A LEGACY OF SPIES by John Le Carre

(Viking, $37)

This was a prolific year for the Big Names: Michael Connelly and John Grisham released two books each (loved both Connelly's; Grisham's not so much), and inevitably Jack Reacher pops up in time for Christmas — it's pretty good, too. Don Winslow's propulsive cop novel The Force was this year's surprise hit. Then there's this short and strangely moving novel from le Carre. I consider le Carre, 85, one of the best English novelists period. Sure, not all his books work, but sentence-by-sentence there are few in his league and when it comes to spies, he owns the playbook. Here le Carre looks back with guarded affection at the work of his washed up, self-exiled spies as their world lies in tatters around them.

SPOOK STREET by Mick Herron

(Hachette, $35)

Another superb English spy writer — and the only one who doesn't pale in comparison to the master. Spook Street is Herron's 11th novel and the fourth in the Slow Horses series. It's been called "the finest new crime series this millennium" and for once the blurb's spot on. The Slow Horses are a rag-tag bunch of spies who've been banished from Regent's House (Herron's fictional stand-in for MI5) and set to work in a rundown building in Finsbury because firing them would be too much trouble. Leader Jackson Lamb is a foul-mouthed, hygiene-challenged misanthrope — but holds loyalty in high regard — and it's fascinating — and funny — watching him go into bat for this ragged bunch of misfits. His new novel, London Rules, is out in February. See my interview with Herron.



(Hachette $35)

Back in January, I expected this book to feature in my end-of-year list and here it is. Hattie Hoffman is a precocious, whip-smart 17-year-old. She wants "a life bigger than Pine Valley" — the small rural Minnesotan town she's grown up in but Pine Valley has other ideas. Hattie dreams of making it as an actress in New York. Her obliging exterior — she can talk frost advisories, Pynchon or college gossip depending on the company — masks a manipulative and troubled heart. Mejia told me she wanted to write a book that centred on the resilience and spirit found in that area of the United States.

THE SOUND OF HER VOICE by Nathan Blackwell

(Mary Egan Publishing, $30)

The break-out local author for me this year was ex-detective Nathan Blackwell. The Sound Of Her Voice (written under a pseudonym) is not a novel of smart, well-fashioned sentences or easily reducible bad guys but it gives readers an insider's glimpse down Auckland's dark streets. "In many ways [the main protagonist] Matt Buchanan's the opposite of Jack Reacher," says Blackwell. "Reacher doesn't have to play by the rules but cops do. My goal was to show how cops think." Harrowing, compelling and quite brilliant.

THE DARK LAKE by Sarah Bailey

(Allen & Unwin, $33)

THE DRY by Jane Harper

(Macmillan, $38)

Assured debuts from Melbourne based writers, and neither set in Melbourne. The Dark Lake's a smart, character-driven thriller from ad exec Sarah Bailey: "We detectives must fill in the blanks: we have the ending but not the beginning or the middle. We need to know what happened in reverse ... " That's Bailey's intrepid protagonist Detective Sergeant Gemma Woodstock — a young mother having an affair with a married colleague. She's also an excellent detective, drinks too much and is in receipt of a complicated past. Ex- financial journo Jane Harper's The Dry has won every Aussie award going — and little wonder as this outback whodunnit is gripping to the last page.