“Best” is a relative term. For this list, best means a few things put together. As a professional book reviewer, writer, and lifelong fan of crime fiction, I have read books from many indie presses. In fact, I try to review as many indie titles as possible because they usually lack the marketing budget to reach a lot of readers. To simplify the process and have some measurable elements on which to base my picks, I created a list of the “best” presses using the following criteria: they publish outstanding crime narratives; they have a track record of quality in terms of stories, editing, covers, design, and authors; they consistently offer readers a mix of books by established voices, new authors, and work in translation; they often step outside the formulaic crime novel and publish exciting, unique work. When taken together, any press that had all those elements deserved a place on the list. Surprisingly, that meant some presses that aren’t regularly known as crime presses ended up on the list. In any case, here they are:
Hard Case Crime
Of all the presses you’ll see on this list, none comes close to HCC in terms of publishing fun pulp from some of the biggest names in fiction as well as superb cult classics. Brian de Palma, Christa Faust, Stephen King, Donald E. Westlake, Mickey Spillane, Charles Willeford, Ken Bruen, Ed McBain, Gore Vidal, Harlan Ellison, and Lawrence Block are just some of the names on HCC’s catalog, and they are always adding new books. In the last few years I’ve read and reviewed several HCC titles, and the quality has always been great. From outstanding covers to great layout, their books are always a treat for pulp fiction lovers. Recent favorites include Daniel Kraus’s Blood Sugar, which features a kid as the main character in a narrative that is as hilarious as it is heartbreaking, and Scott Von Doviak’s Charlesgate Confidential, which is richly layered and a true throwback to classic pulp novels. I also highly recommend Gore Vidal’s Thieves Fall Out, Samuel Fuller’s Brainquake, and Christa Faust’s Money Shot, which is now a true classic and a master class for anyone trying to write amazing pulp.
Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing
PMMP made this list on the strength of a few titles. Known for publishing mostly bizarro and horror, PMMP occasionally dips into crime, and every time it does it is cause for celebration because their crime always offers a weird, wonderful mix of darkness, violence, and strangeness. John C. Foster’s Baby Powder and Other Terrifying Substances and Dead Men, Christopher David Rosale’s wonderfully weird Gods on the Lam, and Kurt Reichenbaugh’s Last Dance in Phoenix all embody the press’s aesthetic in terms of crime: uncanny, fast-paced, and oftentimes mixed with elements of horror and science fiction (I really wish more crime novels features aliens). There are a lot of crime presses out there, but PMMP, along with a few others on this list, offers a space for crime fiction that operates outside the confines of the genre.
Kingshot Press has a similar approach to crime as PMMP, but their aesthetic leans toward literary fiction instead of horror and science fiction. The smart, unique work of Violet LeVoit, which inhabits the interstitial space between cinematic brilliance and neo-noir with a pulp heart full of philosophical tumors, is enough to land them on this list (her novel I Miss the World is outstanding). However, they do much more, and it usually has a bizarre, international, unique flavor. With a catalog that includes books by Chris Campanioni, J. David Osborne, underground crime fiction sensation Chris Lambert, Troy James Weaver, and Cody Goodfellow, who is, along with Brian Evenson and Stephen Graham Jones, one of the most brilliant and versatile writers working today, Kingshot Press is slowly building a reputation as a press that publishes books readers should buy without even bothering to read the synopsis.
My love for Grindhouse Press came from them publishing C.V. Hunt and Andersen Prunty, two of my favorite dark/weird/bizarro/horror writers. They claim to publish “horror, extreme horror, transgressive fiction, sleaze, exploitation, dark humor, and general weirdness with dark themes.” However, what they fail to say is that those dark themes usually include murder, drugs, guns, petty crime, madness, psychopaths, killing sprees, and a plethora of other elements that appeal to fans of crime fiction. Grindhouse books are always guaranteed to be full of violence and mayhem. One recent standout is True Crime by Samantha Kolesnik, which follows a traumatized brother and sister duo as they embark on a killing rampage. It’s wonderfully dark, violent, gritty, and a tip of the hat to fans of true crime narratives.
I have a hard time remembering that Akashic is an independent press. Their Noir Series is one of the most exciting things to happen to crime fiction in the last decade, and they show no signs of slowing down. In fact, they have books lined up for a few years to come and are surely working on adding to that list. Between crime classics, the Noir Series, new authors, and work in translation, Akashic has been one of my favorite crime presses for years. From cover and layout to their relationship with reviewers and the lack of complaints from their authors, Akashic is one of those presses that are at the top of the heap and tend to set precedent with whatever they do. While they have diversified a lot and now publish everything from noir and children’s books, to Caribbean literature and works focused on the LGBTQ community, they remain one of the best crime publishers out there.
Bitter Lemon Press
There are a few crime presses publishing work in translation, but none of them with the passion and focus shown by Bitter Lemon Press. From France to Brazil and from Argentina to Japan, Bitter Lemon Press consistently brings the best the world has to offer to English-speaking crime fiction lovers. Claudia Piñeiro, Ben Pastor (the pseudonym of Italian author Maria Verbena Volp), Teresa Solana, Cuban master Leonardo Padura, Tonino Benacquista, and Patricia Melo are just some of the international starts on the press’s roster. One of the things I like the most about this press is that their books fit under the crime banner, but they are all different. From police procedural and serial killer investigations to narratives about the Cosa Nostra and stories where crime is just an element that allows authors to discuss culture, Bitter Lemon Press always offers something different. I think they select work based on quality and not because it fits a particular aesthetic, and that has made their catalog a treasure trove of genre goodness.
Down & Out Books
Down & Out Books are relentless. They have a knack for mixing known names and rising stars while giving them all the same treatment. Their catalog includes award winners, genre favorites, and a slew of exciting new voices. They helped me discover superb talents like Beau Johnson, Jon Bassoff, Sarah M. Chen, Richie Narvaez, Hector Acosta, Angel Luis Colón, and Marietta Miles, all of whom are now established voices in contemporary crime fiction. They also publish writers like Tom Pitts, Joe Clifford, Anthony Neil Smith, Nick Kolakowski, Eric Beetner, Patricia Abbott, Nik Korpon, Les Edgerton, and Gary Phillips. While their covers have always been hit or miss, Down & Out does an outstanding job of getting books out there and exposing readers of crime fiction to new voices. Also, they are constantly putting out new books. This year is already promising with new Bassoff and Clifford on the horizon.
Broken River Books
I was torn about including BRB in this list because they have published my last two novels and it is thanks to this press and its editor J. David Osborne that I have a career. However, not doing so felt like a disservice to both readers and BRB’s outstanding roster of authors, so here it is. Now that you know they publish me, forget about that and look at the rest of the authors on their catalog: Scott Adlerberg, Rios de la Luz, Kelby Losack, and Christopher David Rosales. Rios de la Luz won de Wonderland Book Award for Best Collection for The Pulse between Dimensions and the Desert. Losack is an upcoming author who writers what he calls hoodrat noir and will be making waves for years to come. Adlerberg is one of the most unique, stylish voices in contemporary crime fiction and his novels Jack Waters, Graveyard Love, and Jungle Horses are must-reads and Graveyard Love was published in Germany in 2018. Okay, now you can remember that they published me. Coyote Songs sold in France, was nominated to the Bram Stoker Award and the Locus Award, and recently won the Wonderland Book Award for Best Novel. The award nominations and Spanish, German, and French translations of BRB books speak volumes about its editor’s taste.
Polis is one of the first presses to come to mind when I think about indies that punch like true heavyweights. Their roster of authors includes names like Rob Hart, J.D. Rhoades, Steph Post, Alex Segura, and Eryk Pruitt. The one thing that sets Polis apart is that they are incredibly good at putting books on everyone’s radars. They have a solid social media presence and superb distribution. Also, they get reviews like few other indies do. Some recent titles that have incredible buzz going, and for good reasons, include Tori Eldridge’s The Ninja Daughter, Alex Segura’s Miami Midnight, Erica Wright’s Famous in Cedarville, and Heather Harper Ellett’s Ain’t Nobody Nobody. Besides the outstanding crime narratives they publish, which are enough to get them on this list, Polis unveiled Agora in 2019, a new imprint that focuses on crime novels by writers of color. This move placed on a special list among indie presses in terms of mixing diversity and superb writing. Agora’s first release was John Vercher’s Three-Fifths, which was an terrific novel that tackled racism in a unique way. I also read Silvia Garcia-Moreno’s Untamed Shore, which will be out soon, and it is the kind of book crime reader will be talking about for the rest of the year.
Much like Akashic, I often forget Soho Press is an independent press. They have amazing covers, put out beautiful hardcovers, and have superb distribution as well as top-notch marketing and publicity teamwork. While they are now Soho Press, Soho Teen, and Soho Crime, the books they put out under their crime imprint would sometimes lead readers to believe that’s all they focus on. Their catalog shows just how much attention they pay to international stars and new voices as well as how much they value diversity, and they’ve been doing it for two decades. Instead of listing countries, I’ll offer you their own words: “For more than twenty years, Soho Crime has been publishing atmospheric crime fiction set all over the world. Some of Soho’s most popular stories will whisk you away to France, China, England, Laos, Northern Ireland, Thailand, Australia, Japan, Germany, South Africa, Italy, Denmark, India, Cuba, and Palestine, to name but a few.” I wrote about some of my favorite books of 2019 for NPR and Gioacchino Criaco’s Black Souls was on my list. I also wrote a review of Ilaria Tuti’s Flowers Over the Inferno, which is great. Lastly, there’s one thing that would have placed Soho Crime on this list even if that was all they did: they have published translations of Fuminori Nakamura’s novels, and he’s one of my favorite crime writers. If you want to buy something blindly from a press where quality is assured, look no further than Soho Crime.