Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: I haven’t read every crime, mystery, and thriller novel published in the United States over the last year. (I’m only one person, after all, cheated at birth of superhuman powers.) Therefore, my choices of favorite new additions to this genre in 2015 must be culled from the many dozens of books I did read. Among those were a few clunkers. Yet a 12-month span can only be counted as having been worth living when it rolls out such outstanding yarns as Christopher Bollen’s Orient, Patricia Abbott’s Concrete Angel, Don Winslow’s The Cartel, John Farrow’s The Snow Murders, Anthony Horowitz’s Trigger Mortis, Barry Maitland’s Crucifixion Creek, Amy Stewart’s Girl Waits with Gun, Walter Mosley’s And Sometimes I Wonder About You, John McFetridge’s A Little More Free, Stuart Neville’s Those We Left Behind, Michael Genelin’s For the Dignified Dead, Art Taylor’s On the Road with Del & Louise, Belinda Bauer’s Rubbernecker, Linwood Barclay’s Broken Promise, Peter Ranscombe’s Hare and…OK, you get the idea.
Of the crime-fiction works I enjoyed this year, the 10 listed below (in no particular order) are those I found to be the most memorable. They’re also the most likely for me to present as gifts this holiday season. Just keep that a secret for now.
The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins: There’s no question that this debut thriller deserves the popularity and plaudits it’s received. Its story focuses around Rachel Watson, an impecunious and divorced young alcoholic who rides the commuter train in and out of London each day, even though she long ago lost her job. The rail travel brings her solace and invites her to fantasize about people inside the houses she passes. She takes a particular fancy to one couple, who she imagines share a blissful life together in a house not far from where Rachel used to live with her husband, Tom.One morning, though, Rachel spots the female half of that couple, Megan Hipwell, kissing another man in her garden. Soon afterward, Megan vanishes and Rachel goes to the police with what little she knows of the evident betrayal. The cops don’t believe her, both because of her fondness for drink and her recent erratic behavior toward Tom and his new wife. Determined to prove her worth, Rachel launches her own probe of Megan’s disappearance, contacting the woman’s supposed lover on the sly and allowing her concern for Megan’s husband to turn into a disastrous affair. Author Hawkins makes the most of Rachel’s unreliability as a narrator to keep readers off guard, and delivers an unexpected ending that is so wrong…but feels so right.
A June of Ordinary Murders, by Conor Brady: Tensions run high in Dublin during the sweaty summer of 1887, as the Irish capital awaits representatives of Britain’s royal family, coming to help celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee—an event likely to stoke nationalist ire against that “foreign monarch.” Chances of maintaining peace are further undermined by the discovery, in a public park, of corpses apparently belonging to a man and a boy, both of them shot to death, their faces mutilated. Detective Sergeant Joe Swallow of the Metropolitan Police, a confirmed cynic in need of fresh successes, would like nothing more than to close this case quickly. But there’s scant chance of that after the slain “gent” turns out to have been a woman in masculine dress, and Swallow’s difficulty in identifying either of the victims exposes him to press mockery. If things weren’t bad enough already, a local criminal matriarch has perished in her bed, leaving her lieutenants to vie for control of her empire; Swallow’s sister may have fallen in with political firebrands; and a house servant is found bludgeoned and discarded in a canal. Brady, a longtime former editor of The Irish Times, lashes these plotlines together with incisive prose, a sharp eye for historical color and a thoughtfully formed cast.
The Whites, by Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt: Holding down the center of this big-canvas police procedural is Sergeant Billy Graves, once part of a hotshot anti-crime unit of New York City’s finest known as the Wild Geese, whose career went seriously off track after a bullet from his weapon killed an innocent 10-year-old rather than the bad guy he’d targeted. Nowadays Graves is content to command the Manhattan Night Watch, charged with responding to post-midnight felonies and preparing investigations for the morning shift. A fatal slashing at Penn Station, though, threatens Graves’ humble harmony. The victim was someone he had known back in his Wild Geese days, a suspect in the brutal murder of a boy, who’d “walked away untouched by justice.” He and his fellow hotshots had called such unprosecuted criminals the Whites, after Captain Ahab’s disobliging whale. When other Whites start to meet awful or puzzling ends, Graves goes looking for the remaining Wild Geese—all of whom have left the NYPD for other enterprises—concerned they might be taking justice into their own mitts. Meanwhile, a psychopathic detective is out to get Graves’ wife, whom he holds responsible for his brother’s shooting, and is ready to terrorize the whole Graves clan in pursuit of his revenge. Layering crisp dialogue and sometimes grim humor atop his propulsive storyline, Price/Brandt has produced a deeply human and seemingly honest picture of contemporary American law enforcement.
The Lady from Zagreb, by Philip Kerr: Almost nothing is as it seems in this 10th outing for former Berlin homicide detective Bernie Gunther. The year is 1942, and Gunther—47 years old and a captain in Germany’s much-feared intelligence service, despite his barely concealed abhorrence of the Nazis—is tapped by Joseph Goebbels, the Führer’s concupiscent propaganda chief, to fetch a once-rising 26-year-old star of the German cinema, Dalia Dresner, from Switzerland and bring her back to Berlin, where Goebbels hopes to feature her in another picture (and take her to his bed). But the unexpectedly assured Dalia has a demand before she’ll even consider the proposition: she wants Gunther to find out what became of her errant father, allegedly a cleric in Yugoslavia. Our hero, who endangers his future first by falling for the actress, then sets off to the war- and genocide-ravaged Balkans, only to learn that Dalia’s parent is far more sadistic than saintly. Amid talk of Adolf Hitler’s designs on Switzerland and Gunther’s almost slapstick mishandling by American spies, The Lady from Zagreb expertly combines an exuberant detective story with a lesson in the tragedies of World War II.
The Mulberry Bush, by Charles McCarry: Former journalist and CIA “deep cover” operative Charles McCarry brings us an unnamed young American narrator who, following the downfall of his estranged father—a brilliant but prankish intelligence agent whose persistent unwillingness to play by conventional rules doomed him at “Headquarters” (McCarry’s stand-in for the CIA)—sets out to revenge his parent by taking on a mission that appears to benefit Headquarters, but should ultimately leave it damaged. After contriving his recruitment into the agency, the narrator is first sent to prove himself in the Middle East (where he arranges assassinations), but then infiltrates what remains of a leftist revolutionary group in Argentina with ties to Russia. That circle was once led by a charismatic but complicated idealist named Alejandro Aguilar, and it’s his 29-year-old daughter, the captivating Luz, who McCarry’s protagonist falls in love with and endeavors to employ—along with her influential but enigmatic foster father, and a crafty Russian embassy official—in carrying out his retribution plot. This is a slow-burning yarn, and some of its players (notably Luz) are given billboard billing without having much to do. However, McCarry redeems himself through his dexterous juxtaposition of the high-minded ideals and oft-ridiculous reality of modern spycraft.
A Killing in Zion, by Andrew Hunt: Hunt’s debut novel, the Tony Hillerman Prize–winning City of Saints, missed being included among my favorite crime-fiction works of 2012 only because there were so many other great choices. Fortunately, this second tale starring Salt Lake City lawman Art Oveson rivals its predecessor for engaging complexity and full-throttle drama. It’s 1934, and amid a wildfire-besieged summer Oveson, heading the police department’s recently revived Anti-Polygamy Squad, has his hands full trying to rid Utah capital’s of Mormons who still practice long-banned “plural marriage.” He’s especially keen to topple LeGrand Johnston, the head of a faction called the Fundamentalist Church of Saints, but has had no success so far. Then one night Johnston is shot to death in his church, and a teenage girl is found on the scene—terrified and ostensibly mute. What did she see? Was she responsible for this carnage? Unfortunately, the girl won’t reveal anything, forcing Oveson and his men to expand their investigative efforts, eventually linking that homicide to a widespread land swindle, the disappearance of adolescent boys from a polygamist refuge in Arizona and a zealot who hasn’t been photographed in 30 years. Oveson’s shame at his own family’s polygamist past, and the drive that gives him to solve these mysteries, elevates A Killing in Zion from the rabble of religious cult mysteries.
The Axeman, by Ray Celestin: Upon the facts of New Orleans’ 1918-1919 Axeman murders, Celestin constructs a yarn that’s as robust with historical seasoning and character building as it is rampant with stirring plot turns. As the Big Easy grows more uneasy with each death, three separate sleuths set out to identify the slayer and curtail his predations: Michael Talbot, a determined 20-year police veteran, who harbors a secret that could ostracize him from “polite company,” and who jeopardized his future by helping to send his fellow cop and mentor to prison; Luca D’Andrea, the once-trusted adviser in question, newly sprung and promptly recruited by a Mafia patriarch to bring the Axeman down, lest his malevolence draw unwanted police attention to unrelated criminal endeavors; and Ida Davis, a young black Pinkerton clerk, who hopes to win promotion to field agent by unmasking the town’s axe-wielding marauder—a goal she might achieve only with aid from a “chubby-face” musician known as Lil’ Lewis (or Louis) Armstrong. Political chicanery, gang rivalries and dubious assumptions about the killer keep the plot lively here, as do an enigmatic voodoo priestess and links between the Axeman and jazz. Celestin doesn’t adhere slavishly to the police record, but his embellishments seem wholly in keeping with the already bizarre truths of this case.
Little Pretty Things, by Lori Rader-Day: Juliet Townsend was once a high-school athlete with big dreams of becoming a track star. Ten years on, though, she’s trapped in a spirit-snuffing purgatory, half-cleaning rooms at a sordid motel in her Indiana hometown. When her former sports rival and onetime friend, Maddy Bell, suddenly checks into those same lodgings, and asks to share a libation with Juliet, our heroine is as suspicious as she is jealous. Clearly, Maddy has all the trappings of success. Why would she come back to this claustrophobic, nowhere burg or have anything to do with a motel maid? Unfortunately, Juliet doesn’t ask enough questions—until it’s too late. Maddy is found dead the following day, hanging from one of the motel’s railings, and the cops immediately label Juliet a suspect. To prove her innocence, and curious about why her friend’s life ended so abruptly, Juliet plumbs her memories of Maddy, their mutual friends and their respective roads not taken, trying to reveal the killer and make peace with her past. Rader-Day, who recently took home an Anthony Award for her first novel, 2014’s The Black Hour, provides this new book with a carefully constructed and most satisfying story arc that finds Juliet demonstrating her chops as a shamus at the same time as she discovers that she still has other value in the world.
Inspector of the Dead, by David Morrell: Following up on Murder as a Fine Art (2013), his acclaimed first historical thriller to feature real-life U.K. essayist and notorious “opium eater” Thomas De Quincey in the role of amateur crime solver, Morrell returns us to Victorian London, this time in 1855, soon after the British government collapses beneath the weight of multiple missteps in the Crimean War. No less disheartening news is that members of England’s fashionable set are being knocked off by an evidently vengeful and manifestly elusive villain. Left behind on each corpse is the name of a person (and there were several) who’d sought at one point or another to assassinate Queen Victoria. Clues suggest that the morally righteous monarch herself will be the ultimate victim of this butchery. It falls to the thoroughly eccentric De Quincey, his youngest daughter, resourceful and progressive Emily (adopting a distinctly Watson-like part here), and a brace of Scotland Yarders to analyze the psychology of the murderer and end his nefarious schemes before further disasters strike. Morrell skillfully captures in prose the economic and political divisions inherent in Victorian society, but he leavens his social commentary with moments of rollicking adventure.
Quarry’s Choice, by Max Allan Collins: I have a soft spot for the lean, volatile and ribald crime yarns turned out during the mid-20th century by writers such as Robert Kyle, Frank Kane, and Harold Q. Masur. Since those guys long ago disappeared beneath gravestones, what’s left is Max Allan Collins, who does a better than respectable job of capturing their pulpish style in his series (now 11 books strong) about a mercenary killer known only as Quarry. Quarry’s Choice, a late follow-up to 2008’s The First Quarry, is a classic fish-out-of-water tale set in 1972. Following the attempted shooting of the Broker, who arranges his murders for hire, Quarry is sent to Biloxi, Mississippi, the base of operations for Jack Killian, a sadistic proprietor of “striptease clubs, shabby motels and sleazy bars,” who the Broker figures scheduled the contract on him. With his lethal talents, it doesn’t take Quarry long to win Killian’s trust and a job as his bodyguard. All Quarry has to do is wait for the right time to stop Killian’s clock for good. But a distraction comes in the hot pants–wearing form of Luann Lloyd, a teenage stripper assigned to escort Quarry around town, who has her own ideas of how a hit man might come in handy. Once you get past the fact that you’re rooting for a killer to make things right at the end of Collins’ stories, they’re thoroughly enjoyable.