The Harrogate festival is thirteen years old this year. Since the Theakston’s Old Peculiar Crime Novel of the Year has picked some of the best home-grown talents over the period, I thought I’d look at thirteen of the best American crime novels written over the past thirteen years.
The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow (2005)
One of the most impressive and unflinching crime novels (or indeed novels) of the 21st century. Winslow paints a compellingly hellish portrait of the war on drugs through the eyes of several characters caught up in its machinations. Machine gun prose, liberation theology and a couple of scenes so brutal they’re still stuck in my mind ten years after reading them. A masterpiece.
The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly (Orion, 2005)
Connelly manages that almost impossible trick – creating a new series that’s just as scintillating and original as his first. Featuring Connelly’s usual labyrinthine plot and driven characterisation, what makes this such a new direction for the legal thriller is replacing the idealistic, honourable young lawyer protagonist of yore with the sleazy, demoralised Mickey Haller.
Legends by Robert Littell (Duckworth, 2005)
Legends is the best spy novel I’ve ever read. That simple. Littell takes the fundamental tropes of the classic espionage narrative and turns them on their heads to examine identity and shifting allegiances in this ferociously intelligent and mind-rattling novel that’s as much Philip K Dick as it is Le Carre.
The Sluts by Dennis Cooper (Carroll & Graf, 2005)
Oh boy, this is dark. Set mainly in cyberspace, The Sluts is a coruscating ride through the unreliability of narrative as well as the hidden pockets of the internet. From one of the few truly transgressive novelists living today, this is not for the faint hearted.
Twilight by William Gay (Faber, 2006)
Kenneth and his sister Corrie suspect that something isn’t right with their father’s burial. They exhume the corpse only to discover it’s much more horrific than their worst imaginings. So begins a terrific chase novel set in the Deep South that owes as much to the modern horror novel as it does to Cormac McCarthy and Faulkner.
The Given Day by Dennis Lehane (Little, Brown, 2008)
Lehane’s most ambitious and beautifully realised novel. Set in the years following World War One and taking in America’s labour problems, the Great Depression and the evolution of the city of Boston, The Given Day is a master-class in historical crime fiction.
The Killer is Dying by James Sallis (No Exit, 2011)
A beautiful and painful meditation on suffering and death that snakes through the streets of Phoenix following a terminally ill hitman, a disenchanted cop and a young boy. Sallis slows the action down to wrench the greatest emotion out of his steely and often startling prose.
Tequila Sunset by Sam Hawken (Serpent’s Tail, 2012)
Hawken is writing some of the best crime novels of our times. Set in the bloodlands of the Mexican / American border, this is a brilliantly structured tale following three individuals through the moral quicksand of modern-day policing and drug culture.
Claire DeWitt & the Bohemian Highway by Sara Gran (Faber, 2013)
One of the strangest and most affecting crime novels of the past decade, Gran’s second DeWitt books takes us deeper into Claire’s past in sinuous sentences of great beauty. What begins as a classic PI tale soon plunges into a world of lost dreams, broken lives and dwarf horses – shot through with a sharp sense of sadness.
I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes (Transworld, 2013)
The spy novel rebooted. Hayes conjures up an entire world through the precise, elegant detail of his sentences as an agent codenamed Pilgrim ruthlessly hunts down the terrorist known as the Sorcerer. A classic thriller but also a fascinating meditation on radicalisation and geopolitics.
Death of a Black-Haired Girl by Robert Stone (Corsair, 2013)
Stone’s final book is perhaps his best. A casual affair between a professor and one of his students leads to her death. Her cop father decides to investigate. A profound and affecting look at loss and grief.
The Boat by Clara Salaman (Head of Zeus, 2014)
A bit of a cheat as this is British but was so overlooked when it came out that I can’t not include it. Salaman delivers one of the most original crime novels in years, a hell-is-other-people riff worthy of the great Paul Bowles. A British couple on holiday in Turkey end up on the run and catching a lift on a boat with another, older couple. Salaman ratchets up the tension spectacularly in this dark slice of marine noir.
Kolymsky Heights by Lionel Davidson (Faber, 2015)
Okay, it’s British and originally came out in 1994, but most people (including myself) missed it. This current Faber reissue remedies that and Kolymsky Heights proves to be the ultimate Russian-based thriller. Through a complex and conflicted hero, the wild whispering wastes of the Siberian Taiga, and a masterful way with creating nerve-racking tension, Davidson has created an old-fashioned adventure tale shot through with modern anxieties.