The Best Crime Novels of the Year

Lisa Sandlin’s irresistible mystery THE BIRD BOYS (Cinco Puntos, paper, $16.95) is set in 1973 in Beaumont, a bustling city on the Texas Gulf Coast where a freshly minted private eye has just hung out his shingle. His first job, a classic missing persons case, is enhanced by a particularly memorable cast of characters — including his receptionist, a paroled murderer, and the local cops, who invite a visitor to “set your behind in a chair, you.” Thanks, don’t mind if I do.

Don’t even think about the circular saw, which gets quite a workout in THE CHESTNUT MAN (Harper, $28.99), Soren Sveistrup’s cunningly plotted Danish police procedural about a body-part-collecting serial killer. Little is left to the imagination in Caroline Waight’s gruesomely graphic translation — a hand here, a foot there, and has anyone seen where I put that head? — of this disturbing tale about a macabre killer who unnerves Denmark, a nation with a long tradition of unnerving literature.

Denise Mina has always written with a head full of ideas and a mouth full of tough talk. In CONVICTION (Mulholland, $27), her fiery Glaswegian heroine rails against the lasting emotional damage done on social networks in the name of truth and transparency. She also takes on ritual gang rapes by athletes, the toll that drugs take on nice people and the received wisdom of certain males about women. “The eternal companions of all clever women are mistrust and scorn,” she says.

The nasty sounds coming out of strip clubs and biker bars in John McMahon’s first novel, THE GOOD DETECTIVE (Putnam, $27), are nothing like the syrupy voices of the Old South, and a contrast to the lovely and moving interior monologues of a 15-year-old boy narrating the particulars of his own murder. “He saw the moon,” he notes while observing the last moments of his life. “He’d just learned about waxing and waning moons in science, and this was a waxing gibbous. A few days before a full moon.”

The bewitching story and luscious language of Attica Locke’s HEAVEN, MY HOME (Mulholland, $27) are rooted in East Texas. When the 9-year-old son of a captain in the Aryan Brotherhood goes missing, only Darren Mathews, the African-American Texas Ranger who keeps this series as honest as it is politically pointed, can avert a race war. The action is tense and the characters have character, but it’s Locke’s descriptions of this “little piece of heaven” that will make you swoon.

Got game? Jeffery Deaver applies his formidable skill at creating devious plots to the video gaming world in THE NEVER GAME (Putnam, $28). Someone is collecting people to star in staged scenes from a violent video scenario. The rules are fair (“there was always a way to escape it you could figure it out”) but murderous, and the game pieces are not expected to survive their ordeals. Although the hero is no obsessive gamer himself, he hooks up with a professional player (“I kill zombies for a living”) who calls herself GrindrGirl88. You go, girl!

Trouble comes calling on the New Iberia parish where James Lee Burke sets THE NEW IBERIA BLUES (Simon & Schuster, $27.99), about a condemned murderer who escapes from a Texas prison and comes home to Louisiana, ready to kill again. Burke offers great characters, including Bella Delahoussaye, a blues singer with intimate knowledge of Big Mama Thornton’s mournful “Ball and Chain,” and Dave Robicheaux, a sheriff’s deputy given to moody pensées like “I believe the world belongs to the dead as well as the unborn.”

There’s something for everyone — murder, arson, salty cop talk and noisy domestic disputes — in the packed plot of Michael Connelly’s THE NIGHT FIRE (Little, Brown, $29). Connelly’s main man, the retired cop Harry Bosch, is busy with a cold-case homicide. The L.A.P.D. detective Renée Ballard, who pulls the midnight shift known as the Late Show, does the inside drudge work for him before retiring to the tent on the beach where she lives with Lola, her pitbull-boxer mix. For die-hard fans of police procedurals, Connelly is the real deal.

Martha Grimes’s THE OLD SUCCESS (Atlantic Monthly, $26) takes its name from a real-life British pub, as do all of her charming Richard Jury novels. After a Frenchwoman’s body turns up on one of the Isles of Scilly, the story switches residence to a Northamptonshire pub. Here, Jury confers with his aristocratic friend, Melrose Plant, who keeps a most unusual menagerie that includes a goat named Aghast, a dog named Aggro and a horse named Aggrieved. Aha!

The gorgeous authorial voice of James Sallis rings out in SARAH JANE (Soho Crime, $23.95), about a chicken farmer’s daughter who becomes the acting sheriff of a small Southern town. Her duties range from visiting patients at the local nursing home (“small ceremonies help hold our lives in place”) to cleaning up after suicides. But it’s her guilt about a righteous but unlawful killing that lends the book such haunting melancholy.

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