Greg Fleming looks back over the year's top crime and thriller novels
Your House Will Pay
by Steph Cha
(Faber & Faber $33)
When I reviewed this back in February, I noted that it would take a remarkable book to knock this off the top of my "best of 2020" list and, even after some strong competition, its top billing remains. Steph Cha's novel is a fictionalised account of the 1991 shooting of a black teenager by a Korean shopkeeper in the wake of the Rodney King beating. Cha moves timelines with dexterity as we are drawn into simmering racial and family tensions in both "houses". It's a crime that will echo through the generations and have heart-breaking consequences for both families. Cha, who grew up reading Raymond Chandler, introduces us to a more diverse LA, rarely seen in crime fiction. The novel hits with increased power post-George Floyd as race issues, police brutality, immigration and injustice dominate the news cycle; a brilliant, timely novel by a young writer at the top of her game.
by Jane Harper
(Pan MacMillan $33)
Aussie bestseller Jane Harper is one of the finest thriller writers to emerge in the last decade. Her novels supply the requisite thriller twists but it is the acute insight she has for outwardly ordinary but deeply damaged characters that sets her work apart. Her books often take place in malevolent landscapes - small-town murders, bush fires, lost trampers, desert killings (2018's The Lost Man is a marvel). In her fourth outing, she focuses on a small coastal town in Tasmania. When a body washes up on the shore, long-hidden secrets surface. Harper (whose first novel grew out of an online writing class just six years ago) just keeps getting better.
by Michael Connelly
(Allen & Unwin $37)
There's no more dependable thriller writer than Michael Connelly – few can write a character-forward procedural as well as this modern-day master (and do check out Bosch, the TV show on Amazon, which is fast turning into a cop show for the ages).
That said, I've found the recent Renee Ballard novels a little underwhelming, however, Fair Warning is top-flight Connelly. Jack McEvoy - a journalist who we first met in 1996's The Poet – takes centre stage. Connelly has said he's the most difficult to write as he's his most-autobiographical character but that seems to spark something in ex-journo Connelly – as McEvoy fights to clear his name and corner a serial killer, all while demonstrating the continued importance of the fourth estate.
The Secrets of Strangers
by Charity Norman
(Allen & Unwin, $33)
Hawke's Bay-based Charity Norman is one of our most accomplished and underrated writers, better known overseas than here – this was a BBC Book Club pick in March. This gripping and emotionally resonant siege thriller was apparently inspired by the 2009 Napier siege involving gunman Jan Molenaar, when Norman's nearby home was taken over by the armed offender's squad.
But this takes place at a London cafe. The lives of five strangers will never be the same after a gunman interrupts their morning routine. Norman writes with a strong sense of social justice, using a familiar thriller trope but taking us on a very different journey. Much of the power here comes from the slow reveal of the reasons behind the Ritalin-popping gunman's actions and the insight we get into the hostages' everyday lives and struggles.
The Girl in the Mirror
by Rose Carlyle
(Allen & Unwin $33)
Each year there's a local debut that stands out and in 2020 it's our own Rose Carlyle, whose deft and entertaining tale of twin sisters adrift on a luxury yacht on the Indian Ocean has set the publishing world abuzz. This is a smart, engaging tale that works best the less you think about it (the whole plot pivots around a rather strange will that decrees a $100 million inheritance will go to the first offspring to give birth). Carlyle is having fun; and that's clearly something wily, 23 year-old Iris wants too, tired of her "perfect", prettier twin, Summer, stealing all the glory.
In the Clearing
by J.P. Pomare
New Zealand author J.P. Pomare takes inspiration from a famous Australian cult in his compelling second novel. Like his excellent debut, Call Me Evie, In the Clearing also examines issues of memory and perception, especially when set against a background of trauma and abuse. Freya is a yoga teacher in rural Victoria who puts as much effort into keeping up the facade of a happy kombucha-drinking mum as she does into her workouts.
Then a young girl goes missing and the past Freya has long tried to escape is right on her doorstep. A taut, psychological thriller – and the definition of a one-sitting read.
Trouble is What I Do
by Walter Mosley
This year's National Book Foundation winner has turned his hand to science fiction, YA, erotic fiction and non-fiction in his long career - but it's likely to be his thrillers, often with a strong racial undertow, he'll be remembered for. The joys of Walter Mosley are all in evidence here – tough, poetic prose, memorable characters with outlandish names and a lively plot that sees the return of seasoned New York PI Leonid McGill, who lives by the Sugar Ray Robinson quote that provides the title.
Strike Me Down
by Mindy Mejia
I was a big fan of Mindy Mejia's crime fiction debut The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman, a beautifully written novel set in the American Midwest. Strike Me Down shows she has a sassier side. This is a rather surreal financial thriller involving accountant Abbott, his champion kickboxer wife and a missing $20 million. Lead protagonist Nora Trier is an ace forensic accountant, who's had a one-night-stand with Abbott. Then she's tasked with helping him find the missing money - embroiling her in a bruising battle for the truth.
A Time for Mercy
by John Grisham
(Hodder & Stoughton $38)
Here John Grisham returns to the Jake Brigance series (A Time to Kill, Sycamore Row). In small-town Mississippi, a teenager kills a deputy sheriff who has a long history of abuse and violence. Brigance is the killer's court-appointed lawyer but faces an uphill battle as much of the community has already determined the teen's guilt.
Set in 1990 but alive with parallels to contemporary events, this is another fine old-school legal thriller - and don't miss last year's (even better) The Guardians.
We Are All the Same in the Dark
by Julia Heaberlin
This Texas-noir has one of the best openings of the year: "It takes about eight to 10 hours to hand-dig a grave." A man finds a young, one-eyed girl on the side of the highway, encircled by dandelions; and takes her home. Officer Odette Tucker is well acquainted with the abductor who is suspected of killing his father and sister in the area's most famous cold case. But is her belief in his innocence a fatal mistake? The narrative is told in the first person and this leads to some vivid, impressionistic prose – but it's a book that repays patience.