16 authors pick the best crime novels of 2021
2021 has been a bumper year for crime fiction, filling our bookshelves with fantastic pulse-racing reads across the genre, from psychological thrillers to cosy mysteries, police procedurals to domestic noir.
It’s time to celebrate some of the crime fiction highlights of the year and what better way than with to invite some of our favourite authors to give their recommendations? With choices from Shari Lapena, Ajay Chowdhury and Stuart MacBride, amongst others, expect big hitters, surprise debuts and fantastic follow-ups.
Tick off the ones you’ve read so far and pick your favourites from the rest to see out the year with in literary style. Here are the best crime novels of 2021.
The best crime novels of 2021:
Amy McCulloch, author of Breathless:
In a year packed with brilliant thrilling and chilling reads (particularly in wintry settings – my favourite!), my top crime-thriller of 2021 had to be The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse. Dark, claustrophobic and intense, The Sanatorium took me straight to the heart of the Swiss Alps, enveloping me in the atmosphere of the sanatorium-turned-fancy-new-hotel Le Sommet. What really made this book for me was the complex and compelling character of DS Elin Warner, and I can’t wait to see her adventure continue in The Retreat in 2022. I would also like to shout-out my favourite domestic thriller of the year, When They Find Her by Lia Middleton. Totally unputdownable, it’s the sign of a brilliant author when they can build such empathy with a character making a terrible decision within the first few pages and yet keep the reader glued right until the very end as the rest of the twisting plot unfolds.
Ajay Chowdhury, author of The Waiter:
One of the most bittersweet reads of the year for me was John le Carré’s final book – Silverview. Sweet because it is a wonderful book, full of his usual tropes of father figures, agent handling in the field, old spies who have seen it all and the morality of espionage. And of course, sad because there may not be any more. The story starts off simply enough – a City high flyer has cashed in and is running a failing bookshop in a small seaside town when a mysterious visitor upends his world. What follows is a classic le Carré cat and mouse game, with plenty of wheels inside wheels within wheels; non sequiturs that resolve themselves satisfactorily a hundred pages later; wonderful language (all those ‘joes’ and ‘treffs’ that Mick Herron has now gleefully made his own); and dialogue that sparkles in your mind. Read it, smile and weep.
Shari Lapena, author of Not A Happy Family:
A book that I thoroughly enjoyed recently is Richard Osman’s The Man Who Died Twice. The main characters live in a posh retirement village in England, and they have started what they call the Thursday Murder Club. One of them, Elizabeth, is a former MI5 agent. The plot is an intricate mystery, with a dash of the spy story. It kicks off with a letter to Elizabeth from an old spy – who also happens to be her ex-husband. He’s in hiding and decided to take a unit in the retirement village as a safe house and have Elizabeth and her friends protect him. Apparently, he’s stolen some diamonds… Of course, the Thursday Murder Club crew want to find the missing diamonds themselves. I absolutely loved this book. It’s clever, funny and wildly entertaining.
Jane Corry, author of The Lies We Tell:
I loved Richard Osman’s first novel, The Thursday Murder Club, so I couldn’t wait to read his latest. Wow! What a great plot with intelligent twists and turns. It was also a joy to return to the warm, often unpredictable characters from book one. Mix this with Richard’s humour and you have a book that appeals to all generations. It’s certainly doing the rounds in my family!
Tom Hindle, author of A Fatal Crossing:
The third instalment in Anthony Horowitz’s Hawthorne series was, without doubt, one of my most anticipated reads of 2021. With ‘Tony’ and Hawthorne trapped on a remote island, following a chilling murder at a new literary festival, A Line to Kill has everything I’ve come to want from a Horowitz mystery: a fiendish puzzle, a colourful cast of scheming suspects and a final reveal as surprising at it is satisfying. Hawthorne’s next case can’t come soon enough. I also can’t remember the last time I devoured a book as eagerly as I did The Appeal by Janice Hallett. The premise gripped me from the off, a bickering amateur dramatics group and a shifty charity appeal for a sick child providing the setup for a brutal murder. But it was the execution that I fell in love with. Telling her story almost entirely through emails and text messages, the window that Janice Hallett provides into her characters’ lives is just irresistible. I’ve been recommending this book to virtually everyone I meet, and Janice’s next mystery, The Twyford Code, is already my most anticipated read of 2022.
Claire Douglas, author of The Couple at No 9:
I’ve read so many excellent thrillers this year so it makes it very hard to choose just one, but I’m going to go for The Night She Disappeared by Lisa Jewell. It tells the story of teenage mum Tallulah who, along with her boyfriend Zach, goes missing after a night out. What I love about all of Lisa’s books is how expertly she breathes life into her characters so that you feel like you know them. I truly cared about Tallulah, and the desperate, quiet grief of her mother Kim as she tries to find out what happened to her. It’s a rich, layered and gripping thriller with heart. Outstanding from beginning to its twisty end.
Tim Weaver, author of The Shadow at the Door:
The Nothing Man by Catherine Ryan Howard was, by some distance, the best book I read this year. Interweaving two stories – one, a true crime novel by author Eve Black whose family were killed by the eponymous serial killer 20 years ago; the other told from the point-of-view of the killer himself, long dormant, who starts to read the memoir and realise how close Eve is to unmasking him. It’s like a mash-up of Red Dragon and I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, and is brilliantly told and fantastically gripping. I loved it.
Stuart MacBride, author of No Less The Devil:
I’ve been a big fan of Andrew Taylor’s writing for years, and his latest, The Royal Secret, is another magnificent instalment in his James Marwood series. Wonderfully evocative, mixing deadly plots, witchcraft, secrets, and genuine menace, this is historical crime fiction at its very, very best.
Andrea Mara, author of All Her Fault:
I read so many thrillers this year and it’s very difficult to choose a favourite, but I’m going for The Push by Ashley Audrain. It’s about Blythe, who suspects there’s something not quite right with her young daughter Violet. Is Violet a monster? Or is it Blythe who’s the monster? The story is expertly told, leading the reader from one side to the other – is Blythe trustworthy? Is she right that Violet is bad? Or are all children good – is the problem with Blythe? We hear about her grandmother and her mother, gaining an understanding of why she is the way she is. And still we’re not sure – do we trust Blythe or not? Can nature outwit nurture or is nurture the problem here? I flew through The Push, desperate to see what would happen but savouring it too; enjoying the sublime writing and the dark paths on which narrator Blythe takes us. The characters stayed with me for a long time after I’d finished the book, and I can’t wait to see what Ashley Audrain writes next.
Sam Lloyd, author of The Rising Tide:
Samantha Downing introduced herself to the world in 2019 with My Lovely Wife, a deliciously sick and twisted thriller about a successful couple with a shocking secret. In this year’s For Your Own Good, she brings us Teddy Crutcher, a teacher who has nothing but scorn for his colleagues and ultra-privileged pupils. Soon, the school is hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons. As before, Downing hooked me from the first few lines: Entitlement has a particular stench. Pungent, bitter. Almost brutal. Teddy smells it coming. Great stuff.
Giles Kristian, author of Where Blood Runs Cold:
If we knew how Stephen King does it, we’d all be doing it. Idea after idea, book after book, the man is surely in league with the story gods, though there’s nothing supernatural here, no horror, nor anything mind-meltingly original. But King’s characterisation and evocation of small-town America in Billy Summers are masterful, as always. He is so good at nostalgia, at the small details that make us feel as though we know his characters from our own lives. A ‘one last job’ sniper (who only kills bad people), Billy Summers is a self-reliant loner living off his wits, waiting patiently to take the shot. But in helping a young woman in trouble he begins to exorcise his own demons and perhaps even catches a glimpse of redemption through his rifle scope. I loved how Billy Summers’ cover identity is an aspiring author, meaning King can talk about writing, something anyone who’s read his masterclass On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft will surely appreciate. And there’s something wonderful about the eponymous hero daring to hope he might become a writer for real. Funny because I like to imagine myself as a sniper taking out bad guys. I guess the grass is always greener.
Gillian McAllister, author of That Night:
My favourite crime novel of 2021 was Lie Beside Me by Gytha Lodge. What do you do if you wake up next to a man who isn’t your husband – and who is dead? It’s a heartfelt and layered exploration of unreliability, peppered with a cast of fantastically authentic police characters. I loved it!
Nancy Tucker, author of The First Day of Spring:
Earlier this year, I was gripped by S K Barnett’s Safe. It opens with a teenager wandering through a town in Long Island, dishevelled and alone. When approached by a concerned stranger, she identifies herself as Jenny Kristal – a child who went missing from the town seven years previously. Jenny’s family are delighted to have her home, but are surprised that she remembers so little about her life before the abduction. At the same time, Jenny notices that the stories she is told about her disappearance are vague and inconsistent. I found this book tight, smart and brilliantly twisted. Most of all, I loved Jenny’s voice: she tells her story with a perfect blend of humour and sincerity. It was pure fun to read.
Simon Lelic, author of The Search Party:
The stand-out thriller for me this year was Cara Hunter’s latest DI Fawley novel, The Whole Truth. An Oxford student accuses a professor of sexual assault – but if it sounds like a story you’ve heard before, think again. Not only are Cara’s novel brilliantly paced and expertly structured, they are also beautifully written. And not once have I ever come close to guessing the ending. An exceptional crime writer, who just gets better and better with each book.
C J Tudor, author of The Burning Girls:
I love a thriller that does something different. Stu Turton’s ace The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle did that in 2018 and The Devil and the Dark Water, which came out in paperback this year, is another mind-bender. If Evelyn was Agatha Christie with a twist, The Devil is Turton’s tribute to Conan Doyle: 1634 – an impossible murder on a ship sailing from the East Indies to Amsterdam and the world’s greatest detective locked in the hold. It doesn’t have the unique hook of its predecessor. But it’s still a feat of storytelling with Stu’s trademark crazy twists and turns. I can’t wait to see what he does next!
Gytha Lodge, author of Lie Beside Me:
2021 was an absolutely storming year for crime books, and it was incredibly hard to choose just one. In the end, I went for the novel that I found the hardest to stop reading, and the one that most easily transported me to another place, and that was Gillian McAllister’s addictive That Night. Based largely in the sultry Italian countryside and in part in chilly London, it follows a single decision – to hide the death of a man at the hands of a sibling – and the spiralling consequences of that single action. A brilliant, smart novel that was as full of character and heart-breaking suspense as Gillian’s other fabulous stories. A perfect, escapist read.
There you have it – the best crime novels of 2021, as chosen by crime authors! What books would make your list? Let us know in the comments below…