Best Crime Fiction of 2021

A resonant road trip, a sterling caper, and a debut cozy. The best crime fiction of 2021.

Abbott, Megan. The Turnout. Putnam. ISBN 9780593084908.

Sisters Dara and Marie, along with Dara’s husband, Charlie, live and breathe ballet, running a school for budding dancers and living together in their family home. When a fire destroys the studio right before Nutcracker season, a smarmy contractor enters their lives and proceeds to rip everything apart. In this thrilling “ballet noir,” the queen of female-centric psychological suspense stories once again plumbs the depths of women’s relationships and sexuality.

Cosby, S.A. Razorblade Tears. Flatiron. ISBN 9781250252708.

This compelling, violent thriller is another triumph for returning champ Cosby, whose Blacktop Wasteland was an LJ 2020 Best Book. Two men who’ve served time in prison, one Black and one white, find common ground when their married gay sons are murdered. The action-packed crime novel unites the men in vengeance, while confronting race, social class, and homophobia, issues that lead to redemption and understanding. Optioned for film.

Hirahara, Naomi. Clark and Division. Soho Crime. ISBN 9781641292498.

During World War II, the Ito family is sent to Manzanar, a concentration camp for Japanese Americans. Daughter Rose is released early and relocates to Chicago, where her younger sister Aki and their parents will follow. But when the Itos arrive in Chicago, they learn that Rose is dead. Police suspect suicide, but Aki thinks otherwise and begins to investigate. Hirahara’s well-researched historical mystery features an appealing young heroine.

Krueger, William Kent. Lightning Strike. Atria. ISBN 9781982128685.

The 18th “Cork O’Connor Mystery” is a prequel that draws new readers into the series. In 1963, 12-year-old Cork finds the corpse of a man he admired, Big John Manydeeds. A perceptive, poignant coming-of-age story unfolds as Cork and his father, the local sheriff, try to understand each other while both are haunted by the death of Manydeeds. Cork walks a fine line between his Irish and Ojibwe heritage in Krueger’s deep, beautiful novel.

Lippman, Laura. Dream Girl. Morrow. ISBN 9780062390073.

Gerry, an author, breaks his leg and is confined to bed, tended to by his assistant and a surly night nurse. In a painkiller haze, he floats through his past and fends off unwelcome visitors. Then the untraceable phone calls begin, and a dead body appears in his bedroom. Lippman’s tale of a toxic white man trapped in his condo—and in his own head—is a masterpiece.

Moreno-Garcia, Silvia. Velvet Was the Night. Del Rey: Ballantine. ISBN 9780593356821.

In Moreno-Garcia’s neo-noir set in politically explosive 1970 Mexico City, a dreamy secretary named Maite and a reluctant street soldier who calls himself Elvis cross paths as they search for Maite’s neighbor Leonora, a beautiful art student who has disappeared. It’s a heady mixture of political thriller, star-crossed romance, and history lesson, with characters to root for—and against!

Offutt, Chris. The Killing Hills. Grove. ISBN 9780802158413.

Mick Hardin returns to the hills of rural Kentucky to resolve things with his pregnant wife. When a widow is murdered, he assists his sister, the local sheriff. With an understanding of local betrayals and feuds and the value of family, Mick ventures deep into the place where the natural world and community mix. This is rural crime fiction at its best, with rich language and a vivid sense of place.

Reyes, Raquel V. Mango, Mambo, and Murder. Crooked Lane. ISBN 9781643857848.

Reyes’s debut introduces Cuban American Miriam Quinones-Smith, a food anthropologist out of her element when she moves to her husband’s hometown, a stodgy, white, upper-class enclave in Miami. After a woman dies at a luncheon, Miriam’s best friend becomes the primary suspect. The book celebrates Caribbean food, family, and culture. Humor and a diverse cast including LGBTQ+ characters add richness to this cozy mystery.

Stallings, Josh. Tricky. Agora. ISBN 9781951709198.

LAPD homicide detective Niels Madsen intercedes at a scene where a rookie holds a man at gunpoint. Cisco Gutierrez appears to have killed a man, but the former gang member denies he shot his friend. Both Cisco and his friend are men with intellectual disabilities. The flawed detective defies a corrupt sheriff’s department and an East L.A. gang, while confronting society’s biases against people with disabilities. Stallings’s dramatic police procedural questions whether redemption is possible.

Whitehead, Colson. Harlem Shuffle. Doubleday. ISBN 9780385545136.

In this crime caper set during the civil rights era, Black businessman Ray tumbles over the line between respectable and criminal when his cousin Freddie involves him in a heist at Harlem’s upscale Hotel Theresa. Things go wrong, and Ray falls deeper into trouble at home and at work. Whitehead’s fantastic foray into mystery is lighter than his previous novels but still adeptly addresses issues of race, justice, and intersectionality.

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