Monday, December 09, 2019

Our Favorite Crime Fiction of 2019

There’s been no shortage of new books churned out this year. Over the last 12 months, in four separate seasonal reports (here, here, here, and here), we have highlighted more than 1,500 crime, mystery, and thriller works worth investigating. Some of those (even a few by prominent, best-selling authors) ultimately proved to be disappointing, and many others managed to be diverting and sufficiently satisfying without ever being memorable. However, a much smaller number of novels in this genre not only caught our attention, but held it—and we went on to recommend them to fellow readers.

Admittedly, we had neither the time nor manpower to tackle and judge every newly published title that drew our eyes. So we won’t maintain that our preferences represent the incontestable “best” of new crime, mystery, and thriller releases on offer in 2019. Yet we think they’re as valid as anyone else’s, and certainly worth sharing. So below, four regular Rap Sheet contributors present their favorite discoveries in this genre from the last twelvemonth. Each critic has briefly reviewed one novel of particular merit, and thereafter listed several additional choices they found to be outstanding. Almost all of the titles mentioned here first appeared in bookstores during 2019. And except where noted, the publishers mentioned are American.

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Kevin Burton Smith is the Montreal-born founder and editor of that essential 21-year-old resource, The (New) Thrilling Detective Web Site, as well as the Web Monkey for The Private Eye Writers of America and a contributing editor of Mystery Scene. He lives in Southern California’s High Desert region, where he’s still working on a non-fiction book about married detective couples with his wife, mystery author D.L. Browne (aka Diana Killian and Josh Lanyon).

Save Me from Dangerous Men, by S.A. Lelchuk (Flatiron):

Is there anyone out there who’s actually for violence against women? If so, please leave the room. But how about violence by women?

It’s a hot-button topic these days, in some crime-fiction circles. I guess we can blame it all on Lisbeth Salander (star of the best-selling The Girl Who Tattooed “Rapist” on a Dude series), arguably the first modern-era heroine to lay a little hands-on justice on a man who just doesn’t get it. But author Stieg Larsson was a dude himself, so does that even count? Since then, though, there have been several female protagonists, all delivering their own versions of rough justice, utilizing everything from judo chops and brass knuckles to carving knives, on deserving male members of the species (and sometimes on the members of those members). A swift kick to the balls is also quite popular.

Which brings us to troubled private investigator/avenger Nikki Griffin, created by the gender-neutral (but revealed to be male) S.A. Lelchuk, cast by some as the perfect vigilante hero for the #MeToo age. Her powerful, if at times disturbing debut comes in Save Me from Dangerous Men, a ballsy mash-up of agitprop and vengeance porn; a cautionary tale (or cheap thrill read) full of sadistic, abusive men (Boo! Hiss!), with a violent, possibly unbalanced woman who often makes Ms. Salander (slyly name-checked several times) look like a pillar of mental stability (Hip-Hip-Hooray?).

“I’m not some psycho. There are people in this world who need help,” Nikki says, but her firm proclamation of sanity would go over better if it wasn’t in response to a question asked by her court-ordered therapist. Nonetheless, it’s moments like these, plus Nikki’s own self-doubts, that suggest both she and her creator may have many more depths yet to plumb.

So is this tale a socially sensitive call-to-arms, or opportunistic ca-ching? Or both? I’ve read plenty of books this year, and possibly better ones, but Save Me’s the one that really begs a sequel. And answers.

Other 2019 Favorites: Bellini and the Sphinx, by Tony Bellotto (Akashic); The Bitterest Pill, by Reed Farrel Coleman (Putnam); The Butterfly Girl, by Rene Denfield (Harper); Metropolis, by Philip Kerr (Putnam); A Time to Scatter Stones, by Lawrence Block (Subterranean); and Your House Will Pay, by Steph Cha (Ecco).

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Ali Karim is The Rap Sheet’s longtime British correspondent, a contributing editor of January Magazine, and the assistant editor of Shots. In addition, he writes for Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine, Crimespree, and Mystery Readers International.

Cari Mora, by Thomas Harris (Grand Central):

Like his 1975 debut, Black Sunday, Harris’ sixth novel is a standalone, so does not feature his singular character, Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Instead, Cari Mora offers a furtive glance into something considerably worse: the very best, and the very worst of the people and monsters that surround us. And at both extremes, they wear our skin.

We are introduced here not only to tall, hairless, and sadistic criminal Hans-Peter Schneider (an ex-medical student, who’d been “asked to leave on ethical grounds”), but also to those clients he provides with unspeakable entertainment and horrific services—namely, the mysterious Mr. Gnis of Mauritania and Mr. Imran (both of whom remain mostly off-stage, or are mentioned only in dispatches). When we do see Mr. Imran, he’s accompanied by a burly bodyguard, one who keeps his distance and wears “archery armguards” under his tailored suits. (Schneider remarks at one point that “Mr. Imran was a biter.”)

Brought into this tale, too, is Jesus Villarreal, a dying man in Colombia who knows about some $25 million in gold bars—a secret legacy of the late drug lord Pablo Escobar—concealed in a Miami Beach residence. Villarreal needs to provide for his family, so in exchange for help, he tells the story of that gold to Schneider, but also to Don Ernesto, the head of a Colombian crime syndicate. And he warns both men that those riches are locked in a solid steel safe, booby-trapped with plastic explosives.

Now enter the eponymous Caridad “Cari” Mora, a young South American woman, clinging to her life in Miami by the thread of a precarious immigration status. A former kidnapped child-soldier, she managed to survive (and escape) the clutches of a ruthless militia, but not without “scars on her arms. Truly,” writes Harris, “they are only snaky lines on her clear brown-gold skin. The scars are more exotic than disfiguring. Like cave paintings of wavy snakes. Experience decorates us.”

Apart from the gold, Hans-Peter Schneider also wishes to capture the lovely Ms. Mora, for he has designs, unspeakable desires that are detailed on a sketch pad, and have been shared with Mr. Gnis and Mr. Imran. And there hangs this tale, a cat-and-mouse game between the Colombian criminals and the creepy Schneider.

Cari Mora lends credence to the axiom that “less is more” when a narrative is in the hands of a master. Judiciously edited, this extraordinary novel puts Harris’ ability to craft truly nightmarish villains on full and frightening display.

Other 2019 Favorites: Elevator Pitch, by Linwood Barclay (Morrow); My Sister, the Serial Killer, by Oyinkan Braithwaite (Atlantic UK); No Mercy, by Martina Cole (Headline UK); The Warehouse, by Rob Hart (Crown); and The Whisper Man, by Alex North (Celadon). Plus, from the non-fiction shelves—Crime Fiction: A Reader’s Guide, by Barry Forshaw (Oldcastle UK).

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Jim Napier is a crime-fiction critic based in Quebec, Canada. Since 2005, his reviews and interviews have appeared in several Canadian newspapers and on various crime-fiction and literary Web sites, including January Magazine and his own award-winning review site, Deadly Diversions. His debut crime novel, Legacy, was published in the spring of 2017, and the second book in that series, Ridley’s War, is scheduled for release in the spring of 2020.

Night Watch, by David C. Taylor (Severn House):

On a September morning in 1956, Detective Michael Cassidy (NightLife, Night Work) is having his share of problems. He’s suffering from nightmares dating back to the Second World War, and to make matters worse, someone is trying to kill him—but not before tormenting him first. Cassidy discusses the threat with his police partner, Tony Orso, over breakfast, but they realize they have nothing to go on: it’s just a matter of wait and see.

So Cassidy continues doing the work for which he’s paid, and it’s not long before the cauldron that is New York City spits out a new case to capture his attention. On the southern fringes of Central Park, near Columbus Circle, a corpse has been discovered in the early morning mist. It’s the body of a middle-aged man, and he has been murdered. Although at first glance it seems like a simple mugging—the victim’s wallet is missing—the autopsy reveals that he’s been stabbed in the skull, an extremely thin, sharp blade having penetrated his brain not once, but several times. On the face of it, the victim is an unlikely target, an immigrant who takes tourists around Central Park in his carriage. Not a wealthy man, then. Cassidy is handed the case … and his investigation will lead him to a complex conspiracy involving people in the highest echelons of political power, endangering his own life and the lives of those around him.

David Taylor’s writing is simply superb, deftly capturing the noir atmosphere of postwar Manhattan, and sweeping the reader through the story line until the final page. And it’s not all plot—the atmosphere is gripping, too:
Cassidy hated the night watch. The worst of people seeped out during the night. They did things they would not do in daylight, as if darkness could hide their actions: children were thrown against the wall for not finishing dinner, women were beaten for changing the channel, rapists and muggers, stick-up artists, the perverted, and the weird, they all slid out of the shadows looking for prey. Cassidy remembered the magazine photographs of zebras and antelope gathered around a waterhole at night. The flash revealed the glowing eyes of predators waiting in the bushes—New York City after midnight.
Hammett and Chandler would have been well pleased. Readers seeking a compelling, finely honed series that is rooted in history and perfectly captures the immediacy of those deceptively placid times simply cannot do better than to grab this novel.

Other 2019 Favorites: Broken Ground, by Val McDermid (Atlantic Monthly Press); One False Move, by Robert Goddard (Bantam Press UK); Run Away, by Harlan Coben (Grand Central); and The Stranger Diaries, by Elly Griffiths (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

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J. Kingston Pierce wears more hats than his head can firmly hold. He is the editor of both The Rap Sheet and Killer Covers, the senior editor of January Magazine, a contributing editor of CrimeReads, and a columnist with Down & Out: The Magazine.

Blood & Sugar, by Laura Shepherd-Robinson (Mantle UK):

It’s the summer of 1781, and a young man is found hanging cruelly from a hook at Deptford Dock, on the River Thames east of London, his body displaying signs of torture and the brand of an Atlantic slave trader. Not long afterward, a widow named Amelia Bradstreet calls at the townhouse of Captain Henry Corsham, an aspiring politician and hero of Britain’s unsuccessful wars to hold onto its American colonies. She is the disgraced sister of Thaddeus “Tad” Archer, a barrister and fervent anti-slavery campaigner who was once Corsham’s closest friend. It seems Tad disappeared after traveling recently to Deptford, a town notorious for its role in the highly remunerative commerce involving African bondservants, and Amelia wants Corsham to go in search of him. She’s particularly concerned, because her sibling had told her before heading off that he’d discovered a secret capable of finally destroy the slave trade.

Not surprisingly, that Deptford lynchee was Tad, and his slaying provokes Corsham to begin searching for the killers. In order to succeed, the captain must reconstruct his old chum’s investigation into an appalling incident on board a trans-Atlantic slave ship. This leads him, further, to clash with men—wealthy, powerful, ruthless—who will do anything, conspire in any way necessary to perpetuate the selling of human flesh. Assailed by threats and alarmed by the spread of death in his wake, Corsham pursues the truth in Tad’s stead, despite it endangering his life, his family’s stability, and his prospects as a future member of Parliament; and despite fears that it will force him to reckon with a secret from his own past that he’d prefer remain concealed.

Although this is Shepherd-Robinson’s first novel, Blood & Sugar is extraordinarily sophisticated in its plot construction and most confidently written. Her portrayal of Georgian England, both its wealthy and wanton extremes, is deftly and convincingly executed (I can only imagine how many history books she must have enlisted in this endeavor!). Her characters are provided with full, sometimes surprising, dimensions. And she hesitates not for a moment to display the moral depravities of the slave trade in all their rawness. Let’s hope Shepherd-Robinson has a sequel in the works.

Other 2019 Favorites: The Darwin Affair, by Tim Mason (Algonquin); Lady in the Lake, by Laura Lippman (Morrow); Metropolis, by Philip Kerr (Putnam); and The Wolf and the Watchman, by Niklas Natt och Dag (Atria). Plus, from the non-fiction shelves—The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, by Hallie Rubenhold (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

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