I’ll admit right off the bat that this is a list of my favorite books. Not the best. Just the ones that gave me the most pleasure as a reader. Yes, it’s male-centric. And yes, it’s only eight books long. In the year when I launched a crime fiction magazine, I read fewer crime fiction books than in the past, and while I read a lot that I liked, these are the eight that I loved.
Here, in alphatetical order by author, is the list:
Peter Farris – Last Call for the Living. I met Farris at the 2011 Bouchercon in St. Louis, and first got a glimpse at the cover of this book when my new acquaintance passed over his cell phone to proudly show the image he had just been sent. Farris was a nice guy, and I made a note to pick up his book. I’m glad I did. It’s the story of a bank robbery gone wrong, and it reminded as nothing so much as the work of William Gay. That’s a high compliment. Can’t wait to see what Farris does next.
Chris F. Holm – Dead Harvest. I first encountered Holm when I picked up his short story collection, Eight Pounds. I was amazed that stories this good were being posted free online, and that you could grab the entire collection for a couple of bucks. I was a bit nervous about his debut novel, what with the supernatural elements and all. I shouldn’t have worried. Holm is a pure storyteller, and his story of Sam Thornton, a soul collector for the dark side, is a compelling tale that puts an otherworldly twist on crime fiction. The follow-up, The Wrong Goodbye, is another gem. (Grift Interrogation with Holm)
Joe R. Landsale – Edge of Dark Water. People whose opinions I prize long have praised Landsale, but I never seemed to find time to wedge him into my “to be read” stack. Then Mulholland sent this at a time when I was between books, so I dove in. This taut tale made me a fan. Critics cite Mark Twain as an influence, thanks to the trip the young protagonists take down the river, but Twain never dealt with menace like this.
Owen Laukkanen – The Professionals. Yes, it’s another heist book. But it is much more. Laukkanen is really writing about the disaffected twentysomethings of the early twenty-first century. Bored and seeing no clear path ahead, a band of recent college graduates decide to use their skills to rob banks. It’s a tense, fast read, but you’ll slow down to read Laukkanen’s descriptions of the inter-personal struggles that threaten to bring the team to its knees. His cops are well-drawn as well, which bodes well for the coming follow-up. (Grift Interrogation with Laukkanen)
Dennis Lehane – Live By Night. I admired, but didn’t love Lehane’s stab at a “big important novel,” The Given Day, and thought his return to the Kenzie/Gennaro books, Moonlight Mile, fell flat. So it was a nice surprise to see Lehane tackle historical fiction with the narrative drive of his best early novels. Here, young Joe Coughlin, son of a Boston police captain, becomes a Prohibition-era Florida kingpin. Lehane doesn’t let the history get in the way of the story, but doesn’t give it short shrift, either.
Craig McDonald – El Gavilan. This was going to be the equivalent of McDonald’s B movie, right? I mean, his Hector Lassiter series is him at his best, so this non-series entry must represent scraps. Ha! Shows what you know. Like Holm, McDonald is a pure storyteller, and the same skill he brings to the historic tales in the Lassiter series are brought to bear on this modern tale of race relations in rural Ohio. It’s a well-plotted story with three-dimensional characters, and a great way to pass the time for those of us patiently waited for the next Lassiter.
James Sallis – Driven. In a way, this made the list before I had read it. I had gotten into Sallis shortly before Drive, and that book cemented by fandom. So, when Sallis announced that he had written a follow up, I was giddy with anticipation. At the same time, I feared it would be akin to trying to catch lightning in a bottle. Instead, Sallis showed that he still had something left to say about Driver, and does so with terse prose that grabs you and doesn’t let go.
Johnny Shaw – The Big Maria. If you ever have the chance, grab a beer with Shaw and just let him talk. You won’t be disappointed. Lacking that opportunity, however, you have the next best thing sitting on the bookshelf in Shaw’s books. This are wild, ribald tales that make you feel as if Shaw is making them up as he goes along, constantly topping himself… until it all comes together in one majestic finale that proves he knew what he was doing the entire time. (Grift Interrogation with Shaw)
I read several other books that were quite good, so if I had to expand this list to 15, I also would include:
Tony Black – Murder Mile
Sean Chercover – The Trinity Game
Hilary Davidson - The Next One to Fall
Sean Doolittle - Lake Country
Doug Johnstone – Hit & Run
Mukoma Wa Ngugi – Nairobi Heat
John Rector – Already Gone