BEST DEBUT CRIME NOVELS OF 2021
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’ imitation, there are always those with something fresh to say or willing to provide a new take on an old theme.
In 2020 we saw some outstanding debuts by authors as varied as Gabriel Bergmoser, Richard Osman and Kyle Perry, all of whom have gone on to produce high quality second novels.
This year there does not seem to have been as many noteworthy debuts as in previous years, but those that have come along are very good and hopefully their authors will be around for some time.
The following are eight debut novels which caught my attention this year. They cover the vast expanse of the genre from outback noir to straight out thriller to cold crimes and a chilling mystery set high in the Alps.
They are in a rough order of preference below:
Steel Fear by Brandon Webb and John David Mann is a terrific mixture of murder, mystery and thriller action set aboard a large United States aircraft carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln. Following a disrupted mission in the Persian Gulf, Navy SEAL sniper Finn is sent home onboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. When he sets foot on the ship he senses something is wrong and soon finds himself tracking a possible serial killer. Well plotted and full of credible and fascinating background information on what it is like to live on a large aircraft, Steel Fear certainly keeps a strong grip on your attention from beginning to end.
Allie Reynolds’ Shiver (Hachette) takes the old plot device of a group of characters, each with their own secrets, being killed off one by one in an isolated location, and gives it a modern sheen. The story alternates between events ten years ago, when one of their friends was killed at a snowboarding competition, and the present day, when they are all regathered at an isolated ski lodge high up in the French Alps. Allie uses her background as a champion snowboarder to add some interesting background detail to the story, and the plot unwinds at a good pace with lots of surprises and suspense.
T. J. Newman’s much publicised Falling (Simon & Schuster) arrived on the back of lots of hype, but for once it was justified. Minutes after take-off, veteran pilot Bill Hoffman receives an unexpected video call from a terrorist who has taken his family captive. Either crash his Los Angeles to New York flight into an undisclosed target or watch his family be blown up by the explosives strapped to them. If he tells anyone about the terrorist threat his family will killed. He is also told that another terrorist is onboard to make sure that he follows instructions. As Bill tries to thwart the terrorist’s plans, the plane steadily makes it way north to its destination. It is a great premise and Newman does a good job in wringing the maximum suspense from it.
More sedate than the first three books, is Matt Nable’s nicely crafted debut set in Darwin in the early 1960s,
Still (Hachette). This is a slow burn, character driven crime novel with a good level of tension and a strong sense of foreboding. It excels in its characterisations and depictions of life in Darwin in the 1960s, and the descriptions of the moribund city and the surrounding countryside are very vivid and ring true. It is an impressive novel.
At first glance Cutters End (Penguin) appears to be yet another novel about a flawed police detective investigating a murder in an outback town with which he has some connection, but Margaret Hickey provides her own twists and depth. The story involving an investigation into an old death on a remote piece of highway, is a good one and Margaret deftly creates an interesting set of characters and locates them in a believable time and place. The reflections on the passage of time and the loss of opportunity, give the story a nice poignancy and there is a real depth to the characters. Although Margaret has written other books, my understanding is that this is her first crime novel and I have included it as a debut book.
Girl, 11 (Text) by Melbourne-based Amy Suiter Clarke appeared with very little publicity and probably should have received greater attention. Set in a nicely realised Minneapolis, Girl, 11 is a good addition to the growing number of crime novels involving old murders and true crime podcasts. A quirky central protagonist and a snaky, surprising plot keep me interested from the beginning to the tense conclusion.
The Jigsaw Man (HQ) by Nadine Matheson came out earlier this year, but I only just around to reading it. It is a very accomplished take on the serial killer thriller with a London based female detective trying to track down a copycat killer who is slicing his way to infamy. The characters are deftly handled and there are the requisite twists and turns, and plenty of tension. The opening sections are a little slow, but once underway is a quick, suspenseful read that is given some depth through Matheson’s exploration of mental health issues, exploitation and racism in the police force. I look forward to her next novel about Detective Inspector Anjelica Henley.
Sweet Jimmy (Allen & Unwin) is not a novel, but a collection of short stories by popular Australian actor Bryan Brown. Written in a stripped down, unadorned style these crisp stories skirt the fringes of Australian noir as Brown takes the reader down the mean streets of Sydney. Featuring cops, thieves, drug dealers, distraught fathers and a bored dentist, these stories are full of wit, humour and heartbreak, and have a strong Australian flavour to them. A very enjoyable piece of Aussie urban noir.
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.