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- The Cartography of WolvesApril 22, 2021
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Trends in this year’s noir releases include a revival of PI stories and classic hard-boiled tales of the “starts bad, gets worse” type; rural noir continued to make a strong showing, while procedurals featured a wide variety of protagonists, arrayed along a vast scale of crooked to incorruptible. Noir tends to be the crime world’s voice of conscience, fully on display in many of the works below, and the prominent presence of 1970s settings harkens back to the last great era of conspiracy fiction. To make our selection process more reader-friendly, we divided our selections into three categories: Private Eyes, Police / Procedural, and that most ineffable, expansive, and existential of labels: straight-up Noir. This list is intended to highlight the best noir and hard-boiled fiction of the year, and we can assure you that the CrimeReads editors spent a significant amount of time agonizing over the hard choices we had to make—and what’s more noir than that?
Walter Mosley, Down The River, Unto the Sea (Mulholland)
Mosley’s newest novel about cop turned convict turned private eye Joe King Oliver is as timely a look at modern-day New York as you’ll find anywhere in noir fiction. Oliver’s Brooklyn is a tumult of gentrification, transplants, and old timers still working hustles to make some money off the borough’s new development while clinging to their old grudges. Oliver himself has a few scores to settle, as a setup put him in jail and lost him his badge. When a new case comes along working on behalf of a radical reporter accused of killing two police, Oliver’s past and present begin to intersect. Like all of Mosley’s best work, this is a story about justice, knowledge, speaking truth to power, and the unseen entanglements that conspire to keep the little guy down.
Sara Gran, The Infinite Blacktop (Atria)
Sara Gran is known as an author’s author, and the whole mystery community cheered when she returned to the genre after a hiatus writing for prestige television. The Infinite Blacktop heralds the return of Gran’s detective Claire DeWitt, and along with other works on this list, also heralds the return to prominence of the private detective novel, although Gran’s gumshoe has been a fan favorite for some time already. The Infinite Blacktop takes the city-hopping detective to LA and continues the series’ flashbacks to DeWitt’s Brooklyn past to reveal how Claire got her PI license. Claire DeWitt is still a mess, and the power of Gran’s writing is to immerse you in DeWitt’s pain as well as her investigations. Gran shines at sprinkling appropriate cultural references throughout her works, and fans of meta-fiction will enjoy The Infinite Blacktop just as much as her previous body of work.
Joe Ide, Wrecked (Mulholland)
Joe Ide first entered onto the mystery scene two years ago with IQ, the first in a series featuring genius investigator Isaiah Quintabe (known as IQ to his few friends and many clients), solving crimes in South Central LA. The books are delighting readers with their mixture of unique setting, complex action sequences, and frequent nods to Sherlockian inspirations, all updated and re-imagined for a modern era. In Wrecked, IQ and his former partner-in-crime Dodson are now officially partners and trying to make their business more professional while also looking into a missing persons case. The new job demands personal growth and carries real emotional consequences, while still bringing the madcap fun that’s an important part of Ide’s signature style.
Alex Segura, Blackout (Polis)
The latest installment of Segura’s Pete Fernandez series is a return to Miami, Fernandez’s hometown and a crime fiction mecca with good reason: noir thrives in the sunny, strange climes of southern Florida. And Segura is the author to take it all on. Fernandez’s new case has him looking into a bizarre and sprawling cult operation, as well as a crooked politician, and since this is Florida, you can rest assured there are some land deals here, too. Segura takes on the madness with a deft wit but also soulfulness. Fernandez is a haunted figure, but never a cliche. His traumas and addictions are all his own, and in Blackout they seem to be all mixed up with Florida’s, too. This is a standout novel in a strong PI series from a notably fresh voice in the genre.
Raymond Chandler, The Annotated Big Sleep, edited and annotated by Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson and Anthony Rizzuto(Vintage)
Sure it makes sense to put Raymond Chandler on a list of the year’s best noir, but really we’re giving the nod here to the editors of this impressive new edition, which is a noir-lover’s dream—a learned and endlessly engaging piece of scholarship that supplies every bit of context you could ever want for this Chandler classic. Hill, Jackson, and Rizzuto seem to know 1930s L.A. like the back of their hands, and readers get to tag along as they meander down every side street and corner store Marlowe passes in the course of his investigation. More than anything, this is a love letter to the city of Los Angeles; also, a remarkable feat of noir scholarship.
Michael Connelly, Dark Sacred Night (Little, Brown)
Crossing-over beloved series characters is tricky business. In the wrong hands, it’s a stunt. In the right hands, it’s a masterful piece of world-building and an incredible thrill for readers. Michael Connelly’s Dark Sacred Night is certainly one of the latter category, as Renée Ballard, the heroine of Connelly’s newest series, finds old hand Harry Bosch (now a private eye, of a sort) rifling through an old LAPD file cabinet one night, and the two of them end up working together on a cold case that nobody in the department wants touched. It’s a coverup job with tendrils that extend to seemingly every facet of the Los Angeles power structure. In short, it’s vintage Connelly, with plenty to appreciate for fans new and old. This city, and these characters, have noir in their DNA.
Craig Johnson, Depth of Winter (Viking)
The Longmire series has always been on the borderlands between noir and westerns, but none more so than the latest installment, Depth of Winter, which sees Walt going rogue, so to speak, and leaving the trappings of his official position behind as he crosses the border into Mexico. Like any good south-bound western, first Walt has to gather up his team, and once over the border, he enters a dark world of narco- and human-trafficking, in search of his daughter no less. The Longmire series has a reputation as good old-fashioned mystery fun, but Depth of Winter is an especially noir adventure, one brings together a number of literary traditions alongside some favorite characters and test their fortitude and their moral compasses.
Val McDermid, Broken Ground (Atlantic Monthly Press)
McDermid’s Karen Pirie series, now five books strong and charging ahead, is the perfect literature for an era obsessed with cold cases and forensic mysteries. In the latest installment, DCI Pirie, cold case detective extraordinaire, is called in for another case in the Scottish Highlands, this time investigating a bog body, with signs of an execution and connections to a family treasure, a story that circles round on itself and grows more insidious with each page. McDermid is a contemporary master of crime and a forensics expert to boot, so there always seems to be a special kick to her Karen Pirie novels.
Joseph Knox, Sirens (Crown/Broadway)
Joseph Knox’s debut is equal parts gritty and glitzy, an ode to the height of hard-boiled, with tragic dames, inscrutable kingpins, and always more filth to be uncovered no matter how many dirty little secrets have already been revealed. Joseph Knox, who’s worked as a bookseller for many years, uses his debut to both showcase his intimate knowledge of the genre and making his own unique stamp on modern noir. Sirens follows a cop named Aiden Quinn as he becomes increasingly compromised in an undercover investigation into the drug habits of the local glitterati, and while none of the characters were doing particularly well at the end, we have high hopes for their new depths in the sequel, out next February (in the States anyway. We know, all you Brits out there already read it…)
Alan Parks, Bloody January (Europa)
Alan Parks burst onto the international scene with his harder-than-hard-boiled novel of borderline-vigilante cops and dastardly deeds, set to a perfect backdrop of the sounds and…er…razed tenements of 1970s Scotland. His second in the series comes out in March, and we can’t wait to continue the series that’s setting a new standard for seediness.
David Joy, The Line That Held Us (Putnam)
David Joy’s latest, like the rest of his growing oeuvre, embodies the simplest and most evocative definition of noir: “Starts bad, gets worse.” In The Line That Held Us, a man accidentally shoots the scion of a notoriously vengeful family while trespassing on their land, for one of the brutal, beautiful, and devastating releases of the year. Joy is constantly expanding and complicating our conceptions of rural America in the most compelling ways.
Gabino Iglesias, Coyote Songs (Broken River)
Iglesias brings a visceral intensity to his exploration of a borderlands region called “La Frontera,” a place of great emotion and great suffering, one filled with modern-day prophets, immigrants, predators, and the innocent, too. Building out a noir vision of the American southwest, Coyote Songs journeys through a rich and deeply observed world where the mythical and the brutally real intersect to create a more vivid and emotionally authentic world than the one many of us are familiar with. Iglesias is doing something ambitious with noir, boiling it down to its crime, horror, and mythical features and building it back up again.
William Boyle, The Lonely Witness (Pegasus)
Boyle’s The Lonely Witness is a perfect noir for New York City and for the contemporary urban experience. A young woman living a modest life of quiet service in outer Brooklyn grows suspicious of a man, follows him, and witnesses a murder. Boyle’s novels are meditative and atmospheric, but they also drive forward with a compulsive and dreadful energy, in part thanks to the deeply lived in surroundings, as well as characters who have an emotional authenticity few can match in today’s crime novels. Boyle is a big talent doing complex work with the modern noir.
Steph Post, Walk In The Fire (Polis)
Post continues to distinguish herself as a stunning new voice in Floridian noir with her second to feature Judah Cannon and his ever-complicated kith and kin. Her gritty portrait of desperate lives in the criminal underworld of North Florida is a fine addition to the already-substantial canon of Florida crime fiction.
Aya de Leon, The Accidental Mistress (Dafina)
Aya de Leon writes scintillating heist novels full of quick turns, high action, and low deeds, and her Justice Hustlers series, featuring a stripper collective who rob the rich as their day job, is notable for both its unique set up and its powerful female figures. Her latest, The Accidental Mistress, takes us into the complex relationship between two sisters, one a member of the collective, and the other engaged in respectability politics until she’s framed for a crime she didn’t commit and needs her sister’s help to bail her out of trouble.