The best crime novels to buy for Christmas

    15 December 2020

    If you are buying Christmas presents for a crime fiction fan then you are spoilt for choice with so many great new novels from the last 12 months or so to pick from. I’ve already recommended a few of my 2020 favourites here, and from those selections The Familiar Dark by Amy Engel, Silver by Chris Hammer and Watch Him Die by Craig Robertson are my favourites. You won’t go wrong with any of those, or pick out one (or more) from the following line-up…

    Three-Fifths by John Vercher

    Three-Fifths, by first time US author John Vercher, begins with a young guy called Bobby reconnecting with his best friend Aaron, who has just been released from a spell in prison for dealing dealing drugs. Incarceration has transformed the latter from a skinny, wannabe gangster into a heavily muscled and tattooed white supremacist.

    Within hours of his release, Aaron commits an unspeakably violent crime, with Bobby his unwitting accomplice. Bobby not only has to deal with the fallout from this horrible incident, but also with the fear that Aaron will soon learn his secret. Unbeknown to his old friend, Bobby is mixed race. The initial act of violence triggers a number of narrative arcs that Vercher switches between expertly and he is capable of building tension to an almost unbearable degree. Aaron is one hell of a creation, both monstrous and pathetic, while Bobby’s growing panic is palpable and immersive. Three-Fifths is a seriously impressive and timely debut, and I’m excited to see what Vercher does next.

    Body Language by AK Turner

    Writing under the pen name Anya Lipska, AK Turner’s Kiszka and Kershaw trilogy was a superb crime series that deserved to be discovered by more readers. Hopefully that wrong will be made right off the back of Body Language, which marks the first novel featuring Turner’s new lead sleuth Cassie Raven, a goth who works as a technician in a Camden mortuary. When Raven is confronted with the corpse of Geraldine Edwards, her academic mentor, she believes that there’s more to her apparently non-suspicious death than meets the eye.

    Cassie is prone to communing with the bodies that end up on her slab and when ‘Mrs E’ appears to confirm her suspicions, Raven decides to take the law into her own hands and get to the bottom of the case herself. Body Language has a terrific, well-paced plot and the tight focus on the mortuary setting works really well to ground the action.

    I love the way every dead body that Raven deals with has its own story to tell and, as Turner proved in her original trilogy, she is adept as creating memorable characters. Raven is a superb protagonist and the background cast is every bit as strong, from the uptight cop who initially suspects Cassie of foul play to Cassie’s fearless Polish grandmother who, when confronted by local drug dealers, first stands up to them and then invites them in for a cream cake.

    My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

    There are so many crime books on my ‘to be read’ pile and Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister the Serial Killer is one I’ve been meaning to get round to for ages. The fact it was shortlisted for this year’s Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year award prompted me to finally read it. It was pipped to the prize by Adrian McKinty’s fantastic standalone The Chain, but it’s nevertheless deserving of all the high praise it’s received.

    Set in Nigeria, a young woman called Korede splits her time between working as a senior nurse at a hospital and cleaning up the mess left by her sister, a self-obsessed Instagrammer called Ayoola who has developed a nasty habit of murdering her boyfriends. When Ayoola starts dating a doctor Korede has had her eye on, things come to a head for these strange sisters. Finding out if they’ll get away with murder is both shocking and, thanks to the pleasingly acerbic comic tone, surprisingly good fun.

    Broken by Don Winslow

    Don Winslow’s Cartel trilogy is arguably the finest achievement in crime writing in the last couple of decades or so. Fans of those books have been treated to another chunk of Winslow this year in the form of this short story collection. The title story follows in very much the same vein as the Cartel books and Winslow’s recent standalone The Force.

    A crew of New Orleans narcotics police, led by notorious Irish-American cop Jimmy McNabb, carry out a successful drugs bust. However, things quickly spin out of control as the gangster targetted in the raid takes out ultraviolent revenge on a member of Jimmy’s family – and Jimmy responds in kind. This opening salvo sets a high standard that is maintained throughout the book and there’s a good narrative variety from one story to the next. The Last Ride, about a patrolman policing the US-Mexico border who tries to reunite a young immigrant child with her mother, is particularly well done.

    The Man on the Street by Trevor Wood

    Trevor Wood’s debut won this year’s prestigious CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger for first time crime writers. It tells the story of Jimmy Mullen, an ex-military police officer fallen on hard times. His problems are legion: he’s homeless on the streets of Newcastle, he’s suffering from PTSD as a result of his stint in the Falklands conflict and he has spent time in prison for committing a violent assault. He is also estranged from his wife and daughter, and is desperate to reconnect with them.

    As if he needs anymore on his plate, Jimmy finds himself embroiled in a missing persons case when an environmental campaigner disappears and it seems Jimmy may have been the last person to see the man alive. The unravelling of this central mystery is well handled and, as with AK Turner’s Cassie Raven, Jimmy is an original and convincing character. Via his protagonist, Wood not only weaves an enjoyable crime novel, but also explores the real world plight of the many ex-servicemen and women struggling to cope with life back on civvy street. The second book in the Jimmy Mullen series, One Way Street, is already out and I’ll definitely be catching up with it.