Stella reads… the year’s best crime fiction
THESE ARE ‘STELLA READS…’
MY TOP TEN CRIME FICTION BOOKS READ IN THE LAST 12 MONTHS
0CTOBER 2012 – OCTOBER 2013
Those who I’ve met, or emailed, or tweeted with, will know that I love my crime fiction. Now that I’ve succumbed to the temptation of joining the blogosphere I thought I’d get going by trying to discern my favourite ten reads of this last calendar year.
The selection of just ten was tough, very tough. I have read so many crime fiction books over the years and it’s focussed me to concentrate on those which have ‘that something a little different’. That may mean that some very established authors didn’t get a mention, possibly because they are happy writing what their public want [or perhaps their publishers want] and are sticking to their templates.
I have no problem with that, but my recent drive has been towards those who are relatively new or completely fresh to the genre. I wanted to see what they had to offer – and I wasn’t disappointed. I was surprised to find that five new authors made this list, but all do so on merit.
Here’s a little about each selection and why I chose it – with a one word summary to boot.
1 The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter – Malcolm Mackay
A debut. With some fabulous new authors in this list the genre is in for a heady time… and Malcolm Mackay is a prime example.
The Necessary Death Of Lewis Winter is utterly compelling. There’s no doubt that this one has that ‘that something a little different’. This time it’s style, yet despite the terse prose it loses nothing of its substance.
When I’d read this book I enjoyed it immensely, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was that so impressed me. Thinking about it now, I reckon it’s the ability Mackay has to tell a gripping yarn, and engage the reader, whilst writing in such a cold, no-nonsense and direct manner. Mackay paces his story well, making the most of the Glasgow underworld and building effortlessly towards a powerful denouement.
At times the prose mesmerised me, but the icy, almost psychopathic lack of empathy engaged rather than distracted. Maybe it works so well because of the subject matter of contract killings? I’m not sure, but to pull this off with your first novel is quite something. Stunning.
2 Where The Devil Can’t Go – Anya Lipska
Another very impressive debut. Here, Anya Lipska has crafted an original crime fiction novel with a distinctive voice, and one which has all the vital ingredients of a thrilling read.
It’s largely provided by the charismatic Janusz Kiszka, an established immigrant who has carved out a little niche for himself amongst East London’s Polish community. He sets out to help solve the riddle of a young waitress who has disappeared without trace, but when a body is found he finds himself the subject of detective Kershaw’s parallel investigations.
The skilfully plotted narrative makes this an excellent read, along with keenly observed characterisations. I also enjoyed the way the author compares the old and the new, with the heady heights of the 2012 Olympic city contrasting with the dark meanderings of the old Eastern bloc states. Old and new, East and West, it’s all portrayed with authority and a steady build up of tension. Riveting.
3 Defending Elton – TJ Cooke
What a year for debuts, here’s another, which means that my favourite three reads this last year have all been written by newcomers.
There are a number of elements which make this book so memorable. One, it has a most inventive storyline, which is told with the authority of someone who knows how the criminal justice system works. TJ Cooke sets up the simple yet frighteningly real scenario of a lawyer representing a defendant for a murder he’s actually committed himself. Sorry Mr Grisham but you’ve missed this trick – and it’s a clever trick too, which succeeds by morphing the fates of lawyer Jim and his client Elton, thereby drawing on the empathy vicariously.
Some particularly sparkling dialogue, unexpected humour and colourful characters are the other ingredients which make this book shine. Narrator Jim bends the truth with just about every character in the narrative, but he’s honest with the reader… about how, in a moment of panic and desperation, he has gone from trying to help Elton, to framing him for murder. I loved how the author forces you to question whether you should or shouldn’t be rooting for the protagonist. I also doubt whether many crime fiction novels have references to Dick Dastardly and Basil Brush! Quite different from the crime fiction norm, and I struggle to think of anything similar. Mind you, it’s all the better because of it. Ingenious.
4 The Back Road – Rachel Abbot
We’re in established writer territory here, and I’m not just referring to the author. There is something of the old Christie in her plotting yet it is thoroughly modern and effortlessly believable. I’m not sure there’s anything ‘cosy’ about this tale though. It is a dark world we enter, yet we do so through a concealed entrance, set in a place we can all familiarise with. The narrative hooks you in with the intrigue of the ‘hit and run’ and keeps you guessing who the goodies and baddies really are right up until the end.
We are constantly reminded not to take anything at face value. There are many lies to unravel, some told to hide indiscretions, others schemed for more sinister reasons. This is ‘top of its game’ crime fiction and that’s why it makes my favourite reads list. Maybe it doesn’t possess that ‘something a little different’, but the fact is that our oldest friends are often our most cherished, and there’s something of the ‘old friend’ here. Unlike the characters revealed, the writing is solidly dependable. Flawless.
5 Police – Jo Nesbo
Familiar territory here too, with a Scandinavian police procedural. I include this despite getting a little too familiar with police procedurals over the years and a little wary of the trend to like all things Nordic. However, this book makes it because it is, quite simply, a master of its art.
I think it’s the ninth in the Harry Hole series, which should tell you everything about how good the writing is. I forgive the violence and brutality, and I don’t always, but it seems so integral to the narrative. What I admire greatly is Nesbo’s ability to toy with his readers like a cat with an almost dead mouse. He squeezes out every last drop of intrigue from his multi layered plots and it’s easy to see how he has developed such a keen following. All the usual twists and turns are there, but they are delivered in such a way that you feel you are never going to find that route out of the maze. Classic in its own way. Compelling.
6 The Shining Girls – Lauren Beukes
Well I set my stall out folks, I said right at the beginning that I’m always on the lookout for crime fiction with a difference – so how could I not include this book?
A time travelling serial killer is something you don’t come across every day of the week, even when you’ve read as many books as I have. Author Lauren Beukes allows him to span sixty odd years, which makes the task of tracking him down, performed by his failed victim Kirby and her ally Dan, that much tougher.
The writing and the sheer audacity of it was enough to pull me through, though rather like ‘Ghostman’ (see below) you have to perform a few leaps of faith. ‘It’s not you, it’s the house’ is a device used in some horror flicks and Beukes uses it to good effect here. In a way it’s a shame that there was so much hype around the launch of this book. It’s done its job in terms of sales no doubt but I know there are many like me who are wary of such things. Still, the bottom line is I really enjoyed it and it ‘stayed with me’, meaning it’s done enough to feature in this list. Like a few others mentioned here it has a certain ‘intelligence’, from a writer who is not afraid to break the mould. Brave.
7 Ghostman – Roger Hobbs
Yes, another debut, and this one by a relatively young writer. It begins with a high voltage heist and does its best to keep the pace going throughout. Now, I’m going to pause there because despite this being one of my favourite reads this year I actually think it could have been even better. What excites me however is that I’ve found another new author who I now know can entertain me. Roger Hobbs writes with a commercial flair and it would be no great surprise if Hollywood latched onto him.
My tastes do vary and I have to admit I’m filling a need here, call it my adrenaline rush read fix. That’s what the author fulfils. It isn’t classy writing, but it is what it is and it works. My only reservation about ‘Ghostman’ is that you have to allow a few holes to be filled, where your imagination is stretched to its limits. That being said this was very entertaining and what made me include this is the sheer thrill of the opening. It was enough for me to want to read his next offering. Hobbs is an ‘in yer face’ writer, as my father used to say. Rousing.
8 The Magpies – Mark Edwards
I like to be scared, in my own time, in my own space, as long as I’m in control. This book is what used to be referred to as a ‘chiller’ and it did actually scare me.
I thought I’d start with that observation because if it didn’t scare me then the book would have failed by not doing what it says on the tin. However, it’s an excellent psychological thriller with all the necessary twists and turns. Although some might argue that the plot has been done before, what makes this such an engaging and rewarding read is the detail that is put into characterisation. Edwards allows the characters to breathe, thereby allowing you to care about them and their jeopardy. He also paints a familiar picture of suburbia, which heightens the ‘this could happen to you’ fear factor. The build up from nuisance to sheer terror is skilfully woven.
I know some will shout loud that victims Jamie and Kirsty should have upped ships and moved at the first sign of a dead rat… but where would the fun be in that? I got the same chill from this as a good horror film, and that’s exactly what I wanted. Creepy.
9 Water-Blue Eyes – Domingo Villar
This is not a new release, but it’s new to me and came by way of recommendation. Very different in style to say ‘The Necessary Death…’, very different indeed, but then that’s what keeps me loving this genre.
The novel is set in the town of Vigo in north-west Spain. I’m lucky enough to have visited so perhaps I felt especially at ease with the locations. There is something quite British in terms of its terrain, with this being the only part of Spain which has a large amount of rainfall. I likened it to parts of Devon and Cornwall, with the society Villar describes not being dissimilar from some of the smaller fishing villages of our own South West. The setting is important too because the story throws together the rather languid local cop Caldas with a fat city rat in the shape of Estavez.
A body has been found and they are teamed up to investigate. It’s the relationship between these two, with their vastly different backgrounds and mores which make for such an enjoyable read.
Despite the usual grizzly bits there is a lightness of touch throughout. It’s a beautifully constructed novel which reeks of atmosphere, so much so that you can almost smell the Spanish tapas. Great plot, vivid characters and another in my top ten this year that isn’t scared of a touch of crime fiction humour. Rewarding.
10 Hunting Shadows – Sheila Bugler
Another impressive debut, and a police procedural with heart. DI Ellen Kelly has her own past to overcome which becomes interwoven with the story of a missing girl. There are some very lucid settings both in urban London and the wilds of the Kent coast, but it’s Kelly’s character which really made this book for me. She is multi-dimensional and whether she’s acting out the role of widow, mother or top rank cop she does so with credibility.
The story is given time to develop and in doing so the author allows space for some in-depth character analysis. Some may argue that the ending was predictable but for me it only reinforced the believability of the plot. Some writers get seduced by the unexpected final plot twist, only to ‘lose the plot’ themselves. Sheila Bugler skilfully avoids this trap. Gritty.
Well folks, that’s my list, and though I appreciate that the selections won’t be to everyone’s taste, I can’t imagine than many would be disappointed by reading any one of these wonderfully constructed novels.
They are all quite different in their own way and the reason that these, and not a few other contenders made it, is purely down to what I describe as that ‘stay with me’ factor.
Only when I finished this compilation did it dawn on me that a few of these novels arrived on the scene via ‘independent’ routes. For example, Mark Edward’s ‘The Magpies’ and Anya Lipska’s ‘Where The Devil Can’t Go’ both started out as directly published works via Amazon, which were later picked up by Thomas &Mercer and Harper Collins respectively. I’m not sure about TJ Cooke’s ‘Defending Elton’, if it hasn’t yet been picked up it surely soon will be.
I wonder if times are a changing in the publishing world with new avenues opening up? The old model of submission of writer to agent, and agent to publisher, seems to have a new version, with writers now able to bring their work to public attention first and then attract representation. It is certainly no bad thing, giving writers a little more opportunity and readers a better chance of finding nuggets such as these.
Finally for now, I have a few ‘bubbling under’ contenders for the list which I’ll come back to in a future post. I’d also love to hear from anyone with their own recommendations. My TBR pile might be growing!