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Wednesday, December 1, 2021

The best new crime fiction and thrillers to buy for Christmas 2021

The late John le Carré bowed out this year with the posthumous Silverview (Viking, £20), less a thriller – it hardly rises to the level of what film classifiers call “mild peril” – than a compelling character study of a supposedly retired spy who decides to start leaking, as well as a rather more satirical portrait of the MI6 operative tasked with plugging him. There’s something endearingly childlike about the glee with which le Carré skewers the British intelligence services; but still, such was his rare command of language and unique understanding of how the world really works that I finished the book with a sense that the only real grown-up in the room had left.

That feeling was not dispelled by Hillary Rodham Clinton’s State of Terror (Macmillan, £20), co-written with Louise Penny, which I found slickly enjoyable – it makes her husband’s efforts in the genre seem clodhopping by comparison – but ultimately turned geopolitics into a soap opera, notwithstanding the fascinating granular detail of how a US Secretary of State sets about tackling an international terrorist plot. Her Trump stand-in is a two-dimensional caricature (so spot-on, then), but her dislike of him threatens to unbalance the book.

For a thriller that really makes sense of international politics, seek out Sergei Lebedev’s Untraceable (Apollo, £8.99). The title refers both to a terrible poison and its inventor, a Russian defector who has gone into hiding, realising that it’s only a matter of time before the serial poisoners who occupy the Kremlin send somebody to finish him off with his own creation. It’s an eccentric, slow-burning book, but one that really sheds light on why Russia has spent so long in thrall to leaders whose systematic poisoning of their enemies is a literal manifestation of what they do to the whole country.

Of course, a psychopath doesn’t have to be a president to ruin your life; being a builder can be enough. The Turnout by Megan Abbott (Virago, £14.99) centres on a US ballet school where fire damage results in the arrival of Derek, an overbearing building contractor who spreads emotional as well as physical chaos. It’s one of many power struggles in a hothouse ridden with suppressed hysteria, delineated so convincingly in Abbott’s peerless prose that violent death, when it comes, seems not just plausible but inevitable. My thriller of the year.

Normally, novels that feature the author as a character can be dismissed as the work of people who weren’t weaned from Martin Amis early enough, but two such turn out to be among this year’s best crime titles. Joseph Knox cements his reputation as one of the best of the new guard of British crime writers with True Crime Story (Doubleday, £14.99), in which one Joseph Knox – a deliciously unflattering self-­portrait – becomes entangled in the investigation into the disappearance of a student. It’s a meta­fictional trick that helps to create a genuine (and genuinely pleasur­able) sense of unease; and the same is true of Graeme Macrae Burnet’s indecently entertaining Case Study (Saraband, £14.99) – purportedly Burnet’s biography of a sinister celebrity psychiatrist, interwoven with the journal of a woman determined to bring him to justice for causing the death of her sister.

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