Books of the year 2014: The best crime fiction

From serial axe murderer in early 20th-century New Orleans to a bitter Venetian saga of suicide and revenge

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With such unlikely figures as Oscar Wilde being dragooned as sleuths in crime fiction, perhaps jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong is not such a stretch – Ray Celestin's debut novel places him as one of a group on the trail of a serial axe murderer in early 20th-century New Orleans. The Axeman's Jazz (Mantle, £16.99) quickly gleaned awards, sporting an acute sense of period (shored up by an evocation of the sound of early jazz – no easy thing on the printed page). There's a challenge for this writer: how does he follow this up?

To the present, and a new trend in crime writing: socially committed novels set in cloistered immigrant communities in the UK. Anya Lipska tackles it with Poles in London, and Eva Dolan's Long Way Home (Harvill Secker, £6.99) focuses on Peterborough's immigrant workers, menaced by ruthless gangmasters. With two quirky coppers from non-English backgrounds and a vivid panoply of a Peterborough (some distance from customary perceptions of the historic cathedral town), this is crime fiction of authority, making some cogent points amid the pulse-racing.

The Girl with a Clock for a Heart (Faber, £7.99) may be a title calculated to make us think of girls with dragon tattoos, but any such commercial wheezes can be ignored; Peter Swanson's distinctive thriller is nothing at all like the work of any late Swedes. George Foss's ex-girlfriend inveigles him into acting as a courier to return $500,000 that she took from a former lover. Splendid stuff, marred by the odd infelicity – the latter dispensed with in the author's second book, due shortly.

Let's tweak the parameters of 'Best of 2014' to include a writer re-published this year (who is no longer with us). Americans adrift in Europe? That's Henry James. Americans adrift in Europe plus violent death? That's a very different novelist, one who most crime writers genuflect before. Patricia Highsmith, mesmerising chronicler of the worst in human nature, is currently enjoying a posthumous second wind as current films are made of the books that don't feature her charming serial killer Ripley. The publisher Little, Brown is in the process of reissuing these gems, and you can't go wrong with any of them. But if you're a Highsmith novice, perhaps start with Those Who Walk Away, a bitter Venetian saga of suicide and revenge (£8.99).

In Antonia Hodgson's The Devil in the Marshalsea (Hodder, £7.99), we're plunged into a consummately realised 18th-century London. Tom Hawkins has been luxuriating in the capital's fleshpots when he's consigned to the debtors' prison, Marshalsea. The gruesome murder of a fellow debtor spreads fear among the inmates, and the man in the frame is the much-feared Samuel Fleet, with whom Tom is sharing a cell. Such is the atmosphere of Hodgson's writing that at times she even rivals (dare one say it?) Mr Dickens.

Tana French has been writing complex psychological crime fiction for considerable time, but The Secret Place (Hodder, £14.99) appears to be the book that has both readers and critics taking notice. About bloody time…

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