My crime novels of the year
Good Girl, Bad Girl by Michael Robotham (Sphere). An account of the developing professional relationship between a psychologist and a violent young woman, who has been discovered emaciated and filthy behind a false wall. It is an extraordinary exploration of emotional damage, full of humour and humanity.
Worst Case Scenario by Helen FitzGerald (Orenda Books). A social worker deals with Glasgow’s worst thugs while also struggling with symptoms of the menopause in this funny, agonising account of one woman’s battle with rage, fear, duty, guilt and disaster.
The Whisper Man by Alex North (Michael Joseph). A painful and moving novel. Ostensibly about the abduction and murder of children, it is also an exploration of fatherhood and its challenges and rewards.
The Poison Garden by Alex Marwood (Sphere). The few survivors of an apparent mass suicide by members of a cult attempt to live in the outside world. Funny as well as dark, this is one of the cleverest and most chilling thrillers of the year.
The Other Americans by Laila Lalami (Bloomsbury). In gentle and stylish prose, Lalami explores the ramifications of a hit-and-run accident outside the victim’s diner in the Mojave Desert, producing a most impressive novel.
The Border by Don Winslow (HarperCollins). With The Border, Winslow brings to a conclusion his monumental trilogy about Mexican drug cartels and their links with the USA.
Set on a tiny fictional island in the Hebrides, Our Fathers deals with the fallout from a terrible domestic murder. John killed his wife, baby daughter and one of his two sons. The surviving son returns to the island as an adult to stay with his widowed uncle, without giving any explanation for his arrival. Rebecca Wait’s perceptive, generous exploration of their trauma and the experiences of the few neighbours provides a series of revelations about what happened, why it happened and how human beings can become trapped in the stories they tell themselves to make sense of tragedy.
The fashion for serial-killer novels is long over but some people still enjoy reading – and writing – them. Deborah Masson’s first novel deals with a series of bodies discovered in and around Aberdeen with their tongues cut out. The lead investigator is DI Eve Hunter, back in the force after suffering a beating by criminals, who also put a fellow officer in a wheelchair for life. Some of Eve’s colleagues blame her for what happened. She has a tough genetic inheritance to deal with and sessions with a well-meaning therapist who has no idea how much she is keeping back. Masson gives more graphic descriptions of cruelty than some readers will care for and the writing does not fly, but the plot hangs together and Eve’s struggles arouse sympathy.
Chris Hammer, who was awarded the John Creasey Dagger by the UK Crime Writers’ Association for his first novel, Scrublands, takes up the story of two of the characters from that book in Silver. A journalist named Martin Scarsden arrives in Port Silver, where he grew up, to begin a new life with Mandy and her young son, only to find the body of an old friend lying in front of the traumatised Mandy, who is covered in his blood. Martin’s attempts to make sense of what has happened and fill in the holes in the local police force’s investigation lead him back to his own harsh childhood.
Hammer has a wide range of skills. He re-creates the great variety of Australian landscapes and cultures, relates the adventures of Martin and his boyhood friends with keen insight and keeps up the pace of the story throughout the five-hundred-plus pages of the novel. Few of his characters are all bad or all good and their humanity is easy to understand. He is a great new addition to the world of crime writing.
Set in a bleak village on the northwest coast of Scotland, When the Dead Come Calling deals with ancient primitive fears and some very modern problems. A violent farmer terrorises his son; the mixed-race DI Georgie Strachan comes in for a fair amount of racist abuse, as does charming Pamali, who runs the village SPAR; a gay psychotherapist, Alexis, is murdered in a cliff-top playground. Complicating Georgie’s professional life is the presence of Alexis’s partner in the force. The fact that the troubled son of the bullying farmer is interning at the police station doesn’t help much either. The dense narrative moves back and forth, incorporating horrors from the past and fears and resentments from the present. The final twist works well and adds an extra layer to the story that is both surprising and moving.
For anyone who enjoys a murder story with neither gore nor realism, Murder Your Darlings will offer much diversion. Set in an Umbrian villa during a creative-writing holiday, it sees the most disliked participant in the group murdered in the sauna. All the ingredients of cosy crime writing are here: a beautiful setting and a group of suspects who all had reason to dislike the victim. The local police arrive to interview them and request the help of Francis, the tutor, who is a crime novelist. Mark McCrum has much amusement at the expense of bad writers who take this kind of holiday, but he also allows them some sympathy. Describing one of the suspects, whose repeated references to her treacherous husband’s behaviour have become tedious to everyone, he writes of ‘the ancient vinyl of her pain, to be replayed over and over until even she was bored with the story and eventually it was just scratch and hiss’.
Set partly in Los Angeles in the 1990s and partly in the present, this is a novel about racism, revenge and resentment, but also about the power of human beings to make a difference to their own lives and the lives of those around them. Against a backdrop of public rage at the shooting of an unarmed black youth by a white police officer, two families are pitted against each other when Jung-Ja Han, a tiny, frightened Korean woman, kills a young African-American girl she believes is robbing her. Nearly thirty years later, neither family has been able to forget, and circumstances bring them together again. Questions of responsibility and guilt are intensified by the unintended consequences of actions taken by everyone involved. This is a carefully structured, thoughtful novel, peopled with characters who convince in all their muddled struggles to put things right, only to cause yet more trouble.
High-flying Naomi is married to self-employed Charlie and is desperate to have a second child. Charlie is depressed and, in spite of dutifully monitoring her fertility and lots of timely sex, month follows month without Naomi falling pregnant. Charlie is driving Naomi nuts and she is seething with resentment over his loss of the money she lent his business, which meant that they had to move into a wreck of a house instead of the beautiful one she wanted. Builders are all around, pigeons fill the loft and their two-year-old daughter, Prue, has to be watched all the time in case she falls through a rotten floorboard. There are strange creaking sounds throughout the house and odd objects appear without explanation. Into Naomi’s angry, unhappy life comes handsome Sean and high drama ensues. Clever, perceptive and told from many different points of view, this novel explores obsession, marital discord, despair and frustration, while at the same time being a page-turning domestic thriller of the best kind. The final twist chills.
Sophie Hannah’s novels deal with women whose anxieties or suspicions are disdained by all those around them, only to be proved justified in the end. In Haven’t They Grown, her main character, a massage therapist called Beth, has not seen her erstwhile best friend, Flora, for more than a decade. A coldness developed between them, which was followed by Flora’s departure for Florida with her husband and three children. Now Beth is convinced that she has seen Flora in England, in the company of two children who look exactly as the elder two did back then and share their names as well. Beth investigates, in the teeth of everyone else’s scepticism. Highly readable, this novel deals with a particularly vicious crime and has one very neat piece of misdirection.
After exploring the damage gossip can do in a small community in her first novel, The Rumour, Lesley Kara now turns to the trauma of alcoholism. Astrid, the first-person narrator, is living in a small seaside town with her mother and attending AA meetings every day. She knows that her mother sees this as her last chance for any kind of normal life, but there are many battles to be fought. The ever-present urge to drink is only one; others include her terror at the prospect of her neighbours discovering that she’s alcoholic. She is also fighting guilt over the death of her alcoholic partner, Simon, whose aftershave she keeps smelling wherever she goes, and over many of the appalling things she did when she was drunk. Then along comes the prospect of redemption in the form of a beautiful and fit young man, who may not be quite the saviour he seems. Full of suspense and insight, this is an engrossing novel.
Barry Forshaw has been reviewing and commenting on crime fiction for decades and knows most of the current practitioners, so he is ideally placed to compile this guide to the best of the genre. He has divided it into eighteen subcategories, which range from ‘The Golden Age’ to ‘Foreign Bloodshed’ via ‘Dark Psychology’ and ‘Crime and Society’. As he says in his introduction, many readers will miss their own particular favourites and perhaps quarrel with the homes he has found for others. Even so, this is a feast of a book, full of nourishment and spice. I have to declare an interest: Forshaw has written of my own novels with approval and perception. Browsing the chapters offers pleasure in itself, but it should also point readers to unfamiliar novelists they will enjoy. What more could anyone ask for?