Arresting Crime Fiction of 2021

Just yesterday morning, I posted — in The Rap Sheet — my selections of a dozen favorite crime, mystery, and thriller works from 2021. But those were certainly not all of the genre books I enjoyed reading over the last year. Below are five more that were also contenders for my list.

Blood Grove, by Walter Mosley (‎Mulholland):

Mosley had a good thing going with his African-American series sleuth, Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, when he considered doing away with the man in 2007’s Blonde Faith. Thank goodness he didn’t go through with it, because the novel marking Rawlins’ not-altogether-figurative resurrection, Little Green (2013), and the three that have followed — all set in Los Angeles during the late 1960s — have been particularly penetrating explorations of both the protagonist’s personal depths and the tumultuous era through which he’s living. Blood Grove transports us to the summer of ’69, when our gumshoe hero is approached by a traumatized Vietnam War vet, Craig Kilian, who’s unsure of whether he actually murdered a black man he’d found assaulting a half-naked white woman tied to a tree. Kilian claims he was subsequently knocked out, and could later find no evidence of the fray. While skeptical of Kilian’s tale, Rawlins agrees to help his fellow former soldier, only to soon find himself trapped in a baffling morass of troubles that include a hijacked armored car, manifold double-crosses, intolerant mobsters, and a femme fatale fit to define that term. Rawlins’ ever-expanding cast of stalwart helpers — from the homicidal Mouse and the brilliant Jackson Blue to the captivating Asiette Moulon — weave through this tangled plot, jockeying for attention with the racism Easy confronts at every turn. These are social protest novels disguised as detective yarns, and we’re lucky their run continues.

The Conjure-Man Dies, by Rudolph Fisher (Collins Crime Club):

Published originally in 1932, and said to be the first detective novel by an African-American author, this witty, shrewdly plotted whodunit (reissued earlier this year) was penned by Rudolph Fisher, a New York City radiographer, short-story writer, and musician, active in the Harlem Renaissance. It tosses us onto the hectic scene of a nighttime slaying, the victim being N’Gana Frimbo, an African immigrant and Harvard-educated fortune teller who was mysteriously clobbered with a human femur and gagged while giving a psychic reading at his Harlem apartment. The prospective clients waiting outside his parlor — among them a comically garrulous gumshoe — are all suspects. Investigative responsibilities here fall to police detective Perry Dart and the more erudite Dr. John Archer, a physician neighbor of the deceased. The pair employ perspicacity and science to unmask the killer … only to find their neat theories challenged, and this tale’s puzzle deepened, by Frimbo’s evident resurrection halfway through the book. Through his quirky characters and their slangy, jibing dialogue, Fisher creates a colorful portrait of Depression-era Harlem. Fisher wrote just two novels, Conjure-Man being his sole work of crime fiction. He’d planned a sequel, but died in 1934 at age 37, before it could be written. This edition does, however, include “John Archer’s Nose,” a short story once more featuring Dart and Archer.

A Corruption of Blood, by Ambrose Parry (Canongate):

“Baby farming,” which finds single mothers — often prostitutes or daughters of prosperous pedigree — selling their illegitimate offspring on the pretext that those infants might be better reared by others, isn’t exactly a cheery subject for a historical mystery. Yet it provides the emotionally potent through line to this third entry in a series penned pseudonymously by crime-fictionist Chris Brookmyre and his wife, anesthetist and medical historian Marisa Haetzman. The year is 1850, and Will Raven, a young Edinburgh doctor assisting real-life Scottish obstetrician Sir James Simpson (famous for popularizing chloroform as an anesthetic), stumbles upon a deceased newborn being fished from a river. His wish to investigate further is interrupted by another passing: that of an odious aristocrat whose son, Gideon Douglas — an unlikely friend of Raven’s new fiancée, Eugenie Todd — is charged with his poisoning. Eugenie’s request that Raven prove Gideon innocent rankles her betrothed; he and Gideon are long-estranged former classmates. Furthermore, it strains relations between Raven and Sarah Fisher, a sagacious clinical aide much frustrated by roadblocks against women becoming physicians, who harbors her own romantic feelings for Simpson’s protégé. This atmospheric puzzler, aptly reflecting the manifest injustices of the Victorian era, starts off rather slowly, but picks up pace as assumptions are dashed, clues revealed, and connections discovered by way of early medical science.

Midnight Atlanta, by Thomas Mullen (Little, Brown):

Corrosive racism, the civil-rights movement, and the rise of African-American newspapers vie for centerstage in Mullen’s welcome third novel set amid Atlanta, Georgia’s post-World War II experiment in Black policing. It’s now 1956, eight years after the events dramatized in this series’ opening entry, Darktown. Yet the city’s small band of “Negro cops” is still restricted to patrolling “colored neighborhoods” — on foot, since they’re not permitted squad cars. The most progress they can claim is to have finally won workspace inside Atlanta’s police headquarters, though only in its basement. Unwilling to accept such trifles is Tommy Smith, who quit the force for a reporting job with the Atlanta Daily Times, the nation’s only Black daily. He’s in that paper’s offices one night when his publisher, Arthur Bishop, is shot to death. Suspicion falls on Bishop’s purportedly adulterous spouse; but scoop-hungry Smith thinks more than jealousy is involved. Might this murder be linked to his boss’ defense of a young Black man accused of raping a white teenager? Meanwhile, a police probe of the same slaying finds Smith’s former sergeant, Joe McInnes — the sole white officer in their city’s Black precinct — and Smith’s college-educated ex-partner, Lucius Boggs, bumping heads with federal agents, Communist activists, and ubiquitous bigoted white detectives. A powerful, captivating yarn made sadly more relevant by political developments of the last several years.

Wedding Station, by by David Downing (Soho Crime):

Adolf Hitler has been chancellor of Germany for only four weeks, when on February 27, 1933, the Reichstag — home of the parliament in Berlin — suddenly bursts into flames. The Nazis promptly assign blame to unruly communists, and in response suspend civil liberties throughout the country. Hitler goes on to attack the press and shutter publications deemed ill-disposed toward his fascist regime. Caught up in the ensuing escalation of lies, divisiveness, and bigotry is John Russell, whose Anglo-American background, unraveling union with his German wife, and job as a crime reporter all target him for suspicion. In this tension-suffused prequel to Downing’s “Station” series (begun with 2007’s Zoo Station), we find newspaperman — and future amateur spy — Russell chasing stories about the grisly slaying of a teenage male prostitute, the hit-and-run demise of a genealogist who may have been blackmailing clients, and the disappearance of a celebrity fortune teller, while also searching for a war hero’s missing daughter and helping a friend from his communist days avoid arrest for shooting two “Brownshirts.” All along, he must endure violence and avoid angering authorities, lest he lose both his liberty and contact with his young German son, who’s rapidly embracing the new Nazi “norm.” While it occasionally suffers from procedural plodding, Wedding Station excels in portraying the balance Russell seeks between his journalistic integrity, his defiance of Hitler, and his determination to remain in a nation hurtling toward disaster. ◊

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