FAVOURITE BOOKS OF 2021
2021 was a difficult year for many, but on the crime fiction/thriller front it was a very good year. As with 2020, I read slightly more in 2021 than in previous years, and thought that the overall quality was far better than usual. Pleasingly, there were again some very good books by Australian authors, and the state of crime fiction in Australia continues to blossom and grow. I will again on Australia Day (25 January 2022) be presenting my favourite Australian-based crime novels of the past year, but some of them can also be found on the lists below.
This year I am dividing my list into Crime Novels and Thrillers. The division between the two is rather arbitrary, but I have tended to follow the advice of George Easter at Deadly Pleasures, and applied the term thriller to books which feature a fast pace, a protagonist in danger, lots of action, usually a deadline or two and the focus is on saving someone or something. And most importantly, there are no cats! Some of the books below, such as John Connolly’s The Nameless Ones and James Kestrel’s Five Decembers, could fit in either grouping, but I have shoehorned them into the category which seems the most logical to me.
I have tried to limit myself to 6 in each category, but failed to do so with the crime novels and have included 8 (I just could not leave off the books by Michael Robotham and Simon Rowell). In addition, there were also six very good debut novels, which I will be highlighting in the next couple of days.
In 2021 I thought that some of the veterans of the genre, Michael Connelly and Ian Rankin in particular, really stood up and produced outstanding books, while relative newcomers, such as S. A. Cosby, built on the promise of their earlier books. I tried to read widely and thought that there good books across the spread of the crime fiction field. One of the pleasing aspects of 2021 was the number of authors who revitalised the tired ‘unreliable female narrator’ genre and took it in exciting new directions. Although they just fell short of my Lists, I thought the books by Catherine Steadman (The Disappearing Act ), Karen Hamilton (The Ex-Wife) and Pip Drysdale (The Paris Affair) were particularly good in this area. While Allie Reynolds’ Shiver, one of my favourite debuts of 2021, was the pick of the several books which played with the classic crime theme of taking a number of dodgy characters to an isolated location and killing them off one by one.
It was very hard narrowing down my favourite books of the year to 12 or so, and I have included a handful of highly commended books at the end of the list, all of which would sit comfortably in a Top Ten listing. I have also included links to my original reviews of the books.
The order of preference is very rough, and changes every time I think about it. This was particularly the case with the books in the Crime category, and I found it very hard to separate the books by James Kestrel, Michael Connelly,
S. A. Cosby and Ian Rankin. In the end I decided that the originality and breadth of Five Decembers by James Kestrel just got it over the line ahead of Michael Connelly’s searing portrait of Los Angeles during the pandemic, The Dark Hours.
James Kestrel’s Five Decembers (Hard Case Crime) was a mixture of crime novel, war story, romance and thriller, and was a stunning achievement. It opens in Hawaii in the days before Pearl Harbor, before heading off in totally unexpected directions. It, and Michael Connelly’s The Dark Hours, are the two books which have stuck most in my mind this year. Outstanding! https://murdermayhemandlongdogs.com/tough-guys-and-crooked-cops-my-november-crime-reading/
Michael Connelly’s The Dark Hours (Allen & Unwin/Little Brown) combined a good, exciting crime story with a searing portrait of Los Angeles, and America, in 2021. Ballard and Bosch’s pursuit of a murderer and a pair of vicious rapists gripped attention, but it was Connelly’s compelling vision of policing in 2021 that stayed in my mind. https://murdermayhemandlongdogs.com/the-dark-hours-by-michael-connelly-allen-unwin/
S. A. Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland was the stand-out crime novel of 2020. A powerful heist novel with a large dose of social commentary and fine writing, it deservedly won praise and awards from around the world. Cosby’s follow-up, Razorblade Tears, about two fathers, one white and one black, seeking revenge for the murder of their sons, was just as impressive and showed that Cosby was no ‘one-hit’ wonder. https://murdermayhemandlongdogs.com/july-justice-new-tough-novels-by-s-a-cosby-steve-cavanagh-and-gabriel-bergmoser/
Ian Rankin’s completion of an unfinished novel left by the ‘godfather of tartan noir’, William McIlvanney, is a masterful performance by Britain’s leading crime writer. Set in Glasgow in 1972, The Dark Remains is a tough, gritty tale that convincingly captures the style of the original Laidlaw novels. The dialogue sparkles and the tension steadily mounts as Rankin takes Laidlaw down some dark streets in search of the killer of a major criminal. Top Notch! https://murdermayhemandlongdogs.com/the-dark-remains-by-william-mcilvanney-and-ian-rankin-canongate/
I really enjoyed Sarah Bailey’s novels about DS Gemma Woodstock, but thought that the richly plotted The Housemate (Allen & Unwin) represented a significant step in quality for her. A clever cold case crime novel with dual timelines set nine years apart, it is an impressive mystery that reminded me of Val McDermid’s early stand alone novels. There is depth and complexity to the plot, and the characters are credible and interesting. The story darts in unexpected directions and Bailey unleashes several good surprises in the final pages. A very good read. https://murdermayhemandlongdogs.com/the-housemate-by-sarah-bailey-allen-unwin/
Jane Casey’s stand alone novel, The Killing Kind (Harper Collins), plays some clever variations on the usual serial stalker theme, with London barrister Ingrid Lewis trying to escape the attention of a disgruntled former client. A very carefully crafted and totally absorbing mystery that builds to an exciting conclusion and several clever twists, most of which I did not see coming at all. https://murdermayhemandlongdogs.com/strong-reliable-female-narrators-late-june-reading-by-michael-robotham-catherine-steadman-and-jane-casey/
Michael Robotham is one of my favourite authors. He rarely, if ever disappoints, and When You Are Mine (Hachette) is another first class read. It features a new engaging protagonist in the form of promising young London police officer Philomena (Phil) McCarthy, who gets in deep trouble when she pursues a domestic violence case against a popular police detective. A well written and suspenseful novel. https://murdermayhemandlongdogs.com/strong-reliable-female-narrators-late-june-reading-by-michael-robotham-catherine-steadman-and-jane-casey/
Simon Rowell’s The Long Game (Text) pushes the list out to eight, but I could not leave it off. The Long Game is a very entertaining crime novel that is elevated above much of the competition by its easy flowing style, nicely limned characters, vivid descriptions of Melbourne’s beachside suburbs, and strong sense of credibility. It was a pleasure to read. https://murdermayhemandlongdogs.com/the-long-game-by-simon-rowell-text-august-2021/
As I mentioned upfront, it was very hard to limit the list to eight, as there were several others that could have also made it comfortably on the list. So a shout out to the following books which were also very good: Treasure & Dirt by Chris Hammer; Dead Ground by M. W. Craven; Dead Letters by Michael Brissenden and The Last Time She Died by Zoë Sharp.
The seventh book in Mick Herron’s highly acclaimed series about Jackson Lamb and the ‘slow horses’ of Slough House was probably the most eagerly awaited spy fiction release of 2021 and Slough House (John Murray) certainly did not disappoint with its twisty plot, superbly etched characters and wry touches of humour. A must for all fans of British espionage fiction. https://murdermayhemandlongdogs.com/spies-spies-spies-three-recent-espionage-novels-by-mick-herron-jack-beaumont-and-michael-kurland/
Also well worth checking out was Herron’s collection of short stories, Dolphin Junction (John Murray): https://murdermayhemandlongdogs.com/dolphin-junction-by-mick-herron-john-murray/
Paul Doiron’s Dead By Dawn (Minotaur) was probably the most flat out exciting thriller I read this year. From the thrilling opening, when Maine game warden Mike Bowditch’s jeep is forced off the road into an icy river, to the final bloody conclusion, the pace and excitement never let up in this page turning novel of survival. It also has a good mystery running through it. https://murdermayhemandlongdogs.com/wilderness-thrillers-new-books-by-c-j-box-and-paul-doiron/
John Connolly’s The Nameless Ones (Hodder & Stoughton), could fit comfortably under either the thriller or crime novel category, but I think that its relentless pursuit plot and bloody action places it more readily in the thriller pile. Regardless of how it is categorised, it is a terrific, fast moving story that once again showcases Connolly’s beautiful writing and his amazing grasp of history and detail. I also liked the extra texture given by the slight supernatural elements and the moving reflections on death and culture. https://murdermayhemandlongdogs.com/the-nameless-ones-by-john-connolly-hodder-stoughton-july-2021/
Island Reich (Michael Joseph) by Jack Grimwood (aka Jon Courtenay Grimwood) is an enjoyable hark back to the classic World War II thrillers of the 1960s and 70s. It is a fast paced, twisty story that smoothly interweaves historical fact and fictional action. A really entertaining read. https://murdermayhemandlongdogs.com/september-suspense-books-by-margaret-hickey-jack-grimwood-and-lachlan-page/
Alan Carter’s Crocodile Tears (Fremantle Press) is a fast paced, intelligent spy thriller that was convincingly located in Australia and nearby Timor-Leste. The story grabbed attention from the opening pages and held it till the bloody conclusion. Enhanced by a strong cast of supporting characters, a nice dollop of smart political commentary and some vivid descriptions of Australian and Timor-Leste, it was a very enjoyable read. https://murdermayhemandlongdogs.com/australian-crime-fiction-crocodile-tears-by-alan-carter-fremantle-press/
I have always had a soft spot for the African novels of Tony Park and I thought that Blood Trail (Pan Macmillan) was one of the best books that he has done. Dealing with the effects of COVID on wildlife parks and poaching in South Africa, it is a well paced and action filled novel that fascinates with its background information. https://murdermayhemandlongdogs.com/blood-trail-by-tony-park-macmillan-august-2021/
Again there were several other books that could have easily been added to this list, including Henry Porter’s The Old Enemy, Tom Bradby’s Triple Cross, Gabriel Bergmoser’s Inheritance and Steel Fear by Brandon Webb and John David Mann.
In all, more than enough good books to keep you reading into 2021.
Look out for my pick of the best debuts of 2021 in the next couple of days.