Comic caper novels, psychological thrillers, and history-mystery blends dominate the best crime fiction reviewed in Booklist from May 1, 2015, through April 15, 2016. If you love that special brew
of light and dark that characterizes the best caper novels, you have to
be a little giddy after a year in which three writers of the caliber of Stephen Dobyns (Is Fat Bob Dead Yet?), Timothy Hallinan (King Maybe), and
Thomas Perry (Forty Thieves) chose to leaven suspense with laughter.
And if your hunger for psychological thrillers hasn’t been sated by books
with Girl in the title, the last 12 months will have been very good for you,
too, thanks to Lisa Lutz’s The Passenger and Lori Rader-Day’s Pretty Little
Things. Historical-thriller fans have been just as happy, what with Sara
Moliner’s The Whispering City, set in 1952 Barcelona; Lyndsay Faye’s
Jane Steele, a clever homage to Jane Eyre; and a pair of epic-scale novels
set primarily in Mexico, James Lee Burke’s House of the Rising Sun and
Don Winslow’s The Cartel.
If you’ve been counting, you’ll know that I’ve only mentioned nine
books. That’s because the tenth entry in our top 10, Bill Beverly’s
Dodgers, forms a kind of bridge, it being the only title to appear on both the
year’s top 10 crime novels and our top 10 crime fiction debuts—a rare
double, as those who follow these annual lists will know. The other nine
top debuts are a mixed bag of excellence, united by one all-important
factor: their authors are on our radar now, and we’ll be watching them
closely in the future.
BY BILL OTT
The Cartel. By Don
epic about the ongo-
ing Mexican drug wars
blends fact and fiction
to tell the incredible,
tragic story of the
blood-drenched reign of the notorious
El Chapo (Adán Barrera in the novel).
Jumping from detailed but never less than
compelling discussion of the logistics
behind the cartel’s operation to the story
of the people involved, Winslow draws
the reader in with rich portraits not only
of DEA agent Art Keller and Barrera but
also of other cartel figures, journalists,
and innocent victims.
Dodgers. By Bill Beverly. 2016. Crown,
East, a 15-year-old gang member who
has never been out of L.A., joins a crew
driving to Wisconsin to kill a witness in
a case against his boss. The journey is
transformative, forcing East to confront
problems inside and outside the van while
figuring out who he is and why he was
sent along. The premise is terrific, the
prose is remarkable, and the characters all
live, breathe, and bleed. A searing novel
about crime, race, and coming-of-age.
Forty Thieves. By Thomas Perry. 2016.
Mysterious, $26 (9780802124524).
This stand-alone thriller combines high-
octane suspense with comic capering, as
two married couples—one a PI team, the
other a hit couple for hire—spar with one
another until they both find themselves
in the crosshairs of a gang of Russian
jewel thieves. Perry delivers a perfect
melding of character and plot, light and
dark, and he totally immerses the reader
in an irresistible narrative.
House of the Rising Sun. By James Lee
Burke. 2015. Simon & Schuster, $27.99
Burke fills in more gaps in the lives of
the Holland family. This time it’s Hackberry Holland, onetime Texas Ranger
and on-again, off-again drunkard, whose
backstory is on view, as Hack launches
a quest of Arthurian proportions to save
his son from an evil arms dealer. The
sweeping historical frame proves ideal
for Burke’s elegiac style, and his fusillades of moving, lyrical prose make us
feel the beating hearts of all his demon-wracked characters.
Is Fat Bob Dead Yet? By Stephen
Dobyns. 2015. Penguin/Blue Rider,
This uproariously entertaining comic
thriller evokes Elmore Leonard and Donald E. Westlake but adds several layers of
absurdity and a narrative voice that suggests metafiction meets a Greek chorus
meets Groucho Marx (with just a hint
of Jane Austen in the authorial interruptions). Now that’s a rich stew indeed, but
readers willing to loosen the reigns of realism won’t regret the ride one bit.
Jane Steele. By Lyndsay Faye. 2016.
Putnam, $26.95 (9780399169496).
The life of Jane
Steele in nineteenth-century England
parallels that of Jane
Eyre, except that
Steele’s signature line
is, “Reader, I murdered him.” Well,
several hims, actually.
Faye’s skill at historical