Chosing “top ten best” of anything is always a purely subjective exercise! My top ten may not remotely resemble your top ten, and vice versa.
However, when Booklist, the American Library Association’s book review journal, publishes a “best of” list, librarians take note. Here is their new “Year’s Best Crime Novels” list featuring their top ten choices for “which books in the preceding 12 months had the greatest impact on their intended audience.”
The Brutal Telling. By Louise Penny. 2009. Minotaur, $24.99 (9780312377038).
The fifth in Penny’s celebrated Armand Gamache series again brings the chief inspector of the Sureté du Quebec back to the Christie-like village of Twin Pines. But comparisons to Dame Agatha sell Penny short. Her characters are too rich, her grasp of nuance and human psychology too sure for the formula-bound Christie. Compare her instead to P. D. James and Donna Leon, writers who use police stories to explore depth of character and the intrigue of human relationships.
Cemetery Road. By Gar Anthony Haywood. 2010. Severn, $28.95 (9780727868510).
This gripping stand-alone thriller marks the long-awaited return of Haywood, author of the critically acclaimed Aaron Gunner series. When a handyman in the Twin Cities learns that an old friend has been murdered in L.A., he knows he must return to his hometown and face a long-buried secret. Haywood melds an intricately plotted but highly suspenseful thriller to a moving story of belated coming-of-age.
The Dark Horse. By Craig Johnson. 2009. Viking, $24.95 (9780670020874).
Absaroka County, Wyoming, sheriff Walt Longmire goes undercover in his latest adventure, posing as an insurance adjustor in the next county over. From the motel backdrop (think Touch of Evil on the high plains), through the indelibly inked characters, and on to the set piece ending (in snow and lightning atop a mesa), this is one of Johnson’s best.
The Darkest Room. By Johan Theorin. Tr. by Marlaine Delargy. 2009. Dell/Delta, paper, $15.99 (9780385342223).
Swedish author Theorin’s latest thriller begins with the drowning death of a woman on the remote island of Oland, but it quickly spirals both backward into the past and downward into the troubled minds of its characters, especially the victim’s husband, a lighthouse keeper left alone in a large and possibly haunted house. A wonderfully atmospheric psychological study of crime and grief.
False Mermaid. By Erin Hart. 2010. Scribner, $26 (9781416563761).
In her third novel, Hart skillfully combines two plotlines, taking her heroine, Nora Gavin, from Ireland back to Minneapolis to solve the years-old murder of her sister, and leaving Nora’s lover, Cormac Maguire, in Ireland to wrestle with an even-older mystery involving a woman believed to be a selkie. Few writers combine as seamlessly as Hart does the subtlety, lyrical language, and melancholy of literary fiction with the pulse-pounding suspense of the best thrillers.
The Girl Who Played with Fire. By Stieg Larsson. Tr. by Reg Keeland. 2009. Knopf, $25.95 (9780307269980).
Because this second novel in Larsson’s celebrated trilogy spends the most time on the life of the charismatic computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, it is arguably the best of the bunch. As Salander attempts to clear herself of two murders, we learn more about her troubled past and her ferocious will. Salander is one of those characters who comes along only rarely in fiction: a true original, larger than life yet firmly grounded in realistic detail. Perhaps the best Scandinavian novel to appear in the U.S. since Smilla’s Sense of Snow.
The God of the Hive. By Laurie R. King. 2010. Bantam, $25 (9780553805543).
This complex second half to last year’s Language of Bees finds Sherlock Holmes and his family—wife Mary Russell, brother Mycroft, son Damien—under siege on multiple fronts. What makes King’s series the absolute best of all the latter-day Holmes novels isn’t just the focus on the compelling Russell but the way the novels create their own world, standing almost independently of Conan Doyle.
The Godfather of Kathmandu. By John Burdett. 2009. Knopf, $25.99 (9780307263193).
The fourth novel starring Sonchai Jitplecheep, the Thai police detective whose mother runs a brothel and whose boss is a drug kingpin, is stuffed with a dizzying array of story lines, all of which exude the moral ambiguity and cognitive dissonance that have become the series’ hallmarks. A whirlwind of a novel that, for some Western readers, may stretch the woefully narrow boundaries of what Sonchai would call our limited farang consciousness.
The Nearest Exit. By Olen Steinhauer. 2010. Minotaur, $25.99 (9780312622879).
This is Steinhauer’s second espionage novel with a contemporary setting, and it proves unquestionably that he is as comfortable in the present as he was when writing about the cold war era. The world of the CIA black-ops unit called the Tourists is a dazzling, dizzying, complex web of clandestine warfare that is complicated further by affairs of the heart. Steinhauer’s hero, Milo Weaver, does his best to save the thing he most despises, a conundrum that sums up the shades of gray that color this espionage masterpiece.
A Thousand Cuts. By Simon Lelic. 2010. Viking, $24.95 (9780670021505).
A recently hired history teacher walks into a school assembly, shoots three students and one teacher, and then turns the gun on himself. An open-and-shut case, right? It’s anything but in Lelic’s gripping thriller, a searing indictment of a toxic school culture in which everyone is inured to cruelty: “Why were the weak obliged to be so brave when the strong had license to behave like such cowards?”