investigation and a tense courtroom drama, with a murderer on the loose and Harry fighting on all fronts. There’s black humour mixed in with the moral ambiguity; snappy dialogue and razor-sharp characterisation. If you’ve watched the TV series and don’t fancy reading all the back catalogue then this one is a great place to start.
THE CURATOR by MW Craven
We don’t read too many British police procedurals around here because we tend to find the genre’s conventions rather too well trod to offer much credible invention, but make an exception for the Poe series. It helps that the author has a cracking turn of phrase, conjuring vivid images of characters and the brutal beauty of the Cumbrian landscape in scant phrases of elegant efficiency. The series also features one of the best sidekicks in crime, geek-analyst Bradshaw. She provides the evidence which facilitates Poe’s impossibly brilliant intuitive leaps… and is blessed with the best lines of dialogue, too.
Craven also has a fine eye for forensic detail – but never lets the pace of the plot be overwhelmed by the fascinating insights into technical or historical intricacy. If the hidden mystery behind this series of weird murders (no bodies found, just fingers) stretches credibility to its very limits then Craven has the chops to pull it off. This is a book of dramatic, short chapters and sudden revelations which brutally belts along to a deliciously rewarding conclusion.
THE MIST by Ragnar Jónasson
Although this is the final book in the Hulda Hermannsdóttir trilogy, it’s actually the start of the story. With breath-taking audacity, Jónasson has told this tale of Icelandic crime in reverse order. In this final / first instalment, murder mystery and family tragedy are skilfully intertwined – a missing girl on her gap year; a bizarre home invasion which leaves death in its wake – set against the intense atmosphere of an insular Icelandic farmstead. While we’re transported to a stifling world of ice and isolation, every menacing moment is amplified by the rising awfulness of what’s about to happen in Hulda’s personal life.
The Mist works just fine as a standalone story but is best experienced as part of the whole. You need to appreciate the escalating sense of impending doom which swirls around Hulda, as her own personal implosion crawls ever closer. This volume is a masterful manipulation of three distinct plots which combine into a single, immensely affecting narrative.
HINTON HOLLOW DEATH TRIP by Will Carver
If the Poe series by MW Craven delight in pushing the boundaries of the British police procedural, then here Will Carver wilfully and skilfully shatters those limitations. Carver’s thrillers have few filters and his stylish writing purposefully pushes the buttons of the modern psyche. The superficial story in this episode concerns battered and bruised police detective Pace, who really has been through the mill recently – and you must read the earlier books in this series to make sense of what happens here. Pace returns to small-town England after enduring (and contributing to) a series of outrages in the big city. But evil awaits his return: a relentless killer stalks women with children and offers them an impossible choice…
But that story isn’t the important part of this book. With outrageous impudence and a daring writing device, the author uses his inventive narrative to address us, the audience, from every page. This novel is an exploration of minor and major evils – not those of the characters, but of the readers and of the sins we commit in everyday life. Outstanding.
LAZARUS by Lars Kepler
It’s the old battle of wits between a discredited investigator and his ultimate enemy: an intelligent, ruthless and unpredictable sociopath who doesn’t stop at mere murder. Instead he destroys his victim’s lives and watches with clinical fascination as his opponents attempt to out-manoeuvre him. This may be one of crime fiction’s most over-used scenarios – but Lars Kepler has brought this well-worn cliché back from the dead with particularly vicious panache.
There’s plenty in this grisly tale which completely defies common sense, but the plot progressed with such a rapid pace – and the story is so deftly told – that you don’t pay much attention to the more preposterous parts. There are some truly gruesome moments and a series of mischievous cliff-hangers which make it nigh-on impossible to stop for a breather. And if you can’t abide the idea of being buried alive, then you should definitely not read this. A thumpingly good thriller.
NEVADA NOIR by David Arrowsmith
Less is definitely more in these skilfully-told stories of misdeeds and misery. Three short stories intertwine to form a powerful novella of greed, brutality, despair and – perhaps, possibly, maybe – a glimpse of redemption. Don’t be put off by the limited word-count; the author’s subtle, poetic prose delivers more depth and detail than acres of exposition.
This is the fine side of literary crime fiction, where characters are deftly sketched in a few sentences. Their hopes shrivel and blister in the scorching intensity of criminal intent; two-time losers betrayed by their innate attraction to the sleazy, to the seemingly easy. A superb debut; one which demands your attention and involvement. Let’s hope the author soon delivers full-length novel of similar accomplishment.
THE NIGHT OF THE MI’RAJ by Zoe Ferraris
A quietly magnificent mystery, set in Saudi Arabia around a decade ago and the first of a trilogy which explores the often conflicting aspects modern Islamic society. These books are a splendid example of what can be accomplished with ‘world crime’ where the insights into an unfamiliar cultural are every bit as relevant as the criminal investigation. The two aspects of this story are inseparable, in fact. To understand the disappearance of a young woman and the discovery of a body in the desert sands we must necessarily be educated in the society she inhabits and its all-pervasive influence on everyday life.
Somehow the author achieves this in an entirely sympathetic manner, creating complicated and convincing central characters who must overcome their own preconceptions to identify a murderer. Along the way, she offers a treasure-trove of valuable insights into societal and religious customs and beliefs which both liberate and subjugate the protagonists. Utterly loved it.
THE FEARLESS TRILOGY by Walter Mosley
I enjoy Walter Mosley’s writing so much that I ration the stories, so I can read them carefully and enjoy what is seriously classy writing. This provided the opportunity to read all three of the Fearless Jones books in straight succession, one after the other. Too often, the second novel in a series is weaker than the first. All of the author’s ideas too often go into that first novel. That is not the case here, not at all. If anything, the second of the Fearless Jones series is better written than the first. It is equally gripping, the characters equally vivid and well presented, and the plot is clever, neat and entertaining. Watching American modern history unfurl from Mosley’s unique perspective adds to the pleasure, rather than the opposite.
Sometimes I wonder whether Mosley’s passion for his racial views dilutes the stories in some way. But I always decide that it doesn’t. Instead it offers a truly unusual approach to historical fiction — which in one sense this is, set in the noir heartland of 1950s Los Angeles. It’s fascinating and engaging as well as being an exciting and gripping read. Narrating the tale through the eyes / words of the sidekick rather than our eponymous hero is unusual, but very effective. Recommended.
HAMMER TO FALL by John Lawton
In this Cold War spy story, Joe Wilderness is an out-of-favour MI6 field operative, exiled to a seemingly pointless posting in rural Finland. In theory, he can’t do much harm on a cultural mission showing outdated British films to the locals. In practice, a wily spy will find a conspiracy almost anywhere…
The resulting tangle of manipulation and betrayal is reminiscent of Len Deighton’s terrific Game, Set and Match series in its scope, authentic tradecraft, nifty footwork, clever characterisation and almost perfect plotting. Every thread – every incidental but deftly drawn member of the supporting cast – turns out to be essential to the big picture. Lawton transported me to Czechoslovakia in its time of turbulence, to an era when moral relativism was a common concept. Joe might be on the side of the angels, but they’re angels with dirty faces… and they have fingers poised over dangerous buttons. Quite simply, the best spy story we’ve seen for years.
VICTIM 2117 by Jussi Adler-Olsen
Some of the Department Q series have been fairly standard Scandi crime potboilers; entirely acceptable episodes of modern Nordic noir. But as the series steers towards its finale, author Olsen takes the action onto a larger stage, one with painfully powerful emotional impact. This grimly brilliant story explores the hidden secrets of Assad, one of the series’ supporting cast. Olsen cleverly incorporates one of the media’s favourite sensations – the death of asylum seekers as they try to reach Europe by boat – and spins a far larger saga which spans years back to Saddam’s vicious regime in Iraq.
Assad’s family, it turns out, aren’t simply dead or missing. For many years they’ve been hostages, brutalised by Assad’s worst enemy. And now that man plans a terrorist atrocity in a major European city – using Assad’s family as deadly weapons. This is grim territory, even for a genre which has created more than its fair share of bloodthirsty serial killers. Olsen unleashes a monstrous snowball of a plot that becomes an almost-unstoppable emotional avalanche. Massively satisfying on so many levels.
Rules of Engagement: to be considered for inclusion on this list, a crime-thriller must have been read and reviewed by Rowena Hoseason, Frank Westworth or one of our guest reviewers during 2020. The book must have achieved our highest ♥♥♥♥♥ rating of either 9/10 or 10/10. Very few books reach those standards! Of the hundreds of thrillers and mysteries we’ve read in the past 12 months, only the ten books you see here made the final cut. So these truly are top notch recommended reads: not just books which were ‘mostly OK’, but the very few which left us shell-shocked, gob-smacked and in awe of the author’s talent…
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