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.

Continue reading

The Searcher by Tana French

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. Most crime writers, I think, would start their version of this tale at the point when a kid named Trey comes to Cal for help. You’ve read that opening a million times before: the client knocking on the investigator’s door because someone is missing who needs to be found. In this instance, it’s Trey’s brother, Brendan.

But this moment, the ostensible “inciting incident,” occurs 70 pages into proceedings. French is happy to lay the groundwork gradually, develop her characters and the township, the relationship between Cal and Trey, explore moral ambiguities, and delve deep into Cal’s backstory, in order to make its dramatic moments truly reverberate.

This slow-burn psychological mystery seamlessly transitions into a white-knuckled thriller in its final third, before a perfect endcap confirms French as a maestro of the form.

ISBN: 9780241459416
ISBN-10: 0241459419
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 400
Published: 17th November 2020
Publisher: Penguin UK

The Law of Innocence by Michael Connelly

In “The Law of Innocence,” as reports of a deadly virus in China with possible global implications begin to gather steam, Los Angeles defence attorney Mickey Haller takes on the most important case of his career: his own.

After an open-bar celebration of a not-guilty verdict at the Redwood on Second Street, Haller — a teetotaller, definitely not over the limit, and most assuredly not driving erratically — is pulled over by an LAPD cruiser. During a terse exchange with officer Milton, the cop notices a blotch of blood-like liquid beneath the bumper of Mickey’s car. The Lincoln Lawyer is handcuffed and made to watch from the backseat of the police cruiser as Milton pops the trunk. Inside is the corpse of a former client.

Charged with murder and unable to make the $5 million bail, Haller opts to defend himself. He assembles a defence team from his jail cell in the Twin Towers Correctional Centre in downtown LA, which includes his half-brother, former LAPD detective Harry Bosch. But this frame-up is far more extensive, and watertight, than Haller could’ve ever imagined.

Bosch’s investigation leads him to the port of Los Angeles, and a biofuel company run by a serial scam-artist with connections to the mob. He believes they’re running an elaborate scheme involving illicit supplementary government subsidies payouts. Which means the feds are involved. And unwilling to get involved in Mickey’s trial.

The tension rises steadily as Haller prepares his defence, and the courtroom drama is as nail-biting and riveting as anything else you’ll read this year, grounded in authenticity rather than pyrotechnics. We know Haller is innocent. The question is, can he prove it? Michael Connelly, the unequivocal master of the police procedural, again proves himself the master of the legal thriller, too. Grisham and Turow might do it more often — but nobody does it better.

ISBN: 9781760878917
ISBN-10: 176087891X
Series: Mickey Haller
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 432
Available: 10th November 2020
Publisher: A&U

Review: Casino by Peter Corris

After turning down the job as head of security at the new Sydney casino, private investigator Cliff Hardy recommends Scot Galvani for the role, and moves on with his life, flattered by the offer, but a stickler for his unshackled lifestyle, which doesn’t allow for the structure of 9-5 office hours, or the wearing of a suit. When Galvani is murdered weeks later, his wife Gina hires Hardy to investigate.

Published in 1994, “Casino” is the eighteenth instalment in the Cliff Hardy series, and one of my favourites; its elements a perfect cocktail for my particular crime fiction proclivities. The plot is straightforward, as they all are, but peppered with a cast of nefarious villains and love interests, and bolstered by Hardy’s snide insights into Sydney in the early nineties. Hardy loves his city, that’s obvious, but can see beyond its sheen, and has trudged through its mud.

Cliff Hardy exists on the softer side of the hardboiled spectrum. Oh, he can rough ‘em up like the best of ‘em, and isn’t afraid to crack a few heads, but it’s always a last resort, when his actions have been reduced to a singular course. He identifies and marinates on his own personality flaws. Jealousy, and a sexual attraction to Vita Drewe, threaten to destroy his (relatively) long-term relationship with Glen Withers; and Hardy knows he drinks too much (by the cask, in fact) but doesn’t view it as a fatal flaw; not yet, at least. He is perfectly imperfect: the kind of hero readers follow to hell and back.

Every undiscovered Corris novel I dig up at second hand bookshops is a treat. I’ve maybe half a dozen to go, and (so far) I have resisted the urge to “cheat” and acquire them online.     

Paperback : 216 pages
ISBN-10 : 9781760110208
ISBN-13 : 978-1760110208
Publisher : Allen & Unwin (19 November 2014)

Review: Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosby

“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.

Beauregard needs cash: a lot more than he can make in illegal drag races in his classic duster. His repair shop in Red Hill County, Virginia is haemorrhaging; his cancer-stricken mother is about to be kicked out of palliative care; his daughter needs tuition; and his son needs braces.  A big heist —last one, he swears, to himself and his wife — could make all his worries go away.

Or, as eventuates, lead to devastating consequences.

The Montagues have a family tradition of violence and bloodshed. Beauregard’s father was a wheelman too, until he disappeared, leaving a shattered family, and a young black kid scrounging for ways to fill the gaping hole left by an absent father. Beauregard wants that tradition to end: but the only way he can withdraw his family from that life is to throw himself into it. The shattered man holding his life together with trembling fingers (despite Beauregard’s outward swagger) is great noir fuel. You want Beauregard to claw his way out of trouble, but you despair at the choices he makes. “Blacktop Wasteland” has a simple narrative, textured with piercing insights into racial tensions, fatherhood, and the yearning for a better a life. It’s gritty, violent and action-packed; think “Fast and Furious” thrills meshed with the depth of Dennis Lehane’s great crime novels.

ISBN: 9781472273741
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 304
Imprint: Headline Book Publishing
Publisher: Headline Publishing Group
Publish Date: 2-Jul-2020
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: In the Heat of the Night by John Ball

When I was a kid, borrowing tapes from the local Video Ezy every weekend, I knew when I slid a movie into the VCR I had a few minutes before the film started. What played in the interim was the requisite legal copyright verbiage, and a two minute featurette that was basically clips of various movies, the audio of which I unconsciously memorised, one line in particular, said by Sidney Poitier: “They call me Mr. Tibbs.”

Without context, those words lack the gravitas they merit in both Norman Jewinson’s 1967 film, and the John Ball novel it was adapted from, and published two years earlier: “In the Heat of the Night.” Despite their different intonations — Poitier’s voice is wearied and hardened, whereas it reads a little softer (though no less weary) — the Virgil Tibbs in both mediums are absolutely exhausted by the racial animus saturating the American South, and his simple response to the Chief of Police mocking inquiry about what he’s called back home in Pasadena is searing because of its coolness: in California, Tibbs is a person.

Ball’s novel is a conventional mystery involving the murder of music conductor Enrico Mantoli, whose body is found in the middle of the highway. Chief of Police Bill Gillespie orders Wood to round up any suspicious characters, and Virgil Tibbs fits the bill, waiting for his train back home at the local station. One telephone call to Pasadena later, Tibbs is cleared, and is roped into aiding the Wells police investigation; a scapegoat for the blame to be pinned on, should the case go unsolved.

Noxious racism coruscates through the town of Wells, and Tibbs is a character created by Ball to shatter the townspeople’s preconceptions. He’s almost too good to be true: a brilliant investigator, unruffled in the face of bigotry, impossibly intelligent. These facets are important to the story, but read contrived. Tibbs isn’t human: he’s an archetype. But we accept it, because that’s exactly what the narrative calls for. This is a snapshot of race relations in mid-sixties America during the civil rights movement with a side of murder and mystery. I’m keen to read more in the series, just to see whether Tibbs develops more as a character, and whether the plots become more intricate.

Published: 18 July 2016
ISBN: 9780241238622
Imprint: Peng. Mod. Classics
Format: Paperback
Pages: 176
RRP: $19.99

Review: The Force by Don Winslow

x293The Manhattan North Special Task Force operates by one primary principle: if you don’t intimidate the street, the street will kill you. Which means you’ve got to work outside the law to maintain it. And to keep the peace, you broker deals. You can’t exterminate crime, so you work with the gangs. You maintain a status quo. You get dirty, but you don’t get bent. You walk right up to the line, but you don’t cross it. Until the day you do.

“The Force” is Don Winslow’s epic novel about an elite NYPD task force. It’s savagely violent and unambiguous in its portrayal of corrupt cops, so overwhelmed by their toxic egos and merrily lining their pockets, they’ve forgotten why they became police in the first place. If they’re not entirely morally bankrupt, they’re down to their last cents. Their decision to skim $4 million and 20 kilos of heroin from the scene of a major bust is the most extravagant of their wrongdoings; the coup de grâce before their fiefdom crumbles. And as it falls apart, readers learn just how far the corruption extends.

Winslow does a good job of establishing his characters in their own lives. Events are narrated through Detective Sergeant Denny Malone: Irish American, son of a cop, who grew up in Staten Island, whose brother was a firefighter who died on 9/11. Malone’s also in the middle of a protracted divorce, and in a new relationship with a black, drug-addicted nurse. But the nature of the tale is that its characters’ ambiguities are lost as it gathers momentum. When the FBI starts squeezing Malone for information, turning him into a rat — the thing he most despises — I was eager to see how he could possibly extricate himself from his predicament. But I wasn’t emotionally invested in his survival, because to be frank, Malone is a bad guy, and deserves to go down for his crimes. It makes for a peculiar reading experience, rooting against the central character of a book. But it’s not a feeling I marinated on, such is its velocity.

“The Force” is punctuated with blockbuster action scenes. Punchy sentences and short paragraphs make these sequences kinetic and frenetic. They read like a crude, bloody ballet. Impressively Don Winslow takes a derivative concept, shakes it, and gives it new energy. “The Force” is terrific entertainment. A cop novel only he could write.

ISBN: 9781460753545
Format: Paperback
Number Of Pages: 496
Published: 19th June 2017
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers (Australia) Pty Ltd

Review: Maigret and the Ghost by Georges Simenon

9780241304037There’s very little mystery and even less suspense in “Maigret and the Ghost,” my first dalliance with Georges Simenon and his famous protagonist. And yet I was absolutely charmed by the French detective’s 62nd case, and Simenon’s depiction of the plodding reality of police work: endless phone calls, witness statements and interviews — with plenty of time for beer and sandwiches, and visits to bistros, naturally.

Let me refine that opening statement for the sake of clarity: this book is a mystery, but not a whodunit, even though the perpetrator of the crime isn’t revealed until its latter stages. Its length — “Maigret and the Ghost” clocks in at less than 200 pages — means that readers have a fair understanding of the culprit by the halfway mark; there are simply not enough pages for explosive red herrings. What we don’t know — what Maigret unravels — are the machinations behind the attempted murder: why was Inspector “Hopeless” Lognon of the 18th arrondissement gunned down in a Paris street, outside the home of a mysterious woman who has subsequently disappeared?

Maigret’s investigation leads to conversations with a charismatic cast of onlookers, and to a Dutch art critic named Norris Jonker, and his wife Mirella, whose home, it appears, is frequently visited by prostitutes. The novel boils down to a series of conversations, of which Maigret’s interrogation of the Jonkers is the most absorbing, as he picks away at the loose threads of their story. They’re hiding something — but is it connected to Longon?

Sometimes when I’m reading a mystery or thriller I’ll chart the dramatic trajectory of their plots as a writing exercise. That proved fruitless with “Maigret and the Ghost.” The novel really only has one pace. It’s not languid, nor is it in a rush. We’re reading to Simenon’s distinct schedule. And it’s a treat. My first Maigret — with more to follow.

ISBN: 9780241304037
Format: Paperback
Number Of Pages: 160
Published: 3rd December 2018
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Country of Publication: GB

Review: A Song For the Dark Times by Ian Rankin

Unlike some writers who want their heroes to remain supermen forever, Ian Rankin has paid attention to John Rebus’s years, and found stories to exploit them. Not that Rebus’s mortality is the focal point of “A Song For the Dark Times;” but it’s always there on the periphery. In his twilight years, with his physicality and raw machismo dwindling, every flash of violence has greater consequence. We’re not just worried about Rebus taking a punch; we’re worried about what happens when he throws one, too.

There is something sadly discomforting in witnessing the irascible former maverick inspector in decline, forced into a downstairs apartment because Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease has made the climb up to his series-enduring tenement in Marchmont untenable. Not that he intends to putter away his golden years: Rebus has commandeered a selection of unsolved case files. Fodder for another time, however. Any plans Rebus has to reopen old murder files is interrupted by a call from his daughter Samantha. Her partner Keith — father to their daughter Carrie — is missing.

While Rebus journeys to the very far north of Scotland — inserting himself into the investigation of which Samantha is the primary suspect — detectives Siobhan Clarke and Malcolm Fox work a murder case involving a very wealthy, and very well connected, international student in Edinburgh. Rankin builds intrigue like a symphony conductor. The cases overlap through several key witnesses and suspects, but their connection, although obviously manufactured for the sake of the narrative, doesn’t feel contrived.

As ever, Rankin’s themes are timely and prescient. Here he tackles the subject of Scottish land ownership, the festering desire for retribution, and the toxicity of secrets, while peeling back layers of the country’s past. Much of the novel revolves around Camp 1033, a WWII internment camp that housed ‘aliens’ and captured soldiers. Ignorance on my part, but I had no idea such camps existed in Scotland; once again Rankin provides a history lesson alongside a cracking yarn.

Tautly constructed, compulsively paced, and consistently arresting. Routine brilliance from Ian Rankin. He delivers, every time.

ISBN: 9781409176985
Format: Paperback
Number Of Pages: 320
Available: 29th September 2020
Publisher: Orion Publishing Co

Review: Trust by Chris Hammer

9781760877415In “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.

“Trust” is so tightly wound up, it’s like a rubber band ready to snap; already stretched to breaking point after its opening dozen pages, by which time Tarquin Molloy has stolen confidential data from the trading floor of a bank, and Mandalay Blonde — Scarsden’s partner, but deserving of equal billing here, such is her importance and prevalence — abducted from her home in Port Silver. These events are tied to a subversive criminal enterprise that exists at the highest echelons of New South Wales politics.

This is Hammer writing pedal-to-the-metal, with a hook as enticing as “Scrublands,” enhanced by superior writing and plotting. Rather than rest on his laurels, Hammer has pushed himself beyond his previous mysteries, which were already A-Grade. In “Trust” 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. Hammer orchestrates it all with virtuosic aplomb.

ISBN: 9781760877415
Format: Paperback
Number Of Pages: 480
Available: 13th October 2020