One bright spot in this parlous year has been the steady stream of excellent new crime fiction, despite multiple challenges faced by publishers, writers and booksellers. Here are 10 of 2020’s most memorable books.
“Three Hours in Paris” by Cara Black (Soho). Black handles this historical thriller as deftly as her series about contemporary Parisian detective Aimeé Leduc. Paris, 1940: Kate Rees, a young American widow, is recruited by British intelligence to use her rifle skills to do nothing less than assassinate Hitler. When her only clear shot misses, she makes her way to safety along a heart-stopping, dangerous route with der Fuhrer’s agents on her trail.
“A Private Cathedral” by James Lee Burke (Simon & Schuster). Possibly the author’s most profound book yet addressing his enduring themes — lust and faith, good and evil, and the legacy of racism. Burke’s style is steeped in a profound sense of place, charged dialogue, sudden violence and vivid characters. Dave Robicheaux, Burke’s tightly wound Louisiana cop, confronts two crime families with an ancient rivalry, plus his own demons and a menacing presence who appears to travel through time.
“He Started It” by Samantha Downing (Berkley). In this deliciously funny/scary road trip of a book, three grown siblings (and two spouses) must drive across the country with their grandfather’s ashes, re-creating a trip from decades prior, before they can collect the old guy’s estate. Hidden agendas and backstabbings abound, revealed through Downing’s droll eye for sibling dynamics.
“The Last Passenger” by Charles Finch (Minotaur). An unidentified corpse on a London train snags the interest of Victorian-era private detective Charles Lenox. The aristocratic Lenox’s investigation widens to examine how the venomous turmoil of pre-Civil War America is spreading to England (where slavery is already illegal). Lenox’s tentative love life — and his rapport with his stalwart, perceptive valet — nicely balance the book’s grim theme.
“Last Dance” by Jeffrey Fleishman (Blackstone). Katrina Ivanovna, a ballerina beset by drug abuse, has overdosed. L.A. homicide detective Sam Carver suspects murder, but the body disappears from the morgue before it can be autopsied. Russian interference in U.S. elections slyly figures into the plot, leading to this tweet from you-know-who: “LAPD can’t stop illegals, loses ballerina. SAD.” Carver is a complex, laconic figure, and Fleishman — the Los Angeles Times foreign editor — paints him (and the city) in nuanced detail and lyrical prose.
“Just Watch Me” by Jeff Lindsay (Dutton). Best known for his “Dexter” series, Lindsay introduces Riley Wolfe, master thief and ultracool customer. Wolfe steals a massive sculpture during its unveiling (cue the helicopter), but such stunts bore him; needing a bigger challenge, he goes after the Iranian National Jewels, especially the legendary (and real-life) pink diamond known as the Daria-i-Noor. Watching Wolfe plan and execute his daring caper is pure pleasure.
“Pretty as a Picture” by Elizabeth Little (Viking). Marissa Dahl is a gifted film editor, but also a hot mess of compulsions and low self-esteem. Her current project: being on-site to make a movie about a real-life, decades-old murder on a remote island. The disaster-prone shoot starts to echo that crime, resulting in a captivating fun house of a thriller. It’s also a snarky sendup of Hollywood pretensions, rife with movie references; film nuts, rejoice!
“The Finisher” by Peter Lovesey (Soho). The prolific Lovesey’s 50-year career is marked by this story starring witty, low-key Detective Sergeant Peter Diamond. Diamond is charged with investigating the disappearance of a runner during a charity race in Bath, England.
“Long Bright River” by Liz Moore (Riverhead). A compassionate, thrilling study of morality, social issues and family. Michaela “Mickey” Fitzpatrick and her sister Kacey grew up fast in a barren Philadelphia neighborhood after their mother overdosed. Kasey became an addict and prostitute, Mickey a single mother and cop. Every time Mickey hears about a missing woman, her heart stops — is it her wayward sister? When Kacey does vanish, the story sprints in unexpected and riveting directions.
“The Nightworkers” by Brian Selfon (MCD). Selfon, an investigator with the King County Department of Public Defense, used to work for the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, and he sets this stunning debut in that borough — the gritty bits, not the trendy ones. Shecky Keenan, a small-time, bighearted money launderer, is the soul of a devoted, ad hoc “family” of misfits. Their loving but fragile balance is upset when Shecky’s courier is killed and $250,000 in cash disappears. Selfon slowly unspools his plot with striking prose and characters whose frailties and strengths take precedence over slam-bang action.