Last December, after posting my “favorite crime novels of 2015” list, I put together a rather different assessment of the year’s new offerings in this genre. Rather than confine myself to picking 10 books (all released in the United States) that I judged to have been particularly well-written and memorable—a traditional and potentially valuable, but admittedly limiting exercise—I expanded my criteria to spotlight an assortment of other meritorious mystery, crime, and thriller works, some of which had barely failed to win placement on my top-10 roster.
So pleased was I with that follow-up column, I’ve decided to try something along the same lines again. In the piece below, you’ll find that a few of the categories from 2015 have been altered slightly for 2016, and others added. However, my intent—to evaluate my last 12 months of crime-fiction reading through criteria I think can be as worthwhile and revealing as picking my “favorite” books (which I did two weeks ago)—remains the same.
Series Debuts That Left Me Hungry for More: Con Lehane brought new meaning to the term “library check-out” with Murder at the 42nd Street Library, his nimbly constructed first entry in a series built around Raymond Ambler, a middle-aged curator at the New York Public Library’s historic main branch, whose experience collecting crime fiction for that great marble institution has left him with some useful snooping skills. Steve Hamilton may have temporarily set aside his usual snooping character, Alex McKnight, but he hasn’t abandoned the genre, as he showed with The Secret Life of Nick Mason, about a career offender who’s sprung from a maximum-security federal penitentiary by a crime boss and fellow inmate, on the strict condition that he accept whatever assignments that boss gives him, be it troubleshooting, body-guarding…or assassination. Beloved Poison, by E.S. (Elaine) Thomson, acquainted us with androgynous young apothecary Jem Flockhart, who upsets the customary order at a crumbling London hospital in the mid-19th century with her discovery of small, symbolic coffins concealed behind a chapel wall. Walt Whitman was a hell of a poet, but J. Aaron Sanders imagined, in Speakers of the Dead, that he could also hold his own in 1840s Manhattan as an amateur crime-solver, fighting against body snatchers and anti-dissection zealots to prove a friend innocent of murdering her husband. And in Oscar de Muriel’s alternately macabre and witty The Strings of Murder, foppish Inspector Ian Frey is dismissed from Scotland Yard in 1888 only to wind up in Edinburgh, looking into the locked-room slaying of a violinist and partnered with a larger-than-life detective, Adolphus “Nine-Nails” McGray.
Most Welcome Detective Comebacks: It was assumed there would only ever be 29 original novels featuring Erle Stanley Gardner’s comically mismatched Los Angeles private eyes, Bertha Cool and Donald Lam. After all, Gardner (who also famously created defense attorney Perry Mason) died in 1970. This week, however, publisher Hard Case Crime is releasing a “lost” 30th Cool and Lam tale, The Knife Slipped. Written in 1939, and meant to be the second entry in that series (following The Bigger They Come), The Knife Slipped was rejected by Gardner’s publisher and then apparently set aside, forgotten. Only now can we enjoy this intricately twisted mystery about an alleged case of adultery, behind which lies more nefarious shenanigans. Making his own surprise reappearance this year was New York City shamus John Shaft, who featured in 1970’s Shaft and six subsequent yarns by Ernest Tidyman. Everyone thought that complicated man was dead and buried, but Shaft’s Revenge found him back on the streets of Manhattan in 1972, having been hired—posthumously—by Harlem crime lord Knocks Persons to figure out who gunned Persons down in his own home. David F. Walker does an estimable job of capturing Tidyman’s third-person style, and there’s plenty of sex and violence to be had in these pages…which is exactly what any Shaft fan would expect. The ending of Shaft’s Revenge leaves enough loose ends to tie up in a sequel; let’s hope Walker writes one. Oh, and I can’t fail to mention Walter Satterthwait’s New York Nocturne: The Return of Miss Lizzie, which provided a surprise second shot at amateur-sleuthing fame to Lizzie Borden, the spinster charged in 1892 with violently exterminating her father and stepmother in Fall River, Massachusetts. As with Miss Lizzie (1989), New York Nocturne pairs the remarkably resourceful Borden with Amanda Burton, now a fashion-conscious 16-year-old who’s journeyed to the Big Apple in 1924 for a visit with her evidently prosperous uncle, only to have that relative done in by somebody wielding—what else?—a hatchet.
Second Books That Justified My Original Faith in Their Authors: In John A. Connell’s Spoils of Victory (his sequel to 2015’s Ruins of War), Mason Collins, a former Chicago homicide detective and ex–prisoner of war, now serving as a U.S. Army criminal investigator in Germany during the aftermath of World War II, is dispatched to a Bavarian resort town, where a curiously high-living Counter Intelligence Corps agent, John Winstone, and his mistress meet a gruesome end. Collins’ superiors would be satisfied to have those tragedies recorded as murder-suicide; but our often-insubordinate hero becomes convinced that Winstone’s demise was related to an extensive black-market operation involving erstwhile Nazis as well as advantageously placed American military personnel. Meanwhile, in his follow-up to last year’s excellent A June of Ordinary Murders, former Irish Times editor Conor Brady’s The Eloquence of the Dead propelled us back to 1887 Dublin, where Detective Sergeant Joe Swallow—hounded by a ravenous press—hopes to discern who was responsible for a pawnbroker’s premature passing. His dogged probing will lead him to a much larger plot having to do with thefts of valuable property from once-prosperous Irish estates. In Antonia Hodgson’s The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins, the congenital ne’er-do-well of that title (previously the center of attention in 2014’s The Devil in the Marshalsea) seeks to identify the slayer of a London carpenter in 1728, before he himself is charged with, and hanged for, the offense. Finally, Chris Holm’s Red Right Hand invited us once more into the company of “hit-man-killing hit man” Michael Hendricks (The Killing Kind), who is recruited in these pages to unearth a supposedly deceased FBI informant spotted at the scene of a terrorist attack on San Francisco’s landmark Golden Gate Bridge.
Crime Novels That Deserved Rediscovery: Black Wings Has My Angel, Elliott Chaze’s reissued 1953 novel about a pair of larcenous lovers—far too cunning for their own good—scheming to knock over an armored car; and the “new, expanded” edition of Road to Perdition, Max Allan Collins’ action-filled, often-moving, and never-before-published full novelization of the 2002 big-screen gangster film of that same name…which was itself based on Collins’ 1998 graphic novel, Road to Perdition.
Series I Am Sorry to See Brought to a Close: David Morrell’s 2013 Victorian suspense novel, Murder as a Fine Art, introduced 19th-century essayist and notorious British opium addict Thomas De Quincey into the ranks of “celebrity sleuths.” De Quincey and his progressive-minded youngest daughter, Emily, went on to save queen and country in Inspector of the Dead (2015) and turned up again in last month’s hard-steaming Ruler of the Night. Unfortunately, Morrell says that third historical thriller marks the end of his De Quincey series. I doubt I’m the only one who hopes that he’s lying. Also concluding this year is Alex Grecian’s Jack the Ripper trilogy, comprising the three most recent books in that author’s series featuring late-19th-century inspector Walter Day and his fellow Scotland Yard officers: The Devil’s Workshop (2014), The Harvest Man (2015), and Lost and Gone Forever (2016). Grecian told Crimespree Magazine that the malevolent Jack is a “disturbingly easy [character] for me to write… but he’s not the most pleasant fellow to have around, so I’m glad to see the back of him now.”
Three Nonfiction Books Worth Adding to Your Library: Hard-Boiled Anxiety: The Freudian Desires of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, and Their Detectives, in which Maryland librarian Karen Huston Karydes looks at how the stories and protagonists developed by America’s classic Big Three detective novelists reflected their own inner demons and family woes. It’s All One Case: The Illustrated Ross Macdonald Archives, by Paul Nelson and Kevin Avery, is a handsome collection of wide-ranging interviews with the creator of compassionate private investigator Lew Archer, as well as photographs and other Macdonald ephemera. Last but not least, Lucy Sussex’s Blockbuster!: Fergus Hume and The Mystery of the Hansom Cab is a deep dive into the history of English-born Australian author Hume and his much-lauded 1886 whodunit, engagingly framed by an examination of Melbourne, Australia’s late-19th-century society, early Down Under detective fiction, and Victorian theater culture.
British Novels I Most Enjoyed This Year: I usually confine myself to writing on this page about crime fiction published in the United States, but that’s not all I read. 2016 brought forth a trio of UK works I particularly enjoyed: Little Sister, the third installment in David Hewson’s series about Amsterdam police brigadier Pieter Vos and his feisty Frieslander colleague Laura Bakker who are called on here to recapture supposedly dangerous twin young female singers on the loose after a decade’s incarceration at a psychiatric institution and also resolve dusty rumors of sexual abuse; The Sign of Fear, the fourth of Robert Ryan’s entrancing novels headlined by Sherlock Holmes’ former sidekick, John H. Watson, who in this 1917-set yarn turns to a ruthless German spy for help in locating five senior members of Britain’s War Injuries Compensation Board, all abducted by protestors upset at the government’s stinginess with funds to help debilitated servicemen; and The Detective and the Devil, by Lloyd Shepherd, in which tenacious Constable Charles Horton of London’s River Police is tasked, in 1815, with investigating horrific bloodshed linked to the powerful, secretive East India Company.
Three Authors to Watch More Closely in the Future: Andrew Gross—Turning away from his string of suburban suspense tales, Gross instead delivered, in The One Man, a diligently researched World War II-era thriller about a Polish-born American intelligence officer who infiltrates the Nazi concentration camps at Auschwitz in hopes of freeing a physicist with key knowledge of atomic-bomb technology. Gross says his next novel will be “based on the daring  British-Norwegian raid on Vemork in Norway that ended the Nazis’ hopes for the atomic bomb.” Tim Baker—His debut novel, Fever City, revisits the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy through three different time frames and casts of intriguing characters; and though its plot breaks little new ground, the novel’s polished prose and noirish atmospherics suggest Baker might yet become an important contributor to this literary field. Joe Ide—Although I had some trouble engaging with his slang-dense first novel, IQ, about a mixed-race, unlicensed LA PI named Isaiah Quintabe, who tries to protect a rap-music star from harm, Ide might well help to reinvigorate the gumshoe subgenre with his intimidating and intelligent protagonist, his eccentric secondary players, and his sharp wit. More IQ, please.