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.

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March Reading Summary

The reading mojo is on its way back this month, although it has been quite heavily loaded on the crime fiction side of things. Out of the 15 books I read this month, 10 were by women writers and 12 were crime-related. That is the sort of comfort reading I crave, although I have also ventured into self-help, true crime and historical fiction.

Women on the cliff of change:

Katie Kitamura: A Separation – even this has a mystery at its heart, although of course it is about much more than death.  When the narrator’s husband goes missing in Greece, she does not have the heart to admit to her in-laws that they have been separated for six months, so she travels there to find him… and in the process finds herself.  A full review to come on Shiny New Books.

Rachel Cusk: Transit – Kitamura’s book reminded me very much of Cusk’s Outline, so I moved on to the second in the trilogy. This is also a series of vignettes about the people the narrator encounters as she sets to buy and renovate a property in London. A more subtle, less self-centred book than Kitamura’s.

Marie Darrieussecq: Men – read this one for France in the #EU27Project, about a French actress’s ill-fated passion for a black actor/film director as they prepare to film in the Congo.

Women in crime:

Susie Steiner: Missing, Presumed

Emma Flint: Little Deaths

Andrea Carter: Treacherous Strand – crime solved by a female solicitor on the Inishowen Peninsula in Ireland – review to come on Crime Fiction Lover

Aga Lesiewicz: Exposure – urban thriller set in hipsterland Shoreditch – gulped it down in one night, review to come on CFL

Louise Penny: The Beautiful Mystery

Non-Fiction:

Harriet Lerner: Why Won’t You Apologize?   – Psychologist Lerner examines why it’s so hard to offer a heartfelt apology and how to repair relationships and restore trust. Witty, candid and with some great personal examples, it’s a delight to read even for those who shun self-help books.

Helen Garner: This House of Grief – Deliberate revenge or tragic accident? Garner examines the court case of Robert Farquharson, who in 2005 drove into a dam with his three children. I expected this to be more of an examination of the background and family life which led to the tragic event described, but it really is a detailed account of the trial (plus appeal and retrial) and the reactions of the author and the people around her to the unfolding of procedures. Interesting, because it shows how subjective the law can be in court, how easily swayed public opinion (or the jury’s opinion). A great companion piece to Little Deaths.

Books for Review:

Matt Johnson: Deadly Game

Dylan H. Jones: Anglesey Blue

Antonin Varenne: Retribution Road

Just for fun:

Stephen May: Stronger Than Skin – psychological thriller from the man’s perspective, which makes a nice change. I admit that one of the two time frames, the Cambridge setting of the 1990s, played a big part in my decision, although I did not feel truly transposed into that world. A story of obsessive young love and more mature realisation of responsibilities and limitations. I did enjoy the poke at the pretentiousness of middle-class, middle-aged life, in particular through the unconventional character of Lulu, the photographer girlfriend of a former pupil of the main character Mark Chadwick. Goodness, that sounds complicated – I should have started that sentence elsewhere!

Terry Pratchett: Snuff – even when I pick something amusing from the library, there is still a crime element involved, as Sam Vimes finds a corpse waiting for him when he goes on holiday in the countryside.

 

Old World and New: Louise Penny and Antonin Varenne

More escapist comfort reading, which took me to some very strange places indeed. Quite a contrast in style and subject matter, but both proved to be excellent distractions and got me back into the reading groove again.

Louise Penny: The Beautiful Mystery

I am an unabashed Penny fan, cannot get enough of her delightful, gentlemanly, wise and slightly melancholy Armand Gamache. While I quite enjoy closed room mysteries, I couldn’t help but be sceptical of the audacity of setting this book in a secluded monastery, locked away from the outside world, and with no mention at all of our beloved Three Pines, the idyllic Quebecois village that we all want to live in. But I should trust the author: I have followed her before, moving away from the realm of crime fiction in The Long Way Home, and I have continued to enjoy everything she brings to the table.

As always with the Gamache novels, there is a murder to be solved, as well as a personal vendetta and conspiracy within the Sûreté du Québec. I’ve not read the books in order, so I already knew how things had worked out between Gamache and his faithful sidekick Beauvoir once their corrupt and evil boss Francoeur waggled his serpent’s tongue. That took some of the suspense out of the book, but there is still the mystery of who killed the choir director in the tranquil and long-forgotten community of monks, who have recently become famous because of their amazing recording of Gregorian chants. Comparisons to The Name of the Rose are inevitable, given the setting, but Louise Penny makes this her own, with beautifully rounded characters and sensuous details (those chocolate-covered blueberries!). She turns this very much into a meditation on good and evil, the search for the divine vs. seeking fame, the virtues of silence vs. communicating via words.

As for the reason why I find her books so comforting, the author herself describes it best:

My books are about terror. That brooding terror curled deep down inside us. But more than that, more than murder, more than all the rancid emotions and actions, my books are about goodness. And kindness. About choices. About friendship and belonging. And love. Enduring love.  If you take only one thing away from any of my books I’d like it to be this: Goodness exists.

 

Antonin Varenne: Retribution Road (transl. Sam Taylor)

You will love this book if, like me, you were excited by the premise of the recent BBC TV series Taboo, starring Tom Hardy, but somewhat disappointed by its execution (great build-up, but didn’t go very far and let down by its ending, as is so often the case with a story told over several episodes). A damaged but principled individual returning from a traumatic experience abroad, the East India Company as an out-and-out villain, the dirt and miasma of London and its poorest people, the lure of the New World across the Atlantic – both stories have these elements in common. The book is a chunky 500+ pages, but it’s one of those rollicking adventures of the Alexandre Dumas/ Robert Louis Stevenson type, so it didn’t take long to read.

It’s panoramic, epic and historical crime fiction, three epithets which usually put me off a book, but it really works in this case. A further no-no in my book: it’s about a serial killer, and it spreads over three continents and 11 years. It starts in 1852, with an ill-fated mission in Burma organised by the East India Company. The men are captured and tortured; there are only ten survivors, and they come back more like zombies or ghosts rather than men.

Six years later, one of the survivors, former sergeant Arthur Bowman, works as a policeman in a pestilent, drought-ridden London, and continues to battle his demons in a haze of opium and alcohol. Then he discovers a corpse in a sewer, bearing the same mutilations as they experienced in the jungle, and he becomes convinced the killer is one of the ten men. His mission to discover the killer – who does not stop at one victim, of course – takes him to the New World and ultimately to the Wild West, but above all it’s a journey to find himself.

It takes great courage to combine all these different genres together: adventure story, serial killer thriller, Western and character study, so bravo, Monsieur Varenne for this ambitious tour de force! It has all the breadth and variety of RL Stevenson, the darkness of Joseph Conrad and none of the ‘going off on a tangent’ of Moby Dick.

The book was published on 9th March by MacLehose Press.

WWWednesday 15th March: What Are You Reading?

WWW Wednesday is a meme hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It’s open for anyone to join in and is a great way to share what you’ve been reading! All you have to do is answer three questions and share a link to your blog in the comments section of Sam’s blog.

The three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

A similar meme is run by Lipsyy Lost and Found where bloggers share This Week in Books #TWiB.

Currently reading:

Emma Flint: Little Deaths

From the blurb: It’s 1965 in a tight-knit working-class neighborhood in Queens, New York, and Ruth Malone–a single mother who works long hours as a cocktail waitress–wakes to discover her two small children, Frankie Jr. and Cindy, have gone missing. Later that day, Cindy’s body is found in a derelict lot a half mile from her home, strangled. Ten days later, Frankie Jr.’s decomposing body is found. Immediately, all fingers point to Ruth. As police investigate the murders, the detritus of Ruth’s life is exposed. Seen through the eyes of the cops, the empty bourbon bottles and provocative clothing which litter her apartment, the piles of letters from countless men and Ruth’s little black book of phone numbers, make her a drunk, a loose woman–and therefore a bad mother.

Harriet Lerner: Why Won’t You Apologize?

From the blurb: Lerner challenges the popular notion that forgiveness is the only path to peace of mind and helps those who have been injured to resist pressure to forgive too easily. She explains what drives both the non-apologizer and the over-apologizer, and why the people who do the worst things are the least able to own their misdeeds. With her trademark humour and wit, Lerner offers a joyful and sanity-saving guide to setting things right.

Just read:

Louise Penny: The Beautiful Mystery – Gamache and Beauvoir are not in Three Pines this time, but in a remote monastery awash with Gregorian chants. Comfort reading for me, as I love everything that Penny writes.

Antonin Varenne: Retribution Road – rip-roaring adventure, think Taboo with more international travelling and a serial killer. Varenne will be at Quais du Polar in Lyon this year.

Next in line:

Rachel Cusk: Transit – good timing or too close to life?

In the wake of family collapse, a writer and her two young sons move to London. The process of upheaval is the catalyst for a number of transitions—personal, moral, artistic, practical—as she endeavors to construct a new reality for herself and her children.

Thomas Enger: Cursed – now this sounds like perfect escapism, I;ve been saving it up for comfort reading.

When Hedda Hellberg fails to return from a retreat in Italy, where she has been grieving for her recently dead father, her husband discovers that his wife’s life is tangled in mystery. Hedda never left Oslo, the retreat has no record of her and, what’s more, she appears to be connected to the death of an old man, gunned down on the first day of the hunting season in the depths of the Swedish forests. Henning Juul becomes involved in the case when his ex-wife joins in the search for the missing woman, and the estranged pair find themselves enmeshed both in the murky secrets of one of Sweden’s wealthiest families, and in the painful truths surrounding the death of their own son.

So, what are your reading plans for this week? And have you read any of the above?

Reading in the Merry Month of May

It’s been a changeable old month weather-wise, this May, and that has been reflected in my choice of books. I’ve read 12 books, and only 4 of those were by male writers (and two of those were for review). I finally managed to tackle 4 from my Netgalley pile (sinking under the greed there…), 5 from my bookshelves (although two of those may have been VERY recent purchases), plus one random purchase while being stuck at the airport. 7 of the books above may be classified as crime, one was spoken word poetry and there was no non-fiction this month.

DSCN6617
Gotta love the cloudy days of May… Lake Geneva from Vevey.

 

Julie Schumacher: Dear Committee Members

Louise Penny: How the Light Gets In – dare I count this as the first of my TBR20?

Helen Fitzgerald: Bloody Women

Clare Mackintosh: I Let You Go

Daniel Quiros: Eté rouge – this one counts for my Global Reading Challenge – Central and South America

Kristien Hemmerechts: The Woman Who Fed the Dogs

Quentin Bates: Summerchill – reviewed on CFL website; you can read my interview with the author here

Ragnar Jonasson: Snowblind – reviewed on CFL website; I’ve also had the pleasure of interviewing Ragnar here 

Megan Beech: When I Grow Up I Want to Be Mary Beard (poetry)

Ursula Poznanski: Blinde Vögel – a Facebook poetry group turns deadly in Salzburg – how could I resist?

Hadrien Laroche: Orphans – philosophical fable – I thereby declare this #TBR1

Sara Novic: Girl at War – survivor of the war in Croatia returns ten years later to her home country – #TBR2

These last four were all memorable in quite different ways, so I want to write more thorough reviews of them soon, so watch this space.

Siglufjordur, location for Snowblind. Picture taken by the author, Ragnar Jonasson (thanks to Twitter).
Siglufjordur, location for Snowblind. Picture taken by the author, Ragnar Jonasson (thanks to Twitter).

Crime fiction pick of the month is going to be a tie between Snowblind and How the Light Gets In. But I also have my eye on this Austrian writer Poznanski now and hope she gets translated more into English (she also writes YA and children’s fiction and is known as Ursula P. Archer in the English-speaking world).

Finally, how has writing fared this month? Some rough handwritten drafting has taken place, but it’s been another tough month, with business trips, lots of holidays and parental visits. Must do better next month (famous last words?)… The good news is that poetry has started to flow again after a long period of feeling stuck.

 

 

 

 

 

Three Quick Reads by Women Writers

After a series of gruelling (though riveting) reads in April, I opted for the comfort factor and chose some lighter reads this month, all by women writers.

committeeJulie Schumacher: Dear Committee Members

Jason Fitger is a professor of creative writing at a small, second-rate college, who feels he is spending most of his time writing references rather than getting any real work done. His department is facing serious cuts, he’s made a mess of his personal life, his literary ambitions have been thwarted and his views on his students’ abilities, their job prospects and future are painfully funny. Written as a series of letters (and the occasional online form) of recommendation, this will bring a broad smile of recognition (and an occasional pang) to anyone who has ever worked in academia (or anyone involved with writers). A short, satirical book, with a narrator full of pompous self-justification and whingeing, who is unintentionally funny – a delightful way to pass a lazy afternoon. I read it in one sitting, because, having been a victim of endless bureaucracy myself, I kept saying: ‘Just one more letter…’

bloodywomenHelen Fitzgerald: Bloody Women

Another early Fitzgerald book, this one was recommended by fellow bloggers and writers Hollyanne, Cleopatra and Kate Evans.

Despite the macabre and serious subject matter, this was such a zany, fun read. Fitzgerald has a deceptively easy, free-flowing style that makes you think ‘chick-lit’ at first glance. But no chick lit would feature a storyline in which the main protagonist, Catriona, ties up loose ends before her wedding by contacting each one of her former boyfriends, having one last farewell bout of sex with them (usually while being completely drunk) and then discovering their mutilated bodies shortly afterwards. Needless to say, Catriona is the prime suspect and, in an interesting reversal of timeline expectations, we get to hear most of the story in retrospective, while she is in jail on remand. A journalist wants to write a trashy biography of her, hilariously misinterpreting or cherry-picking from interviews with former friends and family. Catriona contrasts the biography with her own recollection of events, but we suspect her own interpretations are sometimes unreliable, while her memory of her last encounters with her exes are hazy, to say the least.

I did guess the final plot twist, but to me this book is not about the twists and turns of a criminal investigation, but about the fresh, original voice.The frank, no holds barred language and messed-up characters, the deft characterisation and sly asides: this seems a stormy assault on British restraint (Fitzgerald comes from Australia originally, but has now settled in Scotland), yet at the same time has a lot of self-deprecating humour that is forever British to me.

Penny2Louise Penny: How the Light Gets In

This doesn’t quite qualify as light reading, as it’s full of tension and drama. I’ve read the Armand Gamache series out of order and this was one I’d missed out on. There are two murder mysteries involved, plus a larger conspiracy involving Gamache’s boss (building on from previous books in the series). The conspiracy element did perhaps feel exaggerated, leading to the very top of Quebecois politics (not sure how well-received this particular book was in Quebec).  However, it certainly led to some very tense moments and real sadness when we realised how a wedge has been driven between Gamache and his former sidekick Beauvoir. The ‘proper’ investigation took second place to this drama, but had an additional poignant word to say about what goes on under the ‘happy families’ façade.

The reason why I have included it in my ‘escapism’ fiction is because it is such a delight to revisit the village of Three Pines in the company of Louise Penny and her fictional characters: the grumpy poet and her duck, the artist, the wise bookseller, the big-mouthed but warm-hearted gay couple running the B&B… these are not types, but over the course of many books have become our friends. We know their quirks intimately, yet they always manage to surprise us a little. I want to live in Three Pines, as do most of Louise Penny’s faithful readers, although I may have to give up on the Internet forever (no signal).

Have you read any of these books and what did you think of them? And do you like to alternate harder reads with more light-hearted or escapist ones? What comfort reads do you turn to?

 

TBR Alert! Books Bought at Quais du Polar

No, it’s not an April Fools’ Day joke! My TBR pile has augmented by another 12 books. Other than rebuying the graphic version of Manchette’s Fatale (you can find my review of the reissued translation of it on CFL),  I could not stop myself from acquiring books by favourite authors, as well as allowing plenty of room for discovering new names. Luckily, there was a fairly good selection of books in English this year as well, so I didn’t have to read the French language translations for some of them.

Old favourites:

I tend not to read series in order (partly out of necessity – it’s not easy to find the English series at libraries here in France, and I can’t afford to buy all of them), so there’s always one or two I’ve missed. The problem is that I sometimes forget which one I’ve missed – or else the title of the US and UK editions are different (Louise Penny says her publishers have promised that will stop – hurrah!). So here are the books I bought from writers whose work I already know I like:

GodsBeastsDenise Mina: Gods and Beasts – I’ve read her Garnethill and Paddy Meehan series, but only ‘The Red Road’ from the Alex Morrow series. This one takes place before the events in Red Road and won the Theakstons Old Peculier Award in Harrogate in 2013.

 

PennycoverLouise Penny: How the Light Gets In

Book 9 in the series and it’s winter once more in Three Pines. A famous woman has gone missing and Gamache has to battle with hostile forces within his department. I’ve reviewed ‘Dead Cold’ (aka A Fatal Grace) and ‘The Long Way Home’ and was searching for ‘The Beautiful Mystery’, but it was not available from Decitre’s English language section.

Child44Tom Rob Smith: Child 44

I’ll be honest: I hesitated to read this one because I’m a little traumatised reading about brutal repressive regimes (although I’ve had less dramatic immediate experience of it than other close friends). So I read ‘The Farm’ instead (which is very different, more domestic), but this account of a serial killer in the Soviet society where such crime is apparently unthinkable sounds fascinating. The author spoke about the inspiration behind the story: real-life serial killer Chikatilo, probably one of the worst criminals in history (but who committed those crimes two decades later than the events in this book).

Desai1Kishwar Desai: Witness the Night

A combination of influences made me buy this: Margot Kinberg’s spotlight on the book, reading Desai’s second book (on surrogate mothers – wombs for rent in India), seeing her speak so passionately on her panel and direct conversation with the author. As Margot says: ‘There’s always a risk when a novel addresses a social issue that the author may have an agenda that will overshadow the plot, but if it’s done well, a crime novel can be a very effective forum for a discussion of social issues.’ and Desai does just that. This book also won the Costa First Novel Award.

GranotierbookSylvie Granotier: Personne n’en saura rien (No one will know anything)

Sometimes the name is just enough. I’ve read and loved her ‘The Paris Lawyer’ and other books that have not yet been translated into English. I interviewed her at Quais du Polar two years ago and she is so thoughtful and articulate that I’ve succumbed to her charm. I have no idea what this new book is about, but I’m sure I’ll enjoy it – even though it is a story of revenge, manipulation and yes, a serial killer.

Always meant to read: 

KhadraYasmina Khadra: Qu’attendent les singes (What are the monkeys waiting for)

A former Algerian army officer who uses his wife’s name to publish some of the most ambitious and topical fiction about the Middle East. Some of his work is available in English, especially his trilogy about Islamic fundamentalism: ‘The Swallows of Kabul’ (about Afghanistan), ‘The Attack’ (Palestine) and ‘The Sirens of Baghdad’ (Iraq). However, his latest book returns to Algeria and features a feisty female detective. Khadra said he is an ardent feminist, and admitted it is very difficult to be a woman in any public position in his native country. Khadra also comes highly recommended by Claire McAlpine at Word by Word.

Debut authors who impressed me at panel discussions:

VongozeroYana Vagner: VongoZero

The title is the name of a lake on the border between Finland and Russia, where a group of survivors of an apocalyptic flu epidemic are travelling for their survival. Dystopian psychological thriller written in installments on Yana’s blog, and incorporating feedback from her readers – very Dickensian.

KillinglessonsSaul Black: The Killing Lessons

Strictly speaking, Saul Black is not a debut author, as it’s the crime genre pseudonym for highly regarded author Glen Duncan. He’s always found it hard to allow himself to be contained by just one genre and has written a werewolf trilogy (which would normally be enough to put me off his writing). However, this book is more typical crime fiction fare, set in Colorado, with shades of McCarthy’s ‘No Country for Old Men’.

QuirosDaniel Quirós: Eté rouge (Red Summer) 

Don Chepe, former guerilla fighter in Nicaragua’s bloody civil war, has retired to the paradise of  a fishing village on the Pacific coast in Costa Rica. But the body of an Argentine woman washes up on the beach one day and he becomes involved in a complex investigation which digs deep into his personal and his country’s history.

Recommendations from blogs or bloggers:

BouysseFranck Bouysse: Grossir le ciel (Magnifying/swelling up the sky)

When Catherine from Le Blog du Polar de Velda recommends a new French writer, I sit up and listen. She has a nose for up-and-coming talent – and quite often a similar taste as myself, on the noirish side. This story of two isolated farms in a remote rural area of France  – and the men who inhabit them – sounds intriguing (especially to me, coming as I do from solid farming stock).

GornellBarry Gornell: The Healing of Luther Grove

Gothic tension in the Highlands, where an urban couple relocate, believing they have found their rural paradise. Barry was interviewed by Crime Fiction Lover as part of New Talent November, so his name seemed familiar, and I approached him at the book signing. When I discovered he was a debut author and this was his first participation at an international crime fiction festival, I just had to find his book in English and get it signed. It also got a glowing review by Eva Dolan on CFL.

Impulse Buy

CrystalPalaceFabrice Bourland: Le diable du Crystal Palace (The Devil of Crystal Palace)

Bourland is a great admirer of Poe and Conan-Doyle and he’s written a series of supernatural thrillers set in London, featuring elegant 1930s detectives Singleton and Trelawney. A couple of them have been translated by Gallic Books. This one hasn’t, but has a personal connotation, as it’s set just a stop or two away from the part of London where I used to live.

You may well argue that I overestimate the number of books I can keep on my shelves (even signed books), and that I still haven’t read all of the books I bought at the previous two editions of the festival. [I am in good company there, as I heard several festivalgoers say the very same thing.]

But you know what? I don’t smoke or gamble, I seldom drink or go out on shopping sprees. A girl’s got to have some vices, right? And books are my vice. What do you think? Have you read any of the above and what did you think of them? Are there any which tantalise your taste buds?