The best crime fiction of 2016
Declan Burke and Declan Hughes select their favourites of the year
Crime novelist Laura Lippman: Declan Hughes found her Wilde Lake complex, subtle and profoundly moving. Photograph: Jan Cobb
Liz Nugent: Lying in Wait, a psychological thriller that explores the corrosive impact of a young woman’s murder on two families, was her second novel. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Mary Paulson-Ellis’s The Other Mrs Walker (Mantle) was a very impressive debut, in which Margaret Penny is appointed to a clerical post in Edinburgh’s Office for Lost People. Tasked with tracking down the relatives of the recently deceased Mrs Walker, Margaret embarks on an investigation into the curious circumstances of Mrs Walker’s half-lived life. Another debut, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer (Corsair), was a literary spy novel in which the unnamed narrator (“I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook”) takes us from the fall of Saigon into the heart of post-Vietnam War America as he pits his wits against “the most dangerous creature in the history of the world, the white man in a suit”.
Alan Glynn’s fifth novel, Paradime (Faber), was a paranoid conspiracy thriller with a significant twist. Danny Lynch, a veteran of two tours of Iraq, meets his doppelganger on the streets of New York. The result is a powerful psychological thriller of institutional corruption braided with ancient folkloric motifs. In Blood Will Out (Corsair), Walter Kirn relates his true story of being beguiled by Clark Rockefeller, aka “the most prodigious serial imposter in recent history”, in a tale of sociopathic deviance that could have been penned by Patricia Highsmith.
Lying in Wait (Penguin Ireland), a psychological thriller that explores the corrosive impact of a young woman’s murder on two families, was Liz Nugent’s second novel. A debt to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is handsomely repaid in a novel that confirmed the considerable promise of Nugent’s debut, Unravelling Oliver. Bill Beverly’s Dodgers (No Exit Press), the winner of this year’s CWA Golden Dagger award, is a haunting tale of a group of young gang members sent cross-country from LA to assassinate a witness to murder, the teenage crew “running on luck and will and a supreme indifference to anything else”.
Tana French’s sixth offering, The Trespasser (Hodder & Stoughton), won the Crime Fiction Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards, a deserved reward for a compelling blend of police procedural and domestic noir, delivered in French’s inimitable Dublinese. Vita Brevis (Bloomsbury) was Ruth Downie’s seventh novel in the series featuring Roman “medicus” Ruso, who moves from Britannia to Rome in search of a better life but soon finds himself investigating a bizarre murder in a city “that has too much of everything” – death included.
Finally, The Wrong Side of Goodbye (Orion), Michael Connelly’s 21st novel in the Harry Bosch series, finds Harry semiretired and working as a private investigator. Commissioned by a reclusive billionaire to find a woman who may not exist, Harry’s exploits are those of the classic private eye, and the novel an absorbing homage to the work of Ross Macdonald.
Declan Burke is the editor of Trouble is Our Business (New Island), a collection of new stories by Irish crime writers
After You Die was a fine addition to Eva Dolan’s absorbing Peterborough-based series featuring DI Zigic and DS Ferreira of the Peterborough Hate Crimes Unit. Adrian McKinty’s superb 1980s-set Sean Duffy saga continued with Raindogs, a gripping locked-room story. A Savage Hunger, the fourth entry in Claire McGowan’s Paula Maguire series, deftly integrated action and character in a disturbing, entertaining manner. Stuart Neville’s So Say the Fallen marked a welcome return for DCI Serena Flanagan in a thoughtful exploration of faithlessness, anxiety and regret. Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders was a brilliant pastiche of the English village mystery and a hugely enjoyable tale of publishing skulduggery. Ann Cleeves maintained her high standards with the atmospheric Cold Earth. DCI Karen Pirie reappeared in the excellent Out of Bounds, Val McDermid’s 30th novel. Mark Billingham delivered a meticulously constructed homage to Agatha Christie in the standalone Die of Shame.
Kate O’Riordan’s transgressive, Du Maurier-flavoured Penance was a spellbinding read. Clare Mackintosh’s I See You provided an ingenious, utterly chilling take on the murkiest corners of rape culture. In Lie With Me, Sabine Durrant combined elegance, wit and a sharp eye for social nuance with a skilful manipulation of our sympathies. Lisa Lutz’s road-trip extravaganza, The Passenger, was one hell of a sexy, whiskey-soaked thrill-ride. Catherine Ryan Howard’s Distress Signals made for a highly confident and accomplished debut. Sarah Pinborough’s 13 Minutes was a twisty YA tale of betrayal and murder among the mean girls. Megan Abbott’s distinctive brand of gossamer savagery was on display in the mesmerising You Will Know Me.
My top 10 for 2016 is a baker’s dozen of forbidden pleasures: Easy Rawlins as engaging as ever in Walter Mosley’s splendid Charcoal Joe; Slow Horses, Mick Herron’s deliciously sleazy and sophisticated spy thriller; Liz Nugent’s exquisitely bleak and pitiless Lying in Wait; The Darkest Secret, Alex Marwood’s stunning domestic noir epic; the delirious, beautifully written Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman; Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley’s ripped-from-the-headlines tragedy of New York manners Before the Fall; the terrifying and compelling A Time of Torment from Irish master of supernatural mystery John Connolly; A Great Reckoning, the latest in Louise Penny’s irresistible Armand Gamache series; Oliver Harris’s luminous London policier The House of Fame; Alan Glynn’s characteristically clever and insidiously paranoid Paradime; Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad tour de force The Trespasser; Darktown, Thomas Mullen’s powerful and sadly topical depiction of systemic police racism in 1940s Atlanta. The first 12 are in no particular order, but the 13th stole my heart: my book of the year is the complex, subtle and profoundly moving Wilde Lake by the incomparable Laura Lippman.
Declan Hughes is Arts Council writer in residence at University College Dublin for 2017