Books of the Year
My choice of the year’s best is unscientific and personal, because I haven’t read all the crime fiction I was sent – there is far too much of it. Nonetheless, I have the impression that slightly fewer crime novels are being conventionally published and that many, many more are being electronically self-published. The enthusiasm for period reprints shows no sign of abating, nor does the fashion for continuing popular series and characters, such as Jill Paton Walsh’s Lord Peter Wimsey, Mike Ripley’s revivification of Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion or the endless takes on Sherlock Holmes. Crime fiction has countless subgroups, as my 2015 favourites show.My favourites this year were:
Into the Fire (Bantam 480pp £14.99) by Manda Scott, a clever combination of contemporary anxieties and the story of Joan of Arc.
Pleasantville (Serpent’s Tail 432pp £14.99) by Attica Locke, an exciting and instructive portrait of African-Americans in Texas in the Clinton era. It’s a good mystery too.
The Savage Hour (Quercus Books 384pp £16.99) by Elaine Proctor. Set on a South African farm, this is as much a meditation on love, life and death as a crime novel; but however it’s categorised, it’s an excellent read.
Tenacity (Headline 400pp £13.99) by J S Law. This first novel gives a fascinating account of the life and problems of a female officer on board a nuclear submarine. I found it impressive and memorable.
Close Your Eyes (Sphere 400pp £19.99) by Michael Robotham. Clinical psychologist Joe O’Loughlin appears in another subtle and exciting mystery by one of today’s best crime writers.
Charles McCarry is an ex-CIA agent who, we are told, served his country by working under deep cover on three continents. In an earlier series of books, which are among the best spy novels ever published, he provided a kind of history of America’s secret services. Now, in The Mulberry Bush, the implicit criticisms of the system have become less guarded. It tells the story of a lifetime devoted to revenge. The nameless narrator informs us that he ‘became a spy because my father before me was a spy’. But his father’s career came to a premature end and he died, penniless and friendless, on the streets of Washington. The son vows revenge. He finds himself in Buenos Aires, where he meets a group of communist revolutionaries and falls in love with one of them. The action is very complicated, shifting between countries and continents, with the narrator always fixated on his own secret plans. The story is fascinating, horrifying and, one must suppose, plausible. It is also a very good read.
During her career as a journalist, Fiona Barton interviewed many people who were suddenly in the public eye as victims, or, more usually, perpetrators of dreadful crimes – all those ordinary people who wake up one morning to find themselves under siege by reporters and photographers, suddenly famous. She has wondered, as everyone must, what happens when the suspect and his wife (it’s very rarely a suspect and her husband) are alone together behind the barricaded front door. How does she deal with the idea that her husband might be a monster? Barton has used this question as the basis for her first novel. She describes the characters and their quandaries with sensitivity and insight. Among them are a police officer desperate to nail the abductor of two-year-old Bella, the suspect’s wife, the journalist who gets her talking and others involved in this sad affair. This is a cleverly conceived, interesting novel – a good start.
Viral is not a thriller or a mystery or even much of a crime novel, but rather an absorbing story based on technology introduced more quickly than society can cope with it. Social life becomes unregulated, with nobody to make rules or enforce them. It is a new world that leaves Sheriff Ruth Oliphant-Brotheridge, a Scottish judge, baffled but furious. What can she do when she is shown a video that has gone viral in which her adopted daughter Su Jin is seen in a Magaluf bar performing oral sex on a dozen men? Su Jin hides, her sister Leah seeks. Each in turn moves between Mallorca and Glasgow, variously hunting, evading, finding, repenting and resenting. Su Jin takes a quick trip to Korea to confront her birth mother. Meanwhile, her adoptive mother loses all sense of judicial discretion in her determination to get justice for Su Jin. The mother and her two daughters seem very real and so do the situation and setting – a dispatch from the front line of contemporary life to enlighten the pre-social-media generation.
There are so many novels, and series of novels, featuring as the heroine a young woman police officer that it is sometimes hard to tell them apart. (What a change from the days when an editor could remark that my new book was too feminist for his liking simply because it had a heroine doing what heroes did.) The temptation for a reviewer drowning in books is to lump them all together, and it is in fact inevitable that such stock figures as the overbearing superintendent, the sexist sergeant and the reassuring members of the support team are easily confusable in the self-renewing saga of police procedurals. Of course, the reason there are so many is that they are popular, and some certainly deserve to be, among them Jane Casey’s series featuring Maeve Kerrigan. She is an excellent character, vividly imagined and brought to life. In this instalment, she is part of a team investigating a deadly fire in a tower block and a murder committed under cover of the fire. Cleverly plotted and clearly told, this book is an excellent example of its kind.
Dr Kay Scarpetta is Patricia Cornwell’s recurring heroine. Rather unusually, there is also a recurring villain, a shadowy figure called Carrie who repeatedly seems to have been vanquished and killed, but is always seemingly resurrected to fight another day. Her weapons are the very latest technology and her enemies are Scarpetta and her niece, Lucy. In this episode Lucy’s battery of cutting-edge electronics proves to be inadequate protection against even more sophisticated gadgets, as Carrie does what in any other era would have seemed to be waving a magic wand. These books are so successful that they won’t be affected by anything I say, which means I’m free to call this episode, and actually this series, quite boring.
In this novel, Peter May turns to that trusty crime-fiction mechanism, the lost memory. A man stands on a beach in the Hebrides, unable to remember who he is; in Edinburgh at the same time, a teenage girl embarks on a desperate attempt to discover the truth about her scientist father’s suicide; and a police detective is charged with finding out how and why a badly beaten body has been found on an isolated rock twenty miles out in the Atlantic. These disparate threads are woven together in a thriller that is both atmospheric and instructive. May is a writer with an agenda, hardly disguised. But it could well be that messages about threats to the future of our planet are best delivered by means of fiction.
Earlier this year I went to an exhibition in Falmouth called ‘A Question of Guilt’. It consisted of a whodunit devised by Frances Fyfield. On show were pictures from Fyfield’s own collection of 20th-century portraits. Some subjects looked like thieves, charlatans, detectives or murderesses. Each painting told a story and each character featured had a role in the gallery’s own murder mystery. A similar exhibition features in Fyfield’s new novel, in which she discusses works of art and the effect they have on those who see them, the crimes committed for their sake and their usefulness in teaching their viewers how to live. It is a shortish book with endearing characters and fascinating arguments, to all of which the mildly criminal plot is definitely subordinate. I enjoyed it very much.