crime fiction top ten for 2008

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As I did last year (and as I do annually at 4MA) I have gone through the crime fiction that I read in 2008 and (not without difficulty) picked ten top reads. To come up with this list, I scrolled back through my LibraryThing account and chose ones that, in retrospect, have stayed with me as memorable, original, moving, or just plain good.

Do you have some top reads to share? Kerrie is collecting them at Mysteries in Paradise. A stroll through the comments will give you plenty to read in 2009!

Sean Doolittle / THE CLEANUP
A good cop who’s on the outs at work is stationed in a grocery store providing security and finds himself drawn to a checkout clerk who is obviously abused by a no-good boyfriend. His protective instincts get him into big trouble when she kills the abuser. As always, Doolittle crafts a fine mystery with all-too-human characters who you care about in spite of yourself. Doolittle should be at the top of the charts. He’s just a fine, fine writer.

Loren Estelman / GAS CITY
Amazing book – not so much for the plot or the characters as for the whole package. Set in a mythical city, presumably in the Midwest, this story involves two major plotlines – the police chief, who has just buried his wife, has decided to buck the system he’s supported for years and actually enforce the law, even in “the circle,” the part of town ruled by criminals. And someone is butchering women and leaving their parts in garbage bags around the city. Both of these plotlines intersect in a hotel detective and erstwhile alcoholic pimp, who comes out of his haze when he has a chance to do some real detecting. Estelman has always had a yen for the past (in books like Retro) but here the world of Gas City is hermetically sealed, a world unto itself, where people occasionally use phrases that are from the 1930s and yet the police has a son who died years ago in Vietnam. Though it’s somewhat disorienting, it’s a richly detailed, internally consistent, and lavishly described world, full of lyrical passages and sometimes hilarious throwaway lines. This is one of those books you have to give yourself to. Adapt to its pace, savor the lines, and don’t worry about what time it is.

Timothy Hallinan / A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART
A very good book about a mixed-race American writer putting together a family in Bangkok that includes a former dancer who wants to run a cleaning business and a child who was abused and on the streets but is coming to trust her would-be parents. When another street kid enters the picture, a hard case who is rumored to have killed people, Rafferty is reluctant to bring him into a fragile home and risk the adoption process he’s going through. He also is looking for a man who stole something from a very unpleasant woman and for the uncle of a distraught Australian. The ethical poles reverse in the course of the investigation. Good sense of place, tender depiction of relationships, excellent writing. I’m looking forward to reading more in this series.

Mick Herron / RECONSTRUCTION
A ticking clock plays in the background of this tightly-wound book in which a man takes a roomful of children at a daycare hostage. But this is no ordinary breathless thriller – we are party to each character’s thoughts with the kind of detail that comes when the senses are attenuated by a crisis. If Ian McEwan wrote an episode of Spooks, it might turn out like this. Full review at Mystery Scene.

John McFetridge / EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS IS NOWHERE
A walk on the mean streets of Toronto, seen from the perspective of cops and criminals (though at times it’s hard to tell the difference). A couple of homicide detectives try to figure out whether the man who took a dive off the roof of a highrise was suicidal or was pushed – and then wonder why cops in the narcotics squad are so eager to have them call it a suicide and close the case. A resident of the highrise is waiting for the end of her house arrest and is trying to figure out whether to throw in her lot with the man who wants to move massive amounts of dope and doesn’t seem to know what he’s getting into. Both cops and criminals are on edge, sensing there’s a big shakeup in organized crime about to happen. McFetridge has the deadpan and often funny dialogue sense of mid-career Elmore Leonard, and the twists he ties things off with at the end are both cynical and satisfying. At least we can rest assured that McFetridge isn’t going to run out of material anytime soon. My review can be found at Reviewing the Evidence.

Jo Nesbo / THE REDBREAST
Absolutely brilliant, weaving together the involvement of some Norwegians in a German military unit in the past, neo-Nazis in present-day Norway, and assassination plot, and (perhaps the best part of all) the life of detective Harry Hole, There are bits that are a bit contemplative, bits that are wild thriller scenes, and bits that are incredibly moving. I’m happy that more of this series is being translated into English. Highly recommended.

Sam Reaves / MEAN TOWN BLUES
Reaves is one of the best in the business. Here he puts a man of honor, an Iraq veteran from Kentucky who’s trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life, into a classic noir story, where things start out bad and get worse and worse – but the honorable hero refuses to lie down and take it. He resourcefully deals with every setback and never loses his grip on his moral compass. A full review is at Reviewing the Evidence.

Michael Robotham / SHATTER
Joe O’Loughlin, the psychologist narrator of Lost – the first in a loosely-linked series in which the characters take turns on the main stage – returns in this book about a man who convinces women to take their own lives in order to save the lives of their children. Though it seems impossible that he could make women follow his cruel instructions, he’s as skilled in the psychological arts as Joe, but he’s been warped by his experiences as a military interrogator. Robotham does an amazing job of taking a story that would be total rubbish in the wrong hands and making it nuanced, chilling, and real. A review is forthcoming in Mystery Scene.

Johan Theorin / ECHOES FROM THE DEAD
Since I’ve just read this one, time will tell how well it sticks. But I was impressed by this book, which won the Swedish award for best debut crime novel and has been getting high praise in Europe. A woman who is living in a state of suspended animation in the two decades since her child disappeared is called back to the island of Oland, where her father thinks he may have new evidence in the case. She gradually comes out of her deadened state as they try to find out what really happened in the fog the day Jens disappeared. While their story is told, we flash back to the life of Nils Kant, a man who is both simple-minded and cold-hearted, capable as a child of eating his brother’s toffees right after he’s slipped off a rock and drowned. Though he disappeared after killing a policeman, his body shipped home from Brazil years later, many islanders think he lived on and was responsible for the child’s abduction. Most vivid is the setting – an island off the coast of Sweden that has an unusal biosystem, the Alvar where a thin layer of soil over bedrock supports plants that are delicate and tough enough to survive the Baltic winds. Altogether an absorbing, unusual story. A review is forthcoming at Reviewing the Evidence.

Don Winslow / THE DEATH AND LIFE OF BOBBY Z
Though there were many other contenders for my top ten, I couldn’t resist including this one.  It’s a fun romp of a book written with a sure hand. A con who is facing death at the hand of other disgruntled cons jumps at the chance to escape prison when a DEA agent asks him to impersonate a drug dealer. At least this way he has a chance of staying alive, if a slim one. What follows is exciting, violent, hilarious, and touching, with many double and triple crosses. Though this doesn’t have the scope and emotional heft of Winslow’s masterpiece, Power of the Dog, it seems to combine the best of his tough side and the tenderness found in his first book, A Cool Breeze on the Underground.

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