The Best Discoveries of 2020: Crime Fiction
Updated: Dec 12, 2020
Looking at last year’s list, my 2020 Crime Fiction list is a bit shorter, but not by much. Despite the title of this post, these are the best crime fiction books I read in 2020, regardless of when they were published. I hope you’ll find something to enjoy in this baker's dozen of books. So here we go:
Nada (1972/2019) Jean-Patrick Manchette, Donald Nicholson-Smith, translator
Manchette has become something of an acquired taste for me, but I’m hooked now. A group of militants attempts to kidnap an American ambassador, but this is really an exceptional character study of five revolutionaries with five different reasons for their exploits.
Shamus Dust (2019) Janet Roger
The Fifth Floor (2008) Michael Harvey
I enjoyed Harvey’s first Michael Kelly novel The Chicago Way, but Harvey upped his game with his second entry in the series. Private detective Michael Kelly gets hired by an old flame to tail her abusive husband, but Kelly instead finds a dead body, which might lead his investigation all the way to the mayor’s office. A nice novel with a bit of Chicago history thrown in.
The Rare Coin Score (1967) RIchard Stark (Donald Westlake)
This ninth book in the Parker series finds Parker involved in the theft of over $2 million in rare coins from a weekend coin show. As usual, Parker has to work with people who are a bit less than professional. And is Parker getting interested in a woman while he’s working? Say it isn’t so! All the Parker novels are great, but this one is one of my favorites so far.
Turn on the Heat (1940) A.A. Fair (Erle Stanley Gardner)
Since the first book in this series, The Bigger They Come, is hard to find, I started with the second, Turn on the Heat, featuring the fun detective team of the large Bertha Cool and the wisecracking Donald Lam. Although they're not quite the same, there are some elements of Rex Stout's Archie Goodwin (from the Nero Wolfe novels) in Lam, and perhaps some elements of Wolfe in Bertha. Who knows? The first Wolfe novel appeared in 1934, five years before the first Cool and Lam book. Regardless, this second entry was great fun. I look forward to reading the rest.
Slow Horses (2011) Mick Herron
In the first book in this series, London’s Slough House is where you go when you’re demoted as an MI5 operative. You've screwed up badly enough to be trapped here doing crappy jobs forever, trying in vain to get back in the organization’s good graces. River Cartwright is one of these “slow horses” who plans to track down a gang wanting to carry out the beheading of a kidnapped victim live on the internet.
To Each His Own (1966) Leonardo Sciascia, Adrienne Foulke, translator
When a pharmacist named Manno receives a death threat in the mail, he wonders what he could’ve possibly done to warrant such a thing. But the next day, both he and his hunting partner are killed. After a fruitless police investigation, a local high school teacher believes he can solve the mystery. This unconventional Italian detective novel is as much an examination of society as it is a murder investigation. I look forward to re-reading this one and discovering more of Sciascia’s work in translation.
After Dark, My Sweet (1955) Jim Thompson
Nobody writes like Jim Thompson with his level of darkness and brutality, sometimes combined with stupidity, not in the writing, but in some of his characters. Take William “Kid” Collins, for example. Once a recognized boxer going places, he’s now a drifter after escaping from a mental institution, but he's not crazy, just thick. After meeting a gorgeous woman named Fay, Collins suddenly finds himself falling for her and involved in a kidnapping scheme with Fay and an older man who calls himself Uncle Bud. Not Thompson’s best, but very good.
Blacktop Wasteland (2020) S.A. Cosby
My favorite crime novel published in 2020. Beauregard “Bug” Montage is a good husband and father, an honest mechanic (try finding one of those) trying to make ends meet. But Bug is also the best getaway driver on the East Coast. When his auto repair shop starts struggling, Bug finds himself being pulled back into “the life.” Once you read the novel's first chapter, I dare you to put it down. Blacktop Wasteland is simply one of the finest crime novels of the year. Highly recommended.
Ride the Pink Horse (1946) Dorothy B. Hughes
Dorothy Hughes is one of the best crime fiction writers of the 20th century, but not enough people know about her. Thankfully many of her books are now in print or coming back into print. A new edition of Ride the Pink Horse will be published by Otto Penzler's American Mystery Classics line (pictured above) in March 2021. Whether you read it in this new edition, an older one, or an ebook, do yourself a favor and read any of Hughes's work. You won't regret it.
Midnight Road (2014) Jada M. Davis
Although this novel was published in 2014, it was written back in the 1930s, so if it feels like it’s from another place and time, it is. Jeff Carr is a 15-year-old struggling with some hard times during one Texas summer. The locals say Jeff looks more like a man named Kenty Hooker than his own dad, and Jeff’s mom isn’t reveling any information. Jeff has also fallen for a girl named Sam, who’s no longer a little girl, but Sam’s family isn’t exactly welcoming to Jeff, and there’s a reason why. When a murder takes place in their small community, things soon spin out of control. You can think of this as backwoods noir, but the Davis’s voice in this novel is tremendous.
Look, if you’re not reading books from Stark House Press, you should correct that oversight right now. They have a terrific lineup of books and the $5 sale they kicked off in August is still going on. (And yes, Midnight Road is one of those $5 books.)
The Black Path of Fear (1944) Cornell Woolrich
Hard Rain Falling (1964) Don Carpenter
I’ve got about 75 pages to go in this novel, and I really don’t want it to end. This one won’t be for everyone, but if you can imagine a story by Dostoevsky relocated to the West Coast in a pre-Summer of Love setting, with hard-hitting brutality, roach-infested hotels, seedy pool halls, and a parade of unrelenting, hardened criminals, then this one might just be for you. Jack Levitt, an orphaned teenager, knows nothing but living a life of crime while thinking on his feet and swinging his fists. While telling a gripping story, Carpenter masterfully integrates religion, philosophy, sociology, and even economics (and if you think that’s easy, try it.). One warning: If you read the NYRB Classics edition (pictured above), don’t read the George Pelecanos introduction until after you’ve finished the book. I’m generally a big fan of Pelecanos, but he gives away far too much in this introduction.
So let me know which crime fiction books you enjoyed this year.
Next time, we’ll start in on movies, beginning with my favorite rediscoveries from 2020. Hope to see you there.