CriFiLover: Top five books of 2011

There seem to have been so many great new crime books in 2011 that it’s hard to select a top five. It’s a time when publishing in general seems to be entering a new dimension and new writers are using digital media to reach readers without treading the traditional road to market. You have to applaud the likes of Kerry Wilkinson whose books are selling by the thousands on Kindle and who has never signed a book deal. Meanwhile, even seasoned crime writers like Lawrence Block are embracing the new formats.

For me, though, a book is a book whether it’s on paper or on an iPad. I like the more granular stuff, and I love novels that make you think. I won’t be drawn into an argument about literature and pulp; I actually prefer a combination of readability and interesting ideas generally within a noir-ish milieu. Over the past five years or so I’ve definitely been drawn to Scandinavian crime fiction as well. So now you know where I’m coming from, here are my top five.

5 – Viva La Madness by JJ Connolly
The sequel to Layer Cake was 10 years in the making. The author displays real flare when it comes to storytelling and here our nameless hero comes out of retirement in the Caribbean to help his old friend Morty and two really edgy London gangsters set up a new drugs racket. It’s all on behalf of a mysterious firm higher up the food chain. But when one of them kills a man belonging to a powerful Venezuelan crime family it all goes sideways. It’s a novel of sex, drugs, computers, big money and the latest London gangland lingo. With the main character’s wisecracks offset by the constant possibility of ultra-violence, Viva La Madness is a must read if you like Brit grit. I hope his next novel doesn’t take quite so long.
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4 – The Snowman by Jo Nesbo
It’s over to Norway with my number four book and guess what – there’s blood on the snow. Lots of it. A serial killer is taunting Nesbo’s police detective Harry Hole. The murderer is abducting women, and building a snowman whenever he does so. It’s chilling stuff – gory and brutal, with decapitations – and it seems the hunter is becoming the hunted as he delves into the Oslo underworld. All the while Hole deals with his alcoholism, and apathetically watches from the sidelines as his ex begins a new relationship. Nesbo’s work can be a little far fetched but nevertheless The Snowman is a gripping book. Spriteby mentioned the other day that there’s a new Harry Hole novel on the way – looking forward to that in 2012.
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3 – The Killer is Dying by James Sallis
Many films and TV shows and depict hitmen in their prime. They’re ruthless and because of this they are dangerous adversaries for the good guys. Here James Sallis takes a rather surreal look at what a hitman might be like when he’s past his prime. The killer in question relies on impeccable planning, anonymous ways of finding jobs and dealing with clients, and fastidious skills in covering his tracks. But as his body deteriorates so does his clinical approach to his job. The story brings together the troubled assassin, the cop who’s hunting him and the teenage boy who, for some bizarre reason, is experiencing the hitman’s dreams. Like I said, it’s surreal. It’s set in Phoenix and in some ways reminds me of DeLillo’s Underworld as it considers life in the South Western USA.
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2 – Dregs by Jørn Lier Horst
This Norwegian author’s books are gradually being translated into English and it’s no bad thing. Dregs is a police procedural that draws on Horst’s own experiences as a policeman, and sees his main character chief inspector William Wisting trying to figure out why severed left feet keep washing up on the shoreline of Stavern, a coastal town in Norway. There isn’t a terrific amount of action in the story as Wisting unravels and old conspiracy, but I liked the tension and the undercurrent created by the author. He plays poetically with water-based themes throughout to give the whole thing a cold, wet, dark and elemental feel.
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1 – Dust Devils by Roger Smith
Here’s the funny thing. Even though I think it’s the best crime novel of 2011, I can’t say I love Roger Smith’s book. I’m not even sure I like it. The truth is it’s a difficult book to read because so many horrendous things happen. At the same time, it’s easy to read because Smith writes so wonderfully, firing dialogue and description at you in a way that makes it hard to put down. It’s set in South Africa and confronts you with some of the country’s biggest problems – including crime, AIDS and racism – in a plot involving a man’s quest to avenge his dead family, murdered in a cover-up by a Zulu crime lord who believes sex with a virgin will cure his AIDS. Be strong. Buy this and read it – you won’t regret it.
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If you’ve read any of these books and wish to comment, please feel free to do so below.

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