Charles Perry Shares His Top 5 Favorite Crime Novels of The Season
As a publisher, editor, and bookseller of mystery fiction, Charles Perry stays on top of the best of the genre. Here are his thoughts on some of his favorites of this season.
Lars Kepler, The Rabbit Hunter. Lars Kepler’s thrillers are a special breed. Their twisty plots are propelled by thrilling action, fuel that drives the story into continually darker territory and uncovers ever-bleaker scenarios at practically every turn.
Kepler conjures a world that is grotesque and human; they plunge into the seediest, sleaziest places and look straight into their joyless cores. And in this respect The Rabbit Hunter is no exception: a sprawling crime novel that will leave you feeling like you need a shower—and not just because you’ve been reading continuously for a couple of days.
From the book’s claustrophobic opening, in which a sex worker is pursued by a violent man, then saved when he’s murdered by an intruder, the narrative expands quickly and broadly. The deceased is identified as the minister of foreign affairs, and his murder viewed as part of a suspected terrorist conspiracy.
The ensuing investigation casts light into the neglected corners of society, winding through a prison, a human trafficking operation, a truck stop prostitution ring, and a junkie hangout, and also into the rarified circles of the rich and elite. At its center, we come to know the celebrity chef Rex Müller, a troubled man struggling to keep his life together who is depicted with compelling depth and heart.
…while Kepler’s subjects can be emotionally challenging to read, their prose (at least in Neil Smith’s translation) is pure joy.
Charles’s Take: Ultimately, while Kepler’s subjects can be emotionally challenging to read, their prose (at least in Neil Smith’s translation) is pure joy, cinematic in its precision and clarity. And this quality of writing is matched by the artfulness of the plot, which unravels widely and unexpectedly for much of the book, only to come neatly together at the end, which means that the book’s many shocking surprises are matched by just as many satisfying conclusions. All in all, a dazzling page-turner.
Peter Swanson, Eight Perfect Murders. Peter Swanson’s new novel is catnip for mystery fans — and especially irresistible for those of us lucky enough to work in bookstores that specialize in the genre. The book is narrated by Malcolm Kershaw, owner of Boston’s fictional mystery specialist, Old Devils Bookshop.
Some years back, Kershaw compiled a list of eight perfect murders taken from the classics of the genre—murders as plotted by Patricia Highsmith, John D. MacDonald, Agatha Christie, and so on—and now, it seems, somebody is using his list as a guide.
There has been a murder apparently inspired by Christie’s A. B. C. Murders, and another that seems to reference James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity. The copycat crimes involve some obscurity and interpretation (they aren’t all direct imitations of the literary murders), but the similarities are clear enough to bring the F.B.I. knocking on Kershaw’s door to ask questions.
As might be expected of any fan of such novels, he’s happy to help the agent and to discuss murders and books at great length, and to hypothesize about motive and style. Then it’s revealed that he knew one of the victims, and the case becomes personal. And then he neglects to share some personal information with the detective, and the narration veers into the unreliable territory of the thriller.
…successful as a straightforward mystery, delivering a well-clued and satisfying solution at the end.
While I’ll acknowledge that the unreliable narrator has a significant place in classic mystery novels, Swanson’s protagonist is more akin to those deceptive storytellers of modern psychological suspense, the likes of which readers of the author’s other works will find familiar.
Charles’s Take: While the book succeeds in mounting tension and dread to produce a thrilling page-turner, it is also successful as a straightforward mystery, delivering a well-clued and satisfying solution at the end. Considering the artful blending of these two modes in the narrative, I’d venture to say that only Peter Swanson could have written this book, and that readers should be quite happy that he did.
Christopher Bollen, A Beautiful Crime. A story of a con-gone-awry set in the gorgeous streets of Venice in decline, Christopher Bollen’s newest novel offers the perfect escape from winter’s long tail. The book is smart and stylish, rendered with vivid, atmospheric prose that transports the reader to the muggy Mediterranean heat from the very first page, as New York’s most recent emigré Nick Brink touches down in Italy to start a new life with boyfriend Clay Guillory.
The duo have come to Venice with a plan to sell counterfeit antiques, a swindle that should bring in enough cash to help them resettle. But they both soon find that it’s harder to make a clean break with the past than they had expected, and that old habits die hard. The small-time operation is soon traded up for a larger attempt to sell a property which they do not own, and as the stakes increase, so too does the danger.
Charles’s Take: Broader meditations on love, class, race, sexuality, and a dying city deepen the implications of the narrative and give it added substance. That said, it’s the refined setting and the deceit-laden plotline of two grifters in over their heads that makes A Beautiful Crime such a pleasure to read. Top-notch escapist fare, every bit as enjoyable as Bollen’s previous novel, The Destroyers, which I loved.
Liz Moore, Long Bright River. When so-called literary writers deign to try their hands at crime fiction, they often do so with mixed results. In the worst cases, they condescend to the genre, as if they were doing readers a favor by lifting up such a lowly form. In the best cases (and Liz Moore’s Long Bright River happily fits into this category), they come to the genre naturally, finding in it the narrative structure best suited for the story they hope to tell.
Long Bright River is both a big story and a small one. Featuring a police officer whose relationship with her sister was destroyed by addiction, it tells the deeply personal story of her family’s issues alongside the larger story of Philadelphia in the throws of the opioid epidemic. The sisters still encounter each other occasionally in Philly’s roughest district, on opposite sides of the law, but they seldom talk.
Then a serial killer begins preying on the woman in the area, the sister, Kacey, disappears, and Detective Mickey Fitzpatrick is consumed by a fervent search for the truth, as if that truth might somehow save the person she once loved.
Charles’s Take: You’ve almost certainly read of a troubled cop’s search for a serial killer before, but never quite like this. Moore approaches this well-worn story with fresh eyes, crafting a book that confidently affirms its place within the genre without getting bogged down by its long history. Instead, she uses the police procedural as one would a poetic form: atop the structure and the narrative momentum of the investigation, she finds space to study her characters and their relationships, and the history of both in a city worn down by the decades.
Chan Ho-Kei, The Second Sister. As anyone who read Chan Ho-Kei’s debut, The Borrowed, can tell you, this is an author who knows Hong Kong inside and out. While that previous title began in the 2000s and worked its way back through the history of the city’s twentieth century, the author’s newest stays firmly planted in the present, delivering an in-depth view of the ways in which technology has shaped contemporary Hong Kong society.
What caused fifteen-year-old Siu-Man to commit suicide? After her death at the beginning of this sprawling novel, her sister Nga-Yee is unconvinced that the girl had any reason to end her own life, despite an encounter with a serial groper, the witness testimony that put him behind bars, and the viral hate campaign targeting her in the aftermath. Nga-Lee suspects foul play, and to get to the bottom of it, she seeks out a genius hacker known only as N, who reluctantly takes the case.
In the pages that follow, N employs both cyber tools as well as old-fashioned detection to discover the truth behind Siu-Man’s demise, and his investigation takes him—and the reader—into the economic fringes of the city and into its high-tech underworld as well.
Charles’s Take: Through that investigatory effort, the author uncovers a universal story of life in the age of the internet, elevated by observant scenes of both Hong Kong city life and sordid online behavior.
To read Mystery Tribune’s review of latest titles in crime fiction, mystery and thriller genre including previous reviews by Charles Perry, please visit here.