The Top 10 Crime Novels of 2020

Say what you will about 2020, but it’s been packed with some phenomenal crime fiction and thrillers, and it was so difficult culling my list of favourites to a measly ten. In any other year, Peter Swanson’s “Rules For Perfect Murder” would feature; so too the new Rankin (“A Song for the Dark Times”), at least one of Connelly’s (“The Law of Innocence” and “Fair Warning”), and Silva’s “The Order.” But when I sat back and reflected on my year of reading, these were the ones that resonated.

In “Either Side of Midnight” Benjamin Stevenson employs the same skill set that made “Greenlight” such a noteworthy debut: masterfully paced plotting pockmarked with explosive revelations strung together like fireworks that create an escalating and exhilarating sense of urgency that’ll keep even the most fatigued crime reader white-knuckled throughout its duration.

Although elements of “When She Was Good” play according to the form of a traditional police procedural, Michael Robotham’s latest — a direct sequel to “Good Girl, Bad Girl” — is more than about the hunt for criminals and the simple question of guilt. This is a story of lingering human evil and trauma that is capable of destroying lives in both the past and present, transcended beyond genre fodder thanks to Robotham’s unparalleled ability to evoke true human emotion through fully realised characters — and a pulse-pounding ratcheting of tension as it builds towards its climax. He navigates dark and unsettling territory in this lacerating and haunting page-turner, which is as tightly plotted and explosively tense as it is poignant and wrenching.

In “Trust” Chris Hammer creates a microcosm of secrets, scandal, and skulduggery enmeshed in the threat of constant violence. In his hands, Sydney becomes a city of shadows; a place where menace lies around every corner, and dark intentions brew within every building. A malevolent cabal has spread long tendrils of corruption through every facet of the New South Wales government — and veteran newspaperman Martin Scarsden is determined to expose it. Rather than rest on his laurels, Hammer has pushed himself beyond his previous mysteries, which were already A-Grade. He has crafted a byzantine plot with so many threads that never tangle. There’s a pulse-pounding shootout, a horrific torture scene (that stops short of being grossly visceral), and countless revelations and twists. And he orchestrates it all with virtuosic aplomb.

If you stripped its parts bare, the components that comprise Tana French’s “The Searcher” are emblematic of a plethora of conventional crime novels: a retired cop named Cal Hooper, an outsider from Chicago recently relocated to a small town in Ireland, takes one last case. But French makes this well-trodden territory distinctly her own, obliterating the artificial distinction between genre and literary fiction by creating a gracefully paced character study punctuated with flashes of intense violence and explosive revelations.

“Blacktop Wasteland” is a Greek tragedy, its characters performing actions long-inscribed in the books of their lives. It’s pitch perfect noir, as S.A. Cosby viciously and violently unspools the implacable fate of Beauregard Montage, getaway driver turned mechanic, who is unable to escape the world of criminality. It’s gritty, violent and action-packed; think “Fast and Furious” thrills meshed with the depth of Dennis Lehane’s great crime novels.

Candice Fox brilliantly transmutes her distinct brand of crime fiction — action-driven mysteries anchored by dynamic, unorthodox characters, sprinkled with black humour — to Los Angeles in “Gathering Dark.” It’s a fantastic enlivenment of the standard police procedural, supercharged with her trademark offbeat characters, and whip-cracking pace.

Few writers — let alone crime writers — write with as much style and substance as Don Winslow. In “Broken,” a collection of six novellas, he acknowledges Raymond Chandler, Steve McQueen and Elmore Leonard, which should give newcomers to his work some idea of his stylistic leanings; but the scope of his work — even in this shorter format — is positively Dickensian. Brusque, punchy sentences and dialogue David Mamet would be proud of bely thematic weight.

Somehow, Dervla McTiernan keeps topping her own best work. Her third novel, “The Good Turn,” is a triumph: a rich and compelling mystery that will hook new readers, while its subplots and provocative, sharply delineated characters will keep established fans glued to the page.

“Box 88” is my favourite spy novel of the year, and if you take one thing away from this, it should be that. But not because it’s revolutionary; not because it’s changed the face of the spy novel. Rather, because it’s a refinement of the genre’s tropes. Charles Cumming gets back to the fundamentals, and polishes them to a gleam. He delivers a salvo of exciting action set-pieces, strips his story of political bureaucratese, and tinges his narrative with emotional depth. In a genre saturated with gun-totting renegade operatives, this is a novel for the more discerning thrill-seeker.

“Fifty-Fifty” is vintage Steve Cavanagh: the setup is scintillating, his trademark twists are generously piled on, and the payoff is suitably pulse-pounding. He writes blockbuster Grisham-esque thrillers: his plots are sensational, the pacing is pure Hollywood, but they’re grounded by embattled characters readers can’t help but root for.

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