Sunday, December 27, 2020

On the Critical List

(Editor’s note: The following article comes from Fraser Massey, a freelance journalist living in East London​, England, who has contributed work in the past to British periodicals such as the Radio Times, Now, and The Times of London. His unpublished first novel, Whitechapel Messiah, was shortlisted last year in the “New Voices” category at London’s Capital Crime Festival. He’s currently preparing to submit that manuscript to publishers.)

Santa wasn’t the only one who, during this season, could be found making lists and checking them twice. Crime-fiction reviewers have been equally industrious, looking back over the last 12 months and jotting down their favorite mystery and thriller reads of 2020.

Rap Sheet critics weighed in on this subject, of course, as did myriad other usual suspects, among them Marilyn Stasio and Sarah Lyall of The New York Times; Laura Wilson of The Guardian; The Washington Post’s Maureen Corrigan and Richard Lipez; the two Declans, Burke and Hughes, at The Irish Times; the overworked editors of CrimeReads; Will Gore of The Spectator; Adam Woog of The Seattle Times; Ayo Onatade of Shots; and the Daily Mirror’s Jon Coates (please note that if you wish to find his selections, you must scroll through the recommendations of that British paper’s other reviewers). A variety of print publications place viewing restrictions on non-subscribers. Therefore, we’re indebted to George Easter, the editor of Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine, for breaching such firewalls in order to provide us with a splendidly detailed round-up that includes choices from Mark Sanderson, Joan Smith, John Dugdale, and James Owen of the London Times and Sunday Times; Barry Forshaw and Adam LeBor of The Financial Times; The Wall Street Journal’s Tom Nolan; Jake Kerridge of The Daily Telegraph, and Oline H. Cogdill from the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Easter’s compilation mentions, as well, the reading choices of his publication’s own commentators. An accounting of additional reviewers’ inventories consulted while putting this story together can be found at the post’s end.

Between all of these knowledgeable readers, we found 328 separate books being endorsed—212 of those finding favor with only a single reviewer each.

So is there a critical consensus of which recent crime, mystery, and thriller novels deserve the greatest acclaim? Yes, there is definitely a clear winner, plus a further 10 titles which stood out above the rest. Below, then, are 2020’s most frequently recommended books in this genre, arranged in descending order of their number of mentions on “bests” lists.

1. Blacktop Wasteland, by S.A. Cosby (Flatiron [U.S.], Headline [UK]). Cosby’s muscular slice of American Deep South rural noir ranked way ahead of its competition, finding more than a few champions among reviewers. One of those was Dwyer Murphy, the editor-in-chief of CrimeReads, who enthused of this book, “Dread and excitement combine to create a unique sense of atmosphere, one that will keep readers pushing ahead toward a genuinely powerful conclusion.”

2. The Searcher, by Tana French (Viking), was praised by “Booklist Queen” Rachael Pingel as a “slow-burn mystery that will reward those who love a good character study.”

3. The Thursday Murder Club, by Richard Osman (Penguin [U.S.], Viking [UK]). Declan Hughes wrote in The Irish Times, “Osman’s hugely successful debut is that rare thing, a genuinely funny comic mystery that succeeds completely as a crime novel.”

Three titles tied for fourth place:

4. Winter Counts, by David Heska Wanbli Weiden (Ecco [U.S.])

4. One by One, by Ruth Ware (Gallery/Scout Press [U.S.],
Harvill Secker [UK])

4. Long Bright River, by Liz Moore (Riverhead [U.S.],
Hutchinson [UK])

Followed by:

7. The Devil and the Dark Water, by Stuart Turton (Sourcebooks Landmark [U.S.], Raven [UK])

And then four titles tied for eighth place:

8. These Women, by Ivy Pochoda (Ecco [U.S.], Faber and Faber [UK])

8. When No One Is Watching, by Alyssa Cole (Morrow [U.S.])

8. A Song for the Dark Times, by Ian Rankin (Little, Brown [U.S.], Orion [UK])

8. Moonflower Murders, by Anthony Horowitz (Harper [U.S.], Century [UK])

This top-11 lineup features six male writers and five women. Five of the novelists here are American and five others are British, plus Ireland’s Tana French.

Sifting through the complete roster of 2020 selections reveals that this was a good year for familiar authors and characters. A Song for Dark Times, for instance, marked the 23rd outing for Rankin’s heavy-drinking, irascible Edinburgh detective, John Rebus. The Sicilian Method, the 26th Inspector Montalbano novel from the late Andrea Camilleri, didn’t quite make the top-11 cut, but still ranked high in critical praise. So did Guilt at the Garage, the 20th among Simon Brett’s cozy Fethering mysteries, starring amateur seaside sleuths Carole Seddon and Jude Nichols; Peter James’s 16th Roy Grace novel, Find Them Dead; and Troubled Blood, the fifth “Robert Galbraith” book, actually penned by J.K. Rowling and featuring comparative newcomer Cormoran Strike, a wounded Afghanistan war veteran turned London private eye.

At the complete other end of the spectrum, Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club is his first book. American director and producer Steven Spielberg​ has already purchased the film rights, and that quirky mystery, set in a retirement home, has become the first debut novel ever to top the British bestseller charts at Christmastime.

For any Rap Sheet followers who don’t already know this, Osman is an English comedian and television host, the co-presenter of BBC One’s 11-year-old TV quiz show, Pointless. But he isn’t the only well-known British TV figure to find his work celebrated on this year’s “best of” lists. Journalist Tom Bradby, the anchor of ITV News at Ten, also found his second Kate Henderson spy thriller, Double Agent, included among reviewers’ favorites. As a result of this pair’s sales figures, don’t be surprised if—in Britain at least—book publishers make a New Year’s resolution over the next several days to contact literary agents, inquiring as to whether they have a small-screen stalwart or two under contract who might fancy having a go at a crime thriller.

* * *

Beyond the diverse sources mentioned above, we consulted “best crime fiction of 2020” listicles from the following sources when preparing this post: Natasha Cooper at The Literary Review; NB magazine’s Paul Burke; Vicki Briner, Liz French, and Lesa Holstine of Library Journal; the team at Publishers Weekly; Sonjia van der Westhuizen and Catherine Turnbell of Crime Fiction Lover; Sophie Roell’s selections for FiveBooks; Sarah Weinman’s listings in The Crime Lady newsletter; Michael J. Seidlinger’s choices at Murder & Mayhem; blogger Jacob Collins’ picks at Hooked from Page One; Rachael Pingel’s “17 Best Thriller Books of 2020”; Novel Suspects contributor Jamie Canavés’ “Top 5 Picks for Mystery and Suspense of 2020”; Jennifer Marie Lin’s “20 Best Mystery Novels & Thrillers” rundown for The Bibliofile; Victoria Selman and the rest of the CrimeTime UK panel; the She Reads editors’ “Best Thrillers of 2020” feature; Literary Hub’s “Best Reviewed Mystery and Crime Fiction of 2020”; Criminal Element’s nominations for “Best Books of 2020”; and BookPage’s 2020 mystery and suspense picks.

Several crime-fictionists, among them Tana French, Ragnar Jónasson, and Rosamund Lupton, identified their own favorite works in this entertaining wrap-up for Dead Good Books, while their fellow author Kellye Garrett offered her preferences at Goodreads. We’ve added into our totals this year’s Goodreads Choice Award winners; the New York Public Library’s half-dozen best crime fiction, mystery, and thriller recommendations; and National Public Radio’s suggestions of 2020’s top-notch thriller and mysteries. The Amazon Book Review’s picks are here, and British bookseller Waterstones’ top-30 choices among the year’s numerous detective novels and thrillers are to be found right here. Finally, we consulted this inventory of 2020 preferences from First Monday Crime mover and shaker Joy Kluver.

Note that certain reviewers’ picks appeared in multiple sources. Where this happened, they’ve been counted only once in our tally. And books that were suggested, but were released in either the U.S. or the UK prior to 2020, were not counted in the totals.


Patrick Murtha said...

Surely a high overall ranking in the pool of lists suggests a heavy promotion budget more than anything else, just as the number of social media likes you get is purely a function of how many followers you have (one like / 150 followers is the rule of thumb). Of course, I don’t know why people are obsessed with consuming and ranking things the year they come out...

Keen Reader said...

It's interesting how many of these lists were compiled by women. Perhaps if it had been as heavily dominated by male compilers, a very different list of favourites would have ensued.