The best crime fiction offers equal parts entertainment and social commentary - stories that we remember long after the final chapter.
Of the 120 or so novels I read during 2011, these are my favorites.
(1) "Iron House" by John Hart. St. Martin's Press: Two orphaned boys' lives take vastly different routes in this forceful tale about family bonds and the legacy of violence set in Manhattan and North Carolina. This is Hart's fourth novel, having already earned three Edgar Award nominations, resulting in two back-to-back wins.
(2) "Trick of the Dark" by Val McDermid. Bywater Books: A professionally disgraced psychiatrist returns to Oxford, England, to look into a murder. McDermid's 24th novel works as an academic mystery and a tale about rebuilding one's life. Spending time with these appealing characters, many of whom are lesbians, is like hanging out with the smartest people in the room.
(3) "The Drop" by Michael Connelly. Little, Brown: With retirement looming and fatherhood constantly on his mind, LAPD homicide detective Harry Bosch handles two diverse cases that show how politics seep into police work, tainting investigations, crime scenes and friendships.
(4) "The Ranger" by Ace Atkins. Putnam: Fresh from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, an U.S. Ranger plunges into a morass of violence and corruption that has overwhelmed his rural Mississippi hometown. This action-packed thriller melds the old-fashioned western with contemporary concerns of war veterans.
(5) "The Most Dangerous Thing" by Laura Lippman. Morrow: In 1979 Baltimore, five children on the cusp of becoming teenagers forge an unshakable friendship for one summer until something happens in the woods that both bonds them and drives them apart.
(6) "City of Secrets" by Kelli Stanley. Minotaur: San Francisco's history, politics and culture during 1940 make a rich background as a private detective looks into the death of a nude model who was marked with an anti-Semitic slur.
(7) "Northwest Angle" by William Kent Krueger. Atria Books: The 11th entry in this masterful series shows the power of families, faith and Native American culture. Lost on a remote island, Cork O'Connor and his daughter Jenny find an abandoned baby and his murdered teenage mother.
(8) "Damage Control" by Denise Hamilton. Scribner: Maggie Silver's job for a high-powered public relations firm puts her back in the orbit of a presidential candidate, who was her best friend's father, in this taut tale of unbridled ambition, friendship and betrayal.
(9) "The Accident" by Linwood Barclay. Bantam: Counterfeit merchandise escalates into neighborhood violence, illustrating the angst of those whose self-esteem is wrapped up in money.
(10) "Ghost Hero" by S.J. Rozan. Minotaur: Art dealers, gangs, academics and even the Chinese government have an agenda as private detectives Lydia Chin and Bill Smith investigate rumors about missing paintings by an artist killed during the Tiananmen Square uprising.
(11) "The Burning" by Jane Casey. Minotaur: An exciting British police procedural about the hunt for a serial killer coupled with a perspective on three women at a crossroads of their lives, each dealing with identity and self-esteem issues.
(12) "The Keeper of Lost Causes" by Jussi Adler-Olsen. Dutton: A cantankerous Copenhagen police detective banished to a basement office finds redemption in a five-year-old cold case.
(13) "Gone With a Handsomer Man" by Michael Lee West. Minotaur: An unemployed pastry chef's arrest for her fiance's murder jumpstarts this amusing Southern mystery set in Charleston, S.C., in which recipes are actual plot devices.
(14) "The Complaints" by Ian Rankin. Little, Brown: With Rankin's long-time Edinburgh detective Rebus firmly in retirement, enter the equally complicated Malcolm Fox who investigates corrupt cops in the Scottish version of Internal Affairs.
(15) "One Was a Soldier" by Julia Spencer-Fleming. Minotaur: Clare Fergusson, an Episcopalian priest and a newly deployed pilot who served in Iraq, finds solace leading a support group for returning soldiers, illustrating how flawed person of faith maneuvers in contemporary society.
DEBUTS (in alphabetical order)
"Before I Go to Sleep" by S.J. Watson. Harper: Recovering her memory may be more frightening than a woman imagines as clues to her past and present lead to a shocking finale. The result of a writing workshop in Britain, this was a best-seller in Europe last year but made its U.S. debut this year.
"Bent Road" by Lori Roy. Dutton: Set in rural Kansas during the 1960s, a family's return coincides with a child's disappearance, echoing a 20-year-old crime. There's little violence and even less profanity, but the family's interaction is just as tense and the stakes even higher.
"The Stranger You Seek" by Amanda Kyle Williams. Bantam: A former FBI profiler helps an Atlanta detective's investigation in this character-rich tale of self-discovery wrapped in the tenets of the serial killer subgenre.
"The Territory" by Tricia Fields. Minotaur: This 2010 Tony Hillerman Prize winner delivers an action-packed yet personal story about the infiltration of Mexican drug cartels in a small Texas town. Chief of Police Josie Gray is a fully realized character who fights the good fight against all odds.
"Triple Crossing" by Sebastian Rotella. Mulholland Books: This unflinching view of the immigration issue at the California-Mexican border looks at the political, social and emotional aspects. A rookie Border Patrol agent goes into deep undercover to infiltrate a powerful Mexican crime family.