Let me start by saying that this is a very subjective list. In the interest of full disclosure, in addition to all of the short fiction I read online and in journals and magazines (and as Grift submissions), I read about 85 books this year. That means there were tens of thousands that I didn’t read, so this list is drawn from a very narrow slice of what was published this year.
That said I would stack this list up against that of anyone else and argue that they’d be hard pressed to find more than a couple of books that would dislodge and of these. They’re all that good.
Another caveat: I don’t limit myself to crime fiction, though this list does. A pure list of my top 10 reads of the year would differ, or at least require expansion.
Stick around at the end for the reader-participation part: Your own list.
Now, on to the alphabetical list.
Crimes in Southern Indiana by Frank Bill. The most-hyped book of the year? In crime fiction circles certainly. But it lived up to every accolade, its stories filled with grit, passion, pathos and dirt. Can’t wait to read Bill’s debut novel, Donnybrook. Bonus: he’s a hell of a nice guy to boot.
A Drop of the Hard Stuff by Lawrence Block. A couple of years after making me and other Block-heads nearly weep at word he was hanging up his typewriter, Block comes back with his most prolific year in decades. And he did so with a Matthew Scudder book as strong as any. If this is what retirement looks like, Larry, feel free to do so more often.
The Drop by Michael Connelly. After 25 or so books, nearly all of them top notch, it’s easy to take someone like Connelly for granted. Then he hits you with something like The Drop, and makes you remember how good a great Connelly can be. The Mickey Haller books are solid, but Bosch is still the man.
The Adjustment by Scott Phillips. After having read the Ice Harvest and Rut, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Phillips except for a great ride. I got that and then some, with this hilarious period piece about a dirty Army supply clerk bored to tears by post-war life. After this, I’d follow Phillips anywhere.
The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock. I’ve long loved great Southern writers, with Woodrell, Gay, Brown and Offutt among my favorites. Add Pollock to the list. After the near-perfect collection, Knockemstiff, Pollock delivers long-form with a tale that is as surprising as it is inevitable. A wonder.
The Killer is Dying by James Sallis. Another author who seems unable to take a wrong turn, Sallis here ruminates on the very nature of the self with an existential assassin and a boy given an otherworldly glimpse at the evil world that lurks just outside the door. It took a second read to pick up on all the nuances in Sallis’s story, and it was worth the time.
Dove Season by Johnny Shaw. I met Shaw the first night of Bouchercon, and he happened to mention he had a new book out. He undersold himself so I didn’t expect much. Instead his debut is a tour de force, a tragicomic romp through the Southwest where the sense of place ought to be third-billed on the marquee. With this on his resume, Shaw can’t pull the unassuming shtick much longer.
Crime by Ferdinand von Schirach. This slim volume didn’t make much of an impression at first, weighted down by rave reviews. But I kept coming back to it and thinking about it, and the stories resonated for weeks. It is the kind of subtle, hardly there narrative one expects from a certain strain of European writer, but the accretion of detail here makes these stories really stick.
The Outlaw Album by Daniel Woodrell. It’s not fair, really. In a year when Woodrell has a new book out, there really are only nine spots left on this list left for anyone else. Gathering years’ worth of short stories (but not all of them), this album is a greatest hits for the downtrodden who don’t know it yet.
Southern Gods by John Hornor Jacobs. This is technically horror, which is a) not a genre I usually read; b) not a genre covered by this list; c) not anything that should stop you from reading this amazing book. There is plenty of crime here, too. Jacobs creates a place and drops you there in a way that makes it feel like, well, not home, but someplace you’ve been a long while. A dazzling debut.
Best books from 2010 read in 2011: The Caretaker of Lorne Field by Dave Zeltserman; Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter – Tom Franklin
Best older book read this year:Red Baker by Robert Ward
Best reissues: A Single Shot by Matthew F. Jones, He Died With His Eyes Open by Derek Raymond.
Now it’s your turn. What are the five best books published in 2011 that you read this year? Fill out this short survey before midnight, Friday, Dec. 23. We’ll tabulate the responses and report the results of this very unscientific sample on Wednesday, Dec. 28.