OK, I admit it: last month’s list of my favorite crime novels of 2011 was incomplete. That wasn’t solely because I restricted my choices to 10, but because I limited them further to works produced in the United States. I read more widely than that, especially among novels originating in Great Britain.
So below are five books—all of which were published this year, but none of which has yet seen print in the States—that would be worth your crossing the Atlantic to buy. Or you can simply order them online.
Read an interview with El Gavilan author Craig McDonald in the last Rap Sheet.
The Thieves’ Labyrinth by James McCreet (Macmillan): Nothing is more likely to grab my attention as a reader than a mystery set in the dark and dodgy depths of Victorian London. So it should come as no surprise that I’m recommending James McCreet’s third detective thriller (after The Vice Society, 2010), which starts off with a puzzling murder on a bridge over the River Thames, ties that in with the loss of a ship and then quickly becomes a contest between crime solvers of unquestioned merit.
Inspector Albert Newsome, an arrogant member of the Metropolitan Police Force, recently exiled (because of what his superior terms disgraceful conduct) to river-policing duties, hopes to solve the disappearance of the brig Aurora and thereby win his old job back. However, police commissioner Sir Richard Mayne has different ideas.
Determined to prove his department’s competence in this challenging case, but dubious that his detectives can locate the vessel without aid, enlists—quite unofficially—Newsome and a disgraced former copper, George Williamson, to find the Aurora. The carrot: the first one to accomplish the task will be restored to the Detective Force. But they have further competition: a publicity-craving private sleuth—the wonderfully named Eldrich Batchem—whose past may give him useful insights into the criminal mind. McCreet’s prose rings with a mid-19th-century cadence fit for this atmospheric yarn.
Truth Lies Bleeding by Tony Black (Preface Publishing): Since 2008, Scottish journalist-turned-novelist Black has produced four books featuring washed-up Edinburgh reporter-investigator Gus Dury (most recently 2010’s Long Time Dead). Truth Lies Bleeding, though, introduces a new protagonist—one less prone to ranting and raving, but little more prepared than Dury to conform with the expectations of those around him.
Inspector Rob Brennan has recently returned from psychiatric leave, following a “gangland hit” on his younger brother. He’s hungry for the distraction of a new investigation. Although his Edinburgh Police boss, Chief Inspector Aileen Galloway, prefers her underlings to be compliant and predictable, and worries that Brennan might cost her a promotion, she finally hands him a case, that of Carly Donald, a teenage runaway found dead and crammed into a garbage bin.
Brennan has few friends on the force, and a talent for making trouble, so it is not long before he’s causing headaches all around—including with Carly’s Presbyterian minister father, who has tried to hush up the fact that his daughter fled their home with a new, and now missing, baby. Black’s narrative switches between the pursuer and his quarry work well, and his clearly conflicted relationship with Edinburgh adds to this story’s appeal.
Bad Signs by R.J. Ellory (Orion): Ellory has a talent for making the detestable captivating. Case in point: Although I’ve grown to despise serial-killer stories, as they have become a plague upon the crime-fiction genre, I could hardly stop reading Ellory’s The Anniversary Man (2010), about a New York cop and a young newspaper researcher—the long-ago victim of a repeat slayer—who sought to end the career of a killer known for staging his crimes in imitation of infamous serial murders from the past.
In Bad Signs, the Birmingham-reared wordsmith again sets his action in America, this time the Southwest. Half-brothers Elliott “Digger” Danziger and Clarence “Clay” Luckman, orphaned by an act of violence and institutionalized ever since, have been left completely blind to the world beyond the walls of their state-run facility. So they are out of their depth when a psychopath, Earl Sheridan, suddenly takes them with him during an escape.
As the trio flee cross-country, leaving bloodshed in their wake, the brothers’ relationship is slowly altered, one embracing their abductor’s madness, the other doing his best not to be consumed by it, and both of them influencing the course of their future. It’s an intricate fictional dance Ellory stages here, but he pulls it off expertly, ratcheting up tensions to make the barest glimmer of hope even more dear—and more vulnerable.
The Cleansing Flames by R.N. Morris (Faber and Faber): It seemed a bold and impudent act when Morris wrote his first historical novel, The Gentle Axe (2006), using as his protagonist Porfiry Petrovich, the investigating magistrate from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Yet he has done both Porfiry and his creator proud. His third entry in this series, A Razor Wrapped in Silk, about the disappearance of foundling children and the slaying (during a theatrical performance) of a woman with strong ties to Russian Tsar Alexander II, was one of my favorite crime novels of 2010, and The Cleansing Flames—which Morris insists will be his last Porfiry outing—is hardly less impressive.
The year is 1872, and St. Petersburg is rife with radicals, not only of the fiercely intellectual variety, but also of the fire-inciting sort. The disquieting reappearance of a man’s corpse thought to have been safely relegated to the depths of the city’s Winter Canal opens up a perplexing case that will lead Porfiry into the most unwelcome audience of the tsar’s secret police, put the life of his younger assistant, Pavel Pavlovich, in jeopardy as he infiltrates a terrorist cell, and pit these two men against one another in a generational battle for the future of their troubled nation. Morris captures the cultural richness as well as the criminal excesses of 19th-century Russia. It’s difficult to imagine him topping this series, wherever his next fiction-writing venture leads.
Finally, allow me to cheat on my theme a wee bit in order to plug a work of critical nonfiction titled Down These Green Streets: Irish Crime Writing in the 21st Century, edited by Declan Burke (Liberties Press). Anyone who’s enjoyed books by Ken Bruen, Tana French, Declan Hughes, or Stuart Neville knows that when it comes to penning mystery and thriller fiction, the Irish—though they were once subjects of British monarchs—do not play second fiddle to their neighbors across the Irish Sea. Especially since the 1990s, Ireland has become a breeding ground for extraordinary crime fiction, rooted in the nation’s hardships, fed by its rising crime rate and complicated by changing views toward the Catholic Church.
Using essays, interviews and short stories, Down These Green Streets seeks to prove the distinctiveness of Irish crime writing (that its DNA, for instance, includes “extra chromosomes for metaphor, legend and wit,” to quote from Michael Connelly’s introduction) at the same time as it makes the case that mysteries concocted by authors who bleed Guinness can be appreciated by readers who live half a world away from the Old Sod.