For all its supposed constraints, the crime fiction genre runs an impressive gamut from traditional to experimental, from dark to light, from character study to airtight plotting. It’s no wonder the year’s standouts are a mix of the expected and the eclectic.
David Peace’s literary-minded “Tokyo Year Zero” (Knopf) is really a lengthy prose poem, its emotive power and accessibility stemming from repetition, evocative imagery and stacked one-line paragraphs that focus the eye on single words. Australian Peter Temple deservedly won Britain’s most prestigious mystery award for “The Broken Shore” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), with its depiction of racial and class tensions in the Australian outback and ex-cop Joe Cashin’s struggle to repair the fractures of his body and mind. “Origin” (W.W. Norton) by Diana Abu-Jaber is equal parts forensic science and literary meditation -- more concerned with the psychological underpinnings of the nature/nurture debate than gratuitous violence.
Speaking of science, Boris Starling’s “Visibility” (Dutton) happens to be a crackling spy thriller set at the eve of Watson and Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA. The science is carefully layered into the prose, but it’s the thick fog setting and the detective’s labyrinthine investigation that elevate the book to standout status. “Ha’Penny” (Tor) by Jo Walton is also set in post-World War II Britain, but it’s an alternative version that imagines a proto-fascist society after peace is brokered with Hitler. The result is an astounding blend of snobbery, class division and outright menace that makes her concocted world easily as horrific as one in which the dangers are more overt.
Hardboiled fans can’t go wrong with Charlie Huston’s “The Shotgun Rule” (Ballantine), an affecting look at what it was like to be a teenage boy in the 1980s, wrapped in the guise of an adrenaline-packed suspense novel. Family also figures prominently in “Down River” by John Hart (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s), who drenches his tale of uncovered secrets and generations-old betrayals in layers of Southern Gothic, while William Landay’s “The Strangler” (Delacorte), a sprawling family drama juxtaposed against the Boston Strangler’s reign of terror, displays the author’s marvelous ear for dialogue and relationship complexities, smartly emphasizing the impact of crime instead of the crimes in particular.
The last two picks are, well, offbeat. The detectives in Leonie Swann’s “Three Bags Full” (Flying Dolphin Press) may be sheep, but Swann’s measured voice, skillful way with clues and existential ruminations make for a sly postmodern tale that seems to reverse the pecking order in the animal kingdom. And then there is comic king Warren Ellis’ debut prose novel, “Crooked Little Vein” (William Morrow), a heart-shredding work of scatological brilliance that gleefully annihilates private-eye tropes and pole-vaults over taste lines.