In literature, as in boxing, great champions have compromised their reputations by going on too long. But entering the ring for the 24th time, at the age of 86, John le Carré remained an unmatched heavyweight.
A Legacy of Spies (Viking) also showed off some new punches, ingeniously recasting an earlier masterpiece, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. In stingingly topical style, the behaviours of its characters six decades ago, including George Smiley, are examined by the modern forces of political correctness.
The long and enduring power of Le Carré leaves British espionage fiction a cramped space for newcomers. Mick Herron has carved out his own distinctive territory by focusing on a squad of failed spooks whom Sir George would never tolerate. They are known as the “slow horses” of their HQ Slough House, which Herron imagines as an MI5 naughty step for alcoholics, incompetents and possible traitors. In Spook Street (John Murray), this stable of unstable spies deal with a terrorist attack plus the risk that a retired agent with dementia may forget what he shouldn’t know. Chief cowboy of the slow horses, Jackson Lamb, whose vulgar hedonism would be enough to make Falstaff look like Philip Hammond, is becoming one of crime fiction’s great characters.
Two corpses — one black, one white — are washed up in a Texan bayou in Attica Locke’s Bluebird, Bluebird (Serpent’s Tail), exposing African American Texas Ranger Darren Matthews to prejudices, loyalties and secrets, and forcing him to confront his own. Locke is progressively dramatising black US history; with this book she reaches the Obama era.
Denise Mina, a worthy regular on crime book award shortlists, showed her range by taking the 2017 Gordon Burn prize, established to honour a great explorer of the borders between fact and fiction. In The Long Drop (Harvill Secker) Mina combines two genres unusual for her — faction and historical — in a superb recreation of a Glasgow serial murder trial (and risk of miscarriage of justice) in 1958.
Australian first-timer Jane Harper suggested a potential torrent of talent with The Dry (Abacus), in which a man returns to the outback town from which he had been summarily exiled as a teenager. He is there to attend the funeral of a childhood best mate who is believed to have killed his wife and son, before turning the gun on himself. But the case is clearly not as simple as that and, in the tense setting of a landcape where it hasn’t rained for two years, Harper slowly but thrillingly reveals where the truth lies.
Another exciting newcomer is British author Emma Flint, whose Little Deaths (Picador) fictionalises the real-life 1960s case of a New York mother suspected of killing her children: the story unfolds after a tabloid reporter worries that hacks, cops and gossips have rushed to judgment. Meanwhile, when it seemed that all the possible Sherlock variations had been done, Joe Ide’s debut IQ (W&N) brilliantly relocated the world of 221B Baker St to contemporary LA.
At the other end of a career, John Grisham, approaching 40 novels, surely has no financial or egotistical need to keep proving himself, but showed impressive creative hunger by releasing two smart books this year, Camino Island and The Rooster Bar (both Hodder). The first turns on a heist from a university vault containing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s manuscripts, while in the second disillusioned law school students seek revenge on a fraudulent billionaire.
Faber’s welcome republication of vintage crime bestsellers continued with An English Murder by Cyril Hare, a wintry country house whodunit from 1951. And in Celia Fremlin’s 1958 psychological thriller, The Hours Before Dawn, a mother with a baby who won’t stop crying must decide, in classic English mystery fashion, if fearful thoughts about her husband and a lodger are figments of a tired mind.
Two of the most grieved-for recent ghosts in the crime fiction library continue a consoling publishing afterlife with posthumous volumes of short stories: PD James with Sleep No More: Six Murderous Tales (Faber), and Ruth Rendell with A Spot of Folly: Ten and a Quarter New Tales of Murder and Mayhem (Profile).
The latter is introduced by Sophie Hannah, who confirmed that she is one of the strongest successors to the James-Rendell line with Did You See Melody? (Hodder). In this crisp who-did-what?, an Englishwoman at an Arizona resort hotel is convinced she sees the US’s most famous child murder victim.
Susie Steiner solidified the promise of last year’s debut, Missing, Presumed, with another hyper-realistic police procedural, Persons Unknown (Borough). Now pregnant, the refreshingly original detective Manon Bradshaw embarks on a personally troubling investigation of a banker’s stabbing. With Magpie Murders, Anthony Horowitz established himself at the playful and experimental end of the mystery spectrum.
The Word Is Murder (Century) raises the game-playing to Olympic level as a prolific novelist and TV screenwriter called Anthony Horowitz is tapped up by a disgraced detective to co-investigate a killing.
Another author who likes to challenge generic expectations, Dennis Lehane seems to have abandoned the suspense form of his Mystic River and Shutter Island completely in the first half of Since We Fell (Little, Brown). At first it feels like a psycho-drama about Rachel, a TV reporter with PTSD and a controlling mother. Only in later sections detailing Rachel’s relationships is Lehane’s real Hitchcockian scheme revealed, with characteristically twisty action and crackling dialogue.
Hitchcock would also have admired Joseph Finder’s The Switch (Head of Zeus). It spins enjoyable complications from someone accidentally picking up at an airport a laptop that belongs to a top politician who has taken a Hillary Clinton-like approach to cybersecurity.
There have been increasing skirmishes across the historical border between mystery and non-genre fiction. Following last year’s Man Booker shortlisting of Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project, novelist-poet Adam Thorpe continued the trend with Missing Fay (Cape), an upmarket take on the gone girl mystery. And Macrae Burnet himself impressed again with the pleasantly tricksy Georges Simenon homage, The Accident on the A35 (Saraband).
–Guardian News & Media Ltd