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The best crime fiction for Christmas

Best crime fiction for 2016 covers

 From a birdwatcher's death to murderous crofters, small-town crime is all the rage, says Jake Kerridge

For a while it looked like the most talked-about crime novel of 2016 would be Maestra by L S Hilton (Zaffre, £7.99), in which mousy art historian Judith Rashleigh becomes a sex-party enthusiast and serial murderer of sleazy men. Journalists overexcited by the idea of an Oxford graduate writing a literate alternative to Fifty Shades of Grey praised or denounced at absurd length a giddy trifle that will appeal most to those who still miss the erotic thrillers that Channel 5 used to show late at night in the Nineties.

But in the second half of the year, the crime novel to hog the headlines was His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet (Contraband, £8.99). Here was a work shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize that was out and proud as a genre novel, published by a small Scottish press that specialises in crime fiction. Set in a remote Highland crofting community in 1869, the novel had some Booker-friendly metafictional moments but was chiefly remarkable for the astonishing way in which Burnet caught the voice of his ingenuous teenage narrator as he tries to explain what led him to murder three people.

As one might expect of a genre elastic enough to encompass the year’s steamiest guilty pleasure and one of its finest works of serious literature, there were crime novels to suit every taste. History buffs should seek out a book to which the Telegraph played midwife, A Rising Man (Harvill Secker, £12.99) by Abir Mukherjee, who secured a book deal after winning our crime writing competition for unpublished authors. It’s a witty, atmospheric yarn set in Calcutta in 1919. British policeman Sam Wyndham has to solve a murder while coping with acclimatisation to a place “where an Englishman could come down with dysentery by so much as looking the wrong way at a sandwich”.

Abir Mukherjee Credit: Matt Writtle/Matt 

For anybody wishing to understand the mindset of modern America, a useful alternative to the reams of post-election punditry is Dodgers by Bill Beverly (No Exit, £14.99), which scooped the Crime Writers’ Association’s Gold Dagger. It follows 16-year-old East, a low-level member of an LA drugs gang ordered to Wisconsin to assassinate a witness in a forthcoming trial. What is most impressive is the way Beverly makes America strange again, as East, stuck in the world of his gang almost from birth, encounters ordinary life for the first time on his road trip.

My vote for this year’s best crime novel would go to Laura Lippman’s Wilde Lake (Faber, £12.99), set slightly to the west of her usual Baltimore stamping ground, in the real-life planned community of Columbia, Maryland, designed in the Sixties to allow black and white people to live side by side in harmony. Things didn’t work out quite that way, as state’s attorney Luisa Brant belatedly discovers in a novel about the ways in which the narratives we construct about our pasts may be scored out and rewritten in a moment.

It was a fine year for con men in public life, and in crime fiction, too. The Good Liar (Penguin, £7.99), the debut novel by Nicholas Searle, featured a lifelong hustler attempting one last swindle in his 80s, a character both repulsive and compelling enough to be worthy of Ruth Rendell.

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet was nominated for this year's Booker Prize

Lie With Me by Sabine Durrant (Mulholland, £14.99) was narrated by failed novelist Paul Morris, whose serial sponging gets him mixed up in murder on a Greek island. I have been bored to death by real-life Pauls over warm white wine at dozens of book launches, but Durrant has managed to capture the type with deadly accuracy and yet make his narrative voice utterly addictive.

From farther afield, Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama (riverrun, £8.99), about a Japanese police PR man who suspects his colleagues of covering up the truth about the murder of a seven-year-old girl, starts dauntingly slowly for a 600-pager, but despite some longueurs becomes unputdownable.

Meanwhile, France’s new éminence grise of Grand Guignol, Pierre Lemaitre, followed a nanny on the run after murdering her bratty charge in Blood Wedding (MacLehose, £12.99), a grim but gripping work beside which most anglophone examples of noir look like sunbeams.

At first, William Shaw’s The Birdwatcher (riverrun, £12.99) might seem like the sort of slow-burner that would be perfect for post-Lemaitre jangled nerves. But this tale of a policeman with a secret investigating the brutal murder of a fellow twitcher in Dungeness packs an emotional punch that hits all the harder because of the absence of histrionics.

As I promised, something for every taste.

For 20% off any of these books until Christmas and free p&p over £30, call 0844 871 1514 or go to telegraph.co.uk/christmasbooks