BEST DEBUT CRIME NOVELS AND THRILLERS OF 2023
Debuts are the lifeblood of crime fiction.
Without new authors and new ideas, the genre would become stale and boring. Every year we see an influx of new authors, and while a lot of them are happy to produce yet another ‘Gone Girl On A Train’ or outback mystery imitation, there are always those with something fresh to say or willing to provide a new take on an old theme.
There has been some very good debuts in recent years by authors, such as T. J. Newman, Gabriel Bergmoser and Dominic Nolan, who have gone on to achieve considerable success and showed that their first novel was no fluke. Recently, 2022 saw a spectacular array of debuts, particularly from Australian authors such as Dinuka McKenzie, Matthew Spencer, Shelley Burr and Hayley Scrivenor, which were confidently written novels that took a fresh approach to crime writing. Two of those authors, Dinuka McKenzie and Shelley Burr, also went on to produce very good second novels in 2023.
I do not think that the breadth of debut novels in 2023 was as strong as in 2022, but individually there were some outstanding pieces of crime fiction that introduced us to some very promising authors. In my view, the strongest debut of the year was Michelle Prak’s The Rush, which featured in my Best Thrillers of 2023 list: https://murdermayhemandlongdogs.com/the-years-best-my-favourite-crime-novels-and-thrillers-of-2023/
Since I have already acknowledged The Rush, I thought I would leave it off the list below and instead focus on another six very good debuts. Pleasingly, Australian debut authors have again led the way with three of the books on the list, while the other three come from the United Kingdom, New Zealand and the United States.
The following six novels cover the vast expanse of the genre from a fresh New Zealand take on the serial killer thriller to contemporary and historical crimes to a suspenseful ‘destination thriller’ and an interesting futuristic police novel with a touch of science fiction to it.
They are set out in a rough order of preference below:
Better The Blood by Michael Bennett, (Simon & Schuster UK) was released in New Zealand in late 2022, but was released internationally in July this year. It was also recently announced as the winner of the 2023 New Zealand Ngaio Marsh award for Best Debut Crime Novel. Even though it is not technically a 2023 release, I thought I would include it.
The story about a Māori Auckland detective, Hana Westerman, confronting her own heritage while hunting a serial killer through the city’s streets is a powerful read. The mixture of crime and social commentary works very well and Bennett shines a fascinating light on New Zealand history and the violent legacy of colonisation. The descriptions are very evocative and Hana is a fascinating character, who has real depth to her.
A first class crime novel. I cannot wait to see what Bennett does next.
Jo Callaghan’s In The Blink Of An Eye, (Simon & Schuster, 19 January 2023), was a very early 2023 release, but has stuck in my mind.
Set a few years into the future, In The Blink Of An Eye pairs a recently widowed, London police officer, DCS Kat Frank, with an experimental artificial intelligence entity, basically a computer generated hologram, known as Lock. The intention is to test whether unemotional Artificial Intelligence devices have a role in detecting crime. Kat’s small team has been selected as the pilot for the Artificial Intelligence Detective Entity (AIDE) program and are assigned a series of missing person cases, most of which involve young men, to solve.
The story starts a little slowly, but once underway it really draws you in and gradually grips your attention. The mild science fiction elements are lightly handled and should not be too much of a distraction for hardcore crime readers. The central mystery is well handled and interesting, and the second half of the book moves along at good pace.
There are some quibbles about the book’s credibility, but overall it is a well-crafted and engaging crime novel with a good compelling ending.
Link to my original review here: https://murdermayhemandlongdogs.com/january-2023-reading-peter-may-jo-callaghan-and-louise-candlish/
Sara Ochs’ debut novel The Dive, (Bantam, 25 July 2023), was a very cleverly plotted, dual perspective thriller with an unexpected conclusion.
Scuba diving instructor Cass has made a new life for herself at a resort on Thailand’s world-famous party island,
Koh Sang. Her job is fun and going great, until one morning when a routine diving class is disrupted by the discovery of the body of a tourist who was supposed to be on the dive.
Frequently shifting the perspective between Cass and an Instagram influencer, Brooke, Sara smoothly builds up the mystery about the dead tourist and another recent incident. The opening sections are a little slow, but Sara uses them to create a sense of underlying tension and suspicion. Once I got into the story, I could not put it down, and the final stages are full of surprising twists, and a shock or two.
In all, The Dive is an enjoyable and fun read. Some of the events towards the end require a suspension of disbelief, but the final twist makes up for it.
Leading off the Australian debuts is John Byrnes’ Headland, (Allen & Unwin, January 2023)
Headland has the sort of tough, gritty edge that has been largely missing from Australian police fiction in recent years and its central character, Detective Constable Craig Watson, is a mess. Unpopular with his bosses, and suffering from a range of addiction and behavioural problems, Watson finds himself sent to the small New South Wales beachside town of Gloster, to replace another officer. Hampered by his addictions, Watson starts looking into the case of a missing teenager and a recent car accident that killed a local council clerk and his daughter. His investigations are also undermined by the constant rain and the rising floodwaters, and when the flood prevention measures fail, Watson and two young female constables find themselves stranded in the town and hunted by a killer who needs them dead.
The writing is crisp and sharp, and the characters are finely sketched. The descriptions of Gloster ring true, and the crime at the core of the plot is original and credible. I had some slight reservations about elements of the story, a couple of events mildly strain credibility, but overall this is an outstanding crime novel that also tackles some important issues.
Here is the link to my earlier review: https://murdermayhemandlongdogs.com/new-aussie-crime-january-2023/
Another good Australian crime debut from early in the year was Joanna Jenkins’ How To Kill A Client (Allen & Unwin,
1 February 2023), which was shortlisted for the 2023 Ned Kelly Best Debut Crime Fiction Award.
Set unusually, for Australian crime fiction, in the world of corporate lawyers, How To Kill A Client revolves around the death of an unpleasant lawyer. As an in-house lawyer who controlled millions of dollars in fees per year, Gavin Jones was legal firm Howard Greene’s biggest client and he wielded that power with manipulative contempt. But he saved his worst behaviour for women, at work and at home. Lots of people had good reason to wish Jones dead, but it is up to Ruth, a partner in the firm, to work out who actually did it.
This is an enjoyable murder mystery with a good cast of characters and an interesting setting. The story moves along at a good pace and there are nice touches of humour and insights into the world of high end legal services.
Full disclosure: I was a judge on the panel for the 2023 Ned Kelly Best Debut Crime Fiction Award, which shortlisted How To Kill A Client.
A Disappearance In Fiji by Nilima Rao, (Echo, 6 June 2023), is an engaging historical mystery set in a well described Fiji in 1914.
After a promising start to his police career in his native India and Hong Kong, Akal Singh has been sent to Fiji as punishment for a humiliating professional mistake. Longing to return to Hong Kong, Singh reluctantly becomes involved in the investigation into the disappearance of an indentured Indian woman from a sugarcane planation. Before long he finds himself invested in the case and battling racism.
This is an enjoyable crime novel with a great historical setting and an engaging cast of characters. The story is interesting and provides an interesting insight into colonial Fiji and the terrible reality of life as an indentured worker.
A must for fans of historical crime novels.
The above books are very different in style and intent, but they are all very impressive in their own way. You should check them all out, as I suspect that their authors are going to be influential figures in the world of crime fiction going forward.
Here is a link to my favourite crime and thriller titles of 2023: https://murdermayhemandlongdogs.com/the-years-best-my-favourite-crime-novels-and-thrillers-of-2023/