My books of the year
Belinda Bauer’s Snap (Bantam), longlisted for the Booker Prize, is a funny, agonising account of what happens to three children in the aftermath of their mother’s kidnap on a motorway hard shoulder.
Mick Herron’s London Rules (John Murray), the precursor to The Drop (reviewed above), continues the adventures of the Slow Horses, the misfit MI5 officers who have screwed up and been banished to Slough House under the anarchic rule of Jackson Lamb. It’s so funny that you might easily miss the bleak pain of many of the characters involved.
Andrew Taylor’s The Fire Court (HarperCollins), set in the aftermath of the Great Fire, is the excellent sequel to the bestselling Ashes of London. In addition to a fascinating portrait of the 17th-century city, Taylor offers a father–son relationship that is as touching as it is convincing.
Henry Porter’s title character in Firefly (Quercus) is a thirteen-year-old Syrian asylum seeker, fleeing ISIS in the hope of making a life for his family in the West. This is an exciting and horrifying thriller about the two great international issues of the day: migration and extremism.
Khurrum Rahman’s first novel, East of Hounslow, was a funny but tragic introduction to the life of Jay Qasim, a small-time drug dealer in west London who becomes involved with British intelligence and whose throat is slit on the last page. Homegrown Hero opens with a prologue returning to that scene but then goes back two days to bring in another young Muslim, Imran Siddiqui. Like Jay and most of his friends, Imran is trying to balance loyalties to his religion and his family with Western life. In his case the greatest pull is the non-Muslim woman he loves and her child, for whom he would do practically anything. When a fatwa is issued against Jay, old hatreds are stirred up and loyalties are tested to destruction. There are fewer laughs in this second novel and it is even more disturbing than the first. Khurrum Rahman writes clean, persuasive prose, and he provides a welcome fresh voice in crime fiction.
V I Warshawski has been fighting her family’s assumption that she is available to sort out all their problems since her first appearance more than thirty years ago. In Shell Game she is more amenable than usual and interrupts her personal and professional lives to help Harmony Seale, a distressed niece of her ghastly ex-husband, lawyer Richard Yarborough. Seale is searching for her twin sister, who has disappeared from her Chicago apartment. At the same time, V I is required to help the nephew of a beloved friend. The young man has become a suspect in a murder case. Neither investigation is as simple as it seems and both involve many of V I’s familiar enemies: selfish, sexist big businessmen; the exploiters of the vulnerable; corrupt officials and law enforcers. Unlike so many contemporary heroines of crime fiction, V I is not a victim. She fights back. She puts things right. She is an aspirational figure and is never to be pitied. Exciting, enraging and ultimately reassuring, Shell Game is a great addition to a tremendous series.
Mick Herron’s innumerable fans, longing for the next instalment of the Slough House series featuring Jackson Lamb and his army of wounded, ungovernable, weirdly brilliant outcasts, will fall on this stylish novella with delight. Solomon Dortmund is an ageing and long-retired spy who thinks he’s witnessed a handover of secret documents in a popular Marylebone cafe. Solomon’s contact at the Park, MI5’s headquarters in Herron’s wittily imagined world of spooks, is John Bachelor. Bachelor’s reaction to the information not only makes him an ideal candidate to join Lamb’s team but also offers an irresistible temptation to benefit illegally from someone else’s disaster. A short but delightful treat for a dark winter’s evening.
One of the many mysteries of crime fiction publishing is why Louise Penny, who is hugely successful in Canada and the United States, has not yet achieved matching sales in this country. It may have something to do with the setting of her stories in Montreal, where snow is a major part of life. For readers in Britain – where the merest sprinkle is greeted with hysterical anxiety – winter tyres and drifts, whiteouts and power cuts may seem just too exotic. Penny is a civilised chronicler of the private and professional lives of Armand Gamache, erstwhile head of the Sûreté du Québec, now suspended from office. In this instalment, he becomes involved in a long-standing inheritance dispute, as well as the investigation of murder and fraud (in spite of his suspension). He also deals with a protégée who has committed an unforgivable offence and tries to track down a large cache of a fatal opioid that went missing during an earlier investigation. If the street dealers get hold of it, hundreds of addicts will die and Gamache will never forgive himself. He deals with his own fear by thinking of lists of his favourite things, which include croissants and his beloved wife. When he is trying to comfort a traumatised young man, he sings ‘Edelweiss’ to him. It may not merely be the snow that limits the number of British readers of this series. There is a gritty and interesting crime novel here, but it is smothered in a great billowing duvet of near-saintly decency.
To pick up one of Lee Child’s popular thrillers is to immerse yourself in the bleak, violent world of Jack Reacher. Once a major in the military police, Reacher has been retired for many years and prides himself on the simplicity of his life. He has no possessions and no home; he travels across the United States as the mood takes him; he fights bullying and cruelty wherever he finds them and then he moves on, without ever looking back. In this slice of his adventurous life, he is heading south to avoid the bleak New England winter when a whim sends him to Laconia (Child’s fictional towns are always named with intent), where his late father grew up. In a parallel narrative a fit and innocent couple of young Canadians find themselves near a dodgy motel outside Laconia when their car starts to falter. Clearly something awful is going to happen to them there. Child is expert at setting up mysteries and keeping you on edge for page after page. Here, Reacher’s heroic interventionism takes on an unusually personal quality as he finds that his own past is not quite what he has always believed. I like this chink in the previously impregnable carapace. The violence, clinically described, is interesting rather than disgusting, and the devious dealings of the motel owners add a macabre note to an effective piece of entertainment. Anyone setting out to write a thriller could do worse than look to this series to see how it should be done – and how not to waste a word.
Estate agent Jo has moved back to the seaside town where she grew up, to be closer to her divorced mother and to create a new – and safer – life for her mixed-race son, Alfie, who was being bullied at school in London. Jo still has a friends-with-benefits relationship with Alfie’s father, a journalist, but he has stayed in London. Finding her way into the new community, Jo joins a book group and tries to make friends with other mothers at the school gates. One of them says she’s heard a rumour that a notorious child killer is living among them. Sally McGowan killed a small boy, served her sentence and has been given a new identity and a new life. The description of the best-known photograph of her at the time of her trial makes her sound just like the real-life Mary Bell, and the parallels are clearly intentional. Jo finds herself repeating the rumour to gain social currency, both for herself and for Alfie, who is once again being bullied. Soon Jo (and the reader) suspects first one local woman and then another. Jo feels guilty about her part in spreading the rumour and inciting some of the harassment that falls on one particular woman. At the same time, Alfie’s father pursues the story for his own purposes. Lesley Kara is one of several impressive graduates of the Faber Academy, and this, her first novel, suggests she will have a good career. She avoids sentimentality and the ultimate revelation is both shocking and convincing.
Prefaced by Dorothy Parker’s comment that ‘beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes clean to the bone’, Liz Nugent’s latest novel is a study in selfishness. It opens with Delia O’Flaherty leaving a dead body in her Riviera flat to try her luck finding a rich saviour in the Negresco hotel. The narrative then flashes back to her childhood on a bleak island off the Atlantic coast of Ireland. She is the beautiful only daughter of Martin, a violent – and surprisingly gullible – fisherman and his unhappy American wife. She has three brothers and is her father’s favourite, the recipient of his folk wisdom and protected by him from anyone who doesn’t worship her as he does. Everything changes when he sends her to the mainland, just before a family tragedy. The novel follows her life. We see through her own eyes the long trail of victims she leaves behind as she moves from one place to another and one name to another. The first-person narrative is interspersed with some of Martin’s folk tales and with brief passages narrated from the point of view of one or other of her victims. It is not clear whether the author intends her portrait of Delia to reveal a child damaged by unsophisticated and violent parenting or born evil, as more than one of the characters claim. I was not altogether convinced by the psychology, not only of Delia and her father but also of several other characters, but the final scene provides satisfaction.