My Top Five Crime Reads of 2018
By John C. Foster
Blood stained dollar bills. The burn of alcohol and smell of cordite. Crime fiction is visceral and alive, even as it dances with death. It’s about the struggle taking place on the last rung of the ladder. Who will fall. Who will climb.
Crime is meant to be read in great, gasping bites with pieces of meat and lettuce spraying from the corners of your mouth. Good crime writing doesn’t give you any choice. It holds a straight razor to your throat and says, “You wanted into my world, baby. Now you gotta dance.”
Below are my top five crime reads of 2018, representing both old and new masters of the genre.
QUEENPIN by Megan Abbott
Abbott could have occupied several slots on this list with You Will Know Me and The Fever being every bit as good as the book I ended up including. Heck, I’ve got Bury Me Deep waiting atop my TBR pile right now. But I chose Queenpin for a reason, because Abbott is a little bit like me. She loves the classics and when she started out, she was channeling Raymond Chandler to write old school noir with her own unique bite. The back cover copy says: A young woman hired to keep books at a down-at-the-heels nightclub is taken under the wing of the infamous Gloria Denton, a mob luminary who reigned during the golden era of Bugsy Siegel and Lucky Luciano.
Megan Abbott’s prose is golden, but in Queenpin, she writes in lead.
BLOOD STANDARD by Laird Barron
Barron cut a swath with stories carved of the darkest metal. Tales of cosmic horror populated with an unforgettable string of hard bitten men and mind warping terrors. When I first heard he was writing a crime novel I was sitting on the edge of my seat like a kid watching Babe Ruth at the plate. I wasn’t waiting to see if Barron was going to hit a home run. I was waiting to see if it would be a grand slam.
Meet Isaiah Coleridge, a former mob enforcer from Alaska, re-located to the Hudson Valley. He’s a half-Maori giant trying to keep a low profile, but when a teenage girl is snatched, Coleridge steps up to the plate to bring her home.
Isaiah Coleridge has rightly shouldered himself onto the pedestal alongside the greats like Marlowe and Parker. The good news is we’re getting another Coleridge book this year.
BUTCHER’S MOON by Richard Stark
Donald E. Westlake was a prolific writer, best known for his clever, sometimes funny stories of bank robbers and grifters. But it was under the pseudonym Richard Stark that he made his greatest mark with a merciless character named Parker.
Parker is a thief. A high-jacker specializing in hard target take downs. If you double cross him there are two certainties. First, he will kill you. Second, he’ll damn well get his money back.
Butcher’s Moon is the 16th Parker novel and stands out as one of the best. Returning to the scene of a previous score (Slayground) where he lost the loot and nearly his life, Parker puts together a hard bitten crew to go up against the local syndicate to get what’s his.
Parker is, pound for pound, the best protagonist in crime fiction. You don’t need to read the Parker novels in order, but if you’re new to him, I’d recommend starting at the beginning when we first meet Parker striding across a bridge into New York City with murder and money on his mind. This novel is The Hunter, and there’s never been anything better.
MONEY SHOT by Christa Faust
Faust’s Money Shot is more proof that the notion of crime fiction being a boy’s club is so much bullshit. From the back cover: It all began with a phone call asking former porn star Angel Dare to do one more movie. Before she knew it, she’d been shot and left for dead in the trunk of a car.
Money Shot doesn’t give us a heroine who suddenly sprouts spinning back kicks and dead eye sniping. Angel Dare is a woman who’s seen it all and had the grit and wit to survive the kind of business that chews up women and spits them out. When she walks into a trap, those same qualities enable her to claw, maneuver and yes, kill her way to the finish line. Though there is sex and violence in spades, Faust doesn’t lean on the easy trick of titillation to draw the reader in. Her prose is tough and grabs you by the lapel, dragging you face forward through the gutter.
Faust wrote a second Angel Dare novel titled Choke Hold, and it’s every bit as good as the first. I can only hope she sits down at the keyboard to give us a third.
BEARSKIN by James A. McLaughlin
This might be my top read of 2018, all genres included. I’d describe McLaughlin’s first novel as an Appalachian noir, as it presents a former cartel operative hiding out as the caretaker of a remote nature preserve. When poachers start killing bears on the preserve, the caretaker tangles with the locals and draws exactly the kind of outside attention he was trying to avoid. This story is alive with the wilderness as well as the innermost thoughts of the protagonist. Compelling, visceral and intense, Bearskin is an incredible read.
I cannot wait for McLaughlin’s next book.
6. BONUS ROUND: THE DEATH OF MRS. WESTAWAY by Ruth Ware
Ruth Ware is best known for writing suspense filled, contemporary mysteries and might seem like an odd choice for this list, but The Death of Mrs. Westaway is so good, I want to draw attention to it. Part murder mystery, part family drama, the novel gives us a young tarot reader on a touristy pier, in debt to loan sharks and unable to pay up. When she receives news of an inheritance—surely a mistake—she decides to play the part and see if she can con the family and the sharp eyed lawyer into giving her the loot. Harriet, the young tarot reader, is gritty enough to appear in any of the other novels on this list, but is one of the most sympathetic protagonists I’ve encountered in years. I cheered her every victory and trembled at every failure. A seamless blend of gothic mystery with modern day morals, The Death of Mrs. Westaway is a stand out book and deserves a place alongside its bloodier siblings on the list.
So that’s it. Show’s over, kid. At the end I even gave you a little bit for free.
But if you’ve got one more moment, a word to the wise…
Next time you’re gonna pay.
Follow John Foster on Twitter (@johnfosterfic).