Christmas books: There's drinking, smoking... oh, and a great car chase

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The Independent Culture

Right. The Christmas tree is dressed, the pudding is marinating in a mixture of rum and brandy, and those old festive 45's are stacked up on the record player. So what better time to put your feet up in front of the fire and look back at some of the best crime novels of the last year.

First out of the stocking is The Right Madness by James Crumley (HarperCollins £18.99). Crumley is one of the grand old geezers of crime fiction. His novels were one of the reasons I started writing myself. The great man has been seriously ill lately but he seems better now, which is great news. In his latest, Montana private eye CW Sughrue gets involved with a psychiatrist who has had confidential material stolen. It seems like a simple case, but soon too many people are dying. There's a lot - an awful lot - of drinking and smoking, plus a little sex, but not too much. The old boy done good as usual. Long may he live!

Next up is Hour Game by David Baldacci (Macmillan £17.99). Baldacci (right) is another giant of crime. I've said it before and I'll repeat it now with no apology. It's serial killer time again and here we have a particularly nasty one in Wrightsburg, Virginia. The murderer carefully poses his victims, takes some trophies and leaves some of his own. Watches set at a certain hour. One for each victim. Private eyes King and Maxwell come in on the case as the body count rises and the cops make no headway. This is a real old-fashioned whodunnit with short, snappy chapters, just the way I like 'em. And a really great car chase.

James Patterson is a strange writer. On his own he writes first-class novels, then he teams up with other writers and seems to lose it totally. Mary, Mary (Headline £17.99) is, thank goodness, a solo effort, and - thank goodness again - it features Alex Cross, one of the best heroes in the genre. Times are tough for our boy as his youngest child is the subject of a court order that keeps him on the other side of the country in Seattle and his ex-ish girlfriend is seeing someone else. Plus there's a major serial killer (yes, another one) loose in LA who's using up all his time. He's neglecting everyone he loves. Bad news for them, but good news for us!

And last, and maybe the best, of them all is a posthumous effort from Ed McBain. Fiddlers (Orion £12.99) brings us the last of his novels of the 87th Precinct. Now who would shoot down a blind Vietnam-vet professional violinist at one end of town, and a blonde beauty-product saleswoman at the other end - with the same gun? The old team, detectives Carella, Meyer, Parker and Genero, are on the case and all's right with the world. It turns out that a dying man is seeking revenge for every hurt he ever suffered, and - even if I didn't know that that this book was written when the author was very sick - I would have guessed that it was penned by a man in pain.

In the race for my greatest crime writers of all time, it would be a photo finish between Ed McBain, James Crumley and Raymond Chandler, who, incidentally, has had all his Philip Marlowe novels reissued in paperback this year by Penguin. Six in all, and everyone worth buying - even if you have dog-eared editions already on your bookshelf. The best of this or any year.