RoughJustice: Top five books of 2016

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2016 will live long in the memory. But for most of us it will be a year we might wish to forget. A nasty strain of nationalism seems to be rising in Western democracies – is there any other kind? It will be interesting to see how crime fiction responds to this; no other literary genre engages so well with how our society is. Will we see a move away from domestic noir, or will that bandwagon keep rolling? Will there be a glut of escapist thrillers, or a return to the kind of gritty realism and social commentary that George Pelecanos used to write? Will Pelecanos write another book, for that matter? And on top of that there were the sad deaths of two great music icons – David Bowie and Prince.

Anyway, let us rejoice in the great books that we have read this year, and on that note, here is my selection of the best five novels of 2016.

5 – Real Tigers by Mick Herron
This satirical espionage series continues in dazzling form. Slough House’s slow horses find themselves caught in a power play between MI5’s top dogs Diana ‘Lady Di’ Taverner and Dame Ingrid Tearney, and the buffoonish but incredibly ambitious London Mayor Peter Judd – quite who could have inspired this larger-than-life character is anyone’s guess. Judd wants a tame MI5 when he becomes Prime Minister and decides the best way to achieve this is to have a ‘tiger team’ compromise the service. Rumour has it that Herron considered having Judd attempt to co-opt the democratic process to push through a political policy that he never believed in, and which he knew might might prove ruinous for the country, but which would serve his own personal ambition. The author is thought to have discounted this plot as being too fantastical… Read the review here.
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4 – Where it Hurts by Reed Farrel Coleman
Retired Suffolk County patrolman Gus Murphy investigates the murder of TJ, son of small-time hood Tommy D, a man Gus was responsible for arresting many times back in his days on the force. His investigation brings him to the attention of a biker gang, a drug kingpin and a local mafia don, but the real action is in Coleman’s prose. Where it Hurts is a bold examination of middle age, grief and moral duty, and is a literary mystery that stands comparison with previous Coleman novels Gun Church and The James Deans. Read my review of Where it Hurts here.
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3 – Sonata of the Dead by Conrad Williams
Joel Sorrell, Williams’ private investigator, is very much in the classic tradition. He is a flawed hero whose cynicism sets him apart from his ex-colleagues in the Metropolitan Police, but who retains enough idealism to take on the most lost of causes. Here, Sorrell’s search for his missing daughter Sarah dovetails with his investigation into the violent deaths of the members of a writing group. Williams explores creativity and the writing life, while all the time turning the screws on his detective. The second book in a trilogy can sometimes be an unsatisfying read, but Sonata of the Dead is so much more than just a stop-gap before the grand finale. Read my full review here.
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2 – The Second Life of Nick Mason by Steve Hamilton
Career criminal Nick Mason has had five years to regret taking that last big job, the one which was supposed to set him up for life but ended up with him sentenced to 25 years for felony homicide. A Faustian pact with a Chicago crime lord secures his release but not his freedom, and now Mason must commit murder to order. Second Life is a surprisingly brutal and unflinching book from a writer best known previously for the more mainstream Alex McKnight PI thrillers. It feels like Steve Hamilton has thrown the shackles off, and put to one side any commercial considerations in favour of writing what he really wants to.
Somewhere above, Donald Westlake, or at least his alter-ego Richard Stark, is looking down and nodding his head in admiration. Read the review here.
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1 – Hell is Empty by Conrad Williams
Following on from Sonata of the Dead, the Joel Sorrell trilogy reaches its gripping conclusion as Graeme Tann, murderer of Sorrell’s wife, escapes from prison with a gang of violent acolytes. He is intent upon causing more misery for our beleaguered PI. A game of cat and mouse leads to a terrifying final confrontation, from which only one of the men will be able to walk away. Each Sorrell novel is individually satisfying, but taken together (and beginning with last year’s Dust and Desire) they represent an incredible achievement. There is no more fascinating recurring character in crime fiction that Joel Sorrell, and no story more emotionally resonant than his search for his missing daughter. The conclusion to the series, fittingly, is the best of the bunch. Read my review of Hell is Empty.
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Read about my top five books of 2015 here, or find out what my colleagues have picked for their top five of 2016 here.

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