If you're looking for escapism, crime novels can be a good way to go. Which is strange, given that nearly all of them revolve around murder. Sophie Roell, editor of Five Books and an avid consumer of the genre, picks her personal favourites published in 2020.
When I started picking out my favourites of 2020, I realized crime fiction is in some ways too broad a term to be useful. It covers everything from murders in small villages solved by ordinary residents to complex police operations uncovering international organ smuggling rings or saving the entire world from destruction. The level of gruesomeness veers from murders interspersed with cookie recipes, to graphic descriptions of sections of skin being removed from a living victim. It also varies widely in its literary pretensions, with some books in the running for contemporary fiction prizes while other embracing an almost functional style. Some are serious, others revel in a sense of the ridiculous.
For me, crime fiction is what I read instead of watching TV, when I’m exhausted and want to switch off. It’s a habit I share with both my sisters and some of my nieces—and my daughters are also showing signs of being susceptible—so maybe it’s genetic. Our grandmother had Agatha Christies in her guest bedroom, and that’s what started it all off. For me, reading crime fiction is escapism, and not in any way an avenue for confronting the challenges of life or indeed society. It’s the formulaic aspect of crime fiction which makes it relaxing, a set formula which hopefully includes a nice, surprising plot twist.
How something as horrible as murder can be escapism for me and many others is perhaps the real mystery of the genre. With the usual caveat that these are the books that I personally like, this was the best crime fiction I’ve read, published in 2020:
One by One by Ruth Ware
Ruth Ware is amazing. I only recently discovered her, thanks to Robin Whitten, editor of AudioFile magazine, who recommended the year’s best audiobooks for us. She says that audiobooks work particularly well for the suspense/crime fiction genre and I’m inclined to agree. The first book I read of Ruth Ware’s was The Turn of the Key, which was fabulously unputdownable and atmospheric and came out this year in paperback. One by One is her latest book and I’ve been listening to it as an audiobook with my daughters. It’s not exactly appropriate because there’s a lot of swearing, but the girls get very upset if I listen to it without them. It’s set in a fancy ski chalet in France and that’s all I’m going to say about it, because anything else will detract from the suspense (tip for crime fiction: never read the book blurb). Generally, I can say that Ruth Ware is hilarious on out-of-control tech and dreams up these things that you almost wish existed. I also like the way she looks at how outward professionalism interacts with what’s really going on in the main protagonist’s mind.
Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins
When we spoke to Lucy Atkins about what makes a great thriller, she explained that suspense, when done well, is “powered by oddness and creepiness and things that are just a bit off and unsettling.” When I started reading Magpie Lane, I could see exactly what she was getting at. The book is set in Oxford, at the lodgings of the new Master of one of the colleges. The Master’s Scandinavian wife is busy renovating the house, including whitewashing the floorboards (which I loved, because the dark wood panelling always got me down when I was a student in Oxford). Again, I’m not going to reveal anything, but this book is probably in the domestic noir genre of crime fiction, though at the glamorous end. These are books where I slightly see my own life mirrored—grappling with parenthood and a household, loving work but being over-busy as a result and scared of losing track of what’s important while being over-obsessive about other things.
When it comes to atmospheric, A Place of Execution by Val McDermid takes the prize. The setting is very bleak, with a lot of action taking place in a tiny, closed community in Derbyshire with grey stone houses and a bleak, hilly backdrop. The book was first published in 1999, but was reissued this year, which is why I bought it for my pile of books to be considered for best of 2020 crime fiction (by the time I realized it wasn’t officially 2020 it was too late). It takes you into the past, the 1960s, which I really enjoyed, especially since this is a period when McDermid was around (though very young). In an interview I heard her say that the inspiration for A Place of Execution came when she moved to Derbyshire in 1979—a place of limestone peaks and narrow, twisting vales. It felt to her like a place with secrets, where anything could happen. Again, I don’t want to say much about the plot but yes, the worst does happen.
The Searcher by Tana French
The Searcher has been on quite a few best of 2020 lists this year, and again, I thank Robin Whitten for pointing out the brilliance of the audiobook in particular. The Searcher takes us to a village in Ireland and a retired Chicago cop who has just moved there and is doing up a rundown old house. His character is completely credible, and I can see him in front of his house, sanding down a piece of wood, as I write this. The book is slow-moving but absolutely absorbing.
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So far, despite the fact that they are so dominant in terms of the crime fiction that’s published, I haven’t chosen any series for my best of 2020 list, where a detective or other character makes a regular outing in every new book. It’s partly that the novelty of a standalone book has been more my thing this year, and I’ve been a bit disappointed by the series books I’ve read. Also, you do really have to start at the beginning of the series, so they’re not ideal for a best of 2020 list.
That said, a few of my favourite series did have new books out this year. Troubled Bloodwas the latest book featuring ex-Afghan war vet Cormoran Strike and his detective partner, Robin Ellacott. This series by Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling) is brilliant; I’m a huge fan. I also always look out for the latest Helen Fields novels, about two Edinburgh police detectives, Luc Callanach and Ava Turner. I’ve listened to all of them while running—including the latest, Perfect Kill, and haven’t been disappointed yet.
Guilt at the Garage by Simon Brett
Finally, I want to mention one of my old favourites, Simon Brett (the writer, “not to be confused with Simon Brett, the wood engraver”). As a crime writer, Simon Brett is definitely one who enjoys the ridiculousness of the genre, and when my kids were tiny, I would rely on both him and MC Beaton (who sadly died in 2019) to keep me laughing with their various detectives’ ludicrous escapades. 2020 saw a new book by Simon Brett in the Fethering mysteries series, which are set in a seaside village and feature a middle-aged sleuthing duo, Jude and Carole (with an e). One practises alternative medicine, the other is a prim ex-civil servant. I’ve read 20 of them, and the latest I enjoyed—published in November 2020, so very much eligible for my best crime fiction of 2020 list—was Guilt at the Garage.
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