Nailing down a thriller is an imperfect science. We batter books around with a faulty vocabulary while booksellers and writers wrestle over their provenance. Are these killer novels we pick up in drugstores and airports crime novels? Are they suspense stories? Spy novels or whodunits?
The truth is that no matter how you slice it, mysteries and thrillers are mainstream fiction now, written by writers who have just as much juice in their prose as any prize winner. And in 2011, we’ll see some of the best writing so far, from the usual suspects to writers better known for other genres stepping into the darker end of things. Par for the course, it’s going to be a hell of a ride.
For a list of more mysteries that have received starred reviews so far in 2011, click here.
Andy Diggle and Victor Ibanez
Not all thrillers need be merely prose, as proven by the long history of crime comics. One of the best places at marrying hard-boiled dialogue to bone-snapping graphics is Vertigo Comics, which unleashes Andy Diggle’s Rat Catcher on an unsuspecting public in January. Diggle has been a known quantity for years, penning The Losers, which got Hollywood time as a mainstream movie, and breathing new life into Swamp Thing, Green Arrow and John Constantine, among others. In this original graphic novel, Diggle gets down and dirty with the story of a manhunt for an unstoppable assassin. In West Texas, he’s practically a folk tale—a killer whose specialty is icing mob informants inside the Witness Protection Program. In the end, who catches the Rat Catcher? (Vertigo, January)
Randy Wayne White
Florida has been a hotbed for crime writers since the days of John D. MacDonald, and its rich milieu continues to inspire fantastic writers ranging from the legendary Elmore Leonard to more contemporary satirists like Tim Dorsey and Lawrence Shames. But one of the best, satirist Carl Hiaasen, says there’s one name that bobs to the surface when it comes to Florida crime writing. “Randy Wayne White,” says Hiaasen. “He’s just tremendous. Out of all the Florida writers, he’s truly one who gets it right.” In the latest in White’s incredibly popular Doc Ford series, property development and illegal immigration come to a violent collision. A marine biologist with a violent past, Doc Ford is a hero for today’s dark times, and White writes the hell out of him here. (Putnam, February)
No one captures the streets of Paris quite like Cara Black and her well-established protagonist Aimée Leduc. But when the novelist dreamt up a new case involving the strangulation of a haut bourgeois matron of Basque origin in the 16th arrondidissement of Passy, she and her muse found themselves out of their element. “Today, this quartier is regarded as a bit upper crust, if not the wealthiest in Paris,” says Black. “It wasn’t my stomping ground, nor Aimée Leduc’s. Call me intimidated, or unable to find the ambience Balzac described, but things kept pulling me back to Passy. Whether it was the art nouveau buildings, or that during World War II the Germans requisitioned the mansions of the elite to use as Gestapo headquarters, or that a Basque cultural existed here, somehow I kept feeling that I missed something. In many ways, this story could only happen here.” (Soho Crime, March)
Sometimes it’s nice to have a disruption from all the blazing guns and intrigue of traditional thrillers, and who better to offer a break from reality than masterful fantasist Jasper Fforde, who ushers readers back into BookWorld with One of Our Thursdays Is Missing. Fans will hit immediately on the title, which nods to the absence of original heroine Thursday Next. With the real Thursday retired to the RealWorld, the Council of Genres turns to her literary counterpart. “I’ve got the written Thursday trying to get the real Thursday back from the real world to help with problems in the book world,” Fforde said on website Good Reads. “When you have a fictional person within the real world, then there are all sorts of bizarre problems that she might encounter.” For readers looking for a little less gravity in their whodunits, Fforde is a breath of fresh air. (Viking, March)
Whether he’s out on the cutting edge with avant-garde, transgressive experiments in fiction or thrilling the fans of his hard-luck detective Easy Rawlins, there’s no better writer of American crime fiction than Walter Mosley. When he launched his new series about New York P.I. Leonid McGill, Mosley was clearly infatuated. “I love so many things about Leonid,” says Mosley. “He’s a real throwback to the noir period, to the days even before the first Easy Rawlins book. He’s a character of old in many ways.” In his third outing, McGill is suffering right along with the rest of us as the economy falls off a cliff, fielding job offers from the criminal class. When a beautiful young artists walks into McGill’s office with a stack of cash and a sob story, who’s Leonid to turn her down—if her trouble doesn’t get him killed first. (Riverhead, March)
Inspector Rebus may be well into his retirement these days but Europe’s finest procedural writer is still scribbling away after taking off 2010. His latest is a new novel about a team of cops that no one likes—especially the dirty cops that they’re tasked to investigate. Malcolm Fox works within the Complaints and Conduct Department of the Lothian and Borders Police in Rankin’s native Edinburgh. Fox is the complete opposite of the hard-drinking, long-smoking Rebus, and within a department known as “The Dark Side,” Fox is a reluctant family man in a hard relationship who insists on playing by the rules. But when Fox starts investigating a corrupt officer named Jamie Breck, it’s likely that Fox will learn that the rules don’t always play fair. Rankin says it was his hardest novel to write so far, and the hard work pays off. (Reagan Arthur Books, March)
When crime writer Don Winslow got a funny call from his agent a while back, he was definitely intrigued: “What does the word Shibumi mean to you?” Winslow immediately responded that it means “understated elegance” in Japanese. This, he knew, because Winslow was one of the millions of fans of the 1979 international bestseller Shibumi by Trevanian, the pen name of the late scholar Rodney William Whitaker. Riffing off the heightened style employed by Trevanian, Winslow reveals more about the mysterious background of assassin Nicholas Hel, who is convinced by his American captors to travel to Beijing to execute a Soviet official. In our review, we called Winslow’s take “perfect for Shibumi fans and anyone else who likes their espionage over the top.” (Grand Central, March)
It’s a blast from the past for hard-bitten private eye Matt Scudder in the latest from Grand Master Lawrence Block. The new book was originally titled Between Drinks according to the author’s website, and puts Scudder back in some of his worst days in the early ’80s, freshly sober and struggling to stay that way. The story, narrated in the present day but flashing back all the way back to Scudder’s boyhood, is mostly set in the period between the classic Eight Million Ways to Die, which ended with Scudder finally admitting his disease had gotten the better of him, and Out on the Cutting Edge. There’s nothing like a few rounds with old friends like Matt to take the edge off. (Little, Brown, May)
Paul Doiron leapt from the editorship of Down East magazine to the big leagues of crime writing with his soulful debut novel The Poacher’s Son, which introduced game warden Mike Bowditch and earned a place on Kirkus’ Best Mysteries of 2010 list. Now in Trespasser, Mike must reopen old wounds in order to catch a killer with friends in high places. “The story picks up seven months later,” says Doiron. “Mike’s girlfriend has moved back in with him, and he’s trying to get on with his life, but he’s been left deeply scarred in ways he doesn’t want to admit. This is a book about guilt in many forms.” (Minotaur, June)
A Death in Summer
If he’s not careful, award-winning novelist John Banville may well be overtaken by his own alter ego, Benjamin Black, the nom de plume under which Banville has written two stellar crime novels and most recently the novella The Lemur, serialized in the New York Times. Now Black brings his lyrical, hard-bitten style to a new whodunit about a Dublin newspaper tycoon, Richard Jewell—known to friends and enemies alike as Diamond Dick—who’s been found with his head blown off. The investigation into whether the event was suicide or murder finds D.I. Hackett and his unusual friend Quirke treading lightly among the old money and significant influence of Dublin’s powerful elitists. Banville may dismiss crime writing as “cheap fiction,” but Black does it as well as anyone in the business. (Henry Holt, July)
Fresh off the one-two punch editing two volumes of Los Angeles Noir and taking a break from her own Eve Diamond series, Denise Hamilton dives deeper into the menace behind the glamour of Southern California in this riveting stand-alone thriller. Her new heroine is Maggie Silver, a rather unusual PR consultant whose clients include movie stars, famous athletes and politicians, all of whom screw up in ways that only a power player like Silver can unravel. But her latest case cuts close to home when a U.S. senator—who also happens to have fathered Maggie’s best friend from high school—is accused of murdering a young female aid. In a novel that marries celebrity culture, surf noir and the bonds of friendship, Hamilton is at the top of her game. (Scribner, September)
In Money Shot, from throwback publisher Hard Case Crime, Christa Faust proved that she can throw just as hard as the boys when it comes to pulpy, sexy crime fiction—no lesser a member of the boys’ club than Quentin Tarantino raved, “Christa Faust is a Veronica in a world of Betties.” Now Hard Case’s first female author brings back her killer protagonist Angel Dare to wade into the equally harsh world of mixed martial arts. When one of Angel’s former co-stars in the adult industry is murdered, Angel is forced to escort his son, a fighter in the brutal MMA industry, through the American Southwest. With sets ranging from the Arizona desert to the neon wonderland of Las Vegas, Faust’s unforgiving noir vision is sure to inspire another pulp classic. (Hard Case Crime, October)