Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Booklist's "The Year’s Best Crime Novels: 2011"

--by Bill Ott (First published on May 1, 2011 in Booklist)

So what kind of a year has it been in crime fiction? There has been lots of genre bending, that’s for sure, with the distinctions between crime, horror, and urban fantasy becoming more and more fluid as the vampires, zombies, and shape-shifters jump from genre to genre like the former headmasters of Hogwarts strolling between paintings. Beyond that, though, mainstream crime writers have done what they always do: turn out superior work in a multitude of styles and degrees of light and dark...

There is a perfect split in the top 10 among first-timers and repeaters, with Louise Penny (Bury Your Dead) extending her streak to three years in a row. She’s joined on the repeater roll by Kate Atkinson (Started Early, Took My Dog — the year’s catchiest title, hands down), Jo Nesbo (The Snowman), Henning Mankell (The Troubled Man), and the late, great Robert B. Parker (Painted Ladies).

Our work here is done, but yours is only beginning, just in time for the summer reading season.

The Anniversary Man (R. J. Ellory) - NYPD Detective Ray Irving — overworked, underpaid, and absolutely dedicated to his job — risks his sense of ethics and, ultimately, his life to track down a serial killer who is imitating the crimes of some of the worst monsters in history. Entirely free of formula, Ellory’s breakthrough procedural should give him the kind of acclaim in the U.S. that he enjoys in his native Britain. (on order)

Bury Your Dead (Louis Penny) - Penny’s sixth Armande Gamache novel is her best yet, a true tour de force of storytelling. Juggling three freestanding but subtly intertwined stories, Penny moves seamlessly from present to past as Gamache, the chief inspector of the Sûreté du Quebec, investigates a murder in Quebec City, tries to determine if he jailed the wrong man in an earlier case, and struggles with his memories of a third case that went horribly wrong. Penny hits every note perfectly in what is one of the most elaborately constructed mysteries in years. (on order)

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter (Tom Franklin) - Silas and Larry, two poor kids in 1970s Mississippi, were close until they drifted apart after Larry’s date disappeared one night and never returned. Now, 20 years later, Silas is the new town constable, and another girl disappears in similar circumstances. Edgar winner Franklin delivers luminous prose and a cast of unforgettable characters in this moody, masterful mix of crime and literary fiction. (on order)

Gone (Mo Hayder) - In this fifth riveting entry in Hayder’s series starring haunted homicide detective Jack Caffery, the disappearance of an 11-year-old girl leaves police playing catch-up against an adversary who seems to anticipate all their moves. The meticulously crafted plot is heightened by Hayder’s skillful evocation of mood in this utterly gripping thriller. (on order)

Painted Ladies (Robert B. Parker) - Are we honoring the late Parker’s career here or is this really one of his best books in its own right? Well, both. His penultimate Spenser novel captures all the charm of the landmark series. The iconic Boston PI can still nail a person’s foibles on first meeting, still whip up a gourmet meal in a few minutes, still dispatch the thugs who haunt his office and his home, and still do it all while maintaining a fierce love of Susan Silverman and English poetry. Parker was one of the first to show us that a hard-boiled hero doesn’t have to frown all the time, and we’ve been smiling along with Spenser ever since.

The Snowman (Jo Nesbø) - Norway’s maverick detective Harry Hole is back in this fourth installment of Nesbø’s uniformly outstanding series. A new case puts Harry on the track of another serial killer, and once again his obsessive approach to crime-solving puts him at odds with his peers. Nesbø layers the suspense skillfully, deftly mixing scenes from the investigation with glimpses into Harry’s always compelling personal life. With the conclusion of Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series, the Harry Hole novels now assume the top spot in the Scandinavian crime-fiction universe. (on order)

Spiral (Paul McEuen) - Cornell physicist McEuen, writing his first novel in his “spare time,” may have created the most engrossing thriller of the year. With the murder of an 85-year-old physicist, it’s left to one of his colleagues, the victim’s granddaughter, and her nine-year-old son to thwart a complex scheme to launch the “most devastating terrorist attack in human history.” McEuen offers lucid disquisitions on science; posits that “synthetic biology” will surpass silicon microelectronics as the next big technological wave; and, remarkably, he makes these ideas accessible to the average thriller fan. (on order)

Started Early, Took My Dog (Kate Atkinson) - In the latest entry in Atkinson’s brilliant Jackson Brodie series, the semiretired detective is touring abbeys in northern England, but soon enough he becomes involved in several interrelated cases, one of which concerns a police detective who has rescued a child from a prostitute by paying cash for her. Her odyssey as a new parent, relayed with tenderness and wry wit, must be one of the grandest love affairs in crime fiction. For its singular melding of radiant humor and dark deeds, this is must-reading for fans of literary crime fiction. (on order)

The Terrorist (Peter Steiner) - American expat Louis Morgon’s retirement in a Loire Valley village is upset by cancer and by the life he left decades before. The former CIA agent has helped a young Algerian boy get a scholarship, but now the boy has been deposited in a secret prison. Weakened by cancer, Louis must uncover valuable information about al-Qaeda that he can trade for the boy’s release. The Terrorist is a deeply human story of a man in the last years of his life, who, unexpectedly, has again found love but who is sucked back into a cynical, dangerous milieu he abhors. An espionage gem with strong echoes of Greene and le Carré. (on order)

The Troubled Man (Henning Mankell) - The final volume in Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series represents a landmark moment in the genre. As Wallander strives to find his daughter-in-law’s disappeared father, he launches another, more poignant investigation into his own past. This is a deeply melancholy novel, but Mankell, sweeping gracefully between reflections on international politics and meditations on the inevitable arc of human life, never lets his story become engulfed by darkness. Always a reticent man, Wallander shows an intensity of emotion here, a last gasp of felt life, which is both moving and oddly inspiring.