The Best Thrillers Of 2018, According To One Of The Best Crime Writers
The Real Lolita author Sarah Weinman on the crime writing that burrowed deep into her psyche and stayed there for a long, long time.
This year was an especially good year for crime, both fiction and nonfiction. Some were new efforts by beloved writers exceeding their top-of-game status; some were extra-grade quality debuts or standout sophomore efforts. Some are friends, some are strangers. Whatever their priors, this group comprises the books that burrowed deepest into my psyche and remain uppermost on my mind, months or more after I first cracked open their spines.
So here, in alphabetical author order, are my favorites of 2018.
I group Abbott's novels in quartets: First there were the midcentury, gender-flipped noir novels; then there were the contemporary, competitive-drenched suspense novels of adolescent competition. Give Me Your Hand is a thrilling start to her next career phase, where the rage is total, the rivalries are fierce and complicated, and the secrets that bind women in apparent friendships are the very ones that will destroy them. Blood tells, again and again, but especially midway in the novel, in a scene so intense I screamed aloud.
Before this year, William Boyle was the best contemporary American crime writer not published in America. Thankfully, his award-winning debut novel, Gravesend, was reissued this year, and his third, A Friend Is a Gift You Can Give Yourself, is already on my 2019 favorites list. But The Lonely Witness moves in stealth mode, sneaking up on the reader with understated prose and characters who feel so lived-in and real that their decisions, whether catastrophic or joyful — especially those of the book's heroine, Amy Falconetti, an isolated-by-choice young woman in deepest Brooklyn — ring authentic and true.
I love my crime fiction a little weird, a lot bold, and plenty off-kilter and original. I knew, within the first page of Braithwaite's debut novel, that she delivered on all of those criteria, and the result was something truly special. Korede, a Lagos-based nurse, has spent her entire life playing cleanup and catchup to her beautiful sister Ayoola, most especially when there are murdered boyfriends whose bodies must be disposed. But the strength of sibling duty erodes when Korede realizes the next potential dead man is one she happens to love unrequitedly. Braithwaite writes with fearlessness and studied aplomb about family, race, class, and the monstrosity of high expectations, making My Sister, The Serial Killer a wicked, joyous wonder.
Burke is a suspense writer that plenty of people are reading (her collaborations with Mary Higgins Clark are a big reason why), but still not nearly enough. Here's why this should change: Her novels, especially this one and last year's The Ex, probe social issues and relationships at their messiest and most complicated, but never sacrificing killer pacing and plot twists. The Wife arrived in the thick of the #MeToo revelations and their aftermath, and it was the crime novel I thought of most during the Kavanagh hearings. We're so long from figuring out what to do with these men, but it felt important to see the tough questions grappled with, as the best crime fiction does.
Jealousy, class differences, New York high society, secret bookstores, burlesque shows, rooftop parties, grifters, murderous desires, and deeds — and that's all within the first 50 or so pages of this nuclear blast of a debut suspense novel. It's high-grade satire of the kind that Patricia Highsmith might have concocted (or been envious of) had she been around in the 21st century, mixed with glorious melodrama normally reserved in the final acts of a 19th-century opera. Burton's wonderfully distinctive voice is so assured and confident, and I can't wait to immerse myself in her fractured, of-the-moment worlds again.
Historical fiction, and in particular historical crime fiction, has to feel of its time and of our time. Katrina Carrasco has mastered this duality in her first novel, which introduces the gender-fluid hero and general badass Alma Rosales as she fights toe-to-toe with men, runs her part of a smuggling operation, and matches wits — and so much more — with bootlegger Nathaniel Wheeler in 1880s Port Townsend, Washington. I loved it all, from the crackling chemistry, the unapologetic sexuality (hetero and queer), the dazzling sentences, and a corker of an ending that shocked as it was the only possible outcome.
I tied these crime novels together because they are, to my mind, an answer to a question I've often been asked, and thus one I think about a lot: What is the state of the private detective novel? Both these standout efforts demonstrate a future for this often shopworn subgenre, because — just like the Robert B. Parkers and the James Crumleys of the early 1970s, and the Sue Graftons and the Sara Paretskys of the early 1980s — the detective novel fills the gap of political unrest and upheaval, seeking order but understanding it may not be there to find. Claire DeWitt, with her metaphysical bent and haunted past, and Phoebe Sigler, burrowing into the depths of Inland Empire, are refreshingly now and timeless all at once.
Get The Infinite Blacktop from Amazon for $17.10 or Barnes & Noble for $23.40; get The Feral Detective from Amazon for $17.70 or Barnes & Noble for $24.29; or find both at an independent bookseller or your local library.
This suspense novel stands out thanks to Hall's elegant, controlled voice, which itself from the first sentence as one of equal parts confidence and utter unreliability. There's no good reason to trust what her narrator, Michael, is saying about his ex-girlfriend Verity, but the way in which he talks about her — and then fixes it so that people will remember her villainy, warranted or otherwise — leads to an ending that, nearly a year after I read it for the first time, still makes me shake in anger.
Knecht's second novel seemed to be made for me in the most idiosyncratic literary lab, a fusion of early 1960s lesbian pulp, mid-1960s Le Carre–esque spy fiction, and general midcentury Clarice Lispector. I cannot think of another book like it, and I am deeply grateful for this window into Knecht's inner creative workings and conversations. Plus, Vera Kelly is a hell of a character, one I am eager to read more of.
Read an excerpt here.
Where too many crime writers at the 20-plus book level in their careers feel content to produce mediocrity, Lippman never does — and, I suspect, never will. There's a restlessness that infiltrates the prose, so stylistically confident that I know it's Lippman's voice from the first paragraph, in this reimagining of fellow Baltimorean James M. Cain's greatest works (namely, The Postman Always Rings Twice with a side order of Mildred Pierce and Double Indemnity). Polly plays the femme fatale role, and Adam her suspicious pursuer, first professional, then personal, but the ground shifts so much between them and around them that their romance is a true one — and the ending, which explains everything, is so beautifully earned I'm still roiled by its audacity.
This splendid book by the longtime New York Times obituary writer spins a scintillating narrative around the early 20th-century wrongful conviction story of Oscar Slater, a Glasgow bon vivant convicted of the robbery and murder of an elderly woman, and how Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the Sherlock Holmes series, advocated for Slater's release. Fox weaves in the history of forensic science, the strengths and limitations of detective work, and the appalling way immigrants were — and are — still treated as “other.”
This book makes my list as much for what was published — the beautiful, generous, and robust writing that was a hallmark of McNamara’s True Crime Diary blog and the Los Angeles magazine feature that was the germ of this book — as for what might have been, as McNamara’s sudden death in 2016 robbed readers of what she fully intended. McNamara's dogged efforts forcing a monster known only as the Golden State Killer back in the light was almost certainly instrumental in finally solving this decades-old serial murder case.
Sarah Weinman is the author of The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World (Ecco) and editor of Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s (Library of America) and Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives (Penguin). Her work has most recently appeared in the New York Times, Vanity Fair, the Washington Post, and New York Magazine. She lives in Brooklyn.