We all know that “best” is a malleable term that should be taken with a grain of salt so I won’t get into all of the typical caveats and qualifiers. The term is used to stay consistent with past years lists. If you like “favorites” then go with that, if you prefer “read and recommended” go with that. Shunting those arguments to the side for now just know this; that all of these books are worthy of your time.
I won’t speak for Nerd but my only regret in writing this list is that there are 2010 releases sitting on my shelf that I just haven’t had a chance to read yet and ones that I am in the middle of that I just haven’t finished yet.
These are the books that I had to finish reading once begun; that I had to get back to when away from; that offered up engagement rather than simply escapement. These are the books that I want to read again and surely will. These books all feature great writing, great characters and great stories.
10. (tie) Cemetery Road by Gar Anthony Haywood
Haywood writes in a mature voice that others wish they had. A young man couldn’t write this book like this and it shows when he tries. This is a voice of experience, pain, regret, duty, longing. It’s a voice that has lived. Cemetery Road is somber and sober and unforgettably infused with a quiet power.
10. (tie) A Thousand Cuts by Simon Lelic
There’s always more to a story and in this age of simplistic solutions and problems that slot easily into a box it’s easy to be lulled into forgetting that. I don’t know why but the school shooting seems to largely be an American crime. Lelic takes this horrific act and plops it right in the middle of the UK. The book opens with the aftermath and a survey of the scene. Then, with a scalpel’s precision it peels back the complex layers of this event and all the context that led to it. Hard to believe it’s a debut but damn is it one of the best this year.
9. Johnny Porno by Charlie Stella
That Charlie Stella isn’t bigger and his work isn’t more well known is a tragedy. He’s a fantastic writer and his books are eminently enjoyable. Johnny Porno was an early favorite of mine in 2010 and never lost its standing. Great characters a great story and some of the best dialog you’ll read.
8. Savages by Don Winslow
Savages, more so then almost any other book in 2010, grabs you hard, does something to you and tosses you aside. The words are a bold and jagged mark on a genre canvas that often strives for transparency. A potential game changer (that I fear others will try to copy instead of being influenced by in the future). An epileptic epistolary novel for the new millennium.
7. Pike by Benjamin Whitmer
Pike, and by extension Whitmer, doesn’t fuck around and just gets right to it. Simply put Pike is stark and powerful with a directness that others don’t match. Pike also has one of the most troubling endings of the year, one that really demands to be grappled with.
How to describe Tumor? Like if Memento was a straight up PI story but really that feels unfair. Tumor is a brilliant and insane and haunting story of memory, time and identity slipping and ebbing. The story and art achieves an enviable blend that ranks with the best that the medium has to offer.
5. Katja from the Punk Band by Simon Logan
Only two words accompanied the recommendation for this book, “fucking brilliant”, and they are dead on right. A brilliantly constructed crime story that takes place in a uniquely fantastical, horrific and grimy setting. Some have called it horror (because of the publisher) and others have called it SF/F (because of the secondary world feel to it); while I can see where these labels come from they are misapplied — it is a crime story through and through. It isn’t on your radar screen but it should be. If you like darker crime fiction it will blow your mind.
4. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin
This is one of the most thoughtful books I read in 2010. It shows the great breadth and depth that the mystery novel is capable of. It’s exploration of a lifelong relationship between two men and the events that shape it and them is in a word, complex. Franklin has long deserved wider attention — this should be the novel that brings it to him.
3. The Four Stages of Cruelty by Keith Hollihan
I don’t know how many crime fiction readers have this story of a female prison guard and the closed system that she operates in on their radar screens. Not since OZ have we seen a prison world so vividly evoked; one that is as scary as it is fantastical and yet utterly realistic. The Gormenghast-ian, gothic prison asserts its presence over the whole book demanding to be explored and feared. Crime writers are starting to understand the many benefits of placing their story in what is essentially a secondary world and these secondary world crime stories are some of the best that the genre has to offer. This isn’t all setting and place though, it’s got a great story peopled with an interesting cast of characters that do interesting and unexpected things. Read this book!
2. Do They Know I’m Running? By David Corbett
One of Corbett’s strengths is using a simple premise or crime as a platform to launch epic stories of the human experience writ large against a vast canvass. His work thrives on interactions: personal interactions with one another; interactions with ourselves; interactions with our own ghosts and demons; interactions with faith, god and fate; interactions with socio/politico machines, often of our own creation. At the center of all of his work is a beating heart; it may be a dark one but it’s a real one that we, at times, can recognize as our own.
1. Late Rain by Lynn Kostoff
Kostoff is better than most crime writers at using a full arsenal of literary tools and weapons to tell his stories. That sounds pretentious I’m sure but I don’t mean it to be. Kostoff is operating on a whole different level — one that includes, for example, James Sallis — and is our best kept secret. In 2010 that all started to change as people got hip to the Kostoff swing and those that haven’t should grab his books now. In addition to being one of the high water marks of the genre Kostoff’s novels are great examples of what the novel as an art form is capable of. Late Rain is his best yet.
8 Pounds by Chris Holm; Dark Rain by Mat Johnson & Simon Gane; Sleepless by Charlie Huston; Citrus County by John Brandon; Bye Bye Baby by Allan Guthrie; Expiration Date by Duane Swierczynski; The Levels by Sean Cregan; The Singer’s Gun by Emily St. John Mandel
Best Books of 2010 (alphabetical order):
The Cold Kiss by John Rector
John Rector proved he’s a master at sustaining tension with The Cold Kiss, a fucking breeze of a read with a great simple premise taken to agonizing extremes. If you told me seventy-five percent of the novel’s readers cranked through it in one long sitting I wouldn’t even bat a fucking eye.
Killer by Dave Zeltserman
Nerd-favorite Dave Zeltserman went a little more soulful and thoughtful with this final entry in his loose “Man Out of Prison”
trilogy, especially coming after the balls-out misanthropy of Pariah. But though it may not have been gleefully nasty as the previous novel, it was certainly no less brutally dark or riveting.
Late Rain by Lynn Kostoff
Lynn Kostoff was a major discovery for the Nerd in 2010, a year wherein I read all three of his books. Happy to say that each is better than the last and the last is Late Rain, a beautifully written, deeply human, consistently hilarious, utterly twisted, and never less than completely engrossing work of no-shit art.
Let It Ride by John McFetridge
I don’t know where McFetridge’s Toronto cops and criminals series is heading but I do know there’s nothing else going in crime fiction nearly as ambitious in scope. Think Elmore Leonard-tinged dialogue and cool with a massive cast and authentic details and you’re only half-way there
No More Heroes by Ray Banks
The third Cal Innes novel proves yet again that no one has the imagination or the stones to do anything near as refreshing with the private eye novel than what Ray Banks accomplishes. Stark, funny, violent, and completely original.
Pike by Benjamin Whitmer
Many of us were bowled over by Benjamin Whitmer’s debut this year and with good reason. Pike is punishingly violent and incredibly bleak, yet the stark poetry of its prose and earned moments of grace make it oddly hopeful in the end. A wonderful book we’ll still be talking about for years.
Print the Legend by Craig McDonald
Hector Lassiter’s back for another adventure in Print the Legend, the third book Craig McDonald’s consistently surprising series. No novel in the Lassiter series yet has been anything like the one that came before except in one way: they all kick ridiculous amounts of ass.
Rabid Child by Pete Risley
With Pete Risley’s debut Rabid Child New Pulp Press put out their most fucked up, straight-up perverse novel to date (as they’re behind Nate Flexer’s The Disassembled Man you know that’s saying something). But for all its truly disturbing and transgressive content, Rabid Child was also one of the funniest and most exciting books I read in 2010.
Savages by Don Winslow
Seasoned master Don Winslow schooled all the edgy young upstarts this year with his insanely original novel Savages. Ballsy, hip, hilarious, violent, self-reflexive, and straight-up cool, Savages no shit changed the game.
The Wolves of Fairmount Park by Dennis Tafoya
The Wolves of Fairmount Park serves up gritty social realism with a tablespoon full of noir to help it go down nasty in ways rarely seen outside of a George Pelecanos novel. What more do I gotta say?