For us crime fiction fans, 2015 has been a great year so far. It's nearly impossible to choose one book to highlight for my first review, so I'm not even going to try.
Instead, I'm going to give you guys my list of The Best of Crime 2015, So Far.
On the heels of Gone Girl's massive success, 2015 has featured a succession of similarly themed novels: female lead with dubious morals/motivations, disastrous personal life, ensuing tragedy. I am all for this trend—I love to see the exploration of a dark female lead; one who is powerful, cunning, and takes charge of her own destiny. While Gillian Flynn's Amazing Amy isn't exactly a moral compass, the lady sure gets results. Two of my top crime novels of the year so far fall into this category; Paula Hawkins' The Girl on the Train and Jessica Knoll's Luckiest Girl Alive. Let's start with those.
1. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, Riverhead Books
Paula Hawkins' instant hit The Girl on the Train introduces the reader to the troubled protagonist, Rachel. An alcoholic reeling from the end of a marriage, Rachel observes the lives of strangers through their windows on her daily train commute to London. One day, Rachel witnesses something alarming, and dives into an investigation that entangles her personal life with the lives of the people she watches. I had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Hawkins when she came to speak in Houston. She was engaging, dynamic, and genuine in her personal connection to this story. Ms. Hawkins explained that she was inspired to write this story by her own experience of commuting by train in England, and being privy to the lives of families whose houses were right next to the train track. This book raises some fascinating questions: what would you do if you saw something happen on your morning commute? How far would you go to find out what you had seen? How much are our lives ever really private from the world around us?
On top of these questions (which make for great book group discussion fodder, by the way!), this book is just a fantastic, engaging read. With a fast-paced storyline, and chapters alternately narrated by the book's main characters, this book rockets along like, well... a train.
2. Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll, Simon & Schuster
Okay. This book. I can honestly say I was skeptical of this book when I started it (but keep reading this review!!!). It has gotten a ton of publicity, and with obvious comparisons being made to Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, I was intrigued.
I was thoroughly surprised by how much I enjoyed Jessica Knoll's debut novel. I'm a true convert: I went from skeptic to recommending it to all my coworkers! This book is wicked, through and through. The main character, Ani, is a walking lie. Coming from a humble background, she reinvents herself after surviving a mysterious high school tragedy and making it to the big city. Cunning and sharp to the point of psychopathy, Ani has transformed every aspect of herself—even her name has been altered to reflect her new, chic, alluring identity. She has snagged a blue-blood fiancé, has a successful career writing for a magazine, and has seemingly erased the disgraces of her past.
But, as we crime fiction readers know, the past never stays buried forever. And thankfully for the reader, this holds true for Ani. This story really grabbed me at the moment the author finally reveals what exactly Ani survived in high school, and I can honestly say when I reached that part of the story, I couldn't sleep until I finished the book. I won't spoil it for those of you who haven't read it, but it is a topical tragedy, one that we hear all too much of in the news; it will shake you, and it will make you glad you read this book. This aspect of the plot is its most original by far. Jessica Knoll takes an otherwise relatively familiar story (awkward high school student reinvents self in NYC), and turns it into something sinister, something that will keep you up at night. I'm just thankful my New England prep school experience wasn't anything like Ani's.
My next two choices can be grouped into my personal favorite crime fiction category: Nordic Noir. Scandinavia continues to produce an impressive field of crime fiction authors; from Stieg Larsson to Camilla Läckberg, Nordic authors have dominated my crime fiction reading list for the past... forever. To make this abundantly clear: I love Scandinavian crime fiction. It is consistently crime fiction at its best, and it makes up about 70% of the crime fiction reading that I do. (No exaggeration—you should see my bookshelves.) Many of my favorite Scandinavian authors have been in a bit of a lull this year, and though previously-published books of theirs are slowly trickling to the U.S. from across the pond, I can't rightfully include them in a "best of 2015" list. Thankfully, new novels by Sara Blaedel and my personal favorite, Jo Nesbø, prove that Scandinavian crime authors are here to stay.
3. The Forgotten Girls by Sara Blaedel, Grand Central Publishing
I was thrilled to find that Danish author Sara Blaedel had a new novel out this year, and it was just as good as I expected it to be. Sara Blaedel (who is super sweet and adorable on Instagram, go follow her) is the author of the Louise Rick series, which follows (you guessed it!) Danish Detective Louise Rick. She is massively popular in Scandinavia and around the world, and has an impressive collection of accolades for her success as an author of crime fiction. In The Forgotten Girls, Detective Rick, the newly-appointed commander of the Missing Persons Department, attempts to identify the body of a woman found in a local forest. Despite distinctive scarring that should have made the woman easy to identify, no one has reported her missing. The mystery surrounding this woman quickly grows, as Detective Rick and her journalist friend, Camilla, uncover corruption at a local orphanage that may have impacted more than just the known victim.
If you like strong female leads, compelling stories of lost girls and institutional cover-ups, and the unique flavor of Scandinavian crime fiction, you will love The Forgotten Girls.
4. Blood on Snow by Jo Nesbø, Alfred A. Knopf
Last but certainly not least, nearest and dearest to my heart, my main man Jo Nesbø released a standalone novel this year. Best known for his Harry Hole serious (pronounced differently than it looks to us English speakers, I promise... think "Hah-rry Hoo-leh"), Jo Nesbø is arguably the king of Scandinavian crime fiction, threatened perhaps only by the late Stieg Larsson. Jo Nesbø will remain my absolute favorite crime fiction author; no one writes a troubled detective like Mr. Nesbø, no one writes a mystery like Mr. Nesbø. Period. But more about the Harry Hole series another day.
Blood on Snow follows Olav, a "fixer" for one of Oslo's most powerful crime bosses. Tasked with "fixing" individuals who may become a threat to the business, Olav is a hitman, but he is a hitman with a heart. In the way only Jo Nesbø can, this story contrasts the black-and-white, morals-be-damned world of organized crime with the protagonist's unique capacity for love. This story is gritty, sparse, and ultimately tragic—qualities characteristic of all Nesbø's writing. This is NOT a fancy crime story; if you like your crime fiction with some bells and whistles, stick with The Girl on the Train or Luckiest Girl Alive. This book is bare-bones, no-nonsense, and short-lived, much like its protagonist's life. While it's not the Harry Hole saga, it is an excellent snapshot of the qualities that make Nesbø a compelling voice in the crime fiction world. Read this, and then imagine how Jo Nesbø will apply this voice to the re-write of Macbeth he is doing for the Hogarth Shakespeare project, coming 2016.
2015 has been a great year for the crime fiction reader thus far, and with some highly-anticipated new releases this fall (here's looking at you, not-Stieg Larsson's new Millennium series installment), there should be a ton more great reads before the new year. Stay tuned for more crime fiction reviews, and happy reading!