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Paul Burke: Top five books of 2021

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It’s been a stellar year for crime fiction – no wonder sales of mysteries and thriller titles are still going up. Even the pandemic isn’t dampening the desire for the thrills and spills that come with a good crime novel. My CFL top five reviews of the year reflects some to the diversity the genre encompasses. These are all books that struck a chord or a mood.

5 – The Strangers of Braamfontein by Onyeka Nwelue

The Strangers from Braamfontein by Onyeka Nwelue front cover

One the most impressive debut crime novels of the year, The Strangers of Braamfontein is a story of corruption, gangland violence, sex trafficking, modern slavery and murder, set in Johannesburg among the migrant communities of the Braamfontein ghetto. The death of a young woman, a sex worker, is the doorway into an exploration the city’s underbelly and it says a lot about contemporary society. Violent but empathetic, this is a powerful read with a pungent setting. The Strangers of Braamfontein is like an A to Z of crime and it’s a convincing snapshot of a chaotic world. Read our full review here.
Buy now on Amazon

4 – Good Cop Bad Cop Simon Kernick

Good Cop Bad Cop by Simon Kernick front cover

Hero or villain? That’s the central question in Good Cop Bad Cop. Is Met Detective Constable Chris Sketty an honest to goodness white knight, the hero of the Villa Amalfi siege, or a manipulative and calculating criminal mastermind responsible for the deaths of several people in a terrorist attack at the London restaurant that night? It all starts when he goes undercover in Hammersmith to investigate corruption in the gangs unit and after that the line between good and bad blurs. Only in the final pages does it become clear whether Sketty is hero or villain. This has all the pace, tension and exhilaration of Line Of Duty – it’s a police procedural that’s all action and a brilliant guessing game. Find out more in our review.
Buy now on Bookshop.org

3Brazilian Psycho Joe Thomas

Brazilian Psycho by Joe Thomas front cover

Another crime story buzzing with social commentary, this completes the São Paulo quartet, bookending the first three mysteries in the series. The story dives into the underbelly of a city which is the financial heart of Brazil’s economy. The business and political corridors are as grimy as the darkest criminal corners of the favelas. The fully realised landscape is corrupt, chaotic and violent. Brazilian Psycho runs from 2003 to 2019, from the election of a radical but crooked left wing government to the succession of Jair Bolsonaro, an incompetent right wing demagogue in 2018. Cop Mario Leme investigates the murder of a school teacher. Brazilian Psycho confirms Thomas as a stylish, innovative and morally complex writer who often presents pared back prose and brief glimpses of story that we as readers paint into a full blown picture. Devastatingly powerful and compelling reading. Read the review.
Buy now on Amazon

2Riccardino Andrea Camilleri

Riccardino by Andrea Camilleri front cover

Sadly, Riccardino is the last of the Inspector Montalbano stories following the death of Camilleri in 2019. The series spans two decades so it’s no wonder we have formed such an attachment to the irascible but brilliant detective. Riccardino is a bravura performance by the grand old man of Italian letters. Set, as ever, in the fictional town of Vigàta on the south coast of Sicily. Has everything from strange crimes to Montalbano’s personal war with authority and a confrontation between the author and his character thrown in. A perfectly pitched ending to one of the great crime series. Translated by Stephen Sartarelli. Read our review.
Buy now on Bookshop.org

1 – The Dark Remains Ian Rankin and William McIlvanney

The Dark Remains by William McIlvanney and Ian Rankin

Ian Rankin completed William McIlvanney’s manuscript not only honouring his mentors work but infusing it with his a bit of his own. The result is a superb prequel to the Laidlaw trilogy – the series credited with establishing the Tartan noir subgenre. The Dark Remains opens in 1972 and Laidlaw is just a detective constable. He’s got a new job, a boss he hates and his own theories on the murder of a local gangster’s fixer found dead on another villain’s turf. If the killer isn’t found quickly, war between the gangs could break out among the gangs of Glasgow. Read our full review here.
Buy now on Bookshop.org

See which books my colleagues have chosen in their top five lists for 2021.


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