Will Gore

The best crime books to buy for Christmas

The best crime books to buy for Christmas
Image: Getty
Text settings

Want to treat an avid crime fiction reader to a book or two this Christmas? Or simply want to do a bit of literary self-gifting? From a beguiling South Korean mystery to a grizzly serial killer procedural, here are six new novels to consider.

Lemon by Kwon Yeo-sun

People Like Them by Samira Sedira

This pair of short books, both published in translation, are two of the finest crime novels of 2021. Firstly, Lemon, by the South Korean author Kwon Yeo-Sun takes a well-worn starting point, the murder of a beautiful female high school pupil, and spins an idiosyncratic and beguiling mystery from it. A riveting police interview kicks things off, but this is the one nod to convention. For the rest of the book, Yeo-sun jumps forwards and backwards in time to hint at the identity of the killer, but whodunit is not her primary concern. Instead, Lemon surveys the damage wrought by a single heinous act on a number of interconnected lives, and does so with impressive deftness.

Samira Sedira’s People Like Them is another small wonder of a book that explores the fallout from a violent crime. A Muslim businessman Bakary Langlois, his wife and their children are brutally murdered in their home in rural France. Anna Guillot, the narrator, is married to Constant, the man who carried out these killings – and there is never any doubt that he did. Loosely based on real events, the story flits between the trial, the Langlois family’s initial arrival in the village, the build-up to the murders and, finally, Constant’s imprisonment. The ambience of this sleepy corner of France and the people that inhabit it are evoked superbly. The violence is chillingly rendered, too, with Sedira using her narrator’s recollections to elucidate what might drive an apparently unremarkable man like Constant to commit such extraordinary acts of savagery. There is an economy to the writing that gives People Like Them a haunting power, and translator Lara Verngnaud deserves the highest praise for her fine work on the English version.

True Crime Story by Joseph Knox

Like People Like Them, this is a book that claims to draw on a real crime. The title is a bit of a giveaway. However, unlike Sedira’s novel, True Crime Story is nothing of the sort. In fact, it’s a high concept work of fiction with its true crime framing giving Knox license to do something adventurous with his storytelling. An author, who just happens to be called Joseph Knox, is piecing together sections of a book left to him by another writer following her death from cancer. These sections feature interview transcripts that pertain to Zoe Nolan, a Manchester University student who went missing in 2011. In these interviews, friends and family members all have their say on what they think may or may not have happened to her. The transcripts are intercut in the manner of an oral history, with multiple viewpoints presenting contradictory versions of the same events and the characters’ enmity for one another never far from the surface. This approach brilliantly apes the true crime genre and it’s not hard to imagine it in podcast form. First and foremost, though, it’s a great novel – tense and utterly compelling.

The Dark Remains by William McIlvanney and Ian Rankin

William McIlvanney wrote a number of acclaimed works of literary fiction before turning to a life of crime writing and coming up with Laidlaw, the book that got Tartan Noir up and running in 1977. Two more Laidlaw novels followed and now Rebus author Ian Rankin has taken on the challenge of finishing a fourth one that McIlvanney left unfinished following his death at the age of 79 six years ago. The Dark Remains is a prequel to the original trilogy with Laidlaw working against many of the same Glaswegian gangsters and colleagues that pop up in the other books as he tries to track down the killer of a notorious lawyer. The biggest compliment Rankin can be paid is that it’s hard to spot the bits where McIlvanney’s words end and his begin. Laidlaw is the same irascible, flawed and philosophising figure, and the prose retains McIlvanney’s love of evocative hard-boiled language (At one point a silence is “deep enough to accommodate a coffin”). Hopefully, The Dark Remains leads many more people to discover the Laidlaw books. If you’re keen to dive in, and as good as The Dark Remains is, the audiobook of the first novel in the series is probably the best place to start. McIlvanney reads it himself and does so in a magnificent and vaguely menacing style.

Widespread Panic by James Ellroy

James Ellroy’s latest sees him take a break from creating his new LA Quartet of novels (He’s two books in with Perfidia and This Storm) for a standalone that wouldn’t be out of place as a subplot in that series. Indeed, the main character here, Freddy Otash, has made a number of previous appearances in Ellroy’s fiction. This book is Freddy’s confession from “pervert purgatory”. He’s a real historical figure, a cop turned tabloid muckracker, and what unfolds is exactly what you’d expect from Ellroy as the sleaze, violence, corruption and drug-taking ramp up with every turn of the page. It’s all told in that familiar style cultivated by the ‘Demon Dog’ of American crime writing: a stream of alliteration and baroque profanity that make for sentences that repeatedly punch you in the face. It’s entertaining and often hilarious, but also quite tiring to read. Even as a long-term fan, I’ll admit that for all Widespread Panic’s squalid delights, and there are plenty, at times you get the strange sense you are reading the work of a writer doing a tribute act of himself.

The Jigsaw Man by Nadine Matheson

This is an enjoyable and engaging debut from Nadine Matheson, a grizzly London-set police procedural in which a serial killer is chopping up victims and leaving bits of them across the capital for DI Anjelica Henley to piece together. Her cause is not helped by the fact that this is her first case back since she was stabbed in the line of duty by another serial killer (who becomes a major player in the investigation). Matheson occasionally overloads her characters with too much baggage and the serial killer plot verges on the ridiculous at times, but, that said, she is a writer of great promise. The narrative rips along with great verve and the way the relationship develops throughout the novel between Henley and her partner, a trainee detective called Ramouter, augurs well for their future assignments.