Let’s start with a phrase I hate, which I promise will never appear again in this column: “beyond genre,” which is often applied to crime fiction. What it means is that crime fiction, as a category, is asking to be restored and interpreted, to a quality prose where it did not exist, for another writer to come and save it from the worst.
Nonsense. This species does not require maintenance. Clever, sharp and timeless, salvation for readers who want entertainment and escape.
Reading a lot, always my goal, introduced me to an amazing list of mysteries this year. Here’s what stood out.
When I reviewed Eli Cranor’s DON’T KNOW TOUGH back in March, I called it “one of the best debuts of 2022,” and my opinion hasn’t changed. The harshness of Cranor’s prose is perfectly suited to the note’s examination of a high school football team, their coach who is tormented and a town that wants to always win no matter the cost. “Hard Ignorance” is an unmistakable tradition in rural Southern culture: grim and gritty, a cauldron of bad decisions and worse. I can’t imagine what Cranor will do about it.
A number of heist and con artist novels published this year dealt with major social, economic and racial injustices. The best and most interesting of these was the debut of Grace D. Li, THE IMAGE OF A THIEF, which combines the old world’s shocking elements against a critical analysis of what should be displaced, ignored and ignored.
FOR SURE, by Marie Rutkoski, a thoughtful, character-driven mystery that revolves around a strip club and the women who dance there. It never sinks into a stereotype. “It makes her impatient, the way people think that a person who takes off her clothes must be a bad whore, as if no good woman has ever taken off her clothes for practical reasons,” one actress thinks. With many points of view shifting between detectives, players, family members and club supporters, it’s a challenging story, but one that cleverly changes the ways of crime.
Absence and loss permeate Tyrell Johnson’s LOST KINGS in a way that surprised me and moved me many times throughout the novel. Jeannie King’s grief over the sudden disappearance of her father and twins informs everything about her life – which is why the prospect of finding out the truth threatens to break her apart. I wanted an understanding that resonated with the truth, a sign of a hidden path of hurt that always arises, hurts and throws wounds.
It’s been a long time since Chuck Hogan wrote a stand-alone novel GANGLAND when I came out, I left everything I was doing and started reading, I didn’t stop until I finished. This 1970s-set novel, which is my favorite of Hogan’s, revolves around Chicago mobsters like Tony Accardo and Sam Giancana (whose murder remains unsolved). An artistic portrait of loyalty made and broken.
Two novels into her career, Wanda M. Morris has established herself among the most daring risk-takers in the crime genre. EVERYWHERE YOU RUN throws the reader into 1964 Mississippi, when the civil rights movement was gaining momentum. Marigold and Violet Richards are sisters stuck in their assigned roles of Good Girl and Bad Girl, but then make a series of decisions that test their abilities and put them in danger they never imagined.
Best in Series
I was very impressed with Robyn Gigl’s debut, “On the Road to Sorrow,” which introduced defense attorney Erin McCabe, but Gigl’s second outing, THE CRIME OF SURVIVOR, it’s really good. A groundbreaking series – Erin is trans, one of the important few in crime fiction – now she stops being well-informed. Gigl has a gift for razor-sharp, readable courtroom writing, something that bogs down many interesting legal writers.
Nothing makes me happier than the arrival of Vera Kelly and Rosalie Knecht’s new mystery. Alas, there will be none, but VERA KELLY LOST AND FOUND concludes the trilogy on the highest possible level. It opens in 1971, two years before Stonewall. When her girlfriend Max disappears, Vera puts her investigative skills to work, uncovering all kinds of secrets and dangers. I am still struggling with another sentence: “We had entered into a culture of ignorance, and now we did not know how to leave it.”
I’ve been rhapsodic about the Pentecost and Parker mysteries of Stephen Spotswood for a few years now; they push all my reading pleasure buttons. SECRETLY WRITTEN IN BLOOD, the third book in this 1940s-set private eye series, is even smarter, spikier and weirder than the first two.
All the best
I read Danya Kukafka’s TIPS ON KILL shortly before its release in January. Even then, I knew it would be among my favorites, but it’s my choice for the secret of the year because, literally, I think about it every day. In bringing the voices of the women who surround the killer to the fore, Kukafka flips the script on serial killer thrillers – a script that needs to be completely rewritten.
One More: Best in Genre Nonfiction
Crime fiction is blessed to have Martin Edwards. He is a novelist; edits anthologies; and oversees the British Library’s collection of crime classics. There are few others who can be persuaded to write a cradle-to-grave (literally) series of the kind that would honor and replace Julian Symons’s important “Blood Murder” (1972), but Edwards did it. LIFE OF CRIMINAL. It should be part of every mystery reader’s library.