After five years of writing this column, I have come to realise that my own ‘books of the year’ never overlap with those on prize shortlists, so I hope that my choice of this year’s favourites does not administer the kiss of death. They are:
Lily of the Field by John Lawton (Grove/Atlantic 400pp £16.99), the latest episode in a vivid, haunting series set in Britain in the mid-twentieth century.
Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective (Sandstone Press 320pp £17.99), a first novel, and Peter May’s The Blackhouse (Quercus 432pp £12.99) are both excellent mysteries, but also vivid, fascinating and unflattering portraits of life in the Scottish islands.
The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton by Elizabeth Speller (Virago 480pp £16.99) is a beautifully written, leisurely analysis of loss, sorrow and the influence of a numinous place.
What an example P D James sets! At the age of ninety-one she is still writing, still trying new things – this time, a historical novel – and still keeping up such a high standard that there is not the slightest need to make allowances (as there was, for example, for the ageing Agatha Christie’s final works). Death Comes to Pemberley is an excellent read. In this sequel to Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth and Darcy are blissfully happy, with two sons in the nursery and the beloved Bingleys in the neighbouring estate. Lydia is on her way to gatecrash the annual Pemberley ball when a dead body is found in the woods and Lydia’s husband, Mr Wickham, is arrested. There is no attempt here to write any kind of pastiche. James’s prose has been variously praised and reviled, described by reviewers as graceful, polite and felicitous, or lumbering and bland. Whatever the reader’s opinion, it will be fortified by this book, for it is true to the author’s characteristic voice, without any attempt at Austen-style wit in the narrative or Elizabeth Bennet-type humour in the dialogue. But James allows herself some liberties that Austen never took – for example, she has no inhibitions about writing scenes between men without a woman present, or about moving from the ‘little piece of ivory, two inches square’ to describing public events. So most of the story is told from Darcy’s point of view, rather than Elizabeth’s, and it follows an Old Bailey trial word for word and an execution blow by blow: pastiche, it isn’t.
There is more talking and emoting in this novel than doing. Its principal theme is the nature of parenthood and we are presented with various versions of it: women who can’t conceive, or who won’t look after their own children, or who hide them from the father; older women who love or hate their grown-up children; fathers who support or ruin them; and surrogates, sisters, and supportive spouses. There are deaths but they were, or could have been, natural or accidental. It is one of these that the recently widowed Inspector Lynley is sent to the Lake District to investigate, after a bizarrely confidential meeting with the Assistant Commissioner, who tells him that this expedition must be both unofficial and secret. This inexplicable injunction means that Lynley cannot confide in his own line manager, who happens to be his current mistress. His usual gang of friends, colleagues and supporters turn up too, each with a different agenda, and they all get embroiled in the affairs of the extended Fairclough family. Elizabeth George is widely popular and her fans will enjoy every word of the book’s 563 closely printed pages. Others, I think, are likely to find the story unlikely and too long.
Archaeologists no longer refer to post-Roman Britain as ‘the dark age’, and having spent my life with one of the scholars who has thrown light onto those obscure centuries, I am not surprised by the unchivalrous world Anthony Hays envisages. In a land ravaged by endless wars, a leader glamorised by posterity as the heroic ‘King Arthur’ presides over a savage and threatened society. But this is not yet another reworking of the ‘once and future king’ myth. Instead, it’s an enjoyable, conventional whodunit set in an uncomfortable Camelot. A woman is murdered, Merlin is the chief suspect, and a maimed ex-warrior turns detective for the first time. A series is promised.
Ava Lee is a Chinese Canadian with a useful network of ‘uncles’ and other relatives spread across the globe. Ava is tiny (though with big breasts), pretty and dangerously skilled in obscure martial arts. She is also very rich, a lesbian and a lapsed Catholic. But this is no updated Modesty Blaise, for it’s hard to believe in a thriller heroine who is – of all things – a forensic accountant, and equally hard to care about an adventure concerning the payment for a shipment of frozen fish. Of course, Ava’s financial training comes in very handy for following the money, but in the end that’s all she’s doing – tracking down a crooked fish importer who cheated his partner out of his share of the profit. The story is quite instructive and backed up by lots of well-researched detail, so readers will learn more about frozen shellfish than they could ever have wanted to know; I learned more than I will ever really understand about shifting vast sums of money between continents and laundering it on the way.
A trendy London family flees to the country after their schoolboy son is mugged in the street. They buy an apparently ideal home in a village in Cornwall, somewhere near St Mawes – as it happens, quite near where I live myself. I had difficulty suspending disbelief as Brodmaw Bay is described. It is unspoilt, idyllic, a survival from the days before chain stores, takeaways and mass tourism: as if! This down-to-earth London family soon finds itself embroiled in a lethally dangerous world of myth, legend and the supernatural. This down-to-earth reviewer found their story well written but unpersuasive.
The eighth episode in the prizewinning Bernie Gunther series jumps backwards from the postwar years of the preceding two volumes and takes the policeman-narrator to Berlin in 1941, with its permanent atmosphere of terror and tyranny, as well as food shortages and air raids. Gunther has returned from the Eastern Front, where he has seen and been involved in the massacre of innocents. He is haunted by guilt and remorse. When he is summoned to Prague by his old boss Heydrich, Gunther realises that all the officials he meets know exactly what is happening in the East. It would not be surprising if the knowledge drove them to suicide, but when an officer is found shot dead in a locked room it quickly becomes obvious that it was murder. Gripping though Philip Kerr’s writing always is, this isn’t one of his most successful books. It’s just too melancholy, too full of hideous cruelty, too overshadowed by what we all know.