Barry Forshaw, author of Crime Fiction: A Reader’s Guide, Nordic Noir — and many other books on the genre — on the best of 2019…
Few would argue with fact that the writer Nicola Upson has established herself as one of the most accomplished of British crime novelists, marrying a sure storytelling grip to a non-pareil skill at evoking both period atmosphere and English locales. However, aficionados are well aware that her real coup lies in her canny utilisation of a classic English crime writer, Josephine Tey (of The Franchise Affair and The Daughter of Time fame) as the protagonist of her books. And, what’s more, doing full justice to her much-loved predecessor’s memory; it’s easy to feel that Tey herself would be delighted with these fictitious imaginings of her life an investigative figure. The first book in the series, An Expert in Murder, was acclaimed by no less a figure in the field than the late PD James (admittedly, a stablemate at the same publisher), and subsequent outings have maintained the quality of that book. The subject in 2019’s Sorry For the Dead is the legacy of war, with a provocative shift between two periods: a world about to be plunged into conflict, and the grim consequences of that war. In a farmhouse near a Sussex town in the summer of 1915, the death of a young girl has seismic consequences. Many years later, the writer Josephine Tey journeys to the house where the girl died with memories of the two women with whom she stayed as a teacher during the Great War. And — as so often in the best crime fiction — dark secrets from the past have dark consequences in the present. This latest book in Upson’s remarkably consistent series shows that her powers have not diminished an iota, and — as well as functioning as a superior mystery – Upson’s novel is adroit at chronicling the kind of troubled human emotions that are often only addressed in passing in the crime fiction genre. This series is proving to be one of the jewels of the current scene.
In a world in which absolute values become increasingly amorphous, it’s comforting to be able to say that some things are just the very best. Such as Michael Connelly, whose The Night Fire (Orion) is further proof of his undimmed creativity. Old and new Connelly protagonists interact here: Detective Harry Bosch is drawn from uneasy retirement and into another teaming-up with Renée Ballard of the LAPD when a stolen ‘murder book’ surfaces, detailing the death of an ex-con decades ago. Also reappearing is Connelly’s Mickey Haller, the ‘Lincoln Lawyer’. All three are soon obliged to tread painfully on police toes before it is revealed why the murder book was stolen years ago. Juggling a characteristically crowded storyline (halfway through the book Bosch is coping with five investigative tracks), Connelly demonstrates once again why he is held in such esteem.
Did Tami Hoag, who began her writing career in 1988 with unthreatening romance novels, warn her original readers that she was about to take the plunge into the macabre with blistering crime books? Thomas Harris and The Silence of the Lambs provide the prototype for Hoag’s new literary identity, and The Boy (Trapeze) is as blood-drenched as any of her recent work.
Nick Fourcade’s beat is the Bayou Breaux district of Louisiana. After the discovery of a young boy’s mutilated body, Fourcade is told by the boy’s mother that she was awakened by his dying screams, but the detective has his doubts. Was she in fact responsible for the gruesome killing? With the aid of fellow cop Annie Broussard, Fourcade uncovers revelations about the past of the murdered boy’s mother. We’ve seen the relationship depicted here between male and female detectives a hundred times, but there are other virtues present: the vibrant evocation of rural Louisiana — we are given a glossary to cope with the Cajun French occasionally spoken — and a poetic use of language.
The Canada-based writer Linwood Barclay had a particular success with Fear the Worst, a title that was virtually a mission statement of what readers might expect from his pleasurably unsettling novels. Barclay is adept at placing his characters (and the reader) into quotidian situations that take scarifying turns — which is very much the case with Elevator Pitch (HQ). Here, New Yorkers are falling to their deaths in elevators that have been rigged into murder traps and journalist Barbara Matheson is charged with finding out if domestic or foreign terrorism is behind the fatalities. Then a murder victim — an elevator technician — is found with his fingertips removed, and Matheson and detectives Jerry Bourque and Lois Delgado find themselves closer to a solution. Barclay’s publishers clearly want this book to do for elevators what Psycho did for showers and Jaws did for the ocean, but there is more going on. The plot is crammed with even more narrative twists than Barclay usually serves up. If Elevator Pitch is not, perhaps, vintage Barclay, it is still delivered with considerable acumen.
Attica Locke’s debut Black Water Rising created a literary sensation, and at a stroke she became the most celebrated African-American writer of crime fiction. Although her books are about the black experience in the US, they are universal in scope. Heaven, My Home (Serpent’s Tail) has Texas ranger Darren Matthews investigating a murder involving the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas. He is summoned to the town of Jefferson, , where a boy — the son of a Brotherhood member imprisoned for the murder of a black man — has gone missing.
It’s late 2016, after the election of Donald Trump, and the racial situation in the town is incendiary. Can Darren — despite the colour of his skin — get to the bottom of things? Locke’s take on Trump’s sympathetic attitude towards white supremacists is clear but this is no diatribe — the author remains primarily a consummate storyteller.
These days, Michael Robotham is celebrated as a CWA Dagger Award-winning crime writer, but he once earned his crust as ghost writer of choice for many celebrities with zero writing abilities. Accomplished though he was at ventriloquising the voices of others, Robotham understandably wearied of it, switching to the art of the crime novel with such forceful entries as Good Girl, Bad Girl (Sphere). Haunted forensic psychologist Cyrus Haven is commissioned to track down the murderer (and possible rapist) of British junior figure skating champion Jodie Sheehan. He has another task: deciding whether abuse victim Evie is ready for release from a high security children’s home. Given a new name by the court, Evie has never revealed her true identity, but Cyrus gradually unearths a series of traumas and discovers that she has a bizarre skill: she is a human lie detector. Murderous families are key to the revelations here, and the unravelling of a complicated psychological web is delivered with a master’s touch.
How ruthless must a woman be to achieve professional success in a male-dominated world? In Laura Lippman’s Lady in the Lake (Faber), the successor to her much-acclaimed Sunburn, the forceful heroine hurts even those who love her, but this is stifling 1960s America, and Maddie Schwartz is a Baltimore housewife living a comfortable but unfulfilled life. She leaves her husband and son to follow a long-frustrated career as a journalist and takes on the case of murdered African-American waitress Cleo Sherwood, the eponymous lady in the lake. The title’s reference to Raymond Chandler’s novel is misleading – this is anything but a hard-boiled private eye novel. Lippman’s subjects are racism, sexism and the straitjacket of class. The latter is pointed up by a voice beyond the grave: that of Cleo. The contrasts between the middle-class, Jewish Maddie and the disadvantaged Cleo are trenchantly made clear. Apart from the consummately structured narrative, we are given both a vivid evocation of time and place — an unenlightened Ohio of the 1960s — and a cogent sociological study that is not afraid to be critical of its single-minded protagonist, however understandable her aims.
Bradford-raised AA Dhand perfectly parses the grammar of the socially committed crime novel. His 2016 debut Streets of Darkness featuring DI Harry Virdee was the first major crime narrative with a non-clichéd Asian lead, struggling with the racism that is apparently rife within British Asian communities. Dhand’s subsequent Girl Zero unsparingly addressed issues of Asian grooming gangs. But One Way Out (Bantam Press) is his most provocative novel yet. A bomb is detonated in Bradford city park, the work of a cold-blooded nationalist organisation. “The Patriots” have placed another device under one of the city’s mosques. The price for the release of the worshippers is that the group will take custody of a radical Islamist cell, Almukhtareen, the “Chosen Ones”. But the government does not negotiate with terrorists, and Virdee has to forge his own deal with the murderous Patriots. While Dhand never forgets the imperatives of the page-turning thriller, his engagement with serious issues here is always judicious and intelligent.
A dash of sardonic humour infuses Louise Candlish’s Those People (Simon & Schuster), which is as much a nuanced examination of class conflict in a leafy London neighbourhood as it is an assured piece of crime writing. High achiever Ralph and his no-nonsense wife Naomi find their lives thrown into chaos with the arrival of a brash auto mechanic called Darren. Pandemonium ensues as Darren transforms his house into a construction site, creating bitter parking and noise disputes. How to get rid of him? Strategies, legal and otherwise, are discussed — and matters disastrously escalate. Perhaps the action might have been dispatched more urgently, but that would undercut Candlish’s patiently drawn character studies.
Don’t be daunted by the imposing length of the epic The Border (HarperCollins) — Don Winslow justifies every one of its arm-straining 700-odd pages. Winslow is a writer’s writer, but his work is also a gift to all discerning crime readers. The Cartel and The Force were high watermarks in the genre in terms of ambition and reach, and Winslow has excelled again with the final novel in the trilogy, The Border, every inch as pungent and involving as its predecessors. Veteran cop Art Keller has devoted decades of his life to the war on drugs, bringing down Barrera, the Godfather of the Sinaloa Cartel. But Barrera’s successors are turning Mexico — a country Keller loves — into a criminal war zone, and his personal battle against the US heroin epidemic is compromised by massive levels of corruption, not least in the American administration. With a dramatis personae that makes Tolstoy look underpopulated, this is Winslow at his sensational best.
The Wych Elm (Viking) sees Tana French on non-pareil form — but when is she ever anything less? The Dublin-resident writer is one of the most highly regarded of psychological crime novelists and this book is considerably more ambitious than the average crime outing; French tackles notions of entitlement, personal responsibility and the ripples that spread out from human betrayal. Naïve Toby tells the reader that he considers himself to be lucky — and in doing so makes himself a hostage to fortune. He is working at an art gallery on a show for street artists (some with criminal records), and one artist, descriptively named “Gouger”, has his work finessed by another gallery employee, Tiernan (in collusion with Toby), to render it more saleable; both are fired. Shortly afterwards, Toby is bloodily beaten and finds himself suffering from memory loss — his luck has clearly run out.
Readers may be tempted to predict how the narrative progresses from here: Toby will turn sleuth, tracking down who was behind the violent attack. But French, as so often, is in the business of wrong-footing us. This plotline is sidelined when the recuperating Toby retires to his uncle Hugo’s house, where a human skull is discovered at the foot of the eponymous elm, followed by a corpse. We seem to have relocated to a country house mystery, with cloistered setting and assembled suspects. And now things begin to get really strange.
French has demonstrated that she is the heir apparent of Patricia Highsmith in anatomising the worst of human motives. But unlike Highsmith, she shows a generosity towards her protagonists, however flawed. We are taken into an ever-darkening minatory world, with a sort of solution arrived at in the remarkable final section of the novel. But it’s nothing like as neat as those found in the British Golden Age of crime fiction– the writing is too edgily neurotic for that. While some characters in the large cast are a touch underdeveloped, the comprehensive grip exerted here places The Wych Elm among French’s best work.
If you’re wondering how much mileage is left in the much-abused police procedural format, a bracing dose of Olivia Kiernan’s The Killer in Me (riverrun) will demonstrate how a talented novelist shake off the clichés and produces something fresh (as in her caustic crime debut, Too Close to Breathe). The new novel deals with multiple murders in Dublin, related to two from the past. Seán Hennessey has completed a prison sentence for killing his parents, although he has always protested his innocence. And when very similar murders take place, Hennessey is inevitably in the frame. Superintendent Frankie Shearman finds herself under pressure to bring things to a speedy conclusion (particularly in light of earlier police errors). A grim case becomes ever more complicated — and more dangerous. Kiernan is skilful in her evocation of locale, and even better on her carefully differentiated cast of characters. But she is best of all on the accelerating tension, leading to a gruesome conclusion.
Conviction (Harvill Secker)by Denise Mina is among the Scottish writer’s best work – which is no mean praise. Is the podcast becoming a plot device in the crime writer’s armoury? The talented Mina draws on the idea as her heroine takes a journey into the past she has tried to abandon. Anna McDonald becomes obsessed with a true crime podcast involving multiple murders, but catastrophic revelations about her own past surface.
Alex Reeve’s The House on Half Moon Street inaugurated a series set in Victorian London, with the protagonist Leo accused of killing his lover Maria. But what made this entry unique was its startling transgender theme (‘Leo’ was, in fact, born ‘Charlotte’). In The Anarchists’ Club (Raven Books), a woman has been murdered at an anarchist hideout, with Leo implicated. It’s a novel of great assurance, with much of the writing acumen that distinguished the earlier book.
There is a strange cross-fertilisation that occasionally surfaces in the popular and serious arts: DC Comics inspire Marvel, who, in turn, inspire DC comics; the composer Stravinsky inspires his colleague Bartok who returns the favour to Stravinsky. But who would have thought that this game of musical chairs would draw in the greatest modern espionage novelist, John le Carré? His new book, Agent Running in the Field (Viking), features a past-his-sell-by-date spymaster who, instead of being fired, is tasked with taking over a rundown intelligence substation in London populated by an uninspiring band of agents who he is somehow to fashion into an efficient unit. And if this sounds rather like Mick Herron’s much acclaimed ‘Slough House’ series, with its unconventional espionage chief Jackson Lamb, one might be forgiven for speculating whether or not le Carré has found a new model in the young writer for whom he himself was an exemplar.
The antihero here, Nat, is approaching 50, convinced that his days of running agents are at an end. Failing to relate to his unsympathetic daughter, his marriage to human rights lawyer Prudence at a low ebb, Nat is commissioned (by a boss he dislikes) to take over at Haven, a graveyard for espionage careers. But he finds himself in fraught territory when his second-in-command, the ambitious Florence — keen to make her mark in the Russia Department — walks out in disgust when a project she has created is torpedoed by intelligence bosses. Kusnetsev, a Russian defector working as a sleeper for the British government, is about to be exposed, while the solitary Ed Shannon, a researcher who is one of Nat’s badminton partners, suddenly acquires the power to change his boss’s uncertain destiny. Under siege from a variety of sources, Nat begins to orchestrate an extremely risky strategy (involving a Ukrainian oligarch with links to pro-Putin elements) in an attempt to bring order out of chaos.
John le Carré has recently come under fire from people in the intelligence community for his deeply dyspeptic view of their work — precisely, in fact, the very thing that so energised his classic George Smiley novels (even as far back as the matchless The Spy who Came in from the Cold, betrayal and mistrust were the engines of his fiction). The criticism is a curious one, given that Ie Carré perfectly encapsulated the jaundiced modern attitude many of us share towards establishment institutions. A more legitimate complaint raised by some commentators is that the author’s visceral hatred of America’s modern imperialism became too ready a shorthand in many of his recent books.
That antipathy has now been concentrated – unsurprisingly — into the grotesque figure of Donald Trump, giving a clear focus to the narrative here. But le Carré has other targets in view, closer to home. As Nat angrily notes: ‘The country’s in freefall. A minority Tory Cabinet of tenth-raters. A pig-ignorant foreign secretary who I’m supposed to be serving. Labour no better. The sheer bloody lunacy of Brexit…’ And although le Carré’s troubled new protagonist is developed with the author’s customary skill, it’s hard not to miss the saturnine presence of George Smiley, whose restraint and philosophical approach to his duplicitous world makes him a more interesting character. Agent Running in the Field is an impeccable piece of writing — age has not dimmed le Carré’s storytelling ability an iota – but informed readers may conclude that when it comes to a sardonic, surreal approach to the espionage genre, Mick Herron is the Master. But that won’t stop readers open to le Carré’s change of approach – and nor, indeed, should it.