“The Year’s Best Crime Fiction” by Barry Forshaw

Critic and Author, Barry Forshaw

British crime critic and author Barry Forshaw chooses his best picks from the 2010 crime crop. This article first appeared in The Independent.

Fast-fading 2010 produced an embarrassment of riches for the crime fiction aficionado. While various bestselling names phoned in some sadly uninspired work, others shone brilliantly, with the burgeoning field of crime in translation steaming ahead. Jo Nesbø’s The Snowman (Harvill Secker) consolidated his reputation as a Scandinavian novelist ready to fill any Stieg Larsson-shaped holes. Nesbø, one ex-rock star who can actually write, fuses urgent storytelling with a keen engagement with social issues, and may be shaping up to commandeer Nordic fiction. The Snowman, with detective Harry Hole up against an implacable killer in a snowbound Norway, is certainly the most disturbing of Nesbø’s books – which is saying something.

Still abroad (but in more sultry climes), Gianrico Carofiglio’s Involuntary Witness (Bitter Lemon) has one grateful that the author swapped prosecuting criminals for rendering them in fiction as complex and ambitious as this, with his lawyer hero Guerreri involved in murder and racism.

But the grass wasn’t always greener abroad in 2010. Under slate-grey British skies, home-grown talent was flourishing: Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands (Bantam Press) — about the relationship between a murderous paedophile and a boy trying to find the body of his uncle — managed to glean the best word of mouth for any new crime novel in years before bagging the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger.

The avenues of historical crime are now like Oxford Street on a Saturday afternoon, but several novels made stepping back in time worthwhile. William Ryan’s The Holy Thief (Mantle) plunges the reader into an atmospherically conjured 1930s Moscow full of arcane detail, with policeman Alexei Korolev getting into deep trouble while nurturing different beliefs from those of his colleagues.

If, however, you’ve a taste for period novels that marry detailed, gamey locales with incident-stuffed plotting, CJ Sansom’s books featuring his hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake are essential reading. Heartstone (Mantle) may be a touch prolix, but Shardlake’s unceasing battle with chicanery in every echelon of Tudor England is riveting stuff.

John le Carré’s Our Kind of Traitor (Hodder) is, strictly speaking, espionage, but features a marvellously drawn master criminal, as impressive as anything created by le Carré’s literary hero, Conrad. Thankfully, the author’s anti-American political hectoring is now on the back burner, and this richly rewarding novel is a reminder of what a national treasure we have in him.

The Dashiell Hammett estate gave the nod to a successful prequel to one of the great detective novels, The Maltese Falcon, with Joe Gores’ Spade and Archer (Orion). Here we encounter more youthful versions of the characters in that book: the definitive private eye Sam Spade, of course, and his partner Miles Archer. Gores (who worked as a detective) demonstrates an amazing skill in recreating the milieu of one of the most iconic books of the genre.

MR Hall’s The Disappeared (Pan Macmillan) is a hypnotic piece of work. Hall’s protagonist, the vulnerable Jenny Cooper, is settling into her new job as coroner and surviving on a diet of anti-depressants and downers. She has to contend not just with corpses but with Christian fundamentalists, Muslim divorcées and an impossible teenage son.

To its credit, the spunky independent publisher Quercus has been banging on doors (with limited success) to obtain the recognition in the UK sorely due to Peter Temple, one of Australia’s most respected literary crime novelists. Truth had Melbourne homicide cop Stephen Villani finding the cracks in his private life spreading when a series of fires ravages the city, and a murder case becomes the catalyst for his own meltdown.

And a final flurry of recommendations: already a success in Sweden, Camilla Läckberg is set to make a long overdue breakthrough here with The Stonecutter (HarperCollins); credit-crunch Ireland is the timely setting for Alan Glynn’s Winterland (Faber); while Imogen Robertson’s Anatomy of Murder may have cheekily borrowed its title from an Otto Preminger film, but is otherwise exuberantly original – as is Andrew Taylor’s elegant The Anatomy of Ghosts (Michael Joseph). And debuts don’t come more blistering than American writer John Verdon’s Think of a Number from the same publisher.

But what was the best crime novel of 2010? Impossible to say; but with such a cornucopia, perhaps those who’ve been telling us we’ve never had it so good are right after all?