Ten Favorite Crime Novels of 2013
(In no particular order)
Ask Not by Max Allan Collins (Forge): The third in Collins’s excellent JFK trilogy featuring veteran “private eye to the stars,” Nathan Heller. With the previous books covering the death of Marilyn Monroe (Bye Bye, Baby) and the failed attempt on JFK’s life in Chicago involving the same suspects only weeks before Dallas, this one concerns the plethora of post-assassination deaths, including that of columnist and TV celebrity Dorothy Kilgallen. Well researched, Collins, whose 15 historical novels featuring Heller form only a fraction of his output, exploits the fact that, on the one hand, conspiracies and paranoia are an essential ingredient in noir fiction, and, on the other hand, that present day paranoia owes much to that day in Dallas.
Under the Eye of God by Jerome Charyn (Mysterious Press): Charyn’s latest Isaac Sidel novel reads like a cross between an eccentric Russian novel and a comic book. Former Gotham cop, police commissioner, and mayor, Isaac is now vice president-elect, still dressed in his pajamas, carrying his heart on his sleeve and a Glock in his waistband. Poetic, operatic, funny, and heartbreaking, Isaac, the Jewish cop-trickster, haunts old hotels, sees shadows behind shadows and conspiracies behind conspiracies. Here children are political advisors, decrepit hotels and eateries are holy places, prostitutes are goddesses, crime bosses and their accountants have become the last remnants of civilization, and all profits end up in the hands of misty-eyed oligarchs.
Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliot Chaze (Stark House): First published in 1953 by Gold Medal, Chaze’s novel (reissued here in tandem with Bruce Elliott’s excellent 1951 One Is a Lonely Number) has long been unavailable in a readable format. Having broken out of prison, Ken gets a job on an oilrig, after which he meets the evocative Virginia, who has a past of her own. Ken’s plan is to dump her so he can commit that robbery he’s been planning since his days behind bars. Unable to break free of one another, they travel from New Orleans to Colorado, to a precipice from which they can’t escape. Unusually literary, this mother of all pulp novels has achieved, for many noirists, near-legendary status.
Snitch World by Jim Nisbet (PM Press): Considering Nisbet’s recent work, this is a relatively straightforward narrative. Though a throwback to the author’s earlier work, it’s still within the realm of Nisbet’s particular brand of absurdist noir. Filled with surprises, Snitch World revolves around barroom conversations, taxi rides, a case of mistaken identity, a killer app, and a heavy dose of psychogeography. Above all, it’s Nisbet’s homage to blue-collar San Francisco, the memory of which is fading fast. With its survival techniques — drugs, drink, crime, wit, or public disorder — this could be Nisbet’s most painfully humorous book yet.
Others of My Kind by James Sallis (Bloomsbury): This short novel is one of Sallis’s oddest and one of his best. Odd not because the narrative belongs to Jenny, who, as a child, was abducted and kept for several years under her abductor’s bed. But in the way the narrative moves, oblique and unpredictable enough to border on the surreal. Having escaped to a shopping mall where she lives off discarded food, Jenny’s discovered and placed in the system. Eventually she gets a job at a TV station, where she meets a police detective who introduces her to another young abductee. While Jenny’s life is hardly straightforward, she proves to be as resilient as she is vulnerable. A long way from Sallis’s Lew Griffin novels. On the other hand, it’s all part of the same story, just told from another perspective.
The Maid's Version by Daniel Woodrell (Little, Brown): More akin to Faulkner or Sherwood Anderson than Hammett or Chandler, and Woodrell’s most surprising turn yet. Through shifts in voice and time, Woodrell depicts a small Ozark town during the Depression torn apart by a dance hall fire that kills some 40 people. The narrator, Alek, seeks to discover those responsible, whether big-city mobsters, gypsies, a hellfire preacher, or someone else entirely. Doing so, he discovers a town divided between those too powerful to fail and those so powerless they cannot help but fail. And he learns about his family, in particular his grandmother Alma, a maid to a woman whose alcoholic husband is one of the town’s main power brokers.
3 Steps to Hell by Arnold Hano (Stark House): Three novels: I’m a Heel, written under the name Mike Heller; Flint, written under the name Gil Dodge; and The Big Out, written under Hano’s own name. But it’s the western, Flint, originally published by Signet in 1957, that stands out. Saying it’s like Jim Thompson on horseback isn’t hyperbole. Hano was Thompson’s editor at Lion, and, with the latter’s permission, borrowed the plot of Thompson’s Savage Night for the novel. While The Big Out, published in 1951, like a noir version of John R. Tunis’s Keystone Kids, is about two baseball-playing brothers, and I'm a Heel, published by Gold Medal in 1957, concerns a sadistic cripple who, out of revenge for the hand he’s been dealt, resorts to extortion. Proof enough that being an editor and being a writer are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
Dead Lions by Mick Herron (Soho Press): Taking up the baton from le Carré, Herron is more of a spy writer than a crime writer, though he uses the language, wit, dark humor, and perceptions associated with the latter to great effect. A follow-up to his excellent Slow Horses. Slough House (hence slow horse) is where MI5 sends screw-ups, of which there is no shortage, some with borderline personality disorders. Here one finds cold war holdovers, sleeper cells, straw men, sleazy characters, London street scenes, acts of violence, high-pomp buildings with their grimy undersides, Stop the City chaos, and an incendiary English village where things are not what they seem.
Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, ed. Sarah Weinman (Penguin): As welcome as it is timely, this anthology of female crime writers spans some 70 years and includes the relatively well known (Highsmith, Hughes, Shirley Jackson, Margaret Millar) alongside the lesser known (Helen Nielsen, Vera Caspary, Charlotte Armstrong, and Elisabeth Sanxay Holding) as well as those — Nedra Tyre, Barbara Callahan, Joyce Harrington, and Celia Fremlin — who, up to now, have disappeared from even the unwritten, male-dominated history of noir fiction. As well as highlighting some excellent writing, it’s Weinman’s contention that, in their day, these noiristas, pretty much ignored by critics, dissected society in much the same way as contemporaries Gillian Flynn, Megan Abbott, Attica Locke, and Sara Gran. And, of course, she’s right.
Laidlaw by William McIlvanney (Canongate): A novel that helped expand the parameters of crime fiction when it first appeared in 1977, establishing both the literary merit of the genre and that noir could exist outside the confines of the United States. Reissued and every bit as good in 2013. Jack Laidlaw is Glasgow’s answer to Philip Marlowe, and as wrecked and melancholy as any James Crumley character. Written long before such protagonists threatened to become a cliché. Moreover, McIlvanney portrays Glasgow, with its sectarianism and drunken sentimentality, as never before in crime fiction, paving the way for Rankin’s Rebus and various other tartan dicks.
(Other favorites, also in no particular order)
Grind Joint by Dana King (Stark House): It’s the midst of the Great Recession in small-town Pennsylvania. The mills have closed, and a soon-to-be-opened casino is the town’s only sign of life. When a drug dealer is found dead on its doorstep, two detectives try to discover who might have dumped the body there. And who’s putting up the money for the casino. The detectives have to deal with their own department, local mobsters, and an ex-spook in charge of casino security. With crisp dialogue and sparse exposition reminiscent of Elmore Leonard and George V. Higgins, it’s an investigation of a town on the edge of a precipice.
Hammett Unwritten by Owen Fitzstephen, Gordon McAlpine (Seventh Street): What if the Maltese Falcon were real, and perhaps cursed? With a handful of individuals Hammett supposedly based his characters on, this is arguably the best and most thoughtful revision of Hammett since Gores’s novel of that name. True, the author — supposedly Fitzstephen — overreaches somewhat, but my attention never wavered. With truth eliding into fiction, the reader is left to speculate just where the dividing might be.
Dark Times in the City by Gene Kerrigan (Europa): Along with Ken Bruen and Alan Glynn, Kerrigan represents the best in present-day Irish noir. More in the Elmore Leonard school, Kerrigan, with his edgy dialogue and unrelenting narrative, portrays today’s Dublin as well as anyone. Just out of prison, Danny intervenes in a barroom altercation, and, in doing so, accidentally insults the head of the city’s most notorious criminal outfit. He ends up caught between the gang and the cops. An overused template, but thanks to Kerrigan’s sharp writing and incisiveness, it works like a dream, or, in this case, a nightmare of no small proportion.
The Red Road by Denise Mina (Orion): Another excellent novel from my favorite contemporary Scottish crime writer. With her fearless yet vulnerable heroine, DI Alex Morrow, Mina never shies away from contemporary issues. On the night of Princess Diana’s death, Rose Wilson, having been pimped by her boyfriend, kills two people. Fifteen years later, the fingerprints of a vicious arms dealer are found at the scene of a murder, while a Scottish lawyer on Mull who has shopped his father, waits to be murdered by someone with important connections. A complex, sometimes humorous, and compassion-filled book which shows that Mina, always a good writer, improves with every book.
Strange Loyalties and The Papers of Tony Veitch by William McIlvanney (Canongate): Two more Laidlaw reissues from the king of Tartan Noir. Papers of Tony Veitch was originally published in 1983 and Strange Loyalties in 1991. Both are intense tours through Glasgow’s underworld, focusing on its gangs and political corruption, and are well worth reading. Of course, both involve Laidlaw coming to terms with his past. Taken as trilogy, the Laidlaw novels represent a moving and honest rendering of Glasgow working-class culture. The question is: will there ever be a fourth Laidlaw novel? Don’t bet against it.