Developing a list of the top mystery and thriller novels for any particular year is necessarily limited by the scope of the author’s reading, as well as by his or her tastes. Fortunately, I’ve had plenty of excuses to read broadly in the genre since Jan. 1. While most of the books in my stack were pretty commonplace, a number stood out for their quality of storytelling and character development.
Catch up on your mysteries and thrillers with the last Rap Sheet.
To prevent my list from getting out of hand, I have restricted the choices to books published in the United States. They are listed below, in no particular order.
The Cut, by George Pelecanos: Iraq war vet and Washington, D.C., investigator Spero Lucas is hired by a jailed drug kingpin, whose marijuana-shipping operation has fallen victim to thieves. Lucas’ finder’s fee is 40 percent of the pot’s value. But after two couriers are slain, a young witness’ life is endangered and there’s talk of a crooked cop’s complicity in the pilfering, Lucas has to wonder whether even that princely sum is worth the dangers he’s invited his way. The love and pain Pelecanos feels for the nation’s capital is prominent on every page.
White Heat, by M.J. McGrath: In Canada’s inhospitable north, Edie Kiglatuk, a half white, half Inuit former polar bear hunter, tries to figure out who’s trimming the region’s already sparse population still further. First to be killed is a white hunter she’d been guiding across the ice. Then her beloved stepson barely makes it back alive from another hunting expedition, only to commit suicide. Or so it’s said. Edie isn’t buying it, and sets out to learn the truth, even if it means confronting corrupt Russians and greedy energy companies, and jeopardizing her hard-won sobriety in the process.
Stealing Mona Lisa, by Carson Morton: Inspired by the actual disappearance, in August 1911, of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa from Paris’ Louvre, this sprightly caper novel introduces con artist-cum-art thief Eduardo de Valfierno, whose latest get-rich-quick scheme is to filch the mystifying Mona and then peddle flawless forgeries to American plutocrats. But when one of his “pigeons” proves to be less gullible than he’d hoped, quick thinking—and some quick stepping around a devastating flood—will be required to keep himself, his gang and his plundered prize safe.
The Keeper of Lost Causes, by Jussi Adler-Olsen: Danish homicide detective Carl Mørck, still traumatized by recent violence, wishes only to be left alone until retirement. Instead, he’s put in charge of a new, if wholly symbolic department meant to tackle unsolved cases. Nobody is more surprised than Mørck when he takes a genuine interest in the five-year-old mystery surrounding a vanished, and presumably dead, politician. His colleagues roll their eyes at Mørck’s efforts, but he and his inscrutable Muslim aide might actually be able to save a life—and win redemption in the process.
The End of Everything, by Megan Abbott: Lizzie Hood and Evie Verver were 13-year-old best friends living in a “safe” American suburb during the late 20th century. They thought they knew everything about each other. But after Evie suddenly vanishes—evidently kidnapped—Lizzie starts poking around for answers, only to discover that her naïveté had blinded her to Evie’s complexities and desires. Before long, Lizzie is manipulating evidence in the case and exploring her sexuality in ways that make her more like her friend than she realizes.
Stolen Lives, by Jassy Mackenzie: South African private detective Jade de Jong believes her new client, Pamela Jordaan, is over-reacting when she hires her for protection. Jordaan’s hubby, the owner of a strip-joint chain, has gone missing, but De Jong presumes he’s simply tied up in the arms of another woman. That is, until a gun-toting motorcyclist takes aim at them both, the Jordaans’ daughter is kidnapped and clues suggest a human-trafficking angle to this cascade of crimes.
Field Gray, by Philip Kerr: Captured while fleeing Cuba in 1954 with a bikini-clad killer, Berlin cop-turned-gumshoe Bernie Gunther is shipped back to Germany—where he’s still wanted for murder—and interrogated by members of French Intelligence. They want Gunther, who’s all too familiar with Nazi officers, to help them identify a war criminal from among returning POWs. But Kerr’s series protagonist, sardonic and defiant to the last, has quite different plans for resolving this drama and finding freedom once more. Flashbacks to Gunther’s past reveal the true horrors of World War II.
City of Secrets, by Kelli Stanley: Beautiful but blasphemous San Francisco sleuth Miranda Corbie starts out trying to identify the murderer of a peep-show employee at her city’s 1940 world’s fair, a woman found desecrated with an anti-Jewish slur. Following a second slaying, though, the pool of suspects expands to include not just prospective lovers and racial bigots, but American Nazis, and lands Corbie in a Napa Valley asylum where it might not just be the insane who are crazy.
A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion, by Ron Hansen: This enthralling fictionalization of a real-life 1927 murder case features Ruth Synder, a perfidious wife who begins an affair with traveling corset salesman Judd Gray—and then encourages him to kill her older husband. Author James M. Cain drew from the same scandalous tale to write The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934).
The House of Silk, by Anthony Horowitz. Victorian sleuths Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson return in this propulsive drama about a threatened art dealer, a strange school for orphaned children and a puzzle surrounding something called the House of Silk—which provokes terror or frightened silence in all those who’ve come in contact with it. British screenwriter Horowitz, who created the World War II-era TV detective series Foyle’s War, skillfully captures the tone of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes canon.
Honorable Mentions: The Troubled Man, by Henning Mankell; School of Night, by Louis Bayard; The Most Dangerous Thing, by Laura Lippman; The Snowman, by Jo Nesbø; Damage Control, by Denise Hamilton; The Gentlemen’s Hour, by Don Winslow; The Boy in the Suitcase, by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis; and Bye Bye, Baby, by Max Allan Collins.