The best crime fiction offers equal parts entertainment and social commentary -- stories that we remember long after the final chapter. Of the more than 125 or so novels I read during 2012, these are my favorites.
(1) "Live by Night" by Dennis Lehane: A lean, tightly focused epic that looks at Prohibition and the organized crime that flourished because of it. This novel goes beyond the life of crime, skirting that fine line between glorifying the illegal and showing the humanity that exists even in mobsters. The story examines our history and morality in an amoral world.
(2) "Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn: A wife's disappearance leads to the disintegration of what seems like a perfect marriage.
(3) "The Drop" by Michael Connelly: Twenty years of Harry Bosch still seems fresh.
(4) "And When She Was Good" by Laura Lippman: A suburban madam comes to terms with her career choice.
(5) "The Cutting Season" by Attica Locke: The changing face of racism and classism intersect with the past and present on a Louisiana antebellum mansion that's managed as a tourist stop by an African-American woman whose ancestors were slaves on the plantation. This artificial look at the past may be impinged by a corporation that has been buying up the surrounding land and hiring illegal laborers instead of local workers.
(6) "A Killing in the Hills" by Julia Keller: An insightful look at the ennui of a community paralyzed by poverty and despair and the pride of people who refuse to succumb to the insidiousness of drugs.
(7) "The Lost Ones" by Ace Atkins: A U.S. ranger battles corruption that has overwhelmed his rural Mississippi hometown.
(8) "Available Dark" by Elizabeth Hand: This stunning look at a woman forever teetering on the edge follows a burned-out asocial photographer from Helsinki to Iceland.
(9) "Defending Jacob" by William Landay: What begins as a typical legal thriller matures into a suspense-laden insider's view of the law, ethics and familial bonds with a shocking finale as believable as it is surprising.
(10) "The Other Woman" by Hank Phillippi Ryan: Politics, dirty campaigns, compromised candidates and several "other women" make for a timely tale. This political thriller delves into romantic suspense and journalism ethics.
(11) "The Demands" by Mark Billingham: The 10th outing with London detective Tom Thorne starts as a conventional hostage novel, but then skillfully explores guilt, cultural differences and injustice.
(12) "Retribution" by Val McDermid: London police detective Carol Jordan and crime profiler Tony Hill are targeted by an old nemesis.
(13) "Criminal" by Karin Slaughter: A contemporary story about the vagaries of family as well as a historical look at women breaking into the Atlanta police force.
(14) "No Mark Upon Her" by Deborah Crombie: A riveting look at the corrupting nature of power as detectives Duncan Kincaid and Gemma Jones investigate the murder of a cop who was an Olympic hopeful.
(15) "Broken Harbor" by Tana French: An attack on a family in a failed subdivision dovetails into a fascinating look at Ireland's precarious financial situation.
"The Professionals" by Owen Laukkanen: The economic downturn and a bleak job market make for a tense, suspenseful and insightful thriller about four out-of-work, newly graduated college friends who find employment as kidnappers.
"The Three-Day Affair" by Michael Kardos: Four friends, whose unshakable bonds were forged at Princeton, become kidnappers and robbers at their ninth annual reunion when one of their group goes off the deep end. Each man faces a moral dilemma while learning what kind of person he is.
"City of Saints" by Andrew Hunt: Salt Lake City in 1930 proves an evocative setting to explore Utah's history, its people and how a person with a deep religious faith lives in an increasingly secular world.
"Black Fridays" by Michael Sears: A thoughtful, intricate cautionary tale about greed, mismanaged money and the thrill that the unscrupulous get from cheating the unsuspecting. An excellent character study about a man coming to terms with his own limitations while trying to be a good father to a difficult, special-needs child.
"A Land More Kind Than Home" by Wiley Cash: Crime fiction melds with Southern gothic for an emotional, lyrical story about two brothers that explores the power of forgiveness, the strength of family bonds and how religion can be misused to seduce and dominate.
A must-have for readers
"Books to Die For," edited by John Connolly and Declan Burke: A sumptuous exploration of 119 authors from 20 countries discussing which writers' words encouraged them to become storytellers. Each thoughtful essay is a showcase for the passion of writing with heartfelt tributes to fellow writers.