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The Best Crime Novels of 2023

recommended by Sophie Roell

From a police procedural set in World War II Berlin to a man pushing his in-laws off a wall in Ningbo, the variety of settings for crime fiction continue to provide a lot of opportunities for armchair travel. Our editor, Sophie Roell, an avid reader of crime novels, picks out some of her favourites of 2023. Read more fiction recommendations on Five Books

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Throughout the year I read a lot of crime fiction. It’s what I do instead of watching TV, to relax, so I tend to stay away from books that are too graphic. I’m particularly attracted to books that take me to interesting times or places. Inevitably, with thousands of books published, I’ve missed a lot, so apologies in advance for all the wonderful books I’ve left out. Among those I read that were published 2023, these were some of my favourites:

The Running Grave by Robert Galbraith

For me, the best crime series currently being published is the one featuring private detective Cormoran Strike. It’s written by Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling) and so it’s widely marketed and hard to miss when you pass a bookstore. Galbraith/Rowling is now at the 7th book in the series, The Running Grave,  published exactly a decade on from the first. These books are a slow-burn, for people who like long books and living alongside the characters. If you haven’t read one yet, it is important to start from the beginning and read them in order so you get to know the protagonists. I listen to them as audiobooks, and believe the narrator—British actor Robert Glenister—helps make the series exceptional (the only book in the series I haven’t enjoyed as much was the one I read as a physical book). In The Running Grave, Strike’s partner Robin Ellacott—who in my mind looks exactly like JK Rowling—goes undercover at a religious cult in Norfolk.

The Cormoran Strike series by Robert Galbraith

Dead of Night by Simon Scarrow

Simon Scarrow is a British author best known for his historical novels set in Ancient Rome. Dead of Night, in contrast, is a police procedural set in Berlin in 1941, under the Nazis. It’s the second in a series featuring Inspector Horst Schenke, who works for the Kriminalpolizei or Kripo (The first in the series was Blackout). Schenke is not a Nazi, but works for a state run by the Nazis. I read the book shortly after it came out in February, and the creepiness of the atmosphere has stayed with me. I suppose it meets one of my criteria for a good crime novel—does it make me feel like I’ve been there? I also like the fact that American journalist William Shirer features in the book. (In real life Shirer lived in Berlin through 1940. His book, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, is a great account of what it was actually like in Berlin under the Nazis).

World War II historical novels on Five Books

If you like police procedurals in a more conventional setting, another good one published in 2023 is The Broken Afternoon by Simon Mason. It’s set in Oxford and has two detectives with virtually the same name (but very different personalities) as the main protagonists: Ray Wilkins and Ryan Wilkins. This is the second book in the series, and opens with Ryan working as a security guard having been thrown out of Thames Valley Police. A child disappears from her nursery school, snatched away as her mum talks to one of the staff at pickup time.

Gaslight by Femi Kayode

Travelling to countries I haven’t visited by way of a crime novel is always a treat for me. Gaslight is the second in a series set in Nigeria, featuring an investigative psychologist as the main protagonist. His name is Philip Taiwo and he first appeared in Lightseekers, set in a small university town near the oil town of Port Harcourt. In this novel, Taiwo is asked by his sister to investigate the disappearance of the wife of the pastor of a Christian megachurch. The pastor is charismatic, worth millions, and stands accused of his wife’s murder. Taiwo has moved to Nigeria from the United States with his wife and children, and his experience of that move makes up part of the backdrop to the story. One thing you get an overwhelming sense of in the book: Lagos traffic.

More African crime fiction on Five Books

Exiles by Jane Harper

Jane Harper is an Australian writer of crime fiction who I’m a big fan of. Exiles is set in Australia’s wine country and features Aaron Falk, an investigator who has appeared in some of her other novels. Harper’s books are always atmospheric and well-crafted. As in The Dry, Falk is not investigating in a formal capacity, but in this case goes down south to celebrate being godfather to a friend’s son. Exiles opens with a six-week-old baby in a pram being found on its own at a food and wine festival: the mother has disappeared.

The best Australian crime fiction

Bad Kids by Zijin Chen

I tend to read quite a bit of crime fiction translated from other languages and 2023 was no exception. Bad Kids was first published in China in 2014—where it has (apparently) been turned into a wildly popular online TV show—but only came out in English last year. It opens with a man pushing his parents-in-law to their deaths off the side of a mountain. The book has quite a lot of fun horrifying the reader by completely upending Confucian norms—which emphasize respecting your elders and your parents in particular—and exploring what it takes to derail the perfect student. It’s set in Ningbo, the city near Shanghai where the author lives.

One book I enjoyed for its setting was Reykjavík, written in Icelandic by Ragnar Jónasson and Katrín Jakobsdóttir and translated into English by Victoria Cribb. It’s a bit of a trip down memory lane as it’s set in 1986 and revolves around a murder committed in the 1950s. We see the development of Iceland and the Reykjavík Summit, when Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met. It’s also the only book on this list written by a national leader: Jakobsdóttir has been prime minister of Iceland since 2017.

If you like crime fiction, you can find more recommendations in our ‘best mysteries of 2023’ list, which includes more UK-based crime novels, as well as a few ‘cosy’ mysteries. It also lists the books shortlisted for crime book prizes in 2023. 

December 23, 2023

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Sophie Roell

Sophie Roell

Sophie Roell is editor and one of the founders of Five Books.