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The Best Mystery/Crime Fiction of 2009

December 30

Keith Rawson’s Top Ten

2009 was without question one of the best years for crime fiction in many years, and trust me when I tell you that my top ten has changed so many times in the last six months that I wish I could’ve put together a top 20, or even a top 30, but somehow I managed to narrow it down to ten favorites and five runners up.

fakeid10 ) Fake I.D. by Jason Starr

Yeah, it’s a reprint, but this little slip of a book is the darkest piece of fiction Starr has ever put to paper. Tommy Russo is a vicious, charming sociopath who easily measures up to the classic creations of Willeford and Thompson. I devoured this slice of pure evil in one sitting and was drooling for more afterward.

9 ) Hogdoggin’ by Anthony Neil Smith

Every time I hear someone say, “I liked Yellow Medicine better,” I want to smack the taste right the hell out of their mouths. Don’t get me wrong, Yellow Medicine was a pisser of a novel, but as far as I’m concerned Yellow Medicine was nothing more than a set-up for the broad, blood-soaked canvass that is Hogdoggin’. I won’t say that Hogdoggin’ was a perfect novel, but Smith truly grew as a novelist with this one while delivering a solid piece of entertainment.

8 ) Bury Me Deep by Megan Abbott

I won’t say that this was my favorite of Abbott’s novels (The Song is You will always remain my favorite), but Abbott so perfectly captures the feel and atmosphere of Depression-era Phoenix that Bury Me Deep became a very close second. And the brutality of the crime at the center of the novel—and its aftermath—is one of the most shocking in recent memory.

7 ) Pariah by Dave Zeltserman

Darker than dark and grittier than a mouthful of graveyard dirt, Pariah is Zeltserman’s strongest novel to date and is so much more than a simple gangster novel. Pariah is a true page turner that solidifies Zeltserman’s position as one of the very best novelists working today.

6 ) Hollywood Moon by Joseph Wambaugh

Including a novel as mainstream as Hollywood Moon in my top ten might just get my basement noir crazies membership card revoked, but the third installment in Wambaugh’s brilliant Hollywood series is an amazing read that proves Wambaugh knows not only the minds of cops but also of criminals. I really enjoyed this book, and it’s by far the best entry in an already exceptional series.

5 ) This Wicked World by Richard Lange

The true hallmark of 2009 for me was the introduction of several first-time novelists who I’m positive will make an enormous impact on American—and world—literature within the next decade, and Lange is one of those writers. Lange is a writer of exceptional style and power; his language is as stripped down and raw as the California landscape that seems to be as much of a character as his protagonist Jimmy Boone. Lange is a novelist to watch in the coming years.

Book Review Mystic Arts4 ) The Mystic Art of Erasing All Signs of Death by Charlie Huston

There are few writers who can match Huston as a stylist, and in the ten years Huston has been producing novels, I don’t think the man has made a single misstep in any of his novels.  With Mystic Art, Huston has crafted not only a fine-tuned crime novel, but also a first rate meditation on how human beings deal with the pain and grief of death.

3 ) Dope Thief by Dennis Tafoya

Much like Lange, Tafoya is a novelist to watch. Dope Thief is yet another crime novel that does not fit easily into genre boundaries. Yes there’s theft, addiction, and brutal violence throughout the entire novel, and Tafoya handles each scenario with a deft, confident hand and turns Dope Thief into a novel about going beyond survival and the need in each of us for some kind of bond to make us more human. I love this book.

2 ) The Ghosts of Belfast by Stuart Neville

Oh, it came ever so close to the number one spot, and I’ll have to admit that it broke my heart just a wee bit when I found another novel that I liked more than The Ghosts of Belfast (and I promised myself when I started writing this bad boy that I wasn’t going to cop out and do ties). However, this is the best debut novel of the year, and I expect Neville to be one of the leading lights of Irish crime fiction for many years to come.

1 ) I-5 by Summer Brenner

As a fiction writer, I’ve been obsessed with America’s (and the entire worlds) underground economies for the past year or so, which is why I think I-5 had so much resonance for me. Brenner not only effectively paints a portrait of the life of a front-line sex worker, but also takes on the point of view of the boss/organizer to middle management to the lowliest workers on the totem pole, and packs all of it into a tightly wound ball of sheer horror. A fantastic read from beginning to end.

The runners up, in no particular order:

Slammer by Allan Guthrie

More than a few critics have been citing Slammer as Guthrie’s best novel (sorry folks, but Savage Night is still the best), and I’ll admit it’s a damn fine piece of writing and Guthrie’s most humane—yeah, I can’t believe I’m using the word humane to describe a Guthrie book—novel to date. But like most everything Guthrie writes, Slammer is a hell of ride.

The Coldest Mile by Tom Piccirilli

Yeah, I’m reserving judgment on Piccirilli’s Chase series until the third book in what I’m sure will be a trilogy hits. But I dug The Coldest Mile from beginning to end. A fun, fast-paced piece of noir from a writer who’s becoming one of crime fiction’s premiere stylists.

Sucker Punch by Ray Banks

This came out in the States this year, right? Because it seems like I read this in 2008? Oh, yeah, I did. Why is the lag time between U.S. and European editions so damn long? I liked Donkey–I mean Sucker Punch a lot when I first read it. Not the best of the Innes series, but a strong entry all the same.

Rogue Males by Craig McDonald

Nope, not fiction, but it should be required reading for any aspiring writer who wants to try their hand at the dark art of crime fiction.

Blood’s a Rover by James Ellroy

You have no idea how many times I told myself that I should like this more as I was reading Blood’s a Rover. But instead, I kept thinking, I’ve read this before, and this, and this. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I didn’t enjoy Blood’s a Rover, but too much felt like retread from the previous two books of the U.S.A trilogy.

The Nerd of Noir’s Top Ten

10 ) Slammer by Allan Guthrie

The most consistently badass noir author working today took shit up a notch in ’09 with Slammer, the story of prison guard Nick Glass’s descent into unspeakable violence and madness. Not only was Slammer reliably disturbing and intense, but Guthrie also went for the heartstrings this time out, went for them with a rusty shiv.

9 ) Pariah by Dave Zeltserman

With Small Crimes and now Pariah, Dave Zeltserman is shaping up as one of the most fearless writers in crime fiction. Reading Pariah, the reader gets that glorious, horrifying sensation that literally fucking anything could happen. By the time you get to the fuck-the-world finale, it’s clear that Zeltserman could give a shit about playing by the rules.

8 ) Hogdoggin’ by Anthony Neil Smith

If some country noir shit is more your speed, you won’t find a better novel than Hogdoggin’, Anthony Neil Smith’s kick-ass follow-up to last year’s Yellow Medicine. Billy Lafitte is crime fiction’s best “hero” since Charlie Huston’s Hank Thompson, and this time out he’s your tortured guide through some fucked-up Midwest rube version of purgatory.

7 ) Beast of Burden by Ray Banks

With the Cal Innes PI series, Ray Banks punched the genre in the face, then stood outside its apartment making empty promises until it took him back, only to do the same dance all over again later. With Beast of Burden Banks ended the series with a soul-crushing bang, forcing the Nerd to wonder whether we’ll see such a masterful, fresh take on the genre ever again.

6 ) Shadow Season by Tom Piccirilli

With his searing prose and organic approach to storytelling, Tom Piccirilli has been kicking ass in the crime genre for a few years now. With this year’s Shadow Season, he truly came into his own, letting the crime world know that he is unafraid to take a horrible situation to its natural conclusion without blinking or pulling a single punch.

5 ) West Coast Blues by Jacques Tardi

Jacques Tardi’s strange, beguiling adaptation of Jean-Patrick Manchette’s West Coast Blues was the most rewarding comics experience of the year (other than Scalped, of course, the best crime shit going in any medium). To call this gem of a book indescribable is an understatement – I honestly don’t know how to convey the experience of this book in words.

4 ) The Long Division by Derek Nikitas

Derek Nikitas burst onto the crime scene with Pyres last year, and with The Long Division he took his talent for tension and character to darker, more satisfying extremes. Nikitas takes the makings of great melodrama and twists that shit into an agonizing thriller that is unlike anything we’re seeing elsewhere in noir. If you liked to be emotionally rocked, Nikitas will floor you.

3 ) The Ghosts of Belfast by Stuart Neville

The most talked-about crime debut of the year, The Ghosts of Belfast deserves all the hype with its riveting story and ingenious premise. Neville’s story of an ex-IRA hitman killing his former brothers to silence the ghosts of his victims was complex, violent, and painful, yet a no-bullshit thriller all the same. In other words, it’s a shining example of what genre-writing can achieve.

2 ) The Disassembled Man by Nate Flexer

Speaking of debuts, Nate Flexer announced himself as a major swinging dick in noir with The Disassembled Man, the psycho-iest of psycho noirs to be released this year. With a nasty sense of humor and a willingness to take the story right to edge then piss into the abyss, Flexer sated the appetites of even the most basement-esque of the basement crazies.

burymedeep1 ) Bury Me Deep by Megan Abbott

Megan Abbott stepped up her already fairly peerless game this year with Bury Me Deep, her plunge into James Ellroy territory. Her take on the infamous Trunk Murderess of the 1930’s, Bury Me Deep proves that sexual obsession stories are not limited to men lusting after femme fatales, that homme fatales can be just as lethal. Consider the trails fucking freshly blazed, dear reader.

Brian Lindenmuth’s Top Ten

11 ) The Devil’s Staircase by Helen Fitzgerald

When I finished reading this book I knew that I had never read anything like it before. And that is a rare thing that should be celebrated when it happens. Its mix of styles and story types is fresh and unique. It’s bold and daring in a way that few others are.

10 ) Scalped by Jason Aaron and R.M. Guera

Despite a hiccup subplot, Scalped continues to be one of the, if not the, best ongoing crime fiction series being told. The complexities of this story and these characters are legion. I can’t even begin to fathom how Aaron will begin to resolve some of these elements and where the story will go, but I trust in his ability to do the former and can’t wait for the latter.

9 ) Ravens by George Dawes Green

A psychological thriller with the deadly simplicity of a knife slipped between the ribs.

8 ) Balzac of the Badlands by Steve Finbow

A postmodern detective story. If you don’t mind post-modernism (some like it and others don’t), then it’s quite inventive. It’s a veritable grab bag of pomo tricks, not all of which are wholly effective, that eventually settles down into a unique crime story. It got its hooks into me early and I had to keep reading.

7 ) Breaking Bad Season Two

I’ve long been an advocate, when talking about the best of a genre, of including other mediums. The bottom line is that Breaking Bad is some of the best and most original crime fiction out there right now. It’s just that simple.

6 ) Fifty Grand by Adrian McKinty

This is a great book that I would recommend with the strongest possible terms to any and every reader.

5 ) Last Days by Brian Evenson

I hope in 2010 that all readers of great, really daring fiction but especially readers of crime fiction will try some Brian Evenson. He really is that good. He’s a game changer.

4 ) Dope Thief by Dennis Tafoya

Dennis Tafoya wrote one of the year’s most intriguing crime fiction novels, and you won’t leave his world the same as when you entered.

3 ) Finch by Jeff VanderMeer

A stunning act of world-building coupled with a great crime story that leaves you wanting more.

Shadow season2 ) Shadow Season by Tom Piccirilli

Piccirilli’s embrace of the crime genre has been a match made in heaven, providing a good fit for some his reccurring themes and motifs. Shadow Season is the first crime novel of his that isn’t riffing off of old stories or treading too far into horror territory (the noir-ellas have their moments) and is just comfortably his own crime story, in his own voice. With Shadow Season Piccirilli came in to his own as a mystery writer, took it to a new level, and it shows.

1 (tie) The Ghosts of Belfast by Stuart Neville

The perfect storm of great characters, a great story, and great writing. The Ghosts of Belfast is a tour de force.

1 (tie) Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon

I see no reason to waiver from my original statement, made on Twitter, upon finishing the book:  The novel as an art form exists to tell stories like this. Chaon has crafted something fine and precise with this tale of shifting identities. Subtle and powerful, it’s like a Dim Mak death touch that affects the reader long after you finish and more than you expected. It’s one of the best books of this year or any year.

Honorable Mention:

I-5 by Summer Brenner, The Midnight Room by Ed Gorman, You Have Killed Me by Jamie S. Rich and Joelle Jones, West Coast Blues by Jean-Patrick Manchette and Jacques Tardi, Britten and Brulightly by Hannah Berry, The Nobody by Tom Piccirilli, Jump by Tim Maleeny

  1. I know Stu Neville and he’s a great guy, not that that matters when reading someone’s book but he is. Ghosts is a masterpiece. Brian Evenson is one of my best mates – a very intelligent, funny character with an excellent beard. Oh and yeah a brilliant writer.

  2. Thanks for including me among some of my favourite writers – McKinty, Evenson, Neville, Ellroy, Chaon, and Guthrie. Cheers…

  3. All these pics look fabulous. Here are 2 others that I didn’t see mentioned but really enjoyed. Both stayed with me long after I finished reading–
    Louise Ure’s 3rd book, “Liar’s Anonymous” had an amateur sleuth who is fresh out of prison.
    Sophie Littlefield’s debut novel, “Bad Day for Sorry,” has a middle aged heroine who smacks around abusive husbands and mixes it up with mobsters.

  4. Sharon–I’ll agree with you about a Bad day for Sorry. It was in my top 20 (Like I said in my intro, I wish I could have put a top 30 together.) and I’m really looking forward to further entries in the series

  5. Steve – It came in under the wire. I finished Balzac just in time for inclusion. It’s a really good book and I’m glad I was able to finish it in time.

    I plan on writing an actual review of it.

  6. Thanks for including me in such great company, guys. It was a great year for crime fiction – glad to see so many excellent, sometimes overlooked choices.

  7. I saw Samuel R Delaney once on the subway – that dude wins the beard contest by a country mile.

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