Given the relentlessly grim nature of the news this year, it’s hardly surprising that escapism in the form of cosy crime continues to challenge traditional crime/thriller bestsellers, with Richard Osman’s third Thursday Murder Club mystery, The Bullet That Missed (Viking), riding high in the charts. The last 12 months have seen a bumper crop of excellent books at the cosy end of the spectrum, from Ajay Chowdhury’s second crime novel, The Cook (Harvill Secker), set against the backdrop of an east London curry house, to veteran Canadian author Louise Penny’s 18th Armand Gamache novel, A World of Curiosities (Hodder & Stoughton).
Inventiveness appears to be on the rise, too. Janice Hallett’s second novel, The Twyford Code (Viper), told in transcribed audio files retrieved from an iPhone, succeeds in being fiendishly clever and very moving. Authors such as Gillian McAllister, whose Wrong Place Wrong Time (Michael Joseph) is an ingeniously plotted murder mystery in which time travels backwards, and Gabino Iglesias, whose high-octane southern noir thriller The Devil Takes You Home (Wildfire) has supernatural elements, are also giving the genre a welcome shot in the arm. Others have approached familiar tropes from new angles: the main character in CS Robertson’s The Undiscovered Deaths of Grace McGill (Hodder & Stoughton) is not a cop but a “death cleaner”.
Recent revelations have meant that the British public’s growing distrust of the police is very much a part of the UK’s permacrisis. Ian Rankin, creator of maverick cop John Rebus, commented recently that there are “big questions” for authors who write police procedurals. “In the current state of the world, how can you write about a police officer and make them the goody, when we look around us and see that so often the police are not the goodies?” In his latest Rebus novel, the splendid A Heart Full of Headstones (Orion), an officer who has been charged with domestic violence tries to make a deal by stitching up dodgy colleagues.
The year has been punctuated by the collective groans of crime fiction critics as the results of yet another male celebrity’s lockdown diversion landed on their doormats (presumably the female celebrities were too busy home schooling). The most impressive of these is Frankie Boyle’s Meantime (John Murray): set in Glasgow during the aftermath of the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, it’s both funny and moving.
There have been plenty of excellent non-celebrity debuts. Standouts include Patrick Worrall’s complex spy thriller The Partisan (Transworld); Conner Habib’s Hawk Mountain (Transworld), a paranoid and unsettling tale of masculinity in crisis; and Wake (Hodder & Stoughton), Australian newcomer Shelley Burr’s sensitive exploration of the aftermath of trauma in a parched outback town. Katie Gutierrez’s More Than You’ll Ever Know (Michael Joseph) is an intelligent and nuanced examination of the complicated relationship between a true-crime writer and her subject, a female bigamist. And The Maid by Nita Prose (HarperCollins) will have you rooting for its titular heroine, neurodivergent Molly, as she finds herself caught up in a web of deception at the fancy Regency Grand Hotel.
There have been strong additions to other long-running and well-loved police series, such as Give Unto Others (Hutchinson Heinemann), the 31st novel to feature Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti, and The Murder Book (Little, Brown), 18th outing for Mark Billingham’s Tom Thorne. More recent additions to the police procedural canon include Elly Griffith’s DI Harbinder Kaur, who had her third outing in Bleeding Heart Yard (Quercus), and Alan Parks’s shambolic, mid-70s Glaswegian detective Harry McCoy, who had his fifth in May God Forgive (Canongate). Maror by Lavie Tidhar (Apollo), an epic, multi-generational thriller set in Israel, with an enigmatic cop at its centre, is also well worth the read.
Highlights in historical crime include Blue Water (Viper) by Leonora Nattrass, a shipboard thriller set in 1794, and The Lost Man of Bombay (Hodder & Stoughton), the third in Vaseem Khan’s excellent series set in post-partition India. Alternative history has been well served by the thoroughly chilling Queen High (Quercus), CJ Carey’s sequel to last year’s superb Widowland, which imagines a postwar Britain under Nazi rule.
Although translated crime fiction seems thinner on the ground at the moment, the quality is high: standouts include Olivier Norek’s impressive policier Breaking Point (MacLehose, translated from French by Nick Caister) and Antti Tuomainen’s delightfully funny The Moose Paradox (Orenda, translated from Finnish by David Hackston). All in all, the genre seems in good shape: a broader church, less formulaic and more exciting.