Rough Justice: Top five books of 2023

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Every year, when I come to write this list, I fret about the books that didn’t quite make my top five. This year, for a change, I’ve found something different to nag at my conscience – the books that I loved but didn’t review. This might have happened for any number of reasons, but I want to bring some of them to your attention. After all, sharing my love of crime fiction and nudging readers towards great books is why I review in the first place. So, honourable mentions for the following: The Secret Hours by Mick Herron, Panther Gap by James A McLaughlin, Bright Young Women by Jessica Knoll and Becoming The Boogeyman by Richard Chizmar. All, in my opinion, are worth your time.

5 – Code of the Hills by Chris Offutt

Code of the Hills by Chris Offutt front cover

For the third consecutive year, a Mick Hardin thriller finds its way on to my best-of list. If this keeps up, I might have to visit Hardin country, as I like to think of it. Mick is back in the rural Kentucky hills he knows so well, but also somewhat lost, having served his 20 years in the US Army and recently divorced. Mick’s sister, Linda, is the local Sheriff. After she is shot in the course of duty, Mick is deputised to help out. Meanwhile, prize roosters are being stolen as tensions simmer in the local cock-fighting scene. Long-buried secrets are brought to the fore and scores settled. Code of the Hills is the most conventional thriller of the series, and no worse for it. Offutt’s prose is as lyrical and thoughtful as ever and Mick Hardin is a hero for our times. Read the full review here.
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4 – The Continental Affair by Christine Mangan

The Continental Affair by Christine Mangan front cover

AKA the story of Henry and Louise, antagonists from different countries and cultures, who gradually fall in love over the course of this historical, romantic mystery. Henri has fled to Spain from France to work in his extended family’s criminal gang. In France his police job involved persecuting citizens who, like himself, were of Algerian background. When a job involving a simple handover goes wrong, he finds himself tailing the young woman who, by accident, found herself in receipt of a large amount of cash. Louise had left her stifling life in England behind after her father’s death and on an impulse travelled to the continent. Suddenly free, and with money she never expected to have, she undertakes a tour, with Henri in pursuit. Henri’s restless family, frustrated by his inaction and possible betrayal provide the criminal aspect, but it is the period atmosphere and slow-burn romance which really elevates the novel. Fans of Alan Furst will find much to enjoy. Read the full review here.
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3 – Ozark Dogs by Eli Cranor

Ozark Dogs by Eli Cranor front cover

Arkansas author Eli Cranor displays a consummate familiarity with the noir sub-genre in this elegant novel of feuding working class families. The Ledfords, tight-nit outlaws with Klan links, have to find something to reignite their diminishing hold over the methamphetamine market and Evail thinks he has the answer – imported Mexican drugs paid for by people smuggling. Years back, Rudnick Ledford was killed breaking into Jeremiah Fitzjurl’s junkyard and giving the Mexicans Joanna Fitzjurl would make great payback.

Ozark Dogs works on all the levels. It’s a tense heart-breaking drama, economically written and full of complicated and compromised characters. On another day, it might well have been my number one pick. Cranor has another novel due in the spring and I can’t wait to read it. Read the full review here.
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2 – The Hurricane Blonde by Halley Sutton

Hurricane Blonde by Halley Sutton front cover

Twenty years ago, Tawney Lowe was found dead in the pool of her Beverly Hills home. The mystery of the starlet’s death was never properly solved and it’s something her sister, failed actress Salma, never quite able to live up her sister’s memory, has never gotten over. Tawney was engaged to firebrand director Cal Turner at the time of her death and Salma has always suspected him. When Salma discovers another dead actress in the pool of what was once her sister’s house, a woman recently been cast in Turner’s latest movie, she blags her way on to the set to investigate.

The Hurricane Blonde benefits from an intriguing plot which allows for a takedown of the Hollywood culture and an examination of how women are seen more generally. Halley Sutton makes the most of it to deliver a dark, twisty, articulate and ambitious thriller. Read the full review here.
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1 – Scorched Grace by Margot Douaihy

Scorched Grace by Margot Douaihy front cover

It’s pleasing to see a debut take the top spot in another great year for crime fiction. Holiday Walsh is a nun and music teacher at a Catholic school in New Orleans. She’s taken up her habit, at least in part, in penance for her part in a terrible accident. Her tattoos, swearing, smoking and background as a punk rock musician have led her colleagues to question her suitability, but her devotion to the kids, and to God, is genuine. Arson and possibly murder force Holiday, the daughter of a retired detective, into her own investigation of events at the school and to a reckoning with her tragic past.

While I had minor reservations about the solution to the arson attacks, Holiday is such a unique and compelling protagonist that they are easily overlooked. Margot Douaihy puts Holiday (and the reader) through the wringer but pulls off the magic trick of making Scorched Grace the most enjoyable book of the year. Read the full review here.
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Read about my picks for 2022 here.

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