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The best thrillers and crime fiction of 2020 so far

Book covers for The Other You and Three Hours

Our critic Jake Kerridge rounds up the most gripping crime writing of the year so far

How a Woman Becomes a Lake by Marjorie Celona ★★★★★

This second novel by the Canadian author Marjorie Celona begins with the discovery of an abandoned car, “doors splayed, engine on”, against the evocatively conjured background of a frozen lake, in a small town near the US-Canada border. It’s somehow more chilling than the standard corpse-with-a-striking backdrop opening: a mark of the originality Celona displays throughout this book. Police officer Lewis Côté arrives at the scene following a call from a woman who had driven to the lake to walk her dog, only to come across a scared, lost little boy. But what has happened to the pair?

The answer unfolds through a series of chapters told from the different perspectives of various people connected with the case. There is the missing woman’s husband, whose withered love is springing back into life now his wife has vanished; there is a drunken bully called Leo, and his two miserable little boys, who witnessed something at the lake that day; and there is Leo’s estranged wife, who might just have found a good man at last when the investigation brings Officer Côté into her life, but is obliged to keep a secret from him.

Those crime novels that have the best-constructed plots often lack an emotional punch because the characters, playing out their preordained roles in the story, don’t have the space to breathe and blossom. Celona has the courage to take her time, letting us have a leisurely rummage inside her characters’ heads, refusing to be trammelled by the usual rhythms of the whodunnit; and yet she manages to pull off twists worthy of Harlan Coben.

At its heart the novel is an exploration of toxic masculinity, but it is unusually compassionate and non-judgmental, recognising the complexity of both heroes and villains. It’s a rarity: a book confected with satisfying artfulness that feels like a slice of real life.

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The Doom List by Gerard O'Donovan ★★★★☆

Will H Hays, the American politician who instituted the code of conduct governing the movies’ moral standards, is said to have kept a “Doom List” of naughty actors to be blacklisted for setting a bad example to the public. Yes, cancel culture existed even during Hollywood’s earliest days, although back then performers had the consolation that they were proscribed for doing worthwhile things like sleeping around and boozing rather than just making tasteless jokes on Twitter.

The early days of Hays’s moral crusade form the backdrop of Gerard O’Donovan’s new novel, a follow-up to The Long Silence (2018). Once again the hero is Tom Collins, an Irish immigrant working as a private eye and occasional studio fixer in sunny Los Angeles. The novel centres on the making of the film Trifling Women (1922), a gothic classic of murder and necrophilia now sadly lost, and among the key characters are such real-life figures as the director, Rex Ingram, and the leading man and lady, Ramón Novarro and Barbara La Marr. Both Novarro and La Marr are overfond of men – in La Marr’s case, this has left her with a bun in the oven while she’s “between husbands” – and it’s Collins’s job to sort out the blackmailers threatening to spill the beans to Hays.

O’Donovan, known to Telegraph readers as a shrewd television critic, paints an attractive and moving picture of Twenties Hollywood as a haven for misfits and free spirits, with the pompous puritan Hays as the serpent in Eden. This is a gentle, jaunty tale despite the odd violent death, with a welcome dusting of wit; the characters, real or imagined, are excellent company – so much so that it comes as a real blow to read in the afterword that, with no Tom Collins to get them out of trouble in real life, many of them came to sad ends. That’s Hollywood.

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The Last Day by Andrew Hunter Murray ★★★★☆

The dystopian thriller is a vulnerable genre, readily hijacked by those who would rather be hailed as prophets than storytellers: see Apocalypse How?, by former MP Oliver Letwin, which betrays its cogent arguments about our over-reliance on technology by failing to work as fiction. Your time will be more profitably spent engaging with the less obvious lessons of Andrew Hunter Murray’s debut novel.

The book is set in 2059, some 30 years after a haywire white dwarf star has caused the Earth to stop turning. Britain, lucky enough to have been sunny side up at the time of “The Stop”, is in “the Goldilocks zone”, one of the few places left on the planet warm enough to grow crops but not too hot for habitation.

Exposition is painlessly filtered through the perspective of Dr Ellie Hopper, a scientist newly returned to London after years of studying tides (and occasionally disposing of passing shipfuls of dead refugees) on a rig in the North Atlantic. She’s on a McGuffin hunt, searching for the mysterious object belonging to her old Oxford tutor that could bring down Britain’s autocratic leader.

You can nitpick when it comes to some of the internal logic of this dystopia, but Murray should be commended for going into the nitty-gritty of how his post-disaster society functions; the book is a lot less nebulous in this respect than John Lanchester’s The Wall, which explored similar territory to much acclaim. The plot unfolds with a certain cheesiness that might have been less jarring in a novel that wasn’t so strikingly original in its setting, but it certainly holds the attention.

What really distinguishes the book, though, is the creative energy of its world-building: it demonstrates the virtue of using the future as a playground for the imagination rather than trying to second-guess it.

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GBH by Ted Lewis ★★★★★

Ted Lewis’s masterpiece GBH was published 40 years ago, to general indifference. Lewis’s assiduous biographer Nick Triplow rehearses the sad trajectory of his career in the introduction to this new edition: at the start of the Seventies he looked set for stardom when his thriller Jack’s Return Home was filmed as Get Carter, but the reading public spurned his gritty tales of British gangsters; his sideline as a writer for Doctor Who ended because his scripts were too dark; and he was an alcoholic back living with his mother in Barton-upon-Humber when GBH, his ninth and final novel, appeared. He died in 1982, aged 42.

It’s the sort of fate that often awaits artistic pioneers. We are readier now than we were in 1980 for this tale of porn magnate George Fowler, who blithely tortures, or worse, anybody who might threaten the success of his business. It’s a twisted love story, as Fowler and his wife Jean bond over a common taste for brutality. But Fowler’s account of their gory glory days alternates with scenes set later on, when he is in hiding, drunken and alone, in the grim haven of out-of-season Mablethorpe, on the Lincolnshire coast.

On a technical level, the book is outstanding: Lewis knows just how to handle his double timeline without losing pace; he judges perfectly when to horrify the reader and when to hold back. Perhaps much of the novel’s power is due to the way in which Fowler’s situation – a sodden has-been exiled from his London friends – is mined from Lewis’s own. But the book is also hugely funny and zestful: Lewis’s delight in his complex double-cross plot and low-life characters is infectious, and there is poetry in his stark evocation of Lincolnshire’s desperate tattiness. It’s equal parts suicide note and celebration of the human ability to find reasons to keep going.

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The Secret Guests by BW Black ★★★★☆

Why do so many novelists and screenwriters want to tackle the relationship between the Queen and Princess Margaret? Perhaps it’s the fun of writing about two sisters whose personalities are a complete and comical contrast to an extent that would seem overdone in fictional characters. The duo were the subject of Peter Bradshaw’s pawky adventure story Night of Triumph, and now comes a thriller by BW Black – a pseudonym for the illustrious Irish novelist John Banville – set during the war, when Princess Elizabeth is 14 and Margaret is 10.

In Black’s alternative version of history, the “greed and shameless opportunism” of the supposedly neutral Irish government and the “unscrupulousness” of the Brits results in the princesses being harboured incognito in rural Ireland in exchange for secret coal shipments. The girls are duly dispatched to creaky Clonmillis Hall, a billet that prompts Celia Nashe, their “toothsome” Secret Service bodyguard, to reflect that she “wouldn’t have consigned her pet dog to such a looming mausoleum”.

Despite using false names, the visitors are quickly identified by the locals, including a Dad’s Army-ish outpost of the IRA whose plan to exploit the situation ends in bloodshed. Before the exciting denouement, we are treated to leisurely and unsentimental character sketches of the young princesses, who here bear each other little of the affection depicted in The Crown.

Black allots the princesses no greater share of his attention than his other characters, most of whom are deployed to illustrate the uneasy relationship between Ireland, “gnawing away at immemorial grievances, like a fox caught in a snare trying to bite off its trapped leg”, and Britain. But there is a detached, Waugh-like lightness to his contemplation of dark matters, and, buttery with gorgeous Banvillean sentences, the book slips down easily.

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Long Bright River by Liz Moore ★★★★☆

Kensington, Philadelphia, once a handsome and prosperous neighbourhood, is now as inextricably associated with heroin as the town of Gorgonzola is with cheese. Liz Moore has spent many years doing community work in this epicentre of the American opioid crisis, and has used it as the setting for her fourth novel, a combination of whodunnit, family saga and manifesto for a more intelligent approach to policing.

These days, privileged novelists who want to write about the less fortunate must demonstrate that they themselves have served the obligatory period of interviewing and footslogging, with the result that too many of them are reluctant to break free of a plodding realism. Happily, Moore has had the courage to try something a little more interesting, telling her story from the perspective of a high-IQ female patrol officer and trusting that she has the writerly skills to bring to life a character whose sensitive, intellectual persona is perhaps closer to her own than that of the average American cop. By and large, Moore succeeds; she also pulls off the The Remains of the Day trick of giving her narrator, Michaela Fitzpatrick, a prose style that is both finicky and flowing, reflecting her over-pedantic personality while being pleasurable to read.

The plot concerns a serial killer targeting Kensington's sex workers and Michaela going above her pay grade to investigate, out of concern that her junkie sister Kacey, whom she only sees these days when she's arresting her, might be at risk. The progress of the story depends slightly too much on Michaela switching between being savvy and unbelievably naive, but the twists are clever and the tension maintained with a pleasing lack of fuss. The evidence of the footslog is there, but it is the novel's more eccentric, reflective aspects that make it stand out from the ruck.

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Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha ★★★★☆

Most violent deaths are meaningless and quickly forgotten by the world at large. If a killing is invested with significance, it is almost worst for the victim's loved ones – it is rarely they who get to control the narrative, and so they have to witness the victim endure a kind of second death, as he or she is supplanted by a myth.

This is one of the themes of the latest novel by the Korean-American author Steph Cha. It is based on a real-life killing in Los Angeles in 1991: Soon Ja Du, a Korean convenience store owner, shot Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old African-American girl, in the back of the head after a violent altercation that arose from an accusation of shoplifting. Soon Ja Du was convicted of voluntary manslaughter but her lawyers were able to point to several violent attacks by young African-Americans on LA's Korean community and she was not sentenced to prison.

Cha's novel fictionalises this story and imagines the impact it might have had on the families of the two women. Set largely in the present day, it alternates between the viewpoints of two characters: second-generation Korean immigrant Grace, who finds her morals and filial feelings in conflict when she discovers that her mother committed a heinous crime three decades ago; and ex-con Shawn, brother of a girl whose life was cut short long ago, who struggles to reconcile the bratty sister he remembers with the angelic prodigy she has become in the accounts of anti-racism campaigners and flame-fanning journalists.

Grace, compelled to seek vicarious absolution on her mother's behalf, tries to befriend Shawn, and when someone exacts belated redress for his sister's murder, it turns into a whodunnit. The plotting is immaculate, but it is as a sensitive study of a killer, a victim and their families that the novel grips.

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The Other You by JS Monroe ★★★★☆

Many writers who have found success in other fields are turning to the lucrative genre of the domestic thriller, usually under pen names. It has become possible to play a literary equivalent of The Masked Singer, trying to guess from the prose style which author lurks behind the pseudonym.

Jon Stock made his (real) name with a series of action-heavy spy thrillers, but has now switched to psychological suspense under the name J S Monroe – the use of initials being de rigueur for male authors in this genre, in order not to put off the largely female readership of books that are invariably narrated from the viewpoint of women characters.

This fourth Monroe novel is largely told from the perspective of Kate, who, like many other domestic suspense heroines, has cause to wonder whether her partner is all he seems – in this case, going so far as to suspect that her nice boyfriend Rob has been replaced by a doppelganger. One of the pleasures of this genre is learning about the obscure syndromes that the authors ferret out to foist on their characters, and it seems that Kate is suffering from Capgras delusion – a real condition that makes people believe their loved ones have been supplanted by impostors.

Domestic thrillers tend to be slow burners, but most of them lack the depth of characterisation that might justify the stretches of treading water. Monroe, as a seasoned writer of action thrillers, supplies a rattling pace and plethora of incident that make a welcome change in this genre. It's an indication of his former calling that Kate's journey to discover whether she is delusional or sane ends up in Bond-villain territory, but Monroe sweats to lend his often unlikely story a veneer of credibility. I doubt many other psychological thrillers published this year will be as propulsive and fun.

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Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton ★★★★★

It takes a brave author to base a thriller on the sort of horribly plausible scenario that we read less realistic thrillers to distract ourselves from thinking about. Rosamund Lupton has done that with her fourth novel, the premise of which can be simply summarised: gunmen in a school.

Three Hours begins with the headmaster of a fee-paying school in Somerset being shot by a masked intruder. The siege then unfolds in real time as children and teachers hunker down in scattered classrooms while frantic parents and avid media watch from the sidelines. Is the school being targeted by terrorists because of its liberal ethos, or are disgruntled ex-teachers or pupils after revenge?

Rosamund Lupton, author of Three Hours Credit: Getty Images

The novel will be a hard read for anybody who loves a child, and yet Lupton sweetens the pill with all the tricks one expects of a thriller: twists, clues, misdirection, teases. (The injured headmaster, who has recognised his assailant, has a habit of almost regaining the power of speech, and then relapsing.) A siege may be familiar fictional territory, but Lupton's quirky touches help to defamiliarise it: the children hiding in the library co-opt the books for a blockade ("Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Eyre, Maggie Tulliver and Dorothea Brooke; all those women with their many sisters and friends and enemies and poor-choice husbands barricading the door").

We enter the terrified heads of the children and teachers, but never the gunmen, who, even once we know their identity, are rather coldly analysed, in textbook speak. The novel eventually becomes tendentious, as Lupton names and shames those who have created the hysterical atmosphere that feeds such atrocities. But the characters feel real enough to survive being used to make political points and we become so invested in their fates that, although not faultless, this is one of those novels you live rather than merely read.

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What thriller and crime fiction have you enjoyed so far this year? Share your thoughts in the comments below