Paul Burke: Top five books of 2023

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It was a truly impressive year for crime fiction and I got to review some special novels for Crime Fiction Lover – all that in spite of the glut of celebrity novels, some ghost written, which attracted a lot of attention but added little to the genre. This is the time to celebrate, though, and there were plenty of ingenious mysteries, unforgettable characters and original writing to revel in. My top five are…

5 – Murder at the Residence by Stella Blómkvist

Murder at the Residence by Stella Blómkvist front cover Icelandic crime fiction

Translated by Quentin Bates, this Icelandic novel is shrouded in mystery because, amazingly, no one knows the true identity of the author of this long running series. This is the first to appear in English and I now eagerly await more. Stella is a celebrity lawyer in Reykjavik, the only person who cares when a sex worker goes missing. Juggling that and a host of other cases and clients, Stella is ready to take on the police, criminals and anyone daft enough to get in her way. There’s never a dull moment in this excoriating account of misogyny, corruption, power and wealth. Pleasingly, Blómkvist doesn’t preach, there’s plenty of humour in this novel and you will be onside with Stella immediately. If I were to wind up on the wrong side of the law, she’s the person I want in my corner. Fast, intelligent and intriguing. Read my full review here.
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4 – The Messenger by Megan Davis 

The Messenger by Megan Davis front cover

This is a Paris-set domestic psychological thriller with political conspiracy undertones that will appeal to a wide audience. It’s a rare combination but the story is pulled off with aplomb, reminding us that the personal and societal are often inextricably entwined. When Alex’s father Eddy is murdered, he and his street-wise friend Sami are blamed. Eight years later and out of prison Alex, sets out to find out what really happened the night of the murder. Alex’s father was an investigative journalist who ruffled influential feathers, co could there have been more to it? This is a story of misunderstood youth, dysfunctional families and petty crime leading to tragedy. Complex characters and a perfect blend of the macro and micro themes make this a truly impressive debut. Intense, engaging and genuinely empathetic, a rich and rewarding debut with Paris part of its fabric. Read my full review here.
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3 – Age of Vice by Deepti Kapoor

Age of Vice by Deepti Kapoor front cover

Epic is the only word for this ambitious literary thriller. As a gangster novel, much of its appeal comes from its exotic location – New Delhi. Let’s face it, India is an underexplored territory for contemporary crime stories and this fact alone makes it fascinating. The tale spans decades and tells the story of a gangster, his driver and a reporter and their relationships. The result is a nightmarish portrait of modern India and a capital city with its vast and all pervasive shadowy side. We see how religion and politics divide communities, and extreme wealth and poverty, exacerbated by class, corruption and violence. The narrative is lyrical and bouncy, in contrast with the terrible things that are happening. The result is exhilarating, this has the pace of a page turner – it’s fast, fun and thrilling. Highly readable. Read my full review here.
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2 – The End of Us by Olivia Kiernan

The End of Us by Olivia Kiernan front cover

I didn’t think Kiernan would be able to top her excellent Frankie Sheehan series with this stand alone but she did. What we have is a complex psychological thriller, channelling a Patricia Highsmith vibe, set in SW19. High-flying Dr Myles Butler lives la dolce vita with his psychiatrist wife, Lana, in a gated community in Wimbledon Village. The problem is he’s run up huge debts and the Butlers are close to bankruptcy. Then the neighbours suggest an insurance scam involving the faking of Lana’s death and collecting on the policy, for a cut. Lana would have to disappear until it was all over but what other options does Myles have? Of course it all goes wrong, the police arrive, Myles doesn’t know where Lana is or who’s pulling the strings. Kiernan gets us to care about these entitled characters deep in trouble of their own making. This is a deliciously suspenseful noir novel in which the twists are seamless executed. The clever, unpredictable denouement is masterly and fitting. Read my full review here.
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1 – Force of Hate by Graham Bartlett 

Force of Hate by Graham Bartlett front cover

Graham Bartlett’s debut novel, Bad for Good, gave us a Brighton very different from that of Peter James’ Roy Grace novels – grimier, the politics a lot nastier. This corrupt and corroding cityscape is even more evident in his second police procedural. The streets are mean but so are the airy offices where the sleazy business of city governance is conducted. As a former senior police officer in the Brighton area, Bartlett lived the reality and knows just how to spice it up for his thrillers. Chief Superintendent Jo Howe is a strong character and we see police work set against a backdrop of political influence, corruption, racism and violence. The story couldn’t be more relevant as trouble is stirred up in the city. Exciting, gripping, and troubling – Force of Hate is an intelligent and thoughtful novel that royally entertains with a fizzing and grounded story. Read my full review here.
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See my 2022 picks here.

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