Ho, ho, ho! Let Jolly Santa hand out his boring, politically correct presents to all the good boys and girls. Here comes Bad Santa with a sack of the year’s best crime and mystery thrillers, full of psychos and sickos for the naughty kids.
First to crawl out of the bag is Jo Nesbo’s monstrous villain in THE THIRST (Knopf, $26.95), a serial killer who stalks his victims on Tinder, rips out their throats with dentures made of metal spikes and drinks their blood. The good citizens of “melancholic, reserved, efficient” Oslo are paralyzed with fear and loathing, but the murderer’s bizarre M.O. alerts Harry Hole, Nesbo’s gloomy Norwegian detective, that this repulsive killer is having fun with Harry, tempting him to come out and play.
The crooked New York cops in Don Winslow’s excellent police procedural, THE FORCE (Morrow/HarperCollins, $27.99), have minds in the gutter and share a vocabulary as ripe as rotten fruit. But just because they’re no-good crooks doesn’t mean these roughnecks can’t police their turf. They pull off the biggest heroin bust in memory, put down an all-out gang war and handle quotidian misdeeds like regular gentlemen. Their methods are extremely thoughtful and inventive; they just aren’t entirely lawful.
Of all the places where you really do not want to meet a couple of nut cases with rifles, a zoo full of “wild things in boxes” ranks high. Gin Phillips taps that primal fear in FIERCE KINGDOM (Viking, $25), a heart-thumping thriller about a mother who finds herself and her 4-year-old son running for their lives among cages of unhappy wildlife after two crack marksmen start hunting down zoo visitors like animals. Phillips’s resourceful heroine gives new meaning to the term “tiger mom.”
Meet the great guys who work at Oasis Limo Services in THE DRIVER (Dutton, $26). The plot of Hart Hanson’s first novel is ragged, but his furiously funny storytelling voice is full of moral indignation on behalf of unstable war vets like Ripple, the dispatcher who lost both legs in Afghanistan and now draws violent cartoons all the livelong day, and Tinkertoy, a mechanical genius with a scary case of post-traumatic stress paranoia. Even Skellig, the levelheaded owner of the cab service, hears the voices of men he’s killed in battle (“troubletroubletroublebadtrouble”) while he’s driving.
With racial barriers slowly dropping in the 1950s, token black cops are badly needed on the Atlanta police force. But as Thomas Mullen lets it be known in LIGHTNING MEN (37Ink/Atria, $26), Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith are also valuable assets in neighborhoods where white residents are literally up in arms over the black families buying homes on their blocks. As the son of a Baptist minister, Boggs is a member of the black aristocracy, a beneficiary of “preacher money and a preacher house, even a preacher car.” Black vs. White doesn’t begin to cover the complexity of these diverse relationships.
Ever since Harry Bosch was forced into retirement from the Los Angeles Police Department, Michael Connelly’s tough-as-old-boots hero has been taking on cold cases for the San Fernando force, working from a makeshift office in the old drunk tank of the county jail. (“Sometimes I think I can still smell the puke.”) In TWO KINDS OF TRUTH (Little, Brown, $29), Bosch goes undercover as an elderly oxycodone abuser to take down a gang of international racketeers who are moving prescription drugs in and out of the country by enslaving aged addicts desperate to feed their habits. That’s pretty ugly — and a new one on us.
Jack Reacher (“Bigfoot,” to those awed by his 6-foot-5-inch, 250-pound bulk) is right where we want him in Lee Child’s new novel, THE MIDNIGHT LINE (Delacorte, $28.99): on an endless ribbon of highway, hitching rides and serving as “human amphetamine” for tired truckers. A chance visit to “the sad side of a small town” leads Reacher on a quest to track down a criminal enterprise preying on wounded veterans, a scam that saddens our hero and makes him very, very angry.
To the East Texas natives in Attica Locke’s BLUEBIRD, BLUEBIRD (Mulholland/Little, Brown, $26), Highway 59 is both a lifeline and an escape route. Everyone headed in or out of town makes a pit stop at Geneva Sweet’s Sweets, including Darren Mathews, a righteous Texas Ranger working his way through every hamlet from Laredo to Texarkana, looking for the murderer of the black man and the white woman whose bodies were fished out of the muddy waters of the Attoyac Bayou. The plot has legs, and Locke’s blues-infused idiom lends a strain of melancholy to her lyrical style.
The great port of London churns with activity in Anne Perry’s rich, if blood-splattered, Victorian mystery, AN ECHO OF MURDER (Ballantine, $28), which finds Commander William Monk of the Thames River Police hunting down the assassins of Hungarian immigrants who fled oppression only to be greeted with bitter hostility in their new home. “It’s fear of ideas,” Monk’s wife, Hester, says. “Everyone you don’t understand because their language is different, their food, but above all their religion.”
EARTHLY REMAINS (Atlantic Monthly, $25), Donna Leon’s latest Venetian mystery featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti, is one of her best — and one of her saddest — dealing with the relentless polluting of the great lagoon. “We’ve poisoned it all,” mourns Davide Casati, an aged boatman who treats Brunetti to languorous tours of the floating islands on the graceful, gondola-like rowing boat he built with his own hands.