The best crime fiction of 2015
Irish authors feature prominently among the year’s best additions to the genre, writes Declan Burke
Alex Barclay. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
The crime fiction year opened with a bang, appropriately enough, with Adrian McKinty’s Gun Street Girl (Serpent’s Tail), the fourth in a series featuring Seán Duffy. A Catholic detective with the RUC, Duffy investigates a double-killing as the news of the impending Anglo- Irish Agreement sends Northern Ireland into a turmoil of strikes, riots and violence.
Set in the 1970s, Celeste Ng’s impressive debut Everything I Never Told You (Black Friars) investigates the tragic life and death of Ohio teen Lydia Lee in a heartbreaking portrait of a teenage girl struggling to cope with unbearable and conflicting pressures.
Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train (Doubleday) was an equally impressive first outing, and one of the year’s publishing sensations (touted as this year’s Gone Girl), as alcoholic Rachel turns amateur sleuth when a woman goes missing. Steve Cavanagh’s The Defence (Orion) was another debut, a rollicking tale of New York lawyer Eddie Flynn going into court with a bomb strapped to his back to defend a Russian mobster. Attica Locke’s third offering, Pleasantville (Serpent’s Tail), lawyer Jay Porter tries to extricate the personal from the political in defending an alleged killer during a mayoral election in Houston, Texas, against the backdrop of a campaign of very dirty tricks.
A Song of Shadows (Hodder & Stoughton) was John Connolly’s 13th novel to feature private eye Charlie Parker, and arguably his best, as Parker – no stranger to evil – finds himself immersed in the horrors of the Holocaust and evolving into something of a Christ-like figure. The Shut Eye (Bantam Press) was Belinda Bauer’s sixth novel, and another tinged with the supernatural, in which hard-nosed DCI John Marvel finds his scepticism tested to the limit in a thoughtful meditation on faith, hope and belief. Over in Colorado, FBI agent Ren Bryce returned in Killing Ways (Harper Collins), Alex Barclay’s seventh novel. Bryce tracks a serial killer in an unusually poignant thriller featuring moments of poetic horror.
Richard Beard’s superb Acts of the Assassins (Harvill Secker) was a time-bending tale employing modern weaponry and infrastructure in which Roman investigator Gallio searches for the rabble-rousers who stole the corpse of the local mystic Jesus from his tomb in the wake of the prophet’s crucifixion. Camille (MacLehose) concluded Pierre Lemaitre’s impressive trilogy about diminutive Parisian detective, Camille Verhoeven, with Camille racing to track down a killer while constantly second-guessing his own motives and capabilities.
In June, the ever reliable Karin Fossum delivered The Drowned Boy (Harvill Secker), in which her series detective, the brooding Norwegian Insp Sejer, investigates the tragic death of a toddler with Down syndrome. Dennis Lehane concluded his excellent Joe Coughlin trilogy with World Gone By (Little, Brown), set in Florida and Cuba, charting the transition of America’s criminal fraternity from the riotous gangster era to the more organised crime of the Mafia.
Elmer Mendoza’s Silver Bullets (MacLehose) was a Mexican “narco” novel featuring Det Edgar ‘Lefty’ Mendieta, a bleak but blackly comic tale of murder investigation set in a country where “nothing is true, nothing is false.”
Set in Belfast, Those We Left Behind (Harvill Secker), Stuart Neville’s sixth novel, featured DCI Serena Flanagan and explored the physical and psychological damage wrought by the actions of two apparently sociopathic – but heartbreakingly vulnerable – young boys. Simon Mawer’s Tightrope (Little, Brown) was a superior spy novel set in the post-second World War years, an absorbing tale about Marian Sutro, a former war hero whose notions of patriotism and honour are ripped apart as the Cold War chills to deep freeze.
Even the Dead (Penguin) was Benjamin Black’s seventh offering in the increasingly impressive series featuring the pathologist Quirke. Here the depiction of a genteel 1950s Dublin belies a brutally noir moral relativism, as Quirke sinks into a quicksand of politics and religion. Sinéad Crowley’s sophomore offering, Are You Watching Me? (Quercus), was an assured take on the “domestic noir” genre, as Garda Det Claire Boyle tracks the stalker who is making life hell for media ingénue Liz Cafferky. Jon Steele concluded another trilogy with the fantastic (and fantastical) The Way of Sorrows (Blue Rider Press), as Harper, an angel in human form, complete with Chandleresque quips, goes to war against the forces of Evil for humanity’s soul.
Jane Casey’s After the Fire (Ebury Press) featured her series heroine, London-based DC Maeve Kerrigan. “The Maeve Kerrigan books keep getting better and better,” wrote Declan Hughes in these pages. Mark Henshaw’s The Snow Kimono (Tinder Press) centred on retired Parisian police inspector Auguste Jovert playing the part of reluctant confessor to an elaborately detailed declaration of guilt. Julia Heaberlin’s third novel, Black-Eyed Susans (Penguin), was a brilliantly constructed tale of parallel narratives as teenager Tessie and adult Tess recount their horrific story of being abducted and left for dead by a seasoned serial killer in an engrossing exploration of the morality of the death penalty.
Lynda La Plante returned to the iconic heroine of Prime Suspect for Tennison (Simon & Schuster), offering a tale of how Tennison came of age as a policewoman in the early 1970s when she is seconded to an investigation into the murder of a 17-year-old girl found naked and strangled on Hackney Marshes. In a good year for Irish crime fiction, Jo Spain’s With Our Blessing (Quercus) was an assured debut that introduced Insp Tom Reynolds in an old-fashioned murder mystery set in a convent.
This year, of course, also saw the return of Lisbeth Salander in David Lagercrantz’s The Girl in the Spider’s Web (MacLehose), although Declan Hughes, reviewing it here, wasn’t overly impressed.
“Salander remains part comic-book superhero, part male fantasy,” wrote Hughes, “but she still deserves better than this cynical, curiously disengaged production.”
Declan Burke is an author and journalist. His current novel is The Lost and the Blind (Severn House)