Books of the Year
2014 has been the year of revivals and reprints, including three unmissable enterprises. Penguin Classics has embarked on the long process of publishing one of Simenon’s Maigret novels every month. There are seventy-five of these short, sharp, original mysteries. Freshly translated, they will be a treat for a new generation of readers. Virago is republishing Patricia Highsmith’s fascinating, chilly, taboo-breaking novels. She is truly one of the greats, with a talent for terrifying and an original take on conventional morality. Finally, the British Library’s new editions of mysteries by long-forgotten authors are beautifully produced and often interesting, though some, I think, did deserve to die in obscurity.
This has also been a year when the incomes of all except a few ultra-successful writers dropped. This is not to suggest that writers are writing less. The year-on-year increase in the numbers of published crime novels continues, even without including self-published and electronic-only books. With time to read and space to review only a tiny proportion of those I receive, I probably miss some treasures. But of those I did read, several were outstandingly good.
My favourites this year were:
The Strangler Vine (Penguin 352pp £8.99) by M J Carter, an adventure-mystery set in the East India Company’s India.
A Guide for the Perplexed (W W Norton 368pp £8.99) by Dara Horn, a highly original philosophical thriller concerning Egyptology, Judaism, computing and family rivalry.
The Ghost Runner (Bloomsbury 432pp £11.99) by Parker Bilal, a gripping mystery set in the Egypt tourists don’t see, where women are still considered property and the rule of law is a distant fantasy.
The Silkworm (Sphere 464pp £20) by Robert Galbraith – J K Rowling pseudonymously demonstrating again that what she writes few readers can put down; I certainly couldn’t.
After six excellent crime novels set in East Anglia, featuring a forensic archaeologist called Ruth Galloway, it is all change for Elly Griffiths. She has moved backwards in time to 1950, when life in Britain was still quite as austere as it had been during the war. Most of the characters in this book had served together as part of a secret unit called ‘the Magic Men’. One of them, Max Mephisto, is still a famous conjuror; another, Edgar, has become a detective inspector. They meet again when the body of a girl is found, cut into three parts, a gruesome re-enactment of a stage trick. The historical detail is very well done, right down to the dated first names. Like Agatha Christie, and indeed like me, Elly Griffiths is a crime writer married to an archaeologist. This period piece may represent her breaking out from contemporary realism. Although I miss the archaeological connection, I have to say that The Zig-Zag Girl is an extremely well-written and well-researched novel.
Set in the same period as The Zig-Zag Girl, this thriller gives a very different picture of the postwar world. Alex Maier, a successful writer who has been a victim of McCarthyism, returns to Berlin; as a Jew, he had fled before the war. The CIA use the promise of exoneration to bribe Alex into spying for them in his former home town. The city is divided into zones, though the wall has not yet been built. Alex knows that both his parents perished in a concentration camp but he finds a few of his prewar friends and gets involved with the production of a new play by Bertolt Brecht, another returned exile, in the Russian zone of the ruined city. Alex finds in himself a previously unexploited talent for deception, improvisation and impromptu action as he juggles his responsibilities. He has to save an old friend, help his first love and, for his young son’s sake, keep himself alive. How he does it makes for an exciting and well-crafted story.
Among the indigenous Sami people of Lapland, ‘men are ruled by the law of the pasture. The reindeer followed the pasture and the herder followed the reindeer.’ This novel also follows the reindeer, the reindeer police and some of the people who live in the inhuman, inhospitable tundra. A young local man and a young woman from the south of Norway are put together as partners in the reindeer police. Their initial task concerns a stolen drum, used by Sami shamans and of great value to the Sami people. When murder ensues, the Sami policeman is afraid of putting a foot wrong, while his self-confident partner plunges in where locals fear to tread. The interesting, satisfactory plot is good, but better is the fascinating detail, mentioned when relevant, about Sami life and the modern world’s effect on it. Parts of Forty Days without Shadow are truly memorable. The account of seeing the first gleam of sunshine after forty days of total darkness will stay with me long after I have forgotten the story.
A villa in the south of France and a long, hot summer of swimming, sunbathing, delicious meals and a good supply of the local wine: so far, so typical of the English middle classes on holiday – until, one day, everything goes wrong. Isabelle, who is in her late teens, disappears. Her parents, Claud and Christiane, are helpless. The police search and find the body of a young girl. Mercifully it’s not Isabelle. The family stays on in their beloved holiday house, Christiane even continues her work on the diary of an 18th-century bishop of Narbonne, of which Waugh has created a convincing pastiche. But now there’s no pleasure in the warm French summer. It has become something to be endured, as the tragedy all parents dread is played out before our eyes. Teresa Waugh, who seems to know her setting intimately and clearly sympathises and empathises with all her characters, has produced a most intriguing, low-key mystery.
Dr Kay Scarpetta, the heroine and narrator of this long-running series, has been elevated to the position of chief medical examiner and is married to a senior figure in the FBI, but she’s still curiously prone to leaping into a friendly cop’s car and going off with him to share in routine police work. This episode begins with Scarpetta and her husband getting ready to go on holiday. We all know that’s never going to happen. Inevitably and predictably, she is called in to work and so is he. Well over halfway through the book and many hours of interviewing and driving later, it suddenly appears that Scarpetta’s old enemy, a brilliant female criminal not previously present in this episode, has escaped from jail and is hovering dangerously, revengefully, and invisibly. I have not read the whole of this series, so found several allusions incomprehensible; no doubt the action will seem more plausible to long-term followers than it did to me.
Runaway is an unusual crime novel, one that might appeal more to older readers. In it we follow five teenage amateur musicians, who in 1965 ran away from their parents and their Glasgow homes to London, where, in their dreams, their band was going to make them rich and famous. Chapters alternate between these boys and their experiences in London, which were disappointing and even traumatic, and the three survivors as old men, back in Scotland, now under the control of the next generation and no more free than they had been as teenagers. When these oldies hear of a murder case in London that concerns them, they have to escape as surreptitiously as they did decades earlier, in order to return to the capital to finish off the story started so long before. The book is beautifully written, funny and poignant, and very different from any I have previously read by the versatile Peter May.