The Best Mystery/Crime Fiction of 2011

January 4, 2012
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“What does that mean? Whatever you want it to mean. Are these movies “the best”? Are they our favorites? Are they “movies we got to see before the deadline”? In my case, it’s some combination of all three — but I’m really quite happy with the aggregate results.” — Jim Emerson

This year the Spinetingler crew grew in numbers and so too has this year’s list and so in addition to Nerd of Noir and myself, Garrett Kenyon and R Thomas Brown will be joining in.

I think Jim Emerson’s above quote just about sums it up rightly. So I’ll say again what I said last year. These lists are imperfect but we believe all of these books to worth your time.

And for your further enjoyment here are the “The 20 Unhappiest People You Meet In the Comments Sections of Year-End Lists” by Linda Holmes

Without further ado…

R Thomas Brown’s Top 5 novels of 2011:

Dove Season by Johnny Shaw – the sense of place melds with the characters to create an aura of desperation and survival. Yet, it still contains warmth and heart.

Southern Gods by John Hornor Jacobs – A great debut and an elegant and yet horrific blend of southern and Lovecraftian myths.

11/23/1963 by Stephen King – His best in years and a strong enough story to make you not notice the mammoth length.

All The Young Warriors by Anthony Neil Smith – a departure from his earlier work, and a more complex story. This novel is a great introduction to a fine author or an insight to another side of him for readers if his earlier work.

Fun and Games by Duane Swierczynski – a rollicking kickoff to a trilogy that gives us character and action that drag the reader along breathless and begging for more. Also introduces a great villainous group, The Accident People

Best Crime Fiction of 2011 by Garrett Kenyon

Top 10 Crime Novels of 2011

Cold Shot to the Heart – Wallace Stroby

Wallace Stroby doesn’t write books. He conducts literary symphonies, using Occam’s Razor for a baton so each detail – from the small atmospheric minutiae and snatches of dialogue to the epic shootouts and moment-of-truth climax – fits together so perfectly it’s breathtaking to behold. Cold Shot also introduces my nominee for best crime villain ever: an aging wiseguy fresh out of the joint named Eddie the Saint.

Beast of Burden – Ray Banks

It was sad to see Cal Innes bite the dust, but the most unqualified, often-wounded and couldn’t-give-a-fuck PI in detective fiction was a whole lot of fun while he lasted. In Beast, Ray Banks displays enough confidence and breadth of technique to let us know that, unlike Cal, he’ll be around for a long time.

The Ranger – Ace Atkins

The most tightly plotted and entertaining book Atkins has written yet. Bad-ass Ranger returns from several years in Iraq and Afghanistan to find his uncle dead and his hometown overrun by a murderous cult of gun-toting methheads? What’s not to love?

Falling Glass – Adrian McKinty

Okay, so it wasn’t as good as Fifty Grand – but Adrian McKinty is still one of the most talented, versatile writers sucking wind. Full throttle from the first page to the last, with all the sodden bogs and malice-drenched boyos you expect from McKinty.

Fun and Games – Duane Swierczynski

Vintage Swierczynski: dialogue as sharp as a straight razor, nimble transitions, wit to burn, enough over-the-top violence to shock the most desensitized among us – all wrapped up in a story so creative you can’t help but kind of hate the guy for being so goddamned good.

Assume Nothing – Gar Anthony Haywood

Cemetery Road was damned near a perfect modern take on the murder mystery, so this year Harwood had to try something different. Enter man-on-edge/revenge fantasy tale, Assume Nothing, about an ex-cop who lost his family (and sanity) to a crazed killer years back, then suddenly finds his new family being threatened by a completely different group of bumbling weekend outlaws. It’s like watching a slasher film where the slasher’s the good guy.

Professor Moriarty, Hound of the D’Urbervilles – Kim Newman

A great premise for a book, and pulled off exceedingly well by the talented Newman. Just a solid, entertaining and impressive piece of fiction that perfectly renders the eerie gas lit streets of Victorian London.

The Adjustment – Scott Phillips

What happens when a sociopath suddenly learns what he’s capable of in the chaotic conditions of war – then returns to his hometown to try to settle down with a wifey and a kid on the way. Nothing but trouble. But it’s sure as hell fun watching it all fall down.

The Leopard – Jo Nesbo

Read any of my other reviews of Nesbo. The man’s tight. His books are creepy, educational, extremely well-constructed and stay with you for longer than you might be comfortable with.

The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayes – Marcus Sakey

Sakey explores some fairly weighty ideas in this one – and he handles it well. A guy wakes up half-dead on a freezing beach where he apparently tried to drown himself. He finds a gun in the glovebox of his car and, for the next three hundred pages, all hell breaks loose. A really skillfully developed character and a mystery that will keep you guessing right up to the last few pages.

Honorable Mentions:

The Killer is Dying – James Sallis
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Holmes – Loren Estleman

Best Short Story Collections:

The Outlaw Album – Daniel Woodrell
Crimes of Southern Indiana – Frank Bill

Best Short Story Compilation of the Year:

Crime Factory by New Pulp Press

Best Re-release of the Year:

A Single Shot – Matthew F. Jones (Mulholland Books)

I reviewed A Single Shot here, and don’t have much more to say about it other than the fact that I read Jones’ entire back catalog after finishing it and gave out three copies of A Single Shot for Christmas gifts.

Indie House of the Year – U.S.: Overlook Press

For bringing back the groundbreaking late 80’s novellas of Jim Nisbet, one of crime fiction’s most tragically overlooked talents, Overlook deserves a freaking medal. Few crime writers, living or dead, have the mastery of the English language, the ability to effortlessly set a scene, or pack the same noir punch, as Jim Nisbet. Noir lovers – prepare to meet your new God!

Indie House of the Year – European: Bitter Lemon Books

Bitter Lemon specializes in mostly European crime fiction, and what a fine stable of up-and-coming young writers they’ve amassed. Besides the Europeans they publish, Bitter Lemon has expanded its offerings, adding writers from places as far-flung as Turkey, Cuba and South Africa. The Italians, in particular, seem to be dominating Euro crime these days, with the French coming in a close second. Want to get a better feel for the international crime fiction scene? Start with these stellar Bitter Lemon titles: The Snowman by Jörg Fauser (German), Hotel Bosphorus by Esmahan Aykol (Istanbul). The Russian Passenger by Günter Ohnemus (also German), Night Bus by Giampiero Rigosi (Italian) and anything by Italian-living-in-France, Tonini Benaquista.

Series Revival of the Year:

The Nathan Heller Series by Max Allan Collins (AmazonEncore)
If, like me, you missed the Collins’ legendary Nate Heller series by a decade or so, but have heard it mentioned in discussions about the “best detective series ever” – you’re in luck. AmazonEncore is giving the gritty Chicago PI another lease on life, publishing all of the series’ 17 titles (excepting the latest, Chicago Confidential) this year. My advice? Before diving into your first Heller, barricade your doors and turn your phones off for a few days – you won’t want to be interrupted. Collins, one of modern mystery’s most active and influential voices, created a new kind of historical fiction with this critically-acclaimed series. Instead of historical details acting as elaborate set pieces or having only a marginal bearing on the plot – the historical events in a Heller novel are the plot. Collins weaves Heller into the most memorable and mysterious crimes of the 30’s – the execution of a Chicago Mayor, the gunning down of John Dillinger, even the Black Dahlia case – deftly weaving Heller between the gaps in the official records of these historical events without changing the events themselves. It’s quite ingenious, really, and fully explains why Max enjoys the respect of seemingly everyone in the crime/mystery world. And his deft portrayal of post-Capone Chicago brings the city of big shoulders alive in all its raucous, violent glory. Here’s hoping a new generation of readers get their hands on these affordable reprints to keep Heller’s memory alive for another few generations.

Nerd of Noir’s Best Books of 2011 (in alphabetical order)

The Adjustment Scott Phillips

Phillips returns with the fan-favorite character, Wayne Ogden from The Walkaway, and takes readers on a gleefully anti-social journey through the post-WWII “adjustment” days in Wichita, Kansas.

All The Young Warriors Anthony Neil Smith

Smith’s novel about Minnesota Somalis who go back to Somalia to fight for Sharia law is hugely ambitious and deeply personal at the same time. Thankfully, it’s also some fucking gnarly-ass shit..

Already Gone John Rector

Rector’s no-bullshit prose and storytelling style, and his sharp characters make this thriller sting something fierce. In a just world, his books would stomp Lee Childs’ books in sales, Drive-style.

Dead Money Ray Banks

Banks has crafted a sick-humored psycho-noir of remarkable subtlety that draws you into its orbit like the most gregarious guy at the bar, then roofies you before eventually fucking you with a machete-dildo.

The Devil All The Time Donald Ray Pollock

A haunting and gruesome book about thrill killers, human sacrificers, and murderous tent-revival healers, Devil feels both as immediate and real as the world we inhabit and as old and mythic as the bible itself.

El Gavilan Craig McDonald

McDonald steps away from the Lassiter series for this standalone thriller about US-Mexican border tensions…in Ohio. It’s ambitious in theme and scope but never leaves you wanting for twists and turns.

One Dead Hen Charlie Williams

Royston Blake’s return to the streets of Mangel after a self-imposed exile in the cellar is reliably hilarious and gleefully violent, but the I’ll be damned if Williams doesn’t manage to make it heartbreaking to boot.

Smokeheads Doug Johnstone

My introduction to Johnstone’s work, Smokeheads tells of four vacationing yuppies in Scottish whisky-country who step in some deep shit. Think James Dickey with douchebags and booze snobs.

Stolen Souls Stuart Neville

The Jack Lennon series keeps getting further and further away from the Troubles and the supernatural with each book. Though that may make them less headline-grabbing, I think each is better than the last.

Wake Up Dead Roger Smith

Come for Smith’s horrifying depiction of the gang-violence-riddled Cape Flats ghetto of South Africa, and stay glued to your chair for his breathless out-of-the-frying-pan-and-into-the-fire storytelling.

Brian Lindenmuth’s top 10 favorite crime novels of 2011

6) Dove Season by Johnny Shaw

Great characters, great dialog and unlike the Hap & Leonard books (which this is a kissing cousin of) the female characters get to play too.

5) Mule by Tony D’Souza

I was fascinated by this dry crime-esque novel. In the last couple of years there have been a number of stories about people affected by the economic downturn who then turn to dealing drugs to make ends meet and to keep afloat the lifestyle that they had previously become accustomed to. Mule explains with textbook precision how to mule drugs across the country. It’s a winning combination of unlikely crime fiction characters, that could be you or I, and likely crime fiction characters. Simply a brilliant, if off beat, crime novel.

4) The Dead Women of Juarez by Sam Hawken

Clearly what has been happening in Juarez has captured the imagination of writers in recent years. And why wouldn’t it, it is a true life mystery and horror story. This was probably my first favorite novel that I read in 2011. Not only is it a great piece of crime fiction but also sheds some light on Juarez using great characters, great writing and a great story.

3) Wire to Wire by Scott Sparling

It’s easy to imagine a day when some poor soul asks Scott Sparling about his Springsteen-esque characters. And that smile that Sparling will wear for a moment when he is deciding to walk away from the interview and leaving the interviewer to wonder what the hell just happened or to shank the interviewer. Why is this easy to imagine? What happened is that the interviewer failed to make the distinction, subtle that it may be, between a Springsteen character and a Bob Seger character and failed to mark Scott Sparling as a Seger guy in the decades old Seger vs. Springsteen debate. Scott Sparling’s characters are firmly in Bob Seger country. Of Seger’s characters Sparling wrote:

“The characters in many of his songs don’t find the satisfaction or fulfillment that they thought their dreams would hold. They end up “stuck in heaven,” listening to the sound of something far away — a bird on the wing, the sound of thunder. They think back on the promise of younger years, surprised at the passage of time. Only occasionally do they find renewal. More often, they try to make some moment last; they watch it slipping past. The light fades from the screen. They wake up alone. Next time, perhaps, they’ll get it right.”

All of which is applicable to the characters in Wire to Wire.

Wire to Wire is a beautifully written literary crime novel. It is filled with damaged people who are on a collision course with each other. They can’t help but run in to, over and through each other as their lives, actions and relationships fill them with an ache. Things won’t end well for them and don’t.

2) Seven Spanish Angels by Stephen Graham Jones

The second Juarez novel to make it to my list has had a troubled history. Jones was contracted to write a sequel to All the Beautiful Sinners by Rugged Land back in 2005. It morphed into Seven Spanish Angels and has been listed on Amazon since 2005. The problem was that it never got published because of a change that the publisher wanted Jones to make but he couldn’t. Now, in 2011, it’s finally been published as an ebook. It’s been a hell of a wait with the Amazon listing taunting Jones’ fans but holy hell was it worth it.

Jones’ crime novels are among the genre’s best kept secrets and Seven Spanish Angels is a book that hits you where it counts, where you want to be hit, more often and harder then any other. Seven Spanish Angels is powerful fiction.

1) The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock

Pollock’s debut story collection, Knockemstiff, was basically a novel in stories. So the expectations of an actual Pollock novel ran high for fans of his work. And holy shit was there a payoff. This is a stunning work of fiction with the power of noir and the demanding glory of an Old Testament God.

Honorable mentions:

All the Young Warriors by Anthony Neil Smith

With All the Young Warriors Anthony Neil Smith has sanded away the rough edges of his fiction (chances are your mom wasn’t going to read his books before) and pushed his strengths into a greater relief. Those strengths are now front and center in a work that showcases all that is great about Smith’s fiction but held back just enough so that a wider audience will read it. And a wider audience should because it really is an amazing book.

Already Gone by John Rector

Already Gone is a great crime thriller. If you haven’t read Rector yet get on board now while his star is rising.

The Drop by Howard Linskey

Plainly put The Drop is a brilliant slice of modern Brit Grit.

The Color of Night by Madison Smartt Bell

I didn’t really think that Madison Smartt Bell had a true black novel in him but shit was I wrong. In The Color of Night he draws a line between the Manson killings and 9/11 that shows the harm of introducing sexual violence at an early and foundational age and the effects that these introductions have on an individuals psyche.

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Brian Lindenmuth

Brian is the non-fiction editor of Spinetingler magazine and one of the fiction editors of Snubnose Press. In addition to Spinetingler his work has appeared in Crimespree magazine and at BSC Review, Galleycat and the Mulholland Books website. He also heads the Spinetingler Award committee.

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9 Responses to The Best Mystery/Crime Fiction of 2011

  1. Sean Patrick Reardon on January 4, 2012 at 11:06 am

    Wow, some excelllent choices there. I have read at least half of them, and look forward to checking out the others.

  2. Max Allan Collins on January 4, 2012 at 3:35 pm

    Much appreciate the mention of the Heller series.

    The only book not available from Amazon is the current one, BYE BYE, BABY (CHICAGO CONFIDENTIAL is available). That’s 12 novels, plus the new short story collection CHICAGO LIGHTING and the forthcoming novella collection TRIPLE PLAY). These two expand and replace the earlier short story collections, DYING IN THE POST-WAR WORLD and KISSES OF DEATH.

    The books are all available in nice trade paperback editions and on e-book. They have been doing particularly well on e-book. All are also being done by Brilliance on audio, read by Dan John Miller, who’s doing a great job. These releases are up to CARNAL HOURS (about half-way — BYE BYE, BABY has already been done, in fact was the first to be done by Brilliance/Miller…CHICAGO LIGHTNING has also been released already as part of this program).

    Forge will be doing the next Heller, TARGET LANCER, later this year — it’s the first of two JFK assassination novels.

    Thanks again.

  3. Max Allan Collins on January 4, 2012 at 3:37 pm

    One P.S. — actually, I should have said BYE BYE, BABY is available from Amazon, just not part of their reprint program. It’s a Forge Book.

  4. Gar Anthony Haywood on January 4, 2012 at 4:02 pm

    Wow, many thanks to Garrett for including ASSUME NOTHING on his list. (Of course, I’m “assuming” he did mean MY “Assume Nothing,” and not that of Mr. HaRwood, whoever he is.) Talk about your mixed blessings…

  5. Brian Lindenmuth on January 4, 2012 at 5:01 pm

    Garrett was tinkering with his post up until the deadline. I should have caught that. Fixed

  6. Poker Ben on January 5, 2012 at 1:03 am

    I really enjoy these lists, and look forward to them each year. I always come away with 5 to 10 books that I’m eager to read ASAP. Thank you all for taking the time to compile these lists, and for bringing awareness to these great crime fiction reads.

  7. Paul Brazill on January 5, 2012 at 2:51 pm

    Some beaut stuff there/ I love Knockemstiff, so I’m looking forward to the Pollock novel. And I’ve GOT to get The Drop.

  8. nigel bird on January 5, 2012 at 4:05 pm

    There are lots of books I’ve read and love here, and lots I haven’t. Lots of them I’ve meant to read and haven’t got round to and some are complete news. No doubt that this is one of the lists to be respected. One of Brian’s list from last year, Katja From The Punk Band made it on to my list this year and we share favourites this time around – The Devil All The Time is in a class of its own, though it was so huge that I can’t imagine I picked up any lessons other than to be reminded that great fiction is one of the best things there is on the planet.

    Cool.

  9. Garrett Kenyon on January 8, 2012 at 12:36 pm

    Max, Gar…sorry about the mistakes. I compiled my list in a couple of hours off the top of my head. I’ll see if Brian can fix them ASAP. And thank you both for writing such wonderful books. I missed the Heller series – so I was so excited to discover they were being republished. Really incredible stuff. And Mr. HAYwood – I was in a terrible car accident in May. After waking up from a 3-day coma, my wife brought the advanced copy of Assume Nothing your publicist sent me. It brought me several hours of joy during a really tough time in my life. Well, the morphine drip might’ve had something to do with that, too. But Assume Nothing was so much fun I read it in one sitting (well, one reclining) and then went right back to the first page and read it again. Can’t wait to see what you’ll come up with next.