Rough Justice: Top five books of 2022

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Picking my favourite crime novels of the year is always a double-edged sword. There’s great satisfaction in recognising some brilliant work, but also a little doubt, and guilt, about the books I leave out. I have to stick to five though, and after some consideration, I’m happy with my choices. My list includes some returning favourites and some authors who are new to me.

5 – The Last King of California by Jordan Harper

The Last King of California by Jordan Harper front cover

Jordan Harper’s second novel – and the second to be set in Southern California’s lawless world of white power gangs – might be overshadowed by his Edgar-winning debut, She Rides Shotgun, but The Last King of California succeeds on its own terms. Teenager Luke Crosswhite anxiously returns to a world where he never really belonged. His father may be the leader of the Combine gang, but he can’t protect his son from his prison cell. Luke has to prove his bones to a sceptical crew whilst trying to decide if he even wants their approval. A threatened takeover by a larger gang provides a dramatic push to the narrative, forcing individual members of the gang to start considering a life outside the Combine, which has Blood is Love for its motto. Harper’s language is excellent and his exploration of the relationship between Callie and Pretty Baby provides tenderness to offset the violence. Read our review here.
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4 – The Last Housewife by Ashley Winstead

The Last Housewife by Ashley Winstead front cover

The publicity for this novel led me to believe I would be reading a twisty domestic noir of the type that has become very popular over the last five years. I was not prepared for what I actually got. Shay Evans returns to her New York college town a decade or so after graduating. She has heard of her friend’s suicide and their shared history of being trapped in a patriarchal cult makes her suspicious. She’s helped in her investigation by a journalist friend who presents a true crime podcast. As Shay investigates, her past and present collide, and she seems to lose her identity. Trying to understand how she became a victim the first time around, Shay seeks an entry into the town’s hidden sado-masochistic underworld. But the further she travels, the more she seems to blur the lines between investigator and devotee. The Last Housewife is an unsettling read, and the author succeeds in making the reader feel complicit in the abuse. It certainly isn’t for everyone, but does stand as an advert for how powerful crime fiction can be. Read the full review here.
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3 – White Horse by Erika T Wurth

White Horse by Erika T Wurth front cover

This slow burn thriller is set among the Urban Indian population of Denver, Colorado. Kari, mid-30s, single, works two jobs and spends her spare time propping up the White Horse Bar. Her cousin, Debby, brings her an Indian bracelet which she thinks might have belonged to Kari’s mum, who went missing shortly after her birth. After touching the bracelet, Kari begins having visions of her mother and of a monster from Indian folklore. She investigates her mother’s disappearance, albeit somewhat reluctantly initially, and connects with family she never knew existed. As well as being a superior horror-thriller hybrid, White Horse is a satisfying exploration of female friendship, and a brilliant bittersweet depiction of someone first coming to understand there may be more to life than the next party. Read our review here.
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2 – Shifty’s Boys by Chris Offutt

Shifty's Boys by Chris Offutt front cover

The army CID officer Mick Hardin has returned to his native rural Kentucky to recover from IED injuries suffered during his last tour of Iraq. His sister, Linda, is running for election as the county sheriff, and just like last year’s brilliant The Killing Hills, becomes involved in her murder investigation. This time the victim is Fuckin’ Barney Kissick, a local small time dealer who has been found dead in a car park. Linda can’t get anywhere with the tight-lipped locals, deemed an outsider for the sin of coming from a neighbouring town, and it gets her goat to ask for her brother’s help again. Mick investigates haphazardly, in between repairing his cabin and prevaricating over whether to sign his divorce papers. The novel finishes with a surprisingly action-packed finale. Shifty’s Boys is full of delightful humour and leaves the reader smiling despite Mick’s melancholy outlook. Mick and Linda are memorable creations but the real star of the series is the isolated Kentucky hills setting, and its inhabitants. Read our review here.
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1 – Real Easy by Marie Rutkoski

Real Easy by Marie Rutkoski front cover

Real Easy features dancers from The Lovely Lady strip club, outside Chicago. Two dancers are run off the road after leaving the club. Jolene dies in the crash and Samantha is abducted. A third dancer, Georgia, finds herself investigating the crime despite not being close to either girl. The mystery unravels in a satisfactory manner, but the magic of the book is to be found elsewhere. The characters of the three dancers, as well as those of the two investigating detectives, are skilfully revealed and I felt I really knew them. So much so that after one particular victim is discovered, I had to put the book down. That’s not something that happens often. Real Easy also benefits from a killer first line which puts the reader on notice straight away that this is no ordinary book. Not a single word of its 300 pages is wasted, and Real Easy is a deserving pick for first place. Read the review here.
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Read about my top five books of 2021 here.


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