Best crime and thrillers of 2020

Laura Wilson
·4-min read

Whether because crime fiction is familiar or because its narratives usually contain a resolution, it has proved to be more popular than ever in 2020. Reasons to be cheerful, or at least diverted, in a very difficult year include impressive debuts such as the award-winning The Man on the Street by Trevor Wood (Quercus), in which a homeless Falklands veteran turns investigator; True Story by Kate Reed Petty (Riverrun), a powerful tale of the aftermath of sexual assault; and Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara (Chatto & Windus), the story of a child living in an Indian slum who investigates the disappearance of a school friend. Black Rain Falling (Sphere), the crime debut of British-Grenadian author Jacob Ross, is a compelling tale of vendettas and corruption on a fictional Caribbean island, and John Vercher’s Pittsburgh-set Three-Fifths (Pushkin Vertigo) follows the harrowing story of a hate crime and a young man trying to come to terms with his mixed-race identity. Those requiring pure escapism, meanwhile, would do well to seek out The Thursday Murder Club (Viking), Richard Osman’s cosy caper set in a home counties retirement village.

Crime fiction continues to provide an excellent tool for shining a light on social issues, with racial tension and cultural burdens explored to great effect in Your House Will Pay (Faber), Steph Cha’s novel of violence, revenge and redemption, and When No One Is Watching (William Morrow), Alyssa Cole’s disturbing tale of the gentrification of a Brooklyn neighbourhood. Set on Long Island, Rumaan Alam’s terrifying Leave the World Behind (Bloomsbury) takes in class as well as race in an eerily prescient tale of a family holiday that turns into a dystopian nightmare. In Blacktop Wasteland by SA Cosby (Headline), a young, black, Virginian father with a criminal past is trying to go straight in a world where the odds are stacked against him.

Remain Silent (Borough), the third novel in Susie Steiner’s series featuring DI Manon Bradshaw of the Cambridgeshire Constabulary, is an exploration of prejudice against, as well as exploitation of, migrant workers, and The Last Ride, the most powerful novella of the six that make up Don Winslow’s collection, Broken (HarperCollins), is the story of a Trump-supporting border patrol agent who undergoes a change of heart and vows to reunite a forcibly separated mother and child.

Dysfunctional families are a key theme in quite a few of this year’s standout psychological thrillers, including Lucy Atkins’s wonderfully atmospheric Oxford-set Magpie Lane (Quercus); Our Fathers (Riverrun), Rebecca Wait’s harrowing tale of family annihilation on a remote Scottish island; and Marion Brunet’s award-winning Summer of Reckoning (Bitter Lemon, translated from French by Katherine Gregor), which takes place in a Provence that holidaymakers never see, where poverty, boredom and casual racism are the norm.

In We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker (Zaffre) a brave, defiant 13-year-old girl battles valiantly to protect her family, but sets off a chain of catastrophic events that will have consequences for everyone around her. Whitaker’s Duchess Day Radley is the type of character who tugs at your heartstrings, as does young Trey Reddy in Tana French’s The Searcher (Viking). A superb standalone, French’s modern western is set in a remote village in the west of Ireland, where an American incomer is tasked with righting wrongs – in this case discovering what happened to Trey’s older brother – and comes up against uncomfortable issues of morality, masculinity and retribution along the way.

It’s been a good year for historical crime fiction, with another strong outing for Andrew Taylor’s Restoration sleuths James Marwood and Cat Lovett in The Last Protector (HarperCollins). The second novel from Stuart Turton, author of Costa award winner The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, is also set in the 17th century: The Devil and the Dark Water (Bloomsbury), a fiendish maritime mystery, involves a lot of secrets and a great deal of swash and buckle.

Moving between Italy in 1943 and London two decades later, Bent by Joe Thomas (Arcadia) is based on the life of the real policeman Harold Challenor, war hero and dodgy copper: an evocative fictionalisation of one man’s eccentric style and mental deterioration. Lastly, although one couldn’t exactly call 1996 “historical”, the temporal setting of Cry Baby (Little, Brown), Mark Billingham’s prequel to his Tom Thorne series, is far enough in the past to be another country. John Major is in Downing Street, mobile phones are the size of bricks – only “for twats and the seriously minted” – and neither Brexit nor Covid are anywhere on the horizon. Billingham expertly ratchets up the tension in this tale of a missing child, and the origin story is guaranteed to please aficionados.

• Browse the best books of 2020 at the Guardian Bookshop.