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The best crime fiction of 2021

Declan Burke and Declan Hughes choose their favourite thrillers of the year

Catherine Ryan Howard uses the strictures of the first Covid-19 lockdown to ramp up in the tension in her book 56 Days. Photograph: Bríd O’Donovan

Mick Herron's excellent Jackson Lamb series continues with Slough House (John Murray, £11.99), a post-Brexit yarn documenting a coup perpetrated by the populist politician Peter Judd and the "mini-Murdoch" Damien Cantor, with spymaster Jackson Lamb ("looking like a bin someone had set fire to") democracy's last hope.

Laura Vaughan's debut, The Favour (Corvus, £14.99), a Donna Tartt-style tale of a group of wealthy students on a gap-year version of the Grand Tour, is superb in its depiction of the wonders of Rome, Florence and Venice.

Set in the cut-throat world of modern ballet, Erin Kelly's Watch Her Fall (Hodder & Stoughton, £14.99) offers a brilliant character study as a young woman's ambition gradually transforms into a lethal obsession.

Sergei Lebedev's Untraceable (Apollo, £14.99) revolves around Prof Kalitin, a Russian scientist who is revered as "the creator of untraceable death" and who signed a Faustian pact when he defected to the West during perestroika.


Chris Brookmyre's The Cut (Sphere, £18.99) blends horror flicks and the comedy caper to deliver a smart and unexpectedly tender crime story.

Lee Durkee's The Last Taxi Driver (No Exit Press, £19.99) is a southern Gothic fable that features Lou Bishoff, who is "that rare beast, a Mississippi Buddhist" who rails against "schoolteacher noir".

John Connolly's The Nameless Ones (Hodder & Stoughton, £19.99) leaves Charlie Parker at home in America while his associates, Louis and Angel, cut a vengeful swathe through Europe.

Sarah Langan's The Good Neighbours (Titan Books, £8.99), which follows the "ghetto Wildes" as they move to the upmarket Maple Street, documents the kind of crimes that are impossible to prove in a court of law.

Set in Norway, Helene Flood's The Therapist (MacLehose, £14.99) opens as a straightforward account of how Sara, a psychologist, copes when her husband goes missing, but quickly develops into a fascinating domestic noir as Sara begins to question how well she knows her husband.

A Narrow Door (Orion, £19.99), the third of Joanne Harris's novels to be set in St Oswald's grammar school in Yorkshire, opens with the discovery of a corpse on school grounds and goes on to excavate all manner of skeletons in closets.

Finally, Chris Offutt's The Killing Hills (No Exit Press, £16.99) is a delicious slice of hillbilly noir as the laconic army MP Mick Hardin, home on compassionate leave, helps his sister Linda investigate a murder in the remote Kentucky "hollers". – DECLAN BURKE

Jane Harper's The Survivors (Abacus, £8.99) is a compelling, morally nuanced family drama deftly staged in and around an out-of-season Tasmanian resort town, with the characters' fates seemingly in thrall to the majesty and menace of the ocean.

Hidden Lies (Piatkus, £7.99) is a stylish, spare, well-structured first novel from Dubliner Rachel Ryan. An afterword referenced Ira Levin and Daphne du Maurier alongside contemporary authors of domestic suspense; Ryan more than honours her illustrious forebears with an edgy, gripping, propulsive debut.

Of especial note in Brian McGilloway's immensely satisfying Blood Ties (Constable, £8.99), a welcome return for DI Benedict Devlin, are the deeply moving scenes between the detective and his ailing father, rendered acutely and with great emotional intelligence.

A Man Named Doll (Pushkin Vertigo, £8.99), by Jonathan Ames, introduces us to PI Happy Doll, "Irish, 50 and nuts". With action pitched nicely between realism and melodrama, Ames infuses the narration with sufficient hard-boiled style to anchor things firmly within the noir tradition.

In Vera Kelly Is Not a Mystery (Crime & Mystery Club, £9.99), Rosalie Knecht follows lovelorn, gay, former CIA agent Vera, who, inspired by a bundle of Raymond Chandler paperbacks, sets up as a private eye. Unfolding in a persuasively evoked 1967, this smart, stylish mystery fizzes with wit and intrigue.

Palace of the Drowned (Little, Brown, £14.99), by Irish author Christine Mangan, a psychological thriller set in 1960s Venice, is an expertly wrought Gothic novel, elegantly written, exquisitely spun, with a distinctive voice and an unsettling atmosphere.

Jean Hanff Korelitz's dazzling psychological thriller, The Plot (Faber & Faber, £8.99), pokes wicked fun at the vanities and pieties of the literary world; it is funny, wise, cruel and, if you have skin in the game, somewhat gruelling.

Paula Hawkins's raffishly cast A Slow Fire Burning (Doubleday, £20) is set around Regent's Canal in a series of grandly dilapidated houses and houseboats; its considerable force derived from a turbulently animated, claustrophobic sense of guilt and shame, of children tragically damaged by their neglectful, lotus-eating parents.

In 56 Days (Corvus, £8.99), Catherine Ryan Howard takes the tentative getting-to-know-you phase of a relationship and ramps up the tension by siting it within the strictures of the first Covid-19 lockdown; staggeringly accomplished at a technical level, its sustained emotional power raises it to the first rank.

Laura Lippman's superbly plotted, darkly comic Dream Girl (Faber & Faber, £14.99) is an utterly compelling portrait of the Great American Novelist in late middle age; this bittersweet blend of yearning and despair, of toxic masculinity and piquant accidie, is my crime novel of the year. – DECLAN HUGHES