Criminal Element’s Best Books of 2020

These 13 books gave us something to be thankful for in 2020.
Although it might be hard to believe, there were some good things that came out of 2020. We were charmed by Millie Bobby Brown’s Enola Holmes, and we laughed, cringed, and were unable to look away from the glorious trainwreck that was Tiger King. Sure, some days melded into each other. And fine, we’re all now Vitamin D-deficient. And okay, we know: your glasses are fogging up. But it wasn’t all bad!

Case in point: these 13 books that thrilled us, scared us, mystified us, and kept us up all hours of the night. It is our pleasure to share with you our favorite books of 2020. And here’s to you, 2021. We’ve been waiting.

The Safe Place by Anna Downes

Emily Proudman is due for a lucky break. Emily is a struggling actress who just struck out in an audition, got fired from her recent temp job, and now can’t make her rent. Fortunately, the CEO at her previous employer identifies Emily as the perfect candidate for a new (and unusual) position as a live-in housekeeper for his wife and au pair to his daughter, on his gorgeous villa in the French countryside, where she can soak in the sun poolside as she gets paid. Paradise, right? But with no Internet and spotty cell service, Emily is disconnected from the outside world, and soon finds her French paradise might not be quite as relaxing as it seems. Anna Downes’ debut psychological thriller delivers and will have you racing to finish.

Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosby

The flap copy of Blacktop Wasteland calls it “Ocean’s Eleven meets Drive, with a Southern noir twist,” but if we’re being honest, even that high-octane description underplays the level at which S.A. Cosby straight-up brings it. Meet Beauregard “Bug” Montage, an honest mechanic, loving husband, and hard-working dad. He’s also the best getaway driver east of the Mississippi.. or at least he used to be. When his newly-built life begins to crumble, he’s rocketed back into the world he vowed to leave behind—one strewn with blood, bullets, and gasoline. Blacktop Wasteland will keep your heart rate elevated, and you’re going to need a cold shower when it’s over.

Little Secrets by Jennifer Hillier

It’s a parent’s worst nightmare: losing a child. But for Marin, a successful businesswoman building an upscale salon chain, the grief of losing her son Sebastian never fully sets in or subsides because he didn’t die…he was abducted. Marin refuses to accept the uncertainty when the authorities are unable to make any progress, and she quietly hires a private investigator, unbeknownst to the police and even her husband. The search for her son continues in secrecy, but what Marin learns does nothing to settle her nerves: her husband has sparked up an affair with another woman. Jennifer Hillier’s Little Secrets is a thrilling, heartbreaking read, and it serves as a good reminder to keep a close eye on your loved ones…

When No One Is Watching by Alyssa Cole

Sydney Green has spent nearly all of her life in Gifford Place, a beautiful old block in Brooklyn, New York. However, the neighborhood she knows and loves seems to be falling apart around her. Lifelong residents are being forced out and small businesses are closing. When she searches for answers, more and more questions pop up. As things take a turn for the deadly, Sydney and her neighbor Theo must decide whether it is all just a coincidence or there is a larger plot afoot. Dynamic characters and very real social commentary are at the heart of When No One is Watching, making it a truly unique thriller in the same vein as Jordan Peele’s Get Out.

The Last Tourist by Olen Steinhauer

The Last Tourist picks up a decade after An American Spy in Olen Steinhauer’s Milo Weaver series after Milo thought he had put the final nail in the coffin of the CIA’s shady “Tourist” program that specialized in training highly skilled assassins. A veteran of the Tourist program himself, Milo has been laying low in Western Sahara since his attempt to dismantle it. So when a young, green CIA analyst is sent to question Milo about his whereabouts and activities since his disappearance, Milo has the chance to explain his motives, but only briefly as the two realize they are being hunted by the CIA’s new “tourists.” A true international thriller, filled with espionage, deceit, and high-tech weapons, The Last Tourist is a top-notch spy novel and an exciting installment in Milo Weaver’s story.

Dopeworld by Niko Vorobyov

A few years ago, journalist Niko Vorobyov got busted for drug possession and served his sentence, but once released from jail, he began traveling the world investigating drug use in cultures throughout the world. In Dopeworld, Niko traces the use of psychoactive substances in cultures throughout the world. Hardly one to take a backseat, he gets up close and personal to his subject matter, even encountering a death squad killer in Manila and having a BBQ with pals in El Chapo’s village. Niko Vorobyov’s writing is wildly entertaining and insightful, and readers will find Dopeworld makes compelling arguments for fewer restrictions and more education about drugs. 

To Tell You The Truth by Gilly Macmillan

Lucy Harper is the bestselling author of a hugely successful crime fiction series, penning her seventh novel when Gilly Macmillan’s To Tell You The Truth opens. Lucy’s husband Dan is a writer too, albeit an unsuccessful one. A doting husband, Dan acts as a personal assistant to Lucy and manages their finances so she can focus on her lucrative writing career. But when Dan goes missing, Lucy’s life is thrown off-course publicly. Almost immediately, Dan’s disappearance makes media headlines and is discussed on online message boards. But lucy is no stranger to tragedy or the unexpected: decades earlier Lucy’s younger brother Teddy went missing, never to be heard from again. With a timeline that bounces between Lucy’s experiences as a young girl and her adult life as a writer, To Tell You the Truth ramps up the suspense and keeps you on your toes until the very end.

Hard Cash Valley by Brian Panowich

With an immediately lovable protagonist and a plot that will keep you glued to the page until the very end, Brian Panowich has created a true masterpiece of Southern noir. Set in the same world as Bull Mountain and Like Lions, the aptly named Hard Cash Valley takes readers on a thrilling ride through McFalls County, Georgia. If you are looking for some light, easy reading, well…this is not the book for you. Full of murder, mayhem, gun-slinging Filipino mobsters, cockfighting, and all the other wonderfully dark elements we have come to expect from Panowich, gritty-crime readers won’t be able to get enough of Hard Cash Valley or its hero Dane Kirby.

The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne by Elsa Hart

Set in London in 1703, The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne follows the intellectually curious Cecily Kay as she visits the house of none other than Sir Barnaby Mayne, one of the most formidable collectors in the world. But when her host is murdered, Cecily’s curiosity and keen eye for detail land her in a world of trouble. With the help of her rambunctious childhood friend Meacan, Cecily must solve the murder before she becomes the next victim. Elsa Hart has delivered a delightful whodunit that any historical mystery reader is sure to love.

Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson

What do A.B.C. MurdersStrangers on a Train, A Secret History, and Double Indemnity have in common? Besides being unforgettable stories, they’re also tales of murder…and according to Malcolm Kershaw—the protagonist in Peter Swanson’s Eight Perfect Murders—they are perfect murders. At least, that’s what Malcolm argues in a blog post he writes for his bookstore’s website. Fast-forward some years later and Malcolm is greeted at his bookstore by the FBI. Someone is killing people, and it looks like they’re using his blog post as a blueprint. Is Malcolm in trouble? Is he involved? Readers should brace themselves for more than a few twists. This book is an absolute treat for crime-fiction fans.

See More: The Story Behind Eight Perfect Murders

A Brotherhood Betrayed by Michael Cannell

In the fall of 1941, a momentous trial was underway that threatened to end the careers and lives of New York’s most brutal mob kingpins. The lead witness, Abe Reles, had been a trusted executioner for Murder, Inc., the enforcement arm of a coast-to-coast mob network known as the Commission. But the man responsible for coolly silencing hundreds of informants was about to become the most talkative snitch of all. In exchange for police protection, Reles was prepared to rat out his murderous friends, from Albert Anastasia to Bugsy Siegel—but before he could testify, his shattered body was discovered on a rooftop outside his heavily-guarded hotel room. Was it a botched escape, or punishment for betraying the loyalty of the country’s most powerful mobsters? Michael Cannell delivers a detailed, illuminating history of the inner-workings of the mob—it’s non-fiction that reads like fiction.

See More: 5 of New York’s Gangster Nightclubs

One by One by Ruth Ware

One by One introduces us to the shareholders and directors of Snoop, the hip, wildly popular new music app. Snoop is on the verge of going public, but not everyone is excited about that. To hammer out the details, Snoop’s team jets to the exclusive alpine ski resort of Saint Antoine. After this weekend, they could all be walking away millionaires, but some risk being left out in the cold. If Agatha Christie lived in today’s Silicon Valley, she would have written One by One.

Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Anthony Horowitz’s Moonflower Murders brings back Susan Ryeland, esteemed publisher and newfound detective who we last saw in Magpie Murders. Now, Susan is retired and running a small hotel on a Greek island with her boyfriend. What sounds like the perfect life is actually much more stressful than Susan ever thought. She’s exhausted. Bored. Homesick. So it’s somewhat serendipitous when the Trehearnes arrive looking for Susan. They tell her of a mysterious story, one with a murder that took place the day their daughter was married. They’ve come to Susan for help because her former writer, the late Alan Conway, used that very murder as the inspiration for the third book in his detective series, Atticus Pund Take the Cake. What follows is the very type of expertly-woven mystery-inside-of-a-mystery that we’ve come to expect from Anthony Horowitz. Don’t miss this one.

See More: Anthony Horowitz on the Golden Age of Crime Fiction



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