This year presented a challenge in picking the best of crime fiction, as perennial favorites and talented newcomers delivered a plethora of well-seasoned goods. But prolonged teeth-gnashing has produced the list of those I consider to be the most notable mystery and thriller reads.
George Dawes Green makes a triumphant return to the genre after a 14-year absence with “Ravens” (Grand Central: 336 pp., $24.99). Terror is to be expected when desperate out-of-towners hatch a plan to bilk half the lottery winnings of a rural Georgia family, but Green, already a master of psychological twists, mixes in sly social commentary on religion and the downward economic spiral.
Philip Kerr gets an enthusiastic thumbs-up for “A Quiet Flame” (Marian Wood/Putnam: 390 pp., $26.95), the fifth book featuring his cynical Berlin P.I. Bernie Gunther, this time set in early 1950s Argentina, when Eva Perón glittered brightly and Nazis hid in plain sight.
That decade has also long been Megan Abbott’s bailiwick, but for “Bury Me Deep” (Simon & Schuster: 240 pp., $15 paper) she travels back to 1931 Phoenix for a fictionalized account of the Winnie Ruth Judd “trunk murder” case. Abbott takes a bold step forward in portraying how obsession seeps into the very soul, transforming people into their worst nightmares all too easily.
Moving to the present, Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl Who Played With Fire” (Knopf: 550 pp., $25.95) brings now-iconic dragon-tattooed Lisbeth Salander to the forefront, her troubling back story overcome by her power to vanquish male foes. Carol O’Connell’s first stand-alone novel in more than a decade, “Bone by Bone” (Putnam: 340 pp., $24.95) may lack long-running heroine (and Salander forerunner) Kathleen Mallory, but the idiosyncratic style adds flavor to this tale of small-town California murderous secrets.
Two debuts deserve the superlative praise heaped upon them. “The Ghosts of Belfast” (Soho Press: 328 pp., $25), Stuart Neville’s tightly wound, emotionally resonant account of an ex-IRA hit man’s struggle to conquer his past, displays an acute understanding of the true state of Northern Ireland, still under the thumb of decades of violence and terrorism. And Attica Locke’s “Black Water Rising” (Harper: 448 pp., $25.99) soars with big social issues as seen through the eyes of a young African American lawyer making sense of greed and revenge in early 1980s Houston.
Finally, a work from outside the traditional borders of crime fiction. Hannah Berry’s graphic novel “Britten and Brülightly” (Metropolitan Books: 156 pp., $20 paper) would rank as an audacious debut in prose, but the genius is in how she melds the dark tinges of the retro-PI story of Fernández Britten’s existential struggle for truth despite its emotional cost with an illustrative style of blue and gray hues and dark lines conveying thousands of words in a handful of strokes.