What can be frustrating about reading crime fiction is that after a certain number of books, the twists get predictable or far-fetched, and the shock-factor is needlessly overdone. If there is a detective, they’re some version of a misunderstood genius grudgingly admired by their colleagues. The genre, as stacked at the bookstore, has its limitations most of the time. As Terrence Rafferty notes in this article at The Atlantic, the old, dependable tropes of crime fiction no longer work as well as they used to.
So we’ve made a list of novels that allow themselves to be more than whodunits – studies in the social conditions around the crime, investigations into the way rural and urban landscapes shelter crime in their own ways. We’ve made a list we can actually escape into, not just flip through at the dentist’s. These are stories that don’t pretend crime happens only in the deep woods or to the children of criminal prosecutors or to women walking home late from work. These stories have a strong sense of place and community and highlight the real lives that unravel and endure.
The Child Finder, Rene Denfeld
Denfeld’s stunning novel is about a woman named Noemi who was once a missing child and who, as an adult, specialises in tracking missing children. She has been tasked with finding an eight-year-old girl named Madison who has been missing for three years. Madison creates a fairy-tale reality for herself inspired by one of her favourite books from before she was separated from her parents. Noemi can’t remember the details of her life before she escaped, but Madison’s case brings her closer to uncovering the truth than ever before. The Child Finder explores the structure of positive foster homes, the resilience of rescued children, and the reality that some missing children will never be tracked down. Denfeld’s personal essay about fostering her three children in New York Times’s Modern Love is an excellent introduction to her gifts as an empathetic storyteller.
Faithful Place, Tana French
French sets her compelling crime novels in the heart of Irish society. Faithful Place is the name of a crowded Dublin neighbourhood where the Mackeys, a working-class family, live. One of their sons, Frank, is a detective who hasn’t been back to Faithful Place in over twenty years. At 19, he packed up his bags to run away with his girlfriend, Rose. But she never turns up, and he has no word of her till her suitcase unexpectedly shows up and Frank must return to a family and a past he has long tried to put behind him. Frank’s alcoholic father, gentle younger brother, estranged ex-wife, and Rose’s family are all as richly drawn as Frank is himself by the author whose world is one of the most believable I’ve encountered. Faithful Place is part of a series of loosely connected novels which don’t need to be read in order.
The Dry, Jane Harper
The novel opens with three deaths on a farm in Kiewarra, Australia. A small agricultural town is experiencing its most extreme period of drought in over a century. Where a river once flowed is an arid expanse of land. In the midst of financial insecurity and rising unemployment, the townspeople are quick to dismiss the deaths on the farm as an act of desperation by the farmer, Luke, who seemingly killed his family and shot himself. Aaron, a detective who investigates financial fraud and a one-time best friend of Luke, returns to Kiewarra for the funeral. As he steps tentatively back into the lives of people he left behind, he must reassess every troubling detail he knows about Kiewarra and about Luke to answer the question of whether he was capable of murder. Harper’s engrossing debut is to be followed by a sequel called Force of Nature in March 2018.
Burial Rites, Hannah Kent
Kent is one of those writers who meticulously researches little-known events from history to create rivetting fiction that is part-social history, part-thriller. In Burial Rites, she revisits a crime in 1829 in Northern Iceland. Agnes is a servant who is sentenced to death for her part in the murder of two men. The novel is set in the days before her execution where a young priest is sent to absolve her of her sins. The family who is asked to host Agnes shuns her as much as possible. But as she begins to confide in the priest, they must confront the troubling gulf between public opinion based on the sentencing and the nuances of Agnes’ story. Did she? Didn’t she? The novel is an interesting meditation on how the evidence people people are convicted on is often subjective and sometimes open to interpretation.
Bluebird, Bluebird, Attica Locke
In the corners of East Texas, the Aryan brotherhood is alive and kicking. Darren Matthews is a black man who is part of the Texas Rangers – a law enforcement agency with state-wide jurisdiction. When the bodies of a black man and a white woman are pulled from a small water body in Lark within days of each other, Matthews drives down with an unexplained conviction that the murders are connected. In the background of this complex novel is Matthews’s struggle with Texas’s history of slavery and abiding racism, his own drinking problem, and his rapidly crumbling marriage and career. Locke calls the novel a love letter to Black Texans which is exactly what it turns out to be – a ride into East Texas in all its shame and glory.