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The Best Books of the Year (So Far): Crime Fiction in 2021


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Whether you’re packing a locked-room mystery for that long-delayed vacation, seeking the perfect thriller to keep you up at night, or looking for a noir so bleak and beautiful you’ll be weeping under your sunglasses, 2021 has plenty of books to choose from. Notable trends this year include a revitalization of rural noir, the continued revival of intricate espionage fiction, and increasingly blurred boundaries between the psychological thriller and the social justice thriller. In short, we’ve got a ton of great books to celebrate this year, even though it’s only halfway through. So here are our favorites, so far, in 2021.

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Kathy Wang, Impostor Syndrome
(Custom House)

We’ve all been thinking a lot about the hidden labors of domesticity over the past year, and Kathy Wang brilliantly captures the stresses of the second shift in this Silicon Valley spy novel. Impostor Syndrome features a game of cat-and-mouse played out in the highest echelons of tech society. Julia Lerner, raised in a Soviet orphanage, has risen to the top of her tech company, with only a little help from her handlers in the motherland. Meanwhile, Alice Yu, a lowly cog in the same company, notices a suspicious download of a user’s location data, and sets out to find the source of the leak. Impostor Syndrome is both a cutting critique of big tech and a craftily plotted thriller that will keep you guessing until the last reveal. –Molly Odintz, CrimeReads Senior Editor

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Gin Phillips, Family Law
(Viking) 

Phillips’ Family Law is at once a thriller, a searing legal drama, and an intimate portrait of family life in flux. Set in 1980s Alabama, the story follows a lawyer and a young woman who comes into her orbit in an unexpected and intense way. Phillips evokes the era’a tensions with precision and power, but more than anything Family Law is a closely observed novel about friendship, closeness, and trauma. This is one of the year’s most powerfully written thrillers, a story that will linger with you and keep you thinking for a long while afterwards. –Dwyer Murphy, CrimeReads Editor-in-Chief

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Zakiya Dalila Harris, The Other Black Girl
(Atria)

Zakiya Dalila Harris’ scathing debut, The Other Black Girl, was inspired by the author’s chance meeting with another Black editor at the publishing company where she worked, the novelty of that experience sparking an inventive psychological thriller that pillories the extraordinarily white world of NYC publishing. Nella Rogers couldn’t be happier when another Black woman starts working at her prestigious publishing company, but she quickly finds the other woman’s extreme code-switching off-putting. Meanwhile, someone’s been leaving threatening notes on her desk, telling her to leave before it’s too late. While this book particularly resonates with those of us in the industry, the book’s glowing reception thus far indicates that this one’s for everyone! –MO

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Sara Penner, The Lost Apothecary
(Park Row)

Already optioned for an upcoming television series, Sara Penner’s The Lost Apothecary makes for some fantastic reading. Penner splits her narrative between the late 18th century, where a lonely woman concocts poisons to use against the men who’ve wronged her clients and slowly bonds with a bright urchin, and the 21st century, where a woman reeling from her husband’s infidelity finds traces of the old apothecary, and perhaps some of its secrets. Immersive without feeling overly detailed, and balance well between the mores of the time and the needs of contemporary readers, The Lost Apothecary is the perfect historical novel to enjoy this summer. –MO

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Chris Offutt, Killing Hills
(Grove) 

Offutt is overdue for a new breakout novel, and The Killing Hills may just be it, part southern gothic, part searching, seething portrait of loss and betrayal, and part an entertaining offshoot of the world of Justified. It’s set in the Kentucky hills, and when a military CID is enlisted by his sister, the town’s new sheriff, to help out with a shadowy homicide investigation, all hell breaks loose. A story full of feuds, rivalries, and crimes hiding in plain sight, The Killing Hills is as poignant and powerful as they come. –DM

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Kaoru Takamura, Lady Joker
Translated by Allison Markin Powell and Marie Iida
(Soho)

Lady Joker reads like Don DeLillo’s Underworld rewritten by James Ellroy, or perhaps LA Confidential rewritten by Don DeLillo? What I’m trying to say here is, Lady Joker is EPIC. And this book isn’t even all of Lady Joker: it’s just part one! Takamura based her saga on an infamous unsolved case from the mid-90s in which a candy company exec was kidnapped, but gives the plot plenty of twists of her own. This book deserves to be on every best of list of the year just for the mammoth nature of the translation effort alone, but really, everything about Lady Joker is impressive. –MO

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Paul Vidich, The Mercenary
(Pegasus) 

Vidich has staked himself a claim as one of the foremost espionage novelists working today, and he’s back this year with The Mercenary, an insightful and thought-provoking story about the attempted exfiltration of a KGB man from 1980s Moscow, an era when the Soviet Union was entering its final decline, but US forces had still never managed to smuggle a KGB officer from Moscow. Vidich’s characters are always rich, well-developed, and just on the border of unknowable, a perfect balance of shifting identity and allegiance. In short, this is one of the year’s premier spy novels, a close study of individual lives set against global turmoil, a heady blend of spy games and their very human consequences. –DM

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P.J. Vernon, Bath Haus
(Doubleday)

For so long, gay characters were either either extremely problematic villains or overly respectable charmsters designed to soothe heterosexual audiences, as Vernon writes about here, but lately, gay thrillers are finally allowing queer characters the moral range of, well, real people. In Bath Haus, the perfect exemplar of this trend, restless Oliver knows he should be happy with his long-time doctor partner, but he finds himself straying to the local bath house nonetheless. When he’s attacked by a stranger in his moment of infidelity, Oliver focuses on hiding the truth from his boyfriend and evading the stranger’s continued pursuit, in a thriller that gives new meaning to the “fight or flight” response. –MO

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Chris Power, A Lonely Man
(FSG) 

An apparently chance meeting in a bookstore launches the story of Chris Power’s intricate, searching debut. The meeting is between two Brits in Berlin, one a writer in search of his next book, the other claims to be a ghostwriter on the lam, hired to write a book for a Russian oligarch, a man who was shortly after killed. The bizarre tale connects the two, but in unusual ways, as both seem to be testing the other’s sense of reality, art, fiction, truth, and lies. A Lonely Man is an uncanny novel in the best sense possible. The mystery comes in readers efforts to untangle the many disorienting layers of narrative, asking themselves whether anything in this compelling world is authentic, and whether that’s the right question at all. –DM

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Laura Lippman, Dream Girl
(William Morrow)

Lippman’s latest is atmospheric and truly frightening. Laura Lippman took a break from fiction last year to publish a deeply thoughtful collection of essays, My Life as a Villainess, and her new book continues her exploration of old age and increasing vulnerability in a way that strongly resonates for children of aging parents. Dream Girl is described best (and most succinctly) by the publisher as having “echoes of Misery” (I’d tack on Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? to the list of comparisons, if one of the sisters was replaced by a writer having lots and lots of sex, or at least, memories thereof). A writer is recovering from an accident in his spare and hermetically sealed apartment, interacting only with his assistant and his nurse—that is, unless you believe the calls he’s getting from a character in his latest book are real…And then, of course, there’s the dead body he wakes up next to one morning. Once again Laura Lippman has delivered a slow-burn thriller that is a quiet triumph of plotting and suspense.-MO

 

Notable Selections

Alexandra Andrews, Who Is Maude Dixon? (Little, Brown) · Stephen Mack Jones, Dead of Winter (Soho) · David Swinson, City on the Edge (Mulholland) · Sarah Gailey, The Echo Wife (Tor) · Caroline Kepnes, You Love Me (Rando m House) · Walter Mosley, Blood Grove (Mulholland) · Sergei Lebedev, Untraceable (New Vessel) · Christine Mangan, Palace of the Drowned (Flatiron) · Dario Diofebi, Paradise, Nevada (Bloomsbury) · Amy Gentry, Bad Habits (HMH) · Cynthia Pelayo, Children of Chicago (Agora) · Abigail Dean, Girl A (Viking) · Melissa Ginsburg, The House Uptown (Flatiron) · Todd Goldberg, The Low Desert (Counterpoint) · Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Committed (Grove Press) · Ashley Audrain, The Push (Pamela Dorman Books) · Wallace Stroby, Heaven’s a Lie (Mulholland) · Linwood Barclay, Find You First (William Morrow) · Kwei Quartey, Sleep Well, My Lady (Soho) · A.E. Osworth, We Are Watching Eliza Bright (Grand Central) · Paraic O’Donnell, The House on Vesper Sands (Tin House) · Flynn Berry, Northern Spy (Viking) · Femi Kayode, Lightseekers (Mulholland) · Michael Nava, Lies With Man (Bywater Books) · Robyn Gigl, By Way of Sorrow (Kensington) · Mia P. Manansala, Arsenic and Adobo (Berkley) · David Gordon, Against the Law (Mysterious Press) ·  Ben Winters, The Quiet Boy (Mulholland) · Zhanna Slor, At The End of the World, Turn Left (Agora) · Cate Holohan, Her Three Lives (Grand Central) · Caitlin Wahrer, The Damage (Pamela Dorman Books) · Sujata Massey, The Bombay Prince (Soho) · Jean Hanff Korelitz, The Plot (Celadon) · Jeff Vandemeer, Hummingbird, Salamander (MCD) · Claire Fuller, Unsettled Ground (Tin House) · Stacey Abrams, While Justice Sleeps (Doubleday) · Carole Johnstone, Mirrorland (Scribner)  · Angeline Boulley, Firekeeper’s Daughter (Henry Holt) · Alma Katsu, Red Widow (Putnam) · Mette Ivie Harrison, The Prodigal Daughter (Soho) · Ivana Bodrozic, We Trade Our Night For Someone Else’s Day (Seven Stories Press) · Eliza Jane Brazier, If I Disappear (Berkley)

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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