The best crime books of 2023

Crime authors (l-r) Dennis Lehane, SG MacLean and Leonora Nattrass
Crime authors (l-r) Dennis Lehane, SG MacLean and Leonora Nattrass - Sueddeutsche Zeitung / Alamy / Quercus Books / Bent Agency

A list of the authors who’ve started out in the thriller genre recently might be mistaken for the cast of next week’s edition of Blankety Blank. Shirley Ballas? Martin Kemp? Rosemary Shrager?

The most distinguished “celeb” effort this year was probably Rob Rinder’s courtroom drama The Trial (Century, £20), which benefits from his wit and legal knowledge – though one wonders how much involvement Rinder had in its creation, given that he thanks a journalist in the acknowledgements for “weed-whacking through my cerebral detritus to find an intelligible story”. Crime publishers should learn from what’s happened in children’s publishing, and observe how quickly the market gets flooded with pabulum if you throw money at celebrities. Nonetheless, in 2024, I predict an arms race of famous folk putting their names to ghosted thrillers.

In the meantime, a more pleasing development is the news that the Crime Writers’ Association is introducing new Dagger awards to recognise sub-genres that have muscled their way back into the mainstream after decades out of fashion: the domestic suspense novel and the traditional plot-centred whodunit. My vote for the former category would go to Olivia Kiernan’s deliciously Highsmithian The End of Us (Riverrun, £16.99), about a debt-ridden GP contemplating a scheme to fake his wife’s death for the insurance; for the latter, Tom Mead’s 1930s-set theatrical mystery The Murder Wheel (Head of Zeus, £20), which bears every sign of being possessed by the ghost of the master of the locked-room mystery, John Dickson Carr.

If there were a Dagger for longest crime novel, this year – as so often – it would go to JK Rowling/Robert Galbraith for The Running Grave (Sphere, £25), a 950-page tale of an evil cult that would have gripped twice as hard at half the length. Look at Ian Rankin, in whose flavoursome novella The Rise (Amazon, e-book and audiobook only) the multi-millionaire inhabitants of a chi-chi residential tower are the suspects in the murder of their concierge: it proves that an amuse-bouche can be as memorable as a banquet.

If any crime novel merited its high page-count this year, it was Deepti Kapoor’s Age of Vice (Fleet, £20), a genuine epic that seems to leave no corner of New Delhi unexplored as it unfolds the tale of Sunny, the conflicted scion of a criminal dynasty that makes the Corleones look like the Larkins. If the character of a nation is expressed by its criminals, here’s an indispensable text for understanding modern India.

Deepti Kapoor, author of Age of Vice
Deepti Kapoor, author of Age of Vice - Hachette Australia

Another thriller that casts a beady eye on the workings of the modern world is Martin Cruz Smith’s Independence Day (S&S, £18.99), in which veteran investigator Arkady Renko hunts a missing anti-Putin activist in Ukraine on the eve of last year’s invasion. Both Cruz Smith and Renko suffer from Parkinson’s disease, and yet, hearteningly, both are on almost as good form as they were in the masterly Gorky Park, four decades ago.

To say that Mick Herron has surpassed himself with The Secret Hours (Baskerville, £22) would suggest that naming the best spy thriller of the year is a no-brainer. But it would be a photo finish with Matthew Richardson’s blissfully ingenious The Scarlet Papers (Michael Joseph, £14.99), in which a nonagenarian ex-spy reflects on her involvement in half a century’s worth of labyrinthine missions, while various factions compete to suppress or preserve her explosive memoirs.

It was a bumper year, too, for historical crime fiction. SG MacLean’s superb The Winter List (Quercus, £20) explored the merciless persecution of Cromwell’s supporters following the Restoration; it was overshadowed by Robert Harris’s blockbusting Act of Oblivion on the same theme, but comparison shows how brilliantly MacLean evokes the texture of the past. The same is true of Leonora Nattrass, who in her wonderfully evocative Scarlet Town (Viper, £16.99) confects a quintessentially 18th-century plot that sees the only two voters in a rotten borough murdered.

But it was in Dennis Lehane’s masterly Small Mercies (Abacus, £20) that thrills and historical recreation combined most potently. The story of an Irishwoman searching for her missing teenage daughter in the melting pot of 1970s Boston against the backdrop of the desegregation busing crisis, it uses personal tragedies to illuminate the wider tragedy of the fissures that divided America – and still do.

Jake Kerridge is the Telegraph’s regular crime-fiction critic