My Crime Novels of the Year
The Translator by Harriet Crawley (Bitter Lemon Press). An elegant account of spying in modern Russia, featuring Foreign Office translator Clive Franklin and Marina Volina, a friend of his from years ago.
The End of the Game by Holly Watt (Raven). Investigative journalist Casey Benedict worries about the ethics of her job and the damage her revelations may do to those she targets, which gives extra weight to this tale about the crimes involved in gambling and the money some companies make from them.
The Last Dance by Mark Billingham (Sphere). An entertaining police procedural featuring a new investigator, DS Declan Millar. Billingham may have made him as miserable as his predecessor DI Tom Thorne but he provides a lot more jokes this time to lighten the novel.
Deep Dark Blue by Seraina Kobler (Pushkin Press). Set in Zurich and full of delectable descriptions of food, this police procedural features maritime officer Rosa Zambrano and deals with the possibilities and dangers of genetic manipulation.
The Scarlet Papers by Matthew Richardson (Michael Joseph). A magnificent spy novel, covering much of the Cold War and centred on the experiences of a woman who rose to become one of the most senior officers in MI6.
All of Us are Broken by Fiona Cummins (Macmillan). An intelligent, different and moving novel about the causes and effects of brutality, All of Us are Broken provides ravishing glimpses of the natural world as a mother drives her two children north and has the wretched luck to encounter a pair of psychopathic killers.
Between the Lies by Louise Tickle (Cinto). A thoughtful and well-informed novel about family dysfunction and domestic abuse with a heartrending subplot.
Once again, Paul Cleave has created a small-town community with an inordinate number of disturbed and criminal inhabitants. This time the setting is Acacia Pines, USA. Unhappy schoolboy Lucas is imprisoned by bullies, only to be rescued by a violent, paedophilic janitor and taken to a disused factory. Subjected to a terrifying ordeal, Lucas manages to escape for a while, during which time we learn about his own serious mental difficulties. Revelations keep coming as Lucas’s alcoholic crime-writer father tries to do right by him. The local law enforcement officer, Sheriff Cohen, balances a tough private life with a determination to find the bad guys and achieve justice – for some. The narrative is shared between Cohen and Lucas, allowing our sympathies to swing one way and then the other, and the final twist is clever.
This revenge thriller by a criminal solicitor features bluff after bluff. It centres on the case of a woman who either jumped or was pushed off the roof of an office building in the City. We meet Tate Kinsella, an out-of-work actor and temporary secretary, as she is being arrested for the woman’s murder and follow her through police interviews, supported by duty solicitor Sarah, and her subsequent release on bail. Unsurprisingly, the scenes in the police station, Sarah’s explanations of the law and the various witness statements all carry conviction. The backstories of the main characters are credible and arouse enough rage – almost – to justify what follows. For my taste, however, the means by which the victims exact revenge for their sufferings are so over the top, dishonest and manipulative that they not only dilute the effects of what happened to them but also could feed misogynist fantasies about women.
Germaine Greer famously said she thought women have very little idea how much men hate them. One of the Good Guys is a demonstration of just how much some women hate men, what they want to do about it and how society views those who do take action. The vehicle for this exploration of female rage is Mel, whose marriage to Cole has broken up. They met on a dating site in their thirties, married, but could not have a child, so paid for three rounds of IVF. The marriage did not survive the stress. Mel has remained in London, where she owns and runs a successful PR business, while Cole has moved to the south coast to take up a job as a coastal warden and try to find happiness. It is clear that he is self-absorbed and creepy, at the very least. On the cliff one day he has a peculiar encounter with two aggressive young women on a fundraising walk. When they disappear, he becomes a suspect. The story is separated into three parts, the first told from Cole’s perspective, the second from his ex-wife’s and the third from that of an artist with whom he embarks on a relationship. Dropped into these sections are tweets, articles and transcripts of podcasts that offer other people’s comments on events. Most readers will find their own prejudices reflected somewhere in all this. The novel is neatly plotted, but the characters’ tendency to generalise on the basis of their own unhappy experiences and to inflict on innocent people the punishments they never managed to impose on their original tormentors is deeply depressing.
This interesting second novel is set in the same Peckham house in three different periods: 1843, 1994 and 2008. Horatio had every modern facility put in the house at the start of its existence, including a luxurious water closet, but nothing could save the lives of his wife and one of their servants, who died there in mysterious circumstances. His father-in-law blamed him for the deaths, as did most other people. By the late 20th century, the once-grand house has become run down and dilapidated and is half locked up. It is inhabited by the elderly owner, Diana, and three unhappy lodgers crammed into the top floor. Fourteen years after that, journalist Maxine and her financial-trader boyfriend have bought it and moved in. Depressed by the cold, the extent of the renovations they will have to carry out and the enormous costs, they are also keeping secrets. There are deaths in all three periods, along with manipulation, misunderstanding and great misery. There are no big cliffhangers here, but the slow development of suspicion and revealing of information are well handled and Maxine is an endearing character.
Helen Fitzgerald’s first-person narrator in this mixture of farce, tragedy and social commentary is 23-year-old Lou O’Dowd. She is a chaotic, sexually incontinent, drinking, drug-taking liar, yet she is irresistible and very funny. Moving from Australia, where she had a transactional relationship with a much older married man, she takes a job as a night warden in a halfway house in Edinburgh, in sole charge of recently released, highly dangerous male criminals. Some of the members of staff are reliable and conscientious; others are not. One of the residents is an elderly sex offender; another, much younger, has served a life sentence for murder. Lou wants to know whether he really is guilty. There is no detection but the set-up is fascinating, the narrative is both fast-moving and convincing, and the events Lou has to face are highly dramatic.
Ex-CIA analyst and management consultant David McCloskey has followed his striking Middle East-set first novel, Damascus Station, with an account of a deviously complicated plot to destabilise Putin’s Russia through interference with his banking arrangements. The conspiracy involves CIA officer Artemis Proctor, London-based money-laundering lawyer Sia Fox, Mexican horse-breeder Maximiliano Castillo and Anna Andreevna Agapova, whose father’s assets are being systematically stolen by the Russian state. This is a more effortful novel than the first, both in structure and in writing, but it is worth persevering for the cleverness of the interlocking plots and the horrific portrait of life in Russia. A description of the planned exfiltration of some of the characters over the Finnish border is particularly good.
Chris Hammer is creating a magnificent portrait of modern Australia through his stories of crimes committed in different parts of the country among different tranches of society. This time he turns his focus to the nation’s water barons. He presents a group of families, known as the Seven, who created a highly profitable irrigation business in the invented town of Yuwonderie more than a century ago. Today, the same families still rule the roost and rake in the money. The story switches between the present, the 1990s and the First World War. Detective Sergeant Ivan Lucic and Detective Constable Nell Buchanan, who have featured in earlier novels in the series, become involved when the mutilated body of an accountant is found in the main canal. Their investigation slowly peels back layers of obfuscation and deception. The story of the investigation is interspersed with episodes set in 1993 focusing on research into the origins of the irrigation business carried out by a descendant of one of the Seven families, and the heartbreaking tale of mixed-race Bessie, whose lover is killed in the war. The characters are terrific and a delightful small part is played by a young man known as Eggs because his name is Benedict.
Once again, the two DI Wilkins of the Oxford police cooperate in search of a killer, this time of a drug-addicted socialite found in her crashed Rolls-Royce Phantom. Ray Wilkins is suave, black, well educated and married, while his counterpart, Ryan, is poor, white, badly schooled, with a massive chip on his shoulder and an inability to present himself well, whether dealing with superiors or talking to the media at press conferences. This time round, Ryan leads the investigation and crashes about in both his private and his professional lives, trampling on sensibilities wherever he goes. But he gets it right in the end, exposing injustice, the agonies of life on the streets and the traumas of fatherhood. He is an original and unexpectedly attractive character.