In 2019 we bid farewell to one of crime fiction’s iconic investigators, Bernie Gunther. His final outing, completed shortly before author Philip Kerr’s untimely death last year, is just as gripping and immersive as its predecessors. Metropolis (Quercus) is set in Berlin in 1928, where the young Gunther finds himself on the trail of a killer of sex workers and a serial murderer who targets disabled war veterans.
This year’s most impressive debuts include the brilliant literary thriller Kill [redacted] by Anthony Good (Atlantic), an inventive exploration of the morality of revenge after a terrorist attack, and Holly Watt’s To the Lions (Raven), the first in a new series featuring investigative reporter Casey Benedict. Others worth seeking out are Kia Abdullah’s thought-provoking legal thriller, Take It Back (HQ); Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s vivid evocation of the slave trade in Georgian England, Blood & Sugar (Mantle); and Scrublands (Wildfire), an accomplished slice of outback noir by Australian journalist Chris Hammer. American Spy (Dialogue) by Lauren Wilkinson is the story of black agent Marie Mitchell, recruited in the 1980s by the CIA as the bait in a honeytrap for the president of Burkina Faso, whose fledgling government the Americans are keen to destabilise.
Established practitioners who go from strength to strength include Mick Herron, whose Slough House series of spy thrillers – the sixth and most recent title is Joe Country (John Murray) – is being televised, with Gary Oldman slated to play the spectacularly repulsive Jackson Lamb. The final thriller in Don Winslow’s Cartel trilogy, The Border (HarperCollins), is social fiction at its finest, showing how Mexican gangsters, enriched by decades of America’s wrong-headed “war on drugs”, are now taking advantage of the opioid crisis. There’s more astute state-of-the-nation commentary, this time on Brexit Britain, from John le Carré in Agent Running in the Field (Viking), and on US race relations in Heaven, My Home (Serpent’s Tail) by Attica Locke. Also on the police procedural front, but in the UK, Jane Casey published her eighth DS Maeve Kerrigan book, Cruel Acts (HarperCollins), and Sarah Hilary’s DI Marnie Rome made her sixth appearance in Never Be Broken (Headline) – two intelligent series whose protagonists have real emotional depth.
Tana French took a break from her superb Dublin Murder Squad series for The Wych Elm (Viking), a compelling examination of the unreliability of memory, the effects of trauma and the relationship between privilege and what we perceive as luck. Other changes of direction include The Chain (Orion), a standalone thriller from Adrian McKinty, author of the Sean Duffy series, which invests a pyramid kidnapping scheme with compellingly appalling plausibility; and The Whisper Man (Michael Joseph), a police procedural with supernatural overtones by Steve Mosby, writing as Alex North. After almost a decade, Kate Atkinson was reunited with her series character Jackson Brodie. In Big Sky (Doubleday) the gruff PI returns to his native Yorkshire and becomes involved in a case of human trafficking and a historic paedophile ring.
Catastrophically dysfunctional friendships are the key ingredient in an increasingly popular domestic noir sub-genre, of which The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley (HarperCollins) is an outstanding example. When a group of thirtysomething chums go on a mini-break to an exclusive hunting lodge in the Scottish Highlands, things soon begin to unravel: everyone, it turns out, has something to hide. Another exceptional read in this vein is Mel McGrath’s The Guilty Party (HQ), in which a group of friends all have reasons for not reporting the rape of a stranger who is later found dead.
Something this reviewer is delighted to see on the rise is what might be described as “hot-flush noir” – put-upon middle-aged women against the world – a hitherto neglected sub-genre that, given the crime-reading demographic, publishers really ought to be encouraging. Two stand-out examples are Helen Fitzgerald’s sublime Worst Case Scenario (Orenda), a foul-mouthed, satirical revenge thriller in which Glasgow probation officer Mary Shields battles career burnout and the menopause, and The Godmother (Old Street) by Hannelore Cayre, translated from French by Stephanie Smee. Winner of both the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière and the European Crime Fiction prize, this witty, acerbic gem is the story of a fiftysomething widowed mother of two who, facing a precarious future, decides to become a drug dealer.
This year saw the 50th anniversary of the Manson murders and books exploring cults included Lisa Jewell’s The Family Upstairs (Century) and Fog Island (HQ) by Scientology survivor Mariette Lindstein, translated from Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles.
Lastly, there have been a number of welcome reissues, including Susanna Moore’s erotic classic In the Cut (W&N), a terrifying tale of death and sex first published in 1995, and, from several decades earlier, The Listening Walls and A Stranger in My Grave (both Pushkin Vertigo), by the queen of north American domestic noir, Margaret Millar (1915-1994). It all adds up to a bumper year.
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