SPRING CLEANING – THE BEST CRIME NOVELS AND THRILLERS OF 2023 …. SO FAR!
I am about to head off on a six week trip, and have been doing some pre-spring cleaning, sorting through the books I have read so far this year and excitedly picking out the most promising books to be released before the end of the year.
Later this week I will be posting on the major releases to come over the next two months, but for now I thought I would do up a list of my favourite books of 2023, so far.
Just over half the way through the year and we have already seen some terrific releases from new and established authors. So much so, that I found it very hard narrowing down my list to just a dozen, plus two debut novels! The number of high quality Australian crime books this year is particularly pleasing and they have tended to dominate the lists. This is partly a reflection of my reading, but also of the high quality of recent Australian crime fiction. In addition to the ones below, there were several others that I could have easily added on.
There are also some very good British spy and crime fiction on the list. I have not read enough American crime fiction this year, and few of the ones I have read have stood out, but I am planning on rectifying that while I am travelling, starting with Kevin Powers A Line In The Sand.
The lists below set out, in no particular order, my favourite crime, thriller, and debut novels of 2023 so far. In addition, I have highlighted a couple of others which are also very good.
The division between crime novels and thrillers 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 could fit in either grouping, but I have shoehorned them into the category which seems the most logical to me.
I have provided some brief words under each of the books and a link to my longer reviews if you want to check out in more detail what I thought about them (but no spoilers).
Firstly, the crime novels
Leading off the Australian crime releases is Dinuka McKenzie’s Taken (Harper Collins, February 2023).
I thought that Dinuka’s The Torrent was one of the best Australian crime debuts of 2022, and her follow-up novel is just as good. Well plotted, with nuanced and interesting characters and a fine sense of place, Taken holds interest from beginning to end, as DS Kate Miles juggles the demands of recent motherhood, with the pressure of a sensitive case involving the abduction of a child.
Complex themes involving gender politics, corruption and Kate’s mixed heritance are ably woven into the story, without slowing the pace, or becoming too didactic. An outstanding crime novel.
Here is the link to my original review: https://murdermayhemandlongdogs.com/taken-by-dinuka-mckenzie-harper-collins-february-2023/
Gabriel Bergmoser’s The Caretaker, (Harper Collins, 2 August 2023), has only just been released, but it is probably the most addictively readable crime novel I have come across so far this year.
Charlotte is hiding out with a new identity in a small ski resort in the Australian alpine region. On the run from the police, and some very dangerous criminal associates of her former husband, Charlotte has taken a job as an off-season caretaker for a small clutch of deserted lodges. Charlotte thinks that she is safe and alone, but suddenly she is not.
There is a good sense of mystery and uneasiness from the opening pages, and an early twist quickly sets the adrenaline pumping. The pace is quick throughout, and Bergmoser skilfully shifts the action between the present and the events in the past that have led to Charlotte’s current situation. There is suspense and surprises in both storylines, and Bergmoser steadily builds the tension as the two strands merge into a bloody conclusion. The Caretaker is one of those books which is very hard to put down.
Here is the link to my recent review: https://murdermayhemandlongdogs.com/deadly-caretakers-and-podcasters-new-2023-australian-crime-fiction-by-megan-goldin-and-gabriel-bergmoser/
Also offering a brisk pace and plenty of action is Michael Trant’s No Trace (Bantam, May 2023).
Set in the harsh vastness of the Western Australian desert region, it follows wily dog trapper Gabe Ahern as he deals with the possibility that some dangerous crooks from his past are after revenge. Trapped on a remote cattle property in the Pilbara with a handful of farm workers and a bunch of city folk eager for an authentic outback experience, Ahern fears that his past has caught up with him.
This is a spectacularly good crime thriller. The story is an enjoyable mixture of thriller action and murder mystery, and it builds to a taut and bloody climax. The characters are well formed and believable, and the ageing and taciturn Gabe Ahern is a marvellous creation. The ending is suitably tense and surprising, and there are some great, authentic descriptions of the outback.
Here is the link to the original review: https://murdermayhemandlongdogs.com/australian-outback-noir-new-books-by-michael-trant-darcy-tindale-and-margaret-hickey/
Andrew Nette’s Orphan Road, (Down & Out Books, May 2023), brings some good urban grit to the Australian crime genre.
A tough, taut heist novel with a good stripped down writing style and great cast of crooks and lowlifes, Orphan Road holds tight attention from the opening failed robbery to the final bloody showdown. I am a big fan of gritty heist stories, and this one is a beauty. It is also a good reminder that not all Australian crime occurs in the outback or some small regional town.
My favourite of the British crime releases so far, is Adrian McKinty’s The Detective Up Late (Blackstone, 8 August 2023).
It is the seventh book in McKinty’s series about 1980s Northern Ireland detective Sean Duffy and picks up the action soon after the events at the end of Police At The Station And They Don’t Look Friendly. The story is set as New Year’s Eve rings in the beginning of the 1990s, and finds Duffy investigating one last tragic case before moving his family to Scotland and a part time working arrangement at the Carrickfergus RUC.
The Detective Up Late contains all the elements we have come to expect from a McKinty novel. The writing is first rate, and the story commands attention from the opening pages. The plotting is tight and interesting, and there is a strong cast of characters and an evocative sense of place and time. There is plenty of reflection on the past, but overall the pacing is good with some very exciting set-pieces. Underlining it all is a good twisty storyline about a missing girl, that bristles with poignancy and offers a few neat surprises. A superior piece of crime fiction.
For pure enjoyment is it hard to go past Steve Cavanagh’s Kill For Me Kill For You, (Headline, July 2023).
The story is yet another variation on the central conceit of Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers On A Train, this time involving two women who have been devastated by death. Amanda and Wendy meet at a grief counselling session and over a few drinks realise that they have much in common. Gradually they concoct the perfect plan: If you kill for me, I’ll kill for you.
This is another highly entertaining read by Cavanagh, full of subtle misdirection, astounding surprises and plenty of suspense.
Here is a link to my original review: https://murdermayhemandlongdogs.com/twisty-tales-new-2023-thrillers-by-steve-cavanagh-riley-sager-and-matthew-richardson/
Peter Swanson’s The Kind Worth Saving (Faber, March 2023) is a sequel to his much loved The Kind Worth Killing, which was also a loose variation on Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers On A Train, and probably my favourite of his books.
It would be a crime to discuss the tricky plot of The Kind Worth Saving, other than to say it is a multiple viewpoint novel, with flash backs and clever twists. The story opens with a woman hiring a private detective to investigate whether her husband is having an affair with a colleague at his real estate firm, before moving in some unexpected directions.
This is a very clever book with lots of switchbacks and surprises. At one stage, I mentally applauded Swanson for the smart way he manipulated readers’ assumptions, and provided a twist which took me by me surprise. Excellent stuff.
Here is a link to my earlier review: https://murdermayhemandlongdogs.com/march-mayhem-new-novels-by-alex-north-peter-swanson-and-rebecca-makkai/
In addition to the above seven books there were several others strongly vying for inclusion on the list, including Vanda Symon’s evocative and gritty Expectant, Mike Ripley’s Mr Campion’s Memory and Mark Billingham’s The Last Dance, which is the first book in his new detective series.
There have been some very good British spy thrillers to start the year off with. Interestingly, the three of them are focused on the old enemy of Russia and have a strong historical element to them.
Matthew Richardson’s The Scarlet Papers, (Michael Joseph, June 2023), is probably the more epic of the three and ranges over the past seventy years. At the core of the novel are the eponymous Scarlet Papers, the recollections of renown British spymaster, and possible Russian double agent, Scarlet King, who is now in her nineties. The papers touch on key points in her career from her recruitment and capture of a brilliant German scientist at the end of World War II, to an assignation in Moscow in 1964, to her role in the analysis of the Mitrokhin Files, and other moments of deception and betrayal. Meanwhile in the present day, British academic Max Archer finds himself in possession of the inflammatory papers and on the run from British Intelligence.
The Scarlet Papers is a very clever thriller, that impresses with the breadth of its story and the intricacy of its plot. Close reading is rewarded, as the story twists and turns its way through a maze of double dealing and shifting alliances and builds to a good climax. Perhaps a fraction too long, but I was never bored. An outstanding achievement!
Here is the link to my earlier review: https://murdermayhemandlongdogs.com/twisty-tales-new-2023-thrillers-by-steve-cavanagh-riley-sager-and-matthew-richardson/
A new John Lawton book is always a treat and Moscow Exile (Grove, May 2023) is another engrossing entry in his Joe Holderness (Wilderness) series.
At the end of Hammer To Fall (2020), the roguish British agent was left on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall and in uncertain health. Now after a three year break we finally get the opportunity to find out what happened to him, although in typical Lawton fashion we have to wait almost half the book for Joe to make an appearance.
After a teasing opening in 1969, the book moves back to the early years of World War II, before leisurely making its way to Washington and Moscow in the 1950s and 60s. It is an intricately plotted tale, that gracefully winds its way through various machinations and surprises to an unexpected conclusion. Close of reading of the story is necessary, and well rewarded, and fans of the series will benefit from prior knowledge about the various characters and their back stories. There is not a lot of action in the opening stages, but Lawton’s stylish prose and his ability to limn a compelling sense of place and time drags the reader happily along. Thoroughly enjoyable.
Here is the link to my earlier review: https://murdermayhemandlongdogs.com/moscow-exile-by-john-lawton/
I have only just finished The Secrets Hours (Baskerville), which is due out in September, but found it to be another exquisitely plotted and darkly amusing novel by Mick Herron.
The Secret Hours is not, strictly speaking, a Slough House (Slow Horses) book, but it does exist in the same fictional world and contains several of the characters from that series. The story is a follow-on from Herron’s pre-Christmas 2022 novella, Standing By The Wall, and skilfully moves back and forth between the present and Berlin in the 1990s.
The novel opens in a dramatic manner, but it then takes a little while for Herron to put the various elements in place. Some sharp flashes of excitement, however, soon have the story moving along nicely and the book smoothly makes its way through a maze of deceptions and surprises. The twists and the suspense quicken in the last quarter and the ending is terrific and fitting.
The characterisations are sharp and credible, and it is interesting to view some of the Slow Horses regulars from a different perspective. A great book that further cements Herron’s standing as one of the great spy fiction writers.
I will be doing a longer review in the next few weeks before it is published.
Independence Square (Simon & Schuster, May 2023) is the tenth novel in Martin Cruz Smith’s iconic series about Arkady Renko, and finds the Moscow investigator approached by an underworld figure to find his missing daughter.
Karina is a young woman active in “Forum”, a political movement against Putin, led by charismatic Leonid Lebedev, and Renko’s investigation takes him to Kyiv, eight months before the invasion of Ukraine. From there he goes to Sebastopol and becomes a target in a dangerously escalating situation.
There is a somber mood to the book, with the pending invasion of Ukraine, and Renko’s recently diagnosed Parkinson’s disease, adding a dark undertone to the story. The descriptions of Russia, its people and politics are fascinating, as always, and the story moves efficiently along to its tense climax.
A powerful and absorbing novel about political decay and corruption.
Michelle Prak’s The Rush, (Simon & Schuster, May 2023), could have readily fitted into the Crime category, or the Debut list for that matter, but its brisk forward momentum and the deadline nature of the story seemed to fit it more naturally into the Thriller category.
Set in an Australian outback beset by flooding rains, it is a gripping story told through the eyes of four well-crafted female characters. Three of them are trying to make it to a remote country pub before the potentially flooding rains hit, while the fourth, Andrea, is desperately sandbagging the pub. Alone with her sleeping son in the back room, Andrea reluctantly lets a biker in to wait out the storm.
The Rush is a cleverly constructed thriller with some good surprises and a strong sense of unease. Michelle makes effective use of the shifting viewpoints and changes in the timeline to generate maximum suspense, and the book powers along to a taut and exciting climax. It also tackles issues around misogyny, life choices and women’s safety, but these are subtly handled and do not distract from the pace and tension of the story.
Although it is a debut, the writing is very assured and Prak certainly makes an impressive entry into the world of Australian crime fiction.
Here is the link to my original review: https://murdermayhemandlongdogs.com/dark-tales-from-melbourne-london-and-the-australian-outback-new-2023-crime-by-j-p-pomare-sam-holland-and-michelle-prak/
In addition to the above books, Ruth Ware’s Zero Days and Anthony McCarten’s Going Zero could have also comfortably fitted onto the list, and both are certainly worthwhile checking out.
There has been some good Australian debut crime novels in 2023 so far, but I particularly like John Byrnes’ Headland, (Allen & Unwin, January 2023), mainly because of its different approach.
It has a 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 slight reservations about some 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/
Sara Ochs’ debut novel The Dive, (Bantam, 25 July 2023), is the latest in a recent stream of novels about a group of friends and strangers stranded in a remote, exotic location with a killer on the loose. It does, however, bring some fresh ideas to this popular trope and Sara tops it off a great conclusion.
Scuba diving instructor Cass has made a new life for herself at a resort on Thailand’s world-famous party island,
Koh Sang. Leaving behind her troubled past, and old identity, she has made new friends and is happily engaged to Logan. 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. Also on the island is travel influencer Brooke, who is looking for the perfect story to boost her followers, as well as pursuing her own agenda.
Frequently shifting the perspective between Cass and Brooke, Sara smoothly builds up the mystery about the dead tourist and another recent incident. The opening sections are a little slow, but once I got into the story, I could not put it down. The suspense builds well 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 ending makes up for it.
Here is a link to my longer review: https://murdermayhemandlongdogs.com/old-secrets-influencers-and-deadly-dives-new-novels-by-lisa-jewell-and-sara-ochs/
Other debuts to check out are How To Kill A Client by Joanna Jenkins and Darcy Tindale’s The Fall Between.
I am still reflecting on some of the recent books I have read, and there are some impressive releases scheduled for later this year, including from Michael Connelly, Dave Warner and Benjamin Stevenson, so I suspect that the above list may go through some changes before the end of the year.
Enjoy your reading, while I head off on holidays!