You may be wondering why someone would write a top ten of 2009 list three months into 2010. Well I have two excuses. One: I didn’t want to write a list until I was absolutely certain I had read every book that had a chance of making it on the list. All that reading takes a lot of time. Now, with my eyes blurry and my dreams dark, I can honestly say that I’ve read every book worth considering (with one exception, which I will admit to later) for the top ten.
Reason two is a tad more subjective: I’ve noticed with horror that nearly every Top 10 of 2009 list on the internet picks Michael Connelly’s mediocre thriller The Scarecrow as one of the best of the year. Come on, folks! We can do better than that! I trust that anyone who included that one (not to mention some of the other stinkers I saw) on their list didn’t have a chance to read the following titles. So, I finally decided to break my silence. 2009 was a banner year for crime fiction, and the following books deserve to be talked about. Enjoy.
Box 21 by Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström
This masterful Swedish crime novel examines one of today’s most pervasive evils, human trafficking, in the stark light of day. The systematic and brutal process used to turn young girls into throwaway sex slaves is portrayed in graphic detail without being exploitive or cheap. At its heart, Box 21 is a meditation on loss and truth. Surly Stockholm detective Ewert Grens struggles to accept the loss of his lover 25 years ago in a moment of senseless violence and a young Lithuanian woman, Lydia Grajauskas, is consumed with rage after losing her freedom to three years of forced prostitution. Each flounders under the weight of their loss, and when they collide, the impact rips the lid off years of lies and police corruption, opening a chasm beneath Ewert Grens’ feet. One of Box 21‘s authors, Börge Hellström, is a self-described ex-criminal. Whether it’s because or despite of this, this portrayal of human beings living on the razor edge is intensely compelling and believable.
1974 by David Peace
The English language, eloquent and expressive as it is, contains only two words that accurately convey my reaction to this book: holy shit. David Peace’s 1974 shot right past my 2009 list and on to my list of favorite crime novels of all time. This is the first installment of the groundbreaking Red Riding Quartet, and the first to be published in the US. It’s a story about a Yorkshire crime journalist who follows the gruesome trail of a serial killer right down the rabbit hole into a world of sadism, corruption and greed where no one can be trusted and most should be feared. Peace employs a staccato style that’s similar to Ellroy at the peak of his game, mercilessly chopping each sentence down to its essence, mimicking thought and frantic action so convincingly it’s unnerving. Unrelentingly dark and truly frightening, 1974 is a book that hard-boiled fans will worship.
Nemesis by Jo Nesbø
Jo Nesbø is undoubtedly one of the freshest, most inventive voices in mystery/crime today. His protagonist Harry Hole is a gifted Oslo detective, battling his own demons while hunting down Norway’s most dangerous criminals. Nemesis finds Hole investigating a string of brutal bank robberies and joining forces with an arch-crook to find the culprit. Before the investigation gets off the ground, Hole finds himself accused of murdering his ex-girlfriend. Problem is, he can’t remember if he did it or not. If that sounds familiar, never fear. Nesbø has a way of surprising you, even when he’s telling a story you think you’ve heard before. Nemesis is my least favorite of the three Harry Hole’s I’ve read (including the masterful The Redbreast, and the utterly addictive Devil’s Star), but it’s still heads and tails above 95% of the cheap juvenilia masquerading as mystery nowadays.
Mind’s Eye by Håkan Nesser
My other favorite Scandinavian crime author is Swedish scribe Håkan Nesser. Inspector Van Veeteren, Nesser’s leading man, is that rarest of finds in crime fiction: a unique character. He’s philosophical, self-effacing, and ultimately relentless, but with a playful attitude that contrasts with the serious crimes he investigates. Think of an idiot savant whose skill is finding guilty parties. It’s endlessly entertaining watching Van Veeteren take in all the information surrounding a murder, shake it around, and then let it marinate in his brain — subconsciously exploring multiple scenarios and possibilities — until the answer pops out of his mouth. There are some much-needed light moments to be had watching the other, more normal, characters, relate to Van Veeteren’s eccentricities. Mind’s Eye is the first novel starring Van Veeteren, though it was the fourth one released in the US. It’s a perfect place to start, and a nice preparation for the even-better Borkmann’s Point.
Blood’s a Rover by James Ellroy
What can I say about Ellroy that hasn’t already been said? The man is an institution. And love him or hate him — you can’t deny that he is the premier crime author still sucking wind. Each Ellroy book is a like a submarine, plumbing the depths of the 50’s and 60’s, sifting through layers of dirt and grime left out of the history books. Like most of Ellroy’s books, Blood’s features a potent mix of high political intrigue and street-level dirt, focusing on the smoky backrooms where the two meet — a place where powerful politicians and bent cops shake hands with infamous mobsters and two-bit pimps and everybody but everybody is on the take. Though I still prefer the L.A. quartet (particularly the middle two installments, The Big Nowhere and L.A. Confidential), Blood’s a Rover, the final book in the mammoth Underworld USA trilogy, still ranks as one of the best crime novels of last or any year.
Spade and Archer: The Prequel to Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon by Joe Gores
In lesser hands, this book would have been an utter disaster. From trillions of fan-fiction sites catering to obsessed weirdos who just can’t accept that Buffy and Xena are make believe, to more high-falutin’ attempts to modernize or prequel-ize classic works of literature — when you hear that someone other than the original author has created a prequel or sequel to a masterpiece, it’s hard to take it seriously. That’s why Joe Gores had nothing to lose with the prequel to The Maltese Falcon. And why he totally pulled it off. Spade and Archer gives us a better understanding of Spade’s motivations and the events that led to the icy tension between the title characters in Falcon. The language is entirely legit — you’ll feel like you’re back in the pulp-era where rhythmic back and forth was a hallmark of any great detective narrative. If you’ve got a place in your heart for Spade or Hammett, you’ll love it. If you don’t – try a defibrillator.
The Long Fall by Walter Mosley
It’s always cool when an author whose bag of tricks you’ve committed to memory pulls something new out of the hat. The Long Fall is the best thing Mosley’s written in years. Leonid McGill is a surly Private Investigator struggling to “go from crooked to only slightly bent” in a city not known for granting second chances. At the beginning of the book, McGill is completing a seemingly simple assignment: track down four men and deliver their whereabouts to an Albany PI. Even though his spidey sense is tingling, Leonid hands over the information. When the men rather predictably start turning up dead, Leonid tracks down the Albany PI for answers. Unfortunately for Leonid, dead men rarely have the answers. But the condition of his previous employer does tell Leonid one thing: he’s probably next on the list. The pleasure in this book lies in Leonid’s internal monologue as he tries to navigate through a brutal world of treachery and greed without getting his hands too dirty. McGill is a throwback, a strong, silent type who talks with his fists and always gets the girl –- the kind of guy you want on your side in a barroom scuffle. Think Mike Hammer with more melanin and less self-regard. I, for one, will be anxiously awaiting his next appearance.
Exit Music by Ian Rankin
This is the swan song of one of mystery’s most beloved protagonists, Scottish Inspector John Rebus. Rankin’s books breathed fresh life into the genre at a time when it was sorely needed. By focusing not only on the crimes his hero is trying to solve, but on the hero’s personal life and internal struggles, Rankin creates a character who feels three-dimensional. This has the effect of tightening the tension when Rebus finds himself in a dicey situation. Exit Music is a fitting end to a series that will long hold a place of prominence in the annals of detective fiction.
Lush Life by Richard Price
For those who hadn’t already added Richard Price to their list of most talented urban crime writers, Lush Life should have sealed the deal. I’m sure bookstore owners have a hard time deciding whether to put Price’s works in with literary fiction or mystery — and the truth is, he’s the perfect mix of both. Price’s dialogue is so real, his descriptions so apt, his wit so sharp, the scenes feel more like something you witnessed through an open window than something you read off a page. Lush Life is not so much about a murder as it is about the repercussions of that murder, how they ripple outwards, inexorably changing the lives of those who knew the victim and those accused of the crime. Price is hands-down one of the most promising voices in urban crime fiction today — and Lush Life just might be his masterpiece.
The Girl who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson
I’m about to admit to something shocking here, so tighten your monocles and cover the top of your champagne glass: I don’t care for Stieg Larsson. Yeah, I said it. Bring on the hate mail. I welcome the inferno. Seriously, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was a pretty good book. Pretty good. But from the hype, you would have thought Larsson was the second coming of James Joyce, writing about Swedes instead of Dubliners, murders instead of funerals. By page 250 I was starting to wonder if anything of note was ever going to happen — and my wait wasn’t over by a long shot. Shocking Admission Number Two: I didn’t finish The Girl Who Played with Fire. I know, I know…blasphemy, right? I was about 20 pages in when I got fed up with learning about the history of mathematics and the ancient lives of its pre-eminent practitioners. At that point, I dramatically flung the book against the wall (something I’ve always wanted to do) and said, in my best Rhett Butler voice, “Frankly, Stieg, I don’t give a damn!” If I want to read history, I’ll read history. If I want mystery, thrills, suspense, I sure as hell won’t pick up a book whose author seems determined to cram every interesting fact he’s ever heard into each book. That said, I’m including Played with Fire on this list because it’s had a major impact on the mystery/crime genre. Any book that brings thousands of more readers into the fold earns a spot on my list.
That’s my list. Feel free to disagree, to tell me what I missed, to send hate mail to email@example.com or to list your own favorites below. The illustration is by Clayton Douglas.