The best crime books 2014

Crime writing is now truly international. Here, we go from 19th-century Iceland, via Oscar Wilde in Reading Gaol, to France, Shetland, Italy and, of course, America. Writers include a former Commander of Special Branch, who clearly knows what he’s talking about, to Gyles Brandreth and Felix Francis, son of Dick.

Burial Rites
Hannah Kent
(Picador, £12.99 *£11.69)

Set in 19th-century Iceland, this isn’t strictly a crime thriller, because we know that Agnes has been found guilty of murder and sentenced to be beheaded. But is the decision just and is she the monster depicted? This is an extraordinarily powerful first novel, sparely and beautifully written, that grabs you from the first. Essential reading.

The Extremist
Roger Pearce

(Coronet, £18.99 *£15.99)

The former Commander of Special Branch moves into spy fiction. Obviously, it’s authentic stuff, covering the rivalries among spy-catchers and undercover police. Taking in theft, smuggling, terrorism and atrocities, Roger Pearce still manages to deliver a completely surprise ending.

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Pierre Lemaitre translated
by Frank Wynne
(Maclehose Press, £12.99 *£11.69)

An extraordinary debut in English by the French writer: it’s a cliché, but true, to say it’s unputdown-able. Alex is a tough, beautiful girl, and a great deal more besides. She is sought by an unusual cop, Camille Verhoeven, less than 5ft tall, but stroppy. The dénouement asks who are the victims and who are the killers. Heartily recommended for tight writing and taut suspense.

The House on the Cliff
Charlotte Williams
(Macmillan, £16.99 *£14.99)

An excellent debut for Charlotte Williams, who’s training as a psy-chotherapist. Her heroine, Jessica Mayhew, is in the same career. This makes for interesting detective work when she’s approached by a glamorous young actor with a fear of buttons (yes, it’s called koumpounophobia). I didn’t guess until the last few pages who the baddie was.

The Weeping Girl
Hakan Nesser
(Mantle, £16.99 *£14.99)

A teenager is found pregnant and dead; her teacher is found guilty. Sixteen years on, the teacher’s daughter learns about her father and sets the whole case in motion again. Ewa Morena gets involved in trying to unravel the history. Rather slow, but relentless. Am I the only reviewer to think Hakan Nesser’s Van Veeteren’s cases are set in Holland, not Scandinavia?

Dandy Gilver & A Deadly Measure of Brimstone
Catriona McPherson
(Hodder, £19.99 *£15.99)

Thrillers set in the early years of the 20th century are currently fashionable. Here, we have a priv-
ate eye looking for clues in the death of a fat old lady at a Scottish hydro in Moffat in 1929. The method of death must be unique and the dénoument is thrilling. I know Moffat and the sense of place is spot on.

The Deliverance of Evil
Roberto Costantini translated by N. S. Thompson
(Quercus, £14.99 *£13.49)

All you need to know about the underbelly of Italy: racism, corruption, nepotism and brutality in a 600-plus pager. The huge cast of characters includes cardinals, aristocrats, poker players, gypsies and the secret service. Places shift from the Ukraine to Kenya. I did get lost at times, but found persistence ultimately worth it.

Felix Francis (Penguin/Michael Joseph, £18.99 *£15.99)

A classic Francis racing thriller, although this is by Felix, son of Dick, and is his third solo. Sid Halley, former jockey and investigator, finds an undercover scheme to throw races. His opponent is as evil as they come. As usual, a thrilling and satisfying finish. Felix Francis is uncannily like his father.

The Long Shadow
Mark Mills
(Headline, £14.99 *£13.49)

Crime novels don’t have to involve murder and this one doesn’t. It’s more sinister. Two prep-school boys fall out and one, 30 years later, sets out to wreck the life of the other. Mark Mills is expert at the long story and keeps us guessing about who is the victim and who the avenger.

Scott Turow
(Mantle, £18.99 *£15.99)

A pair of identical twins: one running for mayor, the other just released after 25 years in jail for killing his girlfriend. Who, incidentally, was the daughter of a Greek family with whom the twins have a feud. But which twin did the murder? Did either? Nothing in this gripping family drama is what it seems.

Dead Water
Ann Cleeves (Pan, £7.99 *£7.59)

Ann Cleeves does atmosphere like no one else. Here, it’s the close-knit community of the Shetlands. An islander, decamped to be a top journalist in London, is murdered while researching the North Sea gas and oil industries. A damaged detective and an incomer from the mainland raise hackles as they sort it out.

The Cruellest Game
Hilary Bonner
(Macmillan, £20 *£18)

A wife comes home to find tragedy. And then it gets worse. And worse. And intolerable. A gripping story set in Devon with a final, unexpected, twist. One villain, however, is sympathetic and the heroine is not.

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