This is the fifth consecutive time I’ve assembled, for Kirkus, a year-end list of my favorite crime, mystery, and thriller novels published in the United States during the preceding 12 months. Nostalgia grips me warmly as I look back now at previous picks—from M.J. McGrath’s White Heat (2011) and Peter May’s The Blackhouse (2012) to Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian by Night (2013), Laura Lippman’s After I’m Gone (2014), and Conor Brady’s historical mystery debut, A June of Ordinary Murders (2015). There isn’t a work among those I regret recommending, but many that I would be pleased to re-read. The sooner the better.
Although 2016 is ending on a frightening political note, with historic fights over preserving America’s social safety net and constitutional rights soon to come, the year has also brought us a wide range of rewarding and unforgettable crime fiction. Among the dozens of new books in this genre that I found time to read, there were only a handful I ultimately regretted tackling (including one I’d heard favorable things about at Bouchercon in New Orleans). More often, I was pleasantly surprised by the authors’ enterprise and their facility for mining novelty from well-worn ingredients.
So, with Thanksgiving due to be celebrated across the United States this coming Thursday, let us set aside—at least for the moment—fears of what 2017 might bring, and instead give thanks for the last year’s worth of exceptional crime and thriller fiction. Below, I offer my 10 favorite novels from 2016. Would anyone else like to suggest other estimable releases in the Comments field at the end of this post?
Beloved Poison, by E.S. Thomson: It’s 1854, and Jem Flockhart is a young woman passing as a man in order to carry on a long family tradition of serving as the apothecary at St. Saviour’s Infirmary, a dilapidated 700-year-old London hospital currently on the brink of being razed in favor of a new railway bridge. A junior architect, Will Quartermain, has already arrived to supervise removal of “the numberless dead” from an adjoining churchyard. Before demolition can begin, though, he and Jem stumble across half a dozen small coffins hidden in St. Saviour’s derelict chapel, each containing dried flowers and a bloody bundle of rags. Some of those relics also contain peculiar papers, one referencing the date on which Jem’s mother died in childbirth. Who created the caskets, and what do they represent? These are only the first puzzles proffered by Thomson’s delightfully atmospheric yarn. Soon, Dr. James Bain, a maverick physician known to dose himself with toxins in order to learn more about them, is found poisoned. If not accidental, might Bain’s demise trace to his ardent womanizing? Or did he and a subsequent victim, the wife of another physician, fall prey to an ethereal Abbott of notorious repute? With her slowly declining father headed to the gallows for these deaths, it’s up to Jem—defined as an outsider both by her androgyny and the port-wine birthmark dominating her face—to expose the long-kept secrets that have inflicted such horrors upon St. Saviour’s.
Darktown, by Thomas Mullen: With this year’s U.S. presidential contest having revived public concerns about bigotry, Mullen’s fourth novel—the first entry in a new series—seems more current than it might otherwise have been, given its setting in 1948 Atlanta, Georgia. Darktown introduces Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith, two of that city’s eight newly employed black police officers. They’re supposed to patrol only “colored neighborhoods” and leave any investigations to their paler brethren. Yet abiding by those restrictions becomes difficult, after this pair witness a Buick plow into a lamppost, and then fail to prevent the inebriated white driver from wheeling away into the night beside a battered young black woman. When that female passenger’s corpse is later discovered, Boggs and Smith want to figure out what happened. But they must do so covertly, lest they enrage the force’s “real” members, one of whom—a corrupt and violent white supremacist—will do almost anything to purge his department of its latest hires. Mullen’s cast isn’t without stereotypes. However, his thoughtful dissection of mid-20th-century racial animosities in the South, and his willingness to examine the motives of even prominent non-segregationists, makes this a particularly satisfying read.
By Gaslight, by Steven Price: It’s regrettable that this novel’s 730-page length might put off some readers, because, as I wrote in my review of By Gaslight, this is “the most ambitious, most elegantly crafted book I’ve read all year.” In 1885, William Pinkerton—the real-life elder son of the founder of America’s Pinkerton National Detective Agency—arrives in London, hot on the trail of a “vicious and lovely” young grifter and former actress named Charlotte Reckitt, who he hopes will lead him to Edward Shade, a mythologized miscreant who’d long eluded his father. Meanwhile, to that same foggy metropolis on the Thames comes Adam Foole, a fictional gentleman-thief, who has received an invitation from Charlotte, his quondam lover and criminal cohort. Evidence of Charlotte having recently drowned fails to convince either man that she’s gone, and they wind up forming an uneasy alliance, hoping to flush out both Charlotte and Shade. In the process they realize they’re more connected by past events than they’d understood. The action in this poetically composed, broad-canvas mystery bounces from fetid London thoroughfares to the battlefields of the U.S. Civil War, with stops in between at opium dens, African diamond mines, and crumbling sewer systems beneath the English capital. Price, a Canadian poet, does an especially fine job of portraying William Pinkerton as a man determined in his pursuit of justice, but undermined by the lack of human connection he feels with his father, who set him on that course. This is an all-consuming adventure with romantic undertones.
The Invisible Guardian, by Dolores Redondo: Among modern crime fiction’s most hackneyed plot devices are serial killers and sleuths whose families become chief suspects in their inquiries. Spanish author Redondo’s debut novel—the opening installment in her award-winning Baztán trilogy—includes both of those, yet avoids being debilitated by either. Its protagonist is Amaia Salazar, an efficient and rather obsessive, FBI-trailed homicide inspector in Pamplona, the northern Spanish town known for its annual “running of the bulls.” After catching the case of a 13-year-old girl, Ainhoa Elizasu, who’s been murdered in Elizondo, the backwater Basque burg where Salazar grew up, the inspector sets off to learn more, not realizing how her life will be altered by that experience. There was nothing spontaneous about Ainhoa’s slaying: her corpse has been artistically arranged, with her clothes sliced open, and her pubic area shaved and decorated with a popular pastry known as a txantxigorri. As more dead girls turn up, Salazar’s efforts to nab the perpetrator are complicated by an insubordinate colleague; her frightful childhood memories and relationship with her sisters; her ambivalence toward becoming a mother; and even a legendary forest-dweller known as the basajaun. Credibility is stretched by allowing Salazar to remain on the case, despite her conflicts of interest; however, Redondo’s marked skill at infusing the culture and mysticism of Basque country into her contemporary story helps one overlook that defect.
The Other Side of Silence, by Philip Kerr: You’d think that after surviving threats to his life and full complement of limbs in Germany, Czechoslovakia, Argentina, Cuba, and elsewhere, former Berlin police detective Bernie Gunther might finally be due a modicum of peace on the French Riviera in 1956. But no. After bungling a suicide attempt in the wake of his third wife leaving him, Gunther—now pushing 60 and working under an alias as the concierge at a swanky hotel—is driven to solve the murder of his bridge partner. In addition, he’s hired by one of the area’s best-known residents, indiscreetly gay spy-turned-wordsmith W. Somerset Maugham, to retrieve compromising photos from a blackmailer. These problematic undertakings are made more difficult by the involvement of a captivating female journalist determined to compose Maugham’s biography, and by the appearance of a onetime Gestapo officer, the brutal Harold Hennig, against whom our “hero” hopes to take revenge for the wartime demise of a lover. This is Kerr’s 11th political/historical novel featuring the sardonic, concupiscent Gunther, yet the series has still not lost its power to intrigue.
Better Dead, by Max Allan Collins: Over the course of a three-decades-long career (so far) and 16 literary adventures, Chicago private eye Nathan Heller has “solved” some of the knottiest mysteries in America’s 20th-century past. Rarely, though, has he been involved with such a contemptible character as fear-mongering Republican U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, who, during the 1950s, tried to convince his countrymen that communists were infiltrating all manner of U.S. institutions and plotting the nation’s ruin. Worse, in Better Dead, McCarthy is one of Heller’s clients. It’s the scheming of that junior lawmaker from Wisconsin that links the two halves of this boisterous, history-based novel. In Part I, Heller is hired in 1953 by Pinkerton sleuth-turned-author Dashiell Hammett “to conduct an eleventh-hour investigation into the alleged crimes of two people who are sitting on Death Row”: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, a New York City couple convicted of conspiring to leak American nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. In Part II, Heller is approached by real-life pin-up model Bettie Page for help in dissuading another U.S. senator from implicating her in his scrutiny of a photographer specializing in bondage-and-discipline images. No sooner does the shamus complete that chore, than he’s drawn into a more significant case involving a bacteriologist and potential McCarthy informant with knowledge of government-condoned experiments into drugs and biological warfare, as well as “radical interrogation techniques.” As usual, the wisecracking Heller enjoys more than his share of curvilinear companions—including the aforementioned Miss Page—and Collins adeptly blends facts with fiction to produce a work that educates even as it entertains.
Charcoal Joe, by Walter Mosley: It’s 1968, and after using a $100,000 windfall from his last case (see 2014’s Rose Gold) to help open a three-man private detective agency in Los Angeles, Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins appears firmly bound for success. He’s even decided to ask his longtime ladylove, stewardess Bonnie Shay, to marry him. Unfortunately, Bonnie has made other plans, leaving Easy in need of serious distraction. He gains that in an assignment brought to him by his perpetually dangerous friend, Mouse Alexander. It seems Rufus “Charcoal Joe” Tyler, an elderly and currently jailed black mobster, wants Easy to find evidence exonerating a 22-year-old African-American physicist, Seymour Brathwaite, from charges of slaying two men at a Malibu beach house. No easy task, as Easy quickly perceives. Information is at a premium in this probe, and fabrications are profuse. There’s a load of missing loot in the plot mix; women keep throwing themselves at Mosley’s aging black gumshoe—including Seymour’s cagey foster mother; and Tyler isn’t the only minatory figure wanting to know what really happened at that Malibu crime scene. Walter Mosley was given the Mystery Writers of America’s Grand Master Award earlier this year for his “important contributions to this genre.” Charcoal Joe, with its vivid prose, skilled employment of dialect, and incisive observations about racism and L.A.’s late-20th-century evolution, further proves he deserved that commendation.
Heart Attack and Vine, by Phoef Sutton: More lighthearted than the other titles listed here, this sequel to last year’s Crush returns us to the often offbeat world of bouncer/bodyguard (and former Russian mob soldier) Caleb Rush, aka Crush, and makes excellent use of its author’s Hollywood screenwriting background. Here, Crush goes to work for his not-quite-stepsister, Rachel Fury, who has recently re-created herself as shameless movie star Rachel Strayhorn. She’s apparently picked up a homicidal stalker in the course of it, and wants Crush’s aid in fending the guy off. That means Crush will have to travel with Rachel from Los Angeles to New Orleans, where her latest film is to be shot, and where a comic cast of eccentrics—including Rachel’s con man father, self-absorbed director Adam Udell, and Udell’s girlfriend-of-the-moment, Polly Coburn—has trouble staying out of trouble. Throw in a vengeful gangster, a pyramid-shaped “tomb in waiting,” some time behind bars for Crush, and the cutthroat hobby of movie-memorabilia collecting and you’ve got a manic story that reaches its conclusion on one of Hollywood’s most glittering nights.
You Will Know Me, by Megan Abbott: Investing too much in dreams can be hazardous, as Katie Knox comes to realize when her daughter, Devon—a teenage gymnastics prodigy being expensively groomed for a future spot in the Olympic Games—is caught up in scandal that risks subverting not only the girl’s athletic aspirations, but Katie’s marriage. Despite an unfortunate run-in with a lawnmower, at age 3, that left one of her feet badly injured (Katie refers to that deformed appendage as a “Frankenfoot”), the intensely focused Devon has become the prime attraction at a local gym, the principal project of its coach, “gymnast whisperer” Teddy Belfour, and a focus of jealousy for the mothers of other sports standout wannabes. Nothing seems to inhibit Devon’s progress…until Belfour’s tumbling-coach niece, Hailey, suddenly loses her equally attractive boyfriend, Ryan Beck, to a hit-and-run incident. In the aftermath, questions are raised about Belfour’s commitment to his job; Hailey turns violent and becomes a suspect in Ryan’s demise; and Eric Knox looks to be going behind Katie’s back in his campaign to turn Devon into a champion. Katie tries to protect Devon amid all these turns, but as she’s forced to gaze more warily at her family and other people she thought could be trusted, she loses confidence in her ability to stave off chaos. Abbott’s aptitude for suspense-building scores a perfect 10.
Underground Airlines, by Ben H. Winters: No one who enjoyed Winters’ Edgar Award-winning The Last Policeman trilogy should be surprised that his new novel again combines alternative history elements with detective fiction. In a modern United States that never underwent the wrenching realignments of the Civil War; where slavery remains legal in four Southern states, and both the Northern states and Europe boycott slave-made products, there’s a persistent demand for bounty hunters. And Victor, a former slave himself and a necessarily glib deceiver, has been very successful in that job, even if he’s conflicted about perpetuating a system that treats him with the same contempt as his quarry. His latest chore for the U.S. Marshals Service sends Victor after an escaped slave known as Jackdaw, who may or may not have sought refuge in Indianapolis, Indiana. In that city Victor infiltrates a group purportedly connected to an abolitionist organization known as Underground Airlines (an updated Underground Railroad). But the kind assistance he offers a luckless white woman and her biracial son threatens his cover; and as he chases Jackdaw into a hate-filled Alabama, Victor starts wondering whether this mission’s stakes are greater than he’s been told. The novel takes a sharp turn toward science fiction at its end, but by that point, readers are well conditioned to follow Winters anywhere.