Back when I began writing for Kirkus Reviews, almost half a decade ago, I had an editor who was frequently after me to publish lists of things—rundowns of especially dependable crime novelists, or books I’d like to read again for the first time, or once-popular detectives about whom I thought more should be written. “People like to read lists,” she’d say, and so I wracked my brains to come up with ideas that seemed worthwhile and not terribly contrived. Over the last few years, however, I have cut back on all that list production, though I still put together seasonal rolls of what I expect will be remarkable forthcoming works and end-of-the-year wrap-ups of what I’ve found to be the most memorable new crime, mystery, and thriller novels.
It was after assembling my “favorite crime novels of 2015” list last month that I started thinking about how inadequate such exercises can be. I was picking only 10 works from the genre, those that had best caught and held my attention. Yet I’d read many dozens more such books since December 31, 2014. The fact that some of those others hadn’t made the cut did not mean they lacked for intrigue or merit; merely that I had decided to confine my selection count to an arbitrary 10. (The winnowing-out process necessary to achieve that goal was figuratively bloody.) It occurred to me that if I’d broadened my definition of what deserved mentioning, I could have penned a column that better represented my 2015 reading experiences…though it might be twice as long.
So below, allow me to explore my last year’s worth of exposure to American crime and thriller fiction according to some obviously different criteria.
A Handful of 2015’s Most Promising Debut Novels: Ray Celestin’s The Axeman, in which a trio of crime solvers pursue, via different avenues, a real-life serial killer in World War I–era New Orleans; Patricia Abbott’s Concrete Angel, focusing on a narcissistic, kleptomaniacal mother who enlists her daughter’s assistance in covering up an escalating succession of criminal acts; The Devil’s Detective, by Simon Kurt Unsworth, about an “Information Man” in Hell, who is charged with investigating particularly egregious infractions of the netherworld’s rules; A June of Ordinary Murders, former Irish Times editor Conor Brady’s opening case for late-19th-century Detective Sergeant Joseph Swallow of the Dublin Metropolitan Police; and On the Road with Del & Louise, Art Taylor’s “novel in stories” about a pair of lovers wheeling from one end of the United States to the next, along the way becoming involved—either by design or happenstance—in one outlandish and illegal scheme after the next.
Crime Solvers I’m Pleased to See Back on the Job: Commander Jana Matinova of the Slovak Criminal Police, who featured in Michael Genelin’s Siren of the Waters (2008) and three sequels before taking a four-year hiatus, only to return in this fall’s For the Dignified Dead; Canadian author John Farrow’s Émile Cinq-Mars, the French-descended Montreal sergeant-detective, who appeared in City of Ice (1999) and Ice Lake (2001), as well as a barely-noticed-in-the-States prequel, River City (2011), but then vanished until suddenly returning in The Storm Murders, the first book in a new trilogy; Mark Coggins’ August Riordan, the former San Francisco private eye, last spotted in 2009’s The Big Wake-Up, who has since relocated to a decrepit trailer in Palm Springs, California, and came back this year in No Hard Feelings; Paul Johnston’s near-future Edinburgh investigator, Quint Dalrymple, the star of five novels (beginning with Body Politic) published between 1997 and 2001, whose exile seems finally to have been broken with Heads or Hearts; and of course, police detectives Al Krug and Casey Kellog, who starred in Poor, Poor Ophelia and two sequels, all composed by Carolyn Weston and published during the 1970s—only to disappear for four decades, until being resurrected by Robin Burcell in The Last Good Place.
Second Books That Bode Well for the Future of Their Series: A Little More Free, the follow-up to John McFetridge’s first Montreal-based historical police procedural, Black Rock, both starring half-French, half Irish-Canadian Constable Eddie Dougherty; Inspector of the Dead, by David Morrell, marking the sophomore outing for 19th-century British essayist, notorious cocaine addict and unpredictable amateur sleuth Thomas De Quincey (after 2013’s Murder as a Fine Art); A Killing in Zion, Andrew Hunt’s sequel to his Tony Hillerman Prize–winning City of Saints (2012), also featuring 1930s Salt Lake City lawman Art Oveson; and in Finders Keepers, Stephen King brings back idiosyncratic gumshoes Bill Hodges, Holly Gibney, and Jerome Robinson from 2014’s Mr. Mercedes.
Veteran Authors Whose Work I Finally Got Around to Reading in 2015: W.L. Ripley (Storme Warning), Carolyn Weston (Poor, Poor Ophelia), Celia Fremlin (The Hours Before Dawn, her Edgar Award–winning 1958 debut suspense novel about a sleep-deprived new mother who becomes increasingly unsettled by her family’s new boarder), and A.W. Mykel (The Windchime Legacy).
Top Edited Works of 2015, both from Library of America: Ross Macdonald: Four Novels of the 1950s, edited by Tom Nolan, comprising some of the most “beautifully written” books Macdonald (whose real name was Kenneth Millar) wrote about Los Angeles private investigator Lew Archer, including The Way Some People Die (1951) and his turning-point tale, The Galton Case (1959); and Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & ’50s, edited by Sarah Weinman, a two-volume collection of riveting yarns by female fictionists who—aside from Patricia Highsmith and Margaret Millar—have been forgotten by most of today’s mystery fiction fans.
Favorite Nonfiction Books About Crime Fiction: The Lost Detective, Nathan Ward’s abundantly entertaining separation of truth from legend in Dashiell Hammett’s transformation from Pinkerton operative to hard-boiled detective novelist; and The World of Shaft, by Steve Aldous, certainly the most comprehensive study of how journalist Ernest Tidyman created fictional PI John Shaft and how that character went from fame to flame-out in the 1970s.
Authors I Met and Enjoyed at Bouchercon in Raleigh, and Whose Books I Shall Therefore Try to Pay More Attention to in the Future: Julia Dahl (Invisible City, Run You Down), Lori Rader-Day (The Black Hour, Little Pretty Things), James W. Hall (Going Dark, The Big Finish), Michael Robotham (Say You’re Sorry, Life or Death), Ben McPherson (A Line of Blood), Ingrid Thoft (Identity, Brutality) and John A. Connell (Ruins of War).
Books I Still Hope to Finish by the End of 2015: Laura Lippman’s Hush Hush, which finds Baltimore reporter-turned-shamus Tess Monaghan hired to protect a wealthy former attorney who, 12 years after leaving her infant child to die in an overheated automobile and eluding prosecution by reason of insanity, returns to Charm City hoping to film a documentary about the insanity defense; Scrapper, by Matt Bell, the poetically composed and haunting tale of a troubled, lonely former high school wrestling champion, whose determined theft of scrap metal from the abandoned buildings of a near-future Detroit is interrupted by his discovery of a kidnapped 12-year-old boy; Mycroft Holmes, by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (yes, the former basketball star) and Anna Waterhouse, which sends budding British government panjandrum Mycroft—supposedly blessed with deductive powers rivaling those of his younger sibling, Sherlock—sailing off to the Caribbean island of Trinidad in 1870 to determine whether supernatural beings have been murdering children and draining their blood; Val McDermid’s Splinter the Silence, about efforts by series regulars Tony Hill, a psychologist, and former police detective Carol Jordan to solve the slayings of female cyberbullying victims; and The Last Four Days of Paddy Buckley, by Jeremy Massey, a black crime comedy starring a 42-year-old widower and undertaker whose hit-and-run killing of a notorious mobster in Dublin, Ireland, is complicated by his subsequently being asked to oversee the late criminal’s funeral arrangements.
One I Know I Won’t Complete Before New Year’s Day: Eugène Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris, which was originally serialized over a 16-month period (June 1842–October 1843) in a French newspaper, and has just been released by Penguin in a new, 1,300-page edition translated into English by Carolyn Betensky and Jonathan Loesberg. Sue’s plot is built around Rodolphe, “a magnetic hero of noble heart” (he’s actually a German prince possessed of no minor affluence, traveling incognito), whose desire for redemption leads him in to the Parisian underworld, there to reward the deserving poor, reform those criminals amenable to his aid and punish others who eschew his direction.