In early November Robbie Millen, the literary editor of The Times, made an impassioned plea: ‘Stop publishing so many books.’ Some 200,000 new titles appeared last year, and that figure excludes the burgeoning piles of self-published work. ‘Too many mediocre books are appearing,’ Millen wrote. The next day The Times published a letter from the crime writer Simon Brett endorsing Millen’s remarks while stating, ‘like all authors I would add the caveat, “But keep publishing mine”.’
Brett is almost certainly safe, since crime writing is apparently the most popular fictional genre. All the same, Millen’s comments are very apt. Too many of the books I was sent this year proved to be dull, derivative and unconvincing – but luckily, not all. These were my favourite crime novels of 2017, three of them having the added appeal of unusual and interesting settings.
The Ice by Laline Paull (Fourth Estate) is set in the very near future, when the Arctic Sea ice has melted, opening up an untouched landscape to be enjoyed or exploited. This is an exciting, tense and beautifully written story.
The Dry by Jane Harper (Little, Brown) takes place in a small town in Australia’s outback. It is a clever mystery, but what stays in the reader’s mind is the place, its inhabitants and the atmospheric description of the effects of a dire drought. This remarkable first novel was deservedly awarded the Crime Writers’ Association’s Gold Dagger for the best crime story of the year.
Less Than a Treason by Dana Stabenow (Head of Zeus) is the latest in a long-running series featuring the Alaskan Aleut Kate Shugak as its heroine. While Stabenow’s plots are always neat and clever, it is the evocation of the northernmost US state and the way in which people adapt to its harsh environment that makes these books memorable.
I know that my taste for law court thrillers is not shared by all readers, but even those who do not enjoy them will be enthralled by Imran Mahmood’s first novel, You Don’t Know Me (Michael Joseph), though it casts a rather worrying light on the English legal system, of which we are still proud.
Jack Reacher prowls across America looking for wrongs to right. He travels very light, buying new clothes and chucking away the ones he has worn out. He is never frightened or at a loss and protects the poor and needy – a contemporary version of the knight in shining armour. To Lee Child’s many readers, Reacher is a mythic figure; his sayings and witticisms have even been collected in a non-fiction book. In this adventure, Reacher sees a West Point class ring, very small and obviously a woman’s, in a pawnshop window. As a former senior officer in the US military himself, he has a class ring of his own and knows that nobody would willingly part with such a treasure. So he sets out to find the ring’s original owner, a damsel in distress, and deals briskly and violently with anyone who gets in his way. At the end of the book, he sets off again to wherever chance may take him, hitching a lift in a carpenter’s truck.
Peter Lovesey’s crime novels, though set in the present, frequently include some historical element. ‘One of the side benefits of writing’, he has said, ‘is that you explore areas you knew little about and come to appreciate and understand them.’ In this book, the life and work of Beau Nash, the 18th-century dandy and fashion leader, form an integral part of the investigation when a wrecking ball crashes through the roof of a terraced cottage in Bath, revealing the remains of an unidentified human. The skeleton is dressed in 18th-century clothes and evidence builds up to suggest that it might be that of Nash himself. Is this a case for the police or not? Lovesey teases his readers and educates them too. This is a mystery story complete with clues and red herrings; it is also a crash course in 18th-century manners. All very enjoyable.
A character (nearly always a man) with locked-in syndrome – paralysed and speechless but with a fully functional brain – has appeared in numerous crime novels (including one of mine) in the years since medics gave a name to the phenomenon. But it is a difficult feat to produce a whole book written from the viewpoint of a sufferer. Alex, the narrator of this clever, competent first novel, was a skilled rock climber until he suffered a serious accident. Now he lies in a hospital bed, unable to make a single muscle move to show his family and doctors that he can hear and understand everything. His girlfriend has stayed loyal, but even she must soon move on. Then Alex begins to understand what happened to him. Did he fall or was he pushed? I do not know (and probably nobody really can) whether Alex’s well-imagined state is plausible in real life, but his predicament makes for a good story.
A CIA operative, happily married and the mother of four, is looking through a file of mug shots of Soviet ‘sleepers’: spies disguised as citizens, waiting, often for many years, to be activated. She clicks open one image and finds herself looking at her own husband. Later, back home, Vivian asks him, almost as a joke, how long he has been working for the Russians. She expects him to be confused and indignant. Instead he calmly replies, ‘Twenty-two years.’ Matt, it turns out, has betrayed her and her country, and Vivian ought to report her discovery and get an inquiry launched. Instead she keeps quiet and then has to live with her decision. The story unfolds logically, each event in turn seeming inevitable. It is all very dramatic and gripping. This is a tense and original thriller.
Salinger, the first-person narrator of this story, is an American documentary maker taking a year out in his wife Annelise’s home village, high up in the remotest part of the Italian Dolomites. He is supposed to be recovering (though he refuses to take his medication or do anything else the doctor orders) after the traumatic experience of going out with a mountain rescue team and finding himself the only survivor of a helicopter crash. Thirty years previously, in the same remote gorge where the helicopter crashed, three students, camping in the mountains, were hacked to death by a murderer who has never been identified. Salinger’s probings into the secrets of his wife’s community are accompanied by some fascinating descriptions of this little-known area. What would otherwise have been an excellent and interesting thriller was spoiled for me by Salinger and Annelise’s five-year-old daughter. She frequently chimes in with cute and clever comments, but they are not relevant to the investigation of a peculiarly brutal murder and there are far too many of them. However, this must be a minority opinion. The Mountain has already been a huge success elsewhere in Europe and is due to be translated into thirty languages.