Hard-Boiled Thrills: 2017’s Best Crime Fiction


For a certain kind of crime writer, there’s not a more maddening backhanded compliment than that a book “transcends the genre” and approaches, ahem, literature. These five crime and mystery novels put the lie to that arbitrary line and kept us turning the page through 2017.  

5. You Belong to Me by Colin Harrison
Colin Harrison might not be quitting his day job as one of the most revered editors in all of publishing, but he could. The editor in chief of Scribner is also the author of eight acclaimed crime novels, including this year’s You Belong to Me, his first since 2009. Once again, Harrison slices a sharp narrative knife through the upper classes of Manhattan. It’s an atmospheric noir that captures the way we live now in chilling, uncomfortable ways. An immigration attorney swallowed by his obsession for rare maps; a shady Iranian American financier; a beautiful all-American wife with secrets of her own — Harrison tracks their sins and longing for connection in this quintessentially New York novel. (Sarah Crichton Books, 336 pp.)

4. Crime Song by David Swinson
Talk about earning your crime-writing bona fides. David Swinson has accumulated some hard-earned mean streets wisdom. A former punk rock promoter, indie film producer, and decorated Washington, D.C., detective for sixteen years before turning to fiction, this year Swinson released the second installment in his Frank Marr series. Crime Song surpassed his debut effort, 2016’s The Second Girl, and firmly established his cokehead investigator Marr as one of the genre’s most damaged yet empathetic characters. The writing feels as authentic and true to the street as The Wire — which for crime writers is about the highest praise there is. (Mulholland Books, 368 pp.)

3. Wonder Valley by Ivy Pochoda
Read the prologue. Tell me it doesn’t recall that of Don DeLillo’s masterwork Underworld. Evidently, DeLillo’s opening — which was also released as a standalone novella called Pafko at the Wall — was a model for Pochoda, and it shows. The first twelve pages of Wonder Valley are the best opening of any book this year. In its cover blurb, Michael Connelly claimed that this book is “destined to be a classic L.A. novel.” It’s a panoramic dissection of the city that explores the intersecting lives of six characters searching across this sprawling metropolis — for themselves, their loves, and their demons. (Ecco, 336 pp.) 

2. Wolf on a String by Benjamin Black
When he’s writing unconcerned about plot and narrative momentum, he publishes under his real name: John Banville — a Booker Prize winner who’s been a made man in literary fiction for decades. But eleven years ago, the 72-year-old Irishman took on an alter ego — Benjamin Black — and began churning out crime fiction. Since then, he’s written seven novels in his Quirke series, starring a cranky alcoholic pathologist in 1950s Dublin. He’s also penned one for the Raymond Chandler estate, The Black-Eyed Blonde, that ably dusted off the adventures of Chandler’s iconic P.I., Philip Marlowe. This year, Banville as Black took a hard turn and headed several centuries back — to Prague in the year 1599 and the court of the mad Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. Wolf on a String (released under the title Prague Nights in the rest of the world) is a master class in historical mystery fiction — and because it’s Banville holding the pen, it also includes some of the finest sentences in the English language. (Henry Holt and Co., 320 pp.)

1. A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré
John le Carré — the pen name for David Cornwell — is 86 years old. He’s written twenty-four novels, ten of which have been adapted as films. He’s the undisputed king of espionage fiction; indeed, it’s impossible to imagine the field without his towering contributions. Which is to say, he could be forgiven for settling into a well-earned retirement long ago. Instead, this stunningly sharp octogenarian delivered what might be the finest mystery of the year. A Legacy of Spies returned readers to the world of George Smiley and the British Secret Service, a/k/a the Circus. Times have changed for Smiley and his spymasters — in today’s uncomfortable new world order, they’re called out for a reckoning of long buried sins. As always, the joy of reading le Carré is in his works’ moral ambiguity. There are not so much good and bad guys as varying shades of compromised characters. It’s a world where everyone is guilty, one phone call away from their world imploding…which feels rather like the times we live in. (Viking, 272 pp.)