It’s always hard to pick favorite books from the 40-some crime, mystery, and thriller books I review for Crime Fiction Lover each year. They’re all so different, it’s hard to compare them. Some authors are consistently strong, and you know who they are. What excites me more is when an author I’ve never read before – maybe never even heard of – hits it out of the park. So, here are my top five of the year, out the 11 that received five stars. It could almost have been a random draw for places two through five, but Steph Cha’s book is my number one.
5 – Primary Obsessions by Charles Demers
The fresh setting (Vancouver, British Columbia), the intriguing ethical issues raised, and Demers’s lively writing style propelled this into my top five. It’s the story of Annick Boudreau, a cognitive behavioural therapist working with a patient who has obsessive, violent thoughts. She’s sure the man poses no real danger to anyone; then his irritating lowlife roommate is murdered. When the police find the therapy journal in which he records his thoughts, they’re sure they have their man. It’s up to Annick to probe Vancouver’s seamier side to save her patient. Author Demers is also a playwright, which may account for the unusually realistic and witty dialog.
2 – Little Altar Boy by John Guzlowski
If you love a good police procedural, this one returns to a time before the widespread and systemic problem of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church came to light. Chicago police detective Hank Purcell and his partner are tracking down a report of an abusive priest, an activity fraught with personal and political ramifications. At the same time, Hank’s daughter, Margaret, has gone missing. It appears she’s mixed up with a whole different species of predator: those who peddle drugs. The detectives are faced with two situations in which there are no simple, right answers. Fine writing here.
3 – The Night of Shooting Stars by Ben Pastor
Ben Pastor’s award-winning political thrillers about Wehrmacht colonel Baron Martin von Bora offer a peek inside the Third Reich, with all its dangers, fractured loyalties, and paranoia. At his uncle’s funeral, Bora hears a whispered rumour that his uncle may have been murdered. That’s certainly not the only rumour swirling around Berlin in the summer of 1944, leading up to Claus von Stauffenberg’s abortive attempt to assassinate Hitler. Following up on a short-term assignment to solve a set of mysterious deaths, Bora must navigate a minefield of dangerous information. Thrilling.
2 – Seven Lies by Elizabeth Kay
This domestic thriller takes you deep into the 20-year friendship of two London women, as told by one of them, Jane. Jane’s early career has gone off the rails, while her friend Marnie is finding increasing success with her food blog. Marnie also has a new man in her life, Charles, whom Jane loathes. While the author signals early on what’s going to happen, as Jane’s lies start to accumulate, she’s boxing herself into a shrinking space. Jane’s close-in perspective on what’s happening to all of them never gets boring, as she’s full of surprises, but never out of character.
1 – Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha
Steph Cha’s look back at the interracial conflicts that ravaged Los Angeles in the early 1990s is an unforgettable, heartbreaking tale with powerful contemporary resonance. I listened to the audio version, and the actors compellingly portrayed members of the Black and Korean families at the centre of the story. Although set in 2019, the roots of the conflict between these two families go back almost 20 years. The shooting that took place then has been a source of ongoing tragedy for both families and an enduring symbol of racial antagonism for the community. Not what anyone wanted, then or now.