Personally — and don't hold it against me — I don't read a lot of mystery. So when I wanted to put together a list of the best Crime Fiction of 2009, I turned to the experts: the hard-boiled, call-it-like-they-see-it, read-'em-all crime fiction bloggers. Below are their extremely informed selections for the Best Crime Fiction of 2009.
P.S. I was aiming for 10 books but I had such overwhelming response that I ended up with 13. Seems like a fitting number for crime fiction, don't you think?
by Roger Smith
The setup: An American is forced to participate in a bank robbery in Milwaukee. The robbery leaves his accomplices either dead or captured. A policeman is dead. The American flees with the money and his family to Capetown, South Africa where a couple of drugged-out gangsters break into his new home for rape and other nastiness, in turn triggering a sequence of very violent events. This is a very dark, violent book where the violence is played straight and not for laughs, and plays almost like a Parker book if Parker ever ended up in Capetown, and found himself a family man and his 4-year old son kidnapped. While this is a first novel, it doesn't read like one. Not one moment of slack from beginning to end.
by Hannah Berry
Britten and Brulightly would rank as an audacious debut in prose, but the genius is in how she melds the dark tinges of the retro-P.I. story of Fernández Britten's existential struggle for truth despite its emotional cost with an illustrative style of blue and gray hues and dark lines conveying thousands of words in a handful of strokes.
by Megan Abbott
Women who work the noir side of mysteries are as rare as an honest man and as memorable as a sock in the face. Bury Me Deep, Megan Abbott’s fourth novel, is based on the notorious 1931 case in which two women were killed and shipped to L.A. in steamer trunks. Abbott takes the noir template of the man lured into disaster by a woman, flips the roles, and creates a fresh, compelling story. Bury Me Deep’s slow beginning builds to a sharp, shocking conclusion and marks Abbott as a writer on the rise.
by Chris Ewan
Picking one best book from 2009 was a tough choice as there were several which I loved. However, being strict, and only picking books by Scottish authors, or books set in Scotland, left me with 5 which I jumbled up and picked one out at random. Chris Ewan's The Good Thief's Guide to Paris was the one I picked out. Chris Ewan writes books about a thief who writes books about a thief who solves crimes. That clear? Good. Charming mystery writing thief Charlie Howard is in Paris. Having imbibed several glasses of wine too many he is flattered when a complete stranger tells him he is an admirer of his special skills, and agrees to show the man how to break into an apartment. Just one day later, Charlie is hired to steal a really dull painting from the very same apartment. A superbly entertaining caper full of twists and turns, very well drawn characters and memorable scenes. Breezy and quirky, with a protagonist who's part Raymond Chandler, part The Saint. By the way, my other Scottish tops for 2009 were Tony Black's Gutted, Ray Banks' Beast of Burden, Helen FitzGerald's Bloody Women and Allan Guthrie's Slammer. (Editor's note: this book technically came out in late 2008, after most Best of 2008 lists had already been compiled. We threw it a bone and included it in 2009.)
by Philip Kerr
Philip Kerr’s series about Berlin cop-turned-private eye-turned-fugitive Bernie Gunther never ceases to amaze. Last year’s A Quiet Flame, in which Gunther fled the wreckage of Nazi Germany for Argentina (along with Hitler loyalists traveling under assumed identities) was as outstanding as any of this series’ installments. And If the Dead Rise Not maintains that same high caliber of storytelling. This latest yarn offers two timelines. In the first, Gunther has left the police and is dodging homicide charges, while trying to solve a pair of other murders and help a Jewish woman journalist from the States draw international attention to rising German anti-Semitism in advance of Berlin’s 1936 Olympic Games. The second half of the novel moves to Cuba 20 years later, where Gunther encounters some of the same characters, along with an equal number of risks to his continuing health.
by Allan Guthrie
Allan Guthrie's fifth novel, Slammer, is a real leap forward from an author who was already writing good books. Slammer continues Guthrie's tradition of deconstructing the traditional tough-guy archetypes of crime fiction, while still respecting the genre. Slammer is Guthrie's most mature work to date. It is less violent, but more unnerving than his previous, more grisly books. The prose is tight. The story twists like a mountain road, and the ending is devastating. You can't ask for anything more.
by Stieg Larsson, translated by Reg Keeland
This is a must read for anyone who wants more in their crime fiction. This passionate book combines the style and intrigue of a thriller with a meaningful look at Swedish society and the story is mostly carried by the unusual heroine of Lisbeth Salander. When she disappears from view for a while you race ahead to see what's happened to her. If you've not read the previous book, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, then do so first as it sets up the central relationship between Lisbeth and the other main character Mikael Blomkvist. (Both books translated by Reg Keeland.)
edited by Dennis Lehane
Boston Noir is the latest in the "city noir anthology" series from Akashic Books. In his introduction, editor Dennis Lehane says to forget Hollywood clichés of men in fedoras lighting cigarettes for femmes fatales. Noir is working-class tragedy, where people lead what Thoreau called "quiet lives of desperation," just like the hero of Lehane's own story who realizes "winter lost any meaning the day you last rode a sled. Any meaning but gray." Many of the other ten stories in the collection are top-notch, ranging from Brendan DuBois' post-war P.I. helping a troubled woman search for a missing shoe box, to Dana Cameron's colonial tavern owner who tries to outsmart swindlers and an abusive husband. Bleak, dark, at turns funny and heartbreaking, Boston Noir is one reason the short-story genre is experiencing a renaissance with the e-reader generation.
by George Pelecanos
Over the years I've come to the view that there are five key elements that can be combined to make the perfect great crime novel: plot, character, suspense, context and great writing. Few writers master them all, still fewer all within the same novel. The list of those writers who can consistently deliver all five is short indeed, and at the top of that list is George Pelecanos whose latest novel, The Way Home, should be declared compulsory reading for anybody wishing to pursue a career in either politics or law enforcement (too many of whom don’t seem interested in why people behave in the way they do, merely in punishing them for it.) Using a relatively well-worn literary canvass — a man on the road to redemption after a youthful, criminal mistake is thrown into turmoil when his old life makes an unwelcome intrusion — Pelecanos produces another masterpiece. The Way Home is an understated, powerful and heroically non-judgmental crime novel that robustly examines the choices and lack of choices of young men on the fringes of a society that is too quick to condemn and dismiss them. Buy it, read it and when you’re done mail it to your elected representative.
by Ace Atkins
Ace Atkins' Devil's Garden is based on one of the most infamous of classic Hollywood scandals, the Fatty Arbuckle trial. After a wild party, a young woman was found dead and Arbuckle was accused of murder. One of history's fascinating coincidences is that Pinkerton detective Dashiell Hammett was one of the many investigators involved in the case. What's great about the book is the way it captures a particular loss of innocence in American culture at this time, when the glamorous facade of Hollywood fell away to reveal its darker side. Atkins' combines illuminating historical research with a gripping plot and intricate web of characters. Essential reading for those who love both classic movies and great mysteries.
by Dennis Tafoya
Tafoya is a novelist to watch. Dope Thief is a crime novel that doesn't fit easily into genre boundaries. Yes there’s theft, addiction, and brutal violence throughout the entire novel, and Tafoya handles each scenario with a deft, confident hand and turns Dope Thief into a novel about going beyond survival and the need in each of us for some kind of bond to make us more human. I love this book.
by R.J. Ellory
There's immense pleasure to be found in a novel that's a touch of class; one that raises the bar. In 2009, the USA struck gold with A Quiet Belief in Angels, the first publication from UK-based R. J. Ellory with The Overlook Press. There’s more to come and indeed a backlist to be read, but A Quiet Belief in Angels is worthy of note. One sentence in this novel sums it up perfectly, as imparted by its narrator, Joseph Calvin Vaughan: "It was a life, but so distant from what I’d wished." A Quiet Belief in Angels is the story of the life of Joseph Vaughan and how much of his life is stolen away, how parts of the lives of others are stolen around him, and how lives are taken through the simple act of murder. The story is one superbly told, with great intelligence; the characterization and cultural settings are as deep and rich as a tapestry; the historical context reads as precise as a carefully researched academic tome. But what, above all, keeps you reading? It is the story that Joseph Calvin Vaughan has to tell you. And what a remarkable story it is.
by Reed Farrel Coleman, Ken Bruen
Hard to choose just one Best for 2009, but Tower might fit the bill because it’s written by two of my favorite authors, so it’s a two-fer. Unlike many other writers who collaborate by writing every other chapter or smoothing over all chapters together, Ken Bruen and Reed Farrel Coleman wrote two totally separate sections, first person, same story, from the point of view of two very different characters. Then they added a prologue and epilogue. No mean feat, but something these two did extraordinarily and seamlessly well. The characters Nick and Todd definitely have different voices and points of view as each tell the same story about their childhood and adult friendship and exploits. The characters grew up in the 'hood" (Brooklyn) together and went from petty crime to murder and mayhem. Along the way, they are faced with temptation, treachery, loyalty and betrayal. It’s not easy to read about these wiseguys, petty Irish thugs. It's pretty brutal in parts. It’s a crime novel, after all. Both Ken and Reed capture the substance and edginess of their characters as they carry the reader through the dark plot, twice. You might not like the characters or want to spend time with them outside the novel, but you'll sure get a grip on how they think. Tower is not all brutality, though, the characters are so well developed that you will also empathize with them. There's even a sense of poignancy in the novel, as each character chooses his path. The two writing styles are as different as the characters and maybe that’s what differentiates them. You'll recognize Ken's lean poetic writing and Reed's fuller prose style. Tower really works on so many levels. It’s a short read, but a masterpiece of noir fiction.
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