I haven’t even gotten past the title and already I feel the need to issue a disclaimer.
It would be easy enough to offer a subtitle and be done with it, just call it “Crime Fiction” or some such. But then there will be quibbles. At least two of the books here wouldn’t be considered crime fiction by their publishers or authors. And this list isn’t exhaustive. Yes, these were among my favorites, but there were others. Jake Hinkson’s Hell on Church Street and Michael Kimball’s Big Ray came out in 2011 and 2012, respectively, but they were certainly favorites of mine this year.
And I read much more widely this year as I sought out authors for the Iowa City Book Festival, and thus fell in love with many non crime fiction books like A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra, A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik, and Tom Drury’s Pacific, among many others.
OK, so it is clear from this relatively short that I probably missed a bunch of great stuff this year. Participate in the 2013 Grift Readers Poll to share your own list and help spread the word about some great reads.
So, this is a list of my favorite books that loosely fall in the category of crime fiction as defined by me alone. A little bit about each, in alphabetical order. If you’re looking for plot details, they’re out there. These are the reasons why these stories connected with me this year.
Angel Baby – Richard Lange
Lange exploded on the scene with the story collection Dead Boys, followed with the novel This Wicked World. That one, with its socio-political backdrop, put him squarely in Pelecanos territory. With Angel Baby, Lange goes for the jugular with a taut thriller. The things that made his first two books so good are still here, but he amps things up with a tale of love, loss and revenge. (Grift review of Angel Baby)
Drift - Jon McGoran
The one-time DH Dublin tackles genetically modified foods in a thriller that balances fascinating science with thrilleresque action. You never feel like you’re reading a textbook, but by the time you catch your breath, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to have learned something in the process.
The Double – George Pelecanos
Pelecanos has become a master of the short series, seemingly staying with a character as long as he has something to say. Spero Lucas is likely to be with us a while. This war veteran turned investigator reveals more layers — albeit reluctantly — with each outing, and in writing him Pelecanos continues to build his already prodigious talents.
Nothing Gold Can Stay – Ron Rash
I had never read Rash before now but always meant to. This story collection was the perfect entry point, as I could chip away while committed to other books. These stories grabbed me quickly, and then kept me hooked because they didn’t go where I expected. Great writing is said to end up in a place that is both surprising and necessary; you don’t know until you reach the end that this is exactly where it needed to be. Nothing Gold Can Stay is like a master class in proving that point, and it won’t be the last I read of Rash’s work.
The Hard Bounce – Todd Robinson
Robinson, known by those of us short-story peddlers as the Big Daddy Thug behind the rough-and-tumble Thuglit magazine, shopped this around for years. Every other publisher’s loss is Tyrus Books’ gain. Sure, Robinson might have lived this, might even be retelling some stories that got him through long, boring nights bouncing at a bar. But to weave it all together this skillfully, dare I say this artfully? Dude is a talent, and I for one can’t wait for the return of Boo and Junior. (Grift Interrogation with Todd Robinson)
Let Him Go – Larry Watson
The curve ball on the list (along with Rash, to an extent), but I defy anyone to find a more uncompromising story published this year. Watson’s story is deceptive, a seemingly quaint story that slides toward the darkness so subtly that you don’t see the bad things coming until they’re on your doorstep.
Country Hardball – Steve Weddle
Weddle, like Robinson, is a veteran of the online and small publisher short story world, and like Robinson’s debut, Weddle’s has been floating around a while. Guess what? Tyrus wins again, issuing this novel in stories that is powerful in the way an accretion of details builds a larger world. A seemingly tossed-off remark here carries devastating consequences there. Here’s hoping Weddle still has time to edit Needle amid the other demands this will surely create for his time.
The Maid’s Version – Daniel Woodrell
Big surprise: a new novel from Woodrell ends up on a “best of the year” list. Well, this wasn’t a given. Woodrell tried something new here, leaving the backwoods to travel back in time to offer a fictionalized account of a bit of his family lore. The result is a gripping, heartbreaking story that shows Woodrell’s chops know no bounds.