Thursday, December 03, 2020

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2020,
Part IV: Jim Thomsen

Jim Thomsen is a writer and editor based in Kingston, Washington. His work has appeared in Mystery Tribune, Pulp Fiction, Switchblade, Shotgun Honey, and West Coast Crime Wave, among other outlets.

I usually read anywhere from 60 to 80 new crime novels in a given year, but that number tailed off in 2020 as I turned increasingly to comfort-food personal classics for what I hope are obvious reasons. The last thing I wanted in 2020 was to be reminded of 2020, even in fiction. But some new releases were too hard to resist based on buzz and back-cover summaries, and as it turned out, 2020 was a pretty good year for new and groundbreaking work in this genre. So much so that picking my top five was just as tough as picking my five runners-up. Below are my favorite crime novels of 2020.

Valentine, by Elizabeth Wetmore (Harper):

I love two things above all in a novel: a 1970s setting, and lines I can’t stop thinking about. Valentine, a debut, explores the lingering effects of a brutal crime motivated by sexual and racial hatreds on several women in a small town in Texas in 1976. The author knows the time and place with exquisite authority, and the prose is haunting in its gorgeousness, chilliness, and moral clarity. Two examples:

— “Men die all the time in fights or pipeline explosions or gas leaks. They fall from cooling towers or try to beat the train or get drunk and decide to clean their guns. Women are killed when they get cancer or marry badly or take rides with strange men.”

— “She is the best part of each parent—the boy who was a second-string quarterback and the girl who loved Joni Mitchell, two kids who hardly knew each other when they drank too much Jack Daniel’s at the homecoming dance and took a drive through the oil patch during the worst sleet storm of 1966, a story as common as dust on a windowpane.”

Untamed Shore, by Silvia Garcia-Moreno (Agora):

Of Garcia-Moreno’s two books released in 2020, Mexican Gothic, a horror novel, got most of the oxygen, but Untamed Shore is a gorgeously vivid 1940s noir set in 1979 Mexico, and feels for all the world like a high-quality B-movie, lush and languid, rich and ripe with poisonous passion, starring Katy Jurado and Montgomery Clift.

A teenage Mexican girl is hired by three Americans renting a house in a sleepy seaside town, but they are not who they seem to be, and after one of them dies, young Viridiana is torn between conscience, lust, and greed as the survivors enmesh her tightly in a web of intricate deceits. Or is it Viridiana who’s doing that to them? You can almost hear the swelling and screaming of an orchestral score with the turning of each page toward a grand and tragic finish in the finest classic noir tradition.

Blacktop Wasteland, by S.A. Cosby (Flatiron):

This hard-boiled heist novel deserves all of its apocalyptic praise and then some. It not only affords a new angle on America from the 10,000-foot view as well as the one-inch level, but it is pure high-octane pleasure on every page, delivering familiar pleasures in fresh packaging.

Much of what is being said about Blacktop Wasteland will, justifiably, focus on its window into Black America, its canny empathy with economic inequality, its spotlight on systemic unfairness. But I hope some readers recognize it for the superiority of its craft and the sincerity with which it’s practiced. These things are what give this wonderful novel the emotional burst that engages with the story like a supercharger engages with a car at high speed.

Lady Chevy, by John Woods (Pegasus Crime):

A sort of Hillbilly Elegy in novel form, Lady Chevy is a work of cool, cruel, beautiful ugliness that doubles as a valuable window into which those who live outside of deepest, darkest Appalachia can see how those inside it can sound completely reasonable and completely Trumpy at the same time. It is completely authentic and completely of its moment, and deserves a readership as wide as its non-fiction analogue.

Of particular note is Woods’ ability to create an utterly original teen girl with nary a Young Adult trope or a hint of male gaze. Amy Wirkler is fat, marginalized, and kin to a weak father, a mother who blithely justifies her open infidelity, and an uncle who’s supportive, educated, and full of racist, eugenicist filth. But she’s no passive victim. When her best friend, a boy for whom she’s long harbored an unrequited love, ropes her into an act of revenge that goes tragically sideways, Amy surprises them both by discovering within herself a hidden steel core of cold determination necessary to survive.

The Familiar Dark, by Amy Engel (Dutton):

I’ve rarely read a novel that covers so much thematic ground with so few words at such a confident, fast pace. The Familiar Dark powers through its story like a night train, its piercing headlight missing nothing on its periphery as it plunges headlong through the darkest darkness of the human heart in the American Heartland.

This story, set in the aptly named rural Missouri town of Barren Springs—empty and full of something oozing at the same time—encompasses drugs, despair, dead-end choices, and dark destiny. All while working to near-perfection as a plot-driven thriller about Evie Taggert, who maintains a shaky balance between small-town loser and hopeful mother to a daughter who just may find something better—until a shocking and savage act takes the latter away forever. Maybe that’s why Evie can’t let it rest when everybody else does, even when she finds the truth—and wishes she could turn away from it. Heartbreaking.

Other 2020 Favorites: When These Mountains Burn, by David Joy (Putnam), the finest of his many fine noir novels set in Appalachia and steeped in its secret customs and social ills; The Coyotes of Carthage, by Steven Wright (Ecco,), basically, a top-shelf Ross Thomas black-comic political caper with a black-voiced spin; The Searcher, by Tana French (Viking), which has the voice of an American new to backcountry Ireland giving French’s immense talents a wider and more accessible scope; Vera Violet, by Melissa Anne Peterson (Counterpoint), an exquisitely dark tone poem about dead-end kids in dead-end Western Washington scraping for any scrap of hope; and Squeeze Me, by Carl Hiaasen (Knopf), which finds Florida’s master satirist masterfully turning his savagely colorful eye on the tangerine-brained tongue-bathers of Trumpworld.

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