Annual Summary: Crime Fiction

I have so many annual round-ups and best of lists to share with you, that I’m planning to divide them up by subject matter and bore you to death with posts from now until the New Year! The first topic is Crime Fiction. I have read probably somewhat less crime than in previous years: only 40 of the 127 books I read this year were crime fiction, so somewhat less than a third, while in previous years it would have been more like half. The following titles were particularly appealing and/or memorable.

Simone Buchholz: Mexico Street: Romeo and Juliet against the backdrop of immigrant communities and hardnosed port towns like Hamburg and Bremen, with Buchholz’s unmistakable witty yet also lyrical style.

Elizabeth George: A Banquet of Consequences – I was utterly absorbed by the book while reading it, but can no longer remember a single thing about it now. Don’t know if that says things about how long this year has felt (I read it in February), or about my memory, or about the book itself. I am giving George the benefit of the doubt in memory of the good old days when I adored her work.

Chris Whitaker: We Begin at the End – very intense and moving, more of a character study (and description of a location and a way of life) than a standard procedural. Duchess is firmly in my heart, a truly memorable creation.

Rosamund Lupton: Three Hours – one of our Virtual Crime Book Club reads, this was a heart-stopping, heart-racing race against the clock set against a backdrop of a school shooting.

Barbara Nadel: Incorruptible – a reunion with my old friends Ikmen and Suleyman, and an interesting story of Catholic vs. Muslim heritage in an increasingly totalitarian Turkish state

Eva Dolan: Between Two Evils – another ecstatic reunion with one my favourite recent crime authors and her uncompromising look at contemporary British society

Abir Mukherjee: A Rising Man – an excellent incursion into historical fiction, learning so much about the British Empire in India, another Virtual Crime Club read

Riku Onda: The Aosawa Murders – unusual, puzzling, thought-provoking, my favourite Japanese crime novel of the year

John Vercher: Three Fifths – more of a psychological thriller and moral dilemma, an indictment of perception of race in the US, in equal measure poignant and infuriating

If I was really pushed to give a gold medal to any of the above for this year, I’d say The Aosawa Murders, and here is the Japanese cover of it (in the original, the title is Eugenia).

Above all, I want to thank Rebecca Bradley and her Virtual Crime Book Club for getting me to read sub-genres and books that I might not normally have discovered on my own.

Two Absolutely Contrasting Crime Novels

Here are two crime novels which have recently helped me regain some joy and focus in my reading. I’m not sure that ‘crime’ is the best way to describe either of them, although crimes do take place (arson, robbery and murder, to name but a few). Neither of them follow the standard crime fiction formula – yet they couldn’t be more different from each other if they tried.

One was written in 1934 while the other has only just come out. One is set at a country house in Surrey, while the other is in a small town in the US. In both we pretty soon get to know ‘whodunit’, but in one the focus is on ‘how will they get out of it?’ and in the other the focus is on the characters. One is light and funny, somewhat throwaway and escapist, while the other is rather grim and gruelling, though beautifully written.

I am talking, of course, of Alan Melville’s Weekend at Thrackley (in the British Library classic crime series) and Chris Whitaker’s We Begin at the End, respectively.

In the former, we have the typical Golden Age mystery novel set-up. Jim Henderson is a remarkably cheerful and stoic good chap, who has returned from war with all his limbs intact but without much work experience, and therefore struggles to find a job and make ends meet. To his great surprise, this underdog is invited to a country house weekend by someone who claims to have known his father, but whom he personally cannot remember at all. He goes there despite his misgivings, because his old school friend is also invited, and discovers a gloomy old house with an odd assortment of guests and a peculiar host obsessed by extravagant jewellery.

Most of the characters are paper thin, and the plot is rather obvious, but it’s all about derring-do and cute ironic observations, in that slightly bemused, self-deprecating style that was so common in the 1920s and 30s. I might argue that Jim and his friend Freddie, both public school boys, do somewhat fall into that cliche of ‘the nice, bumbling but well-intentioned and really quite bright underneath it all chaps’ which has done so much harm in class distinctions in Britain. However, it is encouraging that the hero of the story is the resourceful Jim rather than spoilt Freddie, i.e. the one who was raised by a single mother and who does not have easy access to a family fortune.

By way of contrast, Chris Whitaker’s characters are anything but spoilt. Thirteen year old Duchess Day Radley has to put up with things that no child should have to experience, as she struggles to protect her little brother and veers between pity and resentment at her perpetually depressed and drunk mother. This is life on the breadline, pretty much, and with no hope or escape in sight. Duchess is so used to being ignored, bullied, menaced, tricked, that she no longer can trust anyone or anything. She calls herself an outlaw and refuses to let anyone into her heart. She only half understands what is going on when the man who killed her aunt thirty years ago is released from prison and comes back to their home town, but she gets tragically caught up in the events that follow.

I’ve loved Chris Whitaker’s previous books, which described the same kind of milieu in small-town America, but this one is a shade darker, with far less black humour and fewer quirky characters to lighten the mood. I was afraid at times that the book was laying it too thick with all of the misfortunes that come the children’s way (almost like a Mexican soap), but it manages to avoid bathos. Crimes are just the pretext here for examining morality, how good intentions can lead you astray, how flawed every human being is and why standing idly by is sometimes as unforgivable as jumping in and making mistakes. A book I will not forget easily, although I’d have preferred to read it at a cheerier time. Just as well that I chased it down with the more puerile but easy-going BL classic!


Best Crime Fiction in English 2017

As I started jotting down all the crime fiction novels which I enjoyed reading in 2017, I realised the list was growing too long, so I had to divide it into translated and English-language fiction. So this is the second part of that post, crime fiction written in English. regardless of the origin of the writer or the setting. You might spot a preference among crime authors for a London setting, yet each of these was different.

Sarah Vaughan: Anatomy of a Scandal – London – coming out in January 2018

Political and legal thriller meets domestic drama – a cynical but all too realistic view of politicians and husbands, just right for these times full of sexual harassment cases

Stav Sherez: The Intrusions – London

Another extremely topical police procedural, about online stalking, hacking and spying. There was also something about the transient backpacker population all converging onto London which tugged at my heartstrings.

Eva Dolan: This Is How It Ends – London – coming out in January 2018

Dolan is the queen of weaving in a thrilling story to explore her anger about social injustice. Here it’s property developers vs. ordinary people, political campaigners vs. the police, and betrayals among those you believe to be on your side.

Chris Whitaker: Tall Oaks – US

I read both of Chris Whitaker’s novels this year and this one won by a cat’s whisker (I’m trying to only mention one book per author): that mix of humour, insight and depth of feeling which is quite rare.

Susie Steiner: Missing, Presumed – Cambridge and London

Same thing with Susie Steiner: I read both of her novels featuring the delightful Manon, but the first one in the series just had an additional edge to my mind. Police procedural with characters that you want to get to know better.

Aga Lesiewicz: Exposure – London

Sometimes you just need a high-paced urban thriller set in a Shoreditch which has all the trappings of Manhattan, including spyware, trendy lofts and media types. The glamour of the lifestyle was just so different from my experience that all my voyeuristic tendencies came to the fore: call it my version of ‘Hello’ magazine!

Emma Flint: Little Deaths – New York City

For a change of pace, a meticulous recreation of a period and place (Queens, 1960s) and an alternative interpretation of a notorious true crime. I didn’t read it so much for the plot, however, but for the way it portrays society’s indictment of mothers and women who don’t behave according to general expectations.

Louise Penny: The Beautiful Mystery – Canada, Quebec

Reading a Louise Penny mystery is always a treat, and this one has echoes of another old favourite The Name of the Rose, with its monastic location and thorough examination of human propensity for both good and evil.

Adrian Magson: Rocco and the Nightingale – Picardie, France

Another recreation of time and place, this time one that is close to my heart: France in the 1960s and a detective that I have a bit of a soft spot for: Lucas Rocco. This time an assassin seems to be after Rocco, but of course he doesn’t have the luxury to just go away and hide.

As I finished compiling the list above, I realised that I have personally met (in person or online) six of the nine authors featured, and they are all very charming. But although that might make me eager to read their work, it does not influence my final selection into the ‘best of’ literary canon.

Crime Fiction in America by Writers from Abroad

Writing about crime in the US even if you do not hail from there is a popular pastime. We have all been brought up in American films and TV cop shows, and we can probably repeat the Miranda warning word for word even if we are less aware of the equivalent in our own countries.

In the past, French authors Boris Vian and Georges Simenon set some of their novels in the US. In the last couple of years I’ve reviewed Emma Flint’s Little Deaths and Steph Broadribb’s Deep Down Dead on this blog, and thought Joel Dicker’s The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair was overrated. But just how easy is it to get the balance right between making the American landscapes come alive and cramming in too much detail?

29905588E.O. Chirovici: The Book of Mirrors

Chirovici deliberately set out to conquer the English-speaking market. After writing several novels in his native Romania (all well-received), he wrote this one in English, set the whole story in the US and found himself an agent and publisher in the UK (with a little bit of luck, which makes for an amusing story of the road to publication). The novel sparked a frenzy of publisher auctions and was sold to 30 countries before it even appeared in English, somewhat similar to Joel Dicker’s debut. With all the buzz around the publication, it’s not the author’s fault that I was expecting something along the lines of The Name of the Rose or Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy. Alas, it is neither the ‘heart in your mouth’, pulse-racing, twisty thriller you want to finish in one night, nor is it the clever, off-beat, startlingly original and thought-provoking novel that you want to examine again and again. Nevertheless, it is perfectly competent and a pleasant way to while away a few hours.

The story within a story framework and the multiple narrators with hidden interests give a touch of the literary to what is in essence a relatively straightforward story of thwarted love, jealousy, manipulation and murder. The author says he is fascinated by the unreliability of memory, how we can create false memories to support our current interpretation of facts. That is indeed an intriguing subject, but the narrators sounded a little too bland and similar. I loved the idea of an unfinished manuscript hinting at a murder: the set up is similar to The Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz but far less tongue-in-cheek. In fact, I think this is the downfall of this novel: it takes itself a little bit too seriously, but is not noir or menacing enough to cause a significant chill down my spine.

So what about the American setting: mostly a campus in a small university town? Although there are a lot of extraneous details in the book about the relationships between people and academic life, there are actually remarkably few eloquent details to place the story in time and place. It did not quite have that authentic zing for me: it could have been any campus in any country and reminded me of my college days in the UK and Germany. However, this is an above-average book, clearly written by an experienced author, who is to be highly commended for writing in his second (or third or fourth) language.

28933003Chris Whitaker: Tall Oaks

By contrast, I felt the small-town setting in Tall Oaks was utterly convincing. There is a bit more bluster and strong opinions going on in American rural areas than in the UK, and this comes through loud and clear in this wonderful dissection of the social scene. It is eccentric, dark and funny, a combination which is very hard to get right, but Chris Whitaker succeeds perfectly.  This is most certainly not a book which takes itself too seriously, and yet it left a more lasting impression of the loneliness of most of its main characters.

A small boy goes missing in the small town of Tall Oaks and we get to meet all of the neighbours, supposedly all eager to help, but also all having something to hide. So a strange collection of believable but also quite extreme characters parade in front of us. Jess is the grief-stricken mother, who has been abandoned by the boy’s father and now has to face life completely alone. Jim the policeman who is obsessed with the case and the mother’s despair. Big, lumbering Jerry, who works at the photo store, is considered dim-witted by most of the town, and still lives with his manipulative mother. And of course that wonderful creation, the teenager Manny, who so badly wants to become a cool gangster that he is prepared to have wounds on his forehead by wearing hats that are too tight for him. Manny’s mother and her new admirer, the car salesman Jared, much scorned by Manny and who seems to be on the run from something. Expat Roger who feels emasculated by his wealthy wife Henrietta. But just listing all these peculiar characters does not really do justice to the complex interplay between them, and how much of an insight we get into their rich inner lives with just a few strokes of the pen.

A blurb on the back of the book describes this as Fargo and indeed the book resembles the film and series with its wacky humour, as well as plot twists, rich character descriptions and witty dialogue. However, you care more deeply about Manny and his friends, about poor downtrodden Jerry and the others, than you ever do about the anti-heroes in the TV series. If Fargo is about the baseness of human nature, and how we can all go off the rails, Tall Oaks is about an innate belief in kindness and humanity. And it doesn’t come across as naive, because there is a lot of warmth, humour and compassion.

This was such a delight to read! By turns tender, laugh-out-loud funny and sad, sometimes within the space of a single chapter or paragraph. I can’t wait to see what Chris Whitaker writes next. It is bound to be entertaining and unpredictable, with just enough detail to make the background come alive.