Isolation. Lockdown. Restrictions. Pandemic. Plandemic. Recession. You don’t need me to tell you that 2020 wasn’t a year brimming with positives. With the challenges we’ve all faced, it’s been difficult to enjoy the darker crime novels that I normally read in quite the same way, so I’ve read fewer books in 2020 than in any year since we started Crime Fiction Lover. Still, I was able to discover the American rural noir author Tom Bouman, as well as the new Icelandic writer Eva Björg Aegisdóttir, and picked up some great crime reads even though I went at a slower pace.
Hopefully things will improve for all of us in 2021. And watch for a new look CFL in January!
5 – Hinton Hollow Death Trip by Will Carver
Escapist crime fiction was popular in 2020. What better way to take your mind off lockdown and the pandemic than to consume a period mystery? Hinton Hollow Death Trip is the polar opposite of escapist crime fiction, and in it Will Carver explores human frailty in his own dark, cynical, tragic and sometimes funny way. Detective Sergeant Pace has escaped to a small town in the Home Counties to avoid the spectres of his last case, but Evil has followed him there. In fact, Evil is your narrator. A whisper here, and we have a little infidelity. A brush past there, and it’s a double murder. What’s got into people since Pace came to town? This unique and challenging novel was one of the best of 2020.
4 – Winterkill by Ragnar Jonasson
From the same publisher as Hinton Hollow Death Trip, Winterkill brings with it a softer and much more compassionate atmosphere, even though at its heart the book is about the unexpected death of a young woman. Easter is coming to the Icelandic town of Siglufjordur, and with it the last big snowstorm of the winter. As the weather worsens, policeman Ari Thor’s investigation into the death grows increasingly complicated. Where others might shelve the case as a routine suicide, Ari Thor wants to know what really happened, and why, in this exceedingly well written and expertly translated novel.
3 – The Kingdom by Jo Nesbo
Another remote, Nordic location for my third choice and The Kingdom by Jo Nesbo is an absorbing family epic set in the far north of Norway. Carl and Roy are as different as chalk and cheese – the former is charming and outgoing, the latter an introvert who fixes things. They are bound together by hideous family secrets, which begin coming to light just as Carl returns to the family farm from overseas with plans to build a luxury hotel and spa complex. With him is his beautiful wife, Shannon, the architect who has designed the buildings. Switching between the past and the present, Nesbo creates an entire village of living and breathing characters, along with a twisting plot line that makes The Kingdom hard to put down.
2 – The Book of Lamps and Banners by Elizabeth Hand
Elizabeth Hand is one of the most underrated writers in crime fiction, but one we have followed closely here on Crime Fiction Lover because we believe she deserves a wider audience. The Book of Lamps and Banners is a book about a book – one which is ancient, valuable and seems to contain a mystical code capable of tapping into the human psyche. It’s also missing. The book was stolen just prior to its sale, from under the nose of Cass Neary and the dealer who was selling it. Whoever took it is willing to kill, but for meth addict Cass retrieving it will give her the money she needs to start over, so she sets out to find it, ending up on a remote Swedish island where pagan white supremacists are making art from the bones of the dead. Wild and horrifying semi-fictional folklore is woven into the cold and terrifying atmosphere here in the fourth Cass Neary novel, which comes highly recommended.
1 – Broken by Don Winslow
Known for big, hefty epics like The Power of the Dog, in 2020 Don Winslow released a book of six shorter stories and they are simply sublime. At 50 to 70 pages each, they’re probably too long to be considered short stories, but they’re all powerful and poignant in their own ways. You’ll travel across the southern United States, starting in New Orleans, before heading to San Francisco, Hawaii and down to Texas. Winslow works in a medley of styles, too. His New Orleans cops in the story Broken are hardboiled through and through, while the three San Francisco stories featuring Lou Lubesnick feel more procedural, with a touch of whimsy. Ben, Chon and O are Winslow characters you may already know, and they’re back for some drug dealing Hawaiian hijinks. Meanwhile, The Last Ride is a heartbreaking mixture of crime fiction and contemporary Western, in which a border patrol cop starts to question what America has become and sees a chance to do something about it. Broken gives you little of everything, and lots of brilliance.