FictionFan Awards 2019 – Vintage Crime Fiction

Drum roll please…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2019.

For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around last year, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2018 and October 2019 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

The categories tend to change slightly each year to better reflect what I’ve been reading during the year.

This year, there will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories:

Vintage Crime Fiction

Factual

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2019

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the author’s next book even if I have to buy it myself!

(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

VINTAGE CRIME FICTION

This has been another fab year for vintage crime fiction with publishers re-issuing more and more “forgotten” books, keeping me entertained with some of my most enjoyable reads of the year, not to mention my slowly ongoing Murder, Mystery, Mayhem Challenge. To keep it simple, I’m calling anything published up to 1965 Vintage, and anything after that date Modern. That way it ties in with the date I use to differentiate classic from modern in literary fiction.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley

When Joan Bendix dies of poisoning, it’s quickly clear that the weapon was a box of chocolate liqueurs given to her by her husband. A clear-cut case, it would appear, but on closer examination there are a couple of problems. The police find themselves baffled, so turn (as you do) to a bunch of self-styled amateur criminologists for help…

Berkeley wrote this to parody how most detective fiction is carefully contrived so that each piece of evidence can have only one meaning – the meaning brilliantly deduced and revealed by the detective in the last scene. Berkeley does this by sending the six members of the Crimes Circle off to investigate in their own way for a week, after which, on consecutive evenings, one by one they give their solution only to have it destroyed the next evening as the new solution is put forth. It’s brilliantly done and highly entertaining, with a lot of humour in the characterisation of the members.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

A Voice Like Velvet by Donald Henderson

Ernest Bisham is a radio announcer, with the velvet voice of the title making him beloved by the many listeners who, back in 1944, get all their news from the BBC. His picture regularly appearing in the Radio Times means that he is also recognised wherever he goes. Which makes his second career as a cat-burglar even more risky!

Despite the obvious crime element, this is really much more of a character study of Bisham, and a rather humorous look at the oddities of life in the BBC at the time when it was Britain’s sole broadcaster and still finding its feet in a rapidly changing world. But it’s undoubtedly Bisham’s cat-burgling that gives the book its major elements of fun and suspense. Recently re-married, Ernest is rethinking his criminal activities, realising that now he wouldn’t be the only one who suffered if he is caught. But he finds it very hard to fight the temptation to do just one more job… and meantime the police are patiently waiting for the man whom the newspapers call the Man In The Mask to make a mistake…

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Murder by Matchlight by ECR Lorac

It’s a cold winter in London during World War 2, with the blackout in full force and the population living with the constant spectre of bombing raids. One night, young Bruce Mallaig is sitting on a bench in Regent’s Park thinking romantic thoughts of the girl he loves, when he sees – or mostly hears due to the pitch darkness – two men near the little footbridge, one on the bridge, the other standing below it. While he ponders what they might be up to, the man on the bridge lights a match and Mallaig catches a glimpse of a face looming behind him. The match goes out and there’s a thud as of someone falling. By the time Mallaig fumbles his torch alight, the man on the bridge is dead…

One of Lorac’s chief skills is in developing her settings with a great feeling of authenticity. This one takes us to the heart of the capital city during the bombings, and gives a wonderful depiction of the dogged Londoners picking themselves up and carrying on, with the kind of defiant resilience that was the hallmark of London’s war-time attitude. Strong plot, good characterisation, plenty of mild humour to lift the tone – all-in-all, an excellent read that gives a real insight into the war on the Home Front.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin

As poet Richard Cadogan walks along an Oxford street at night, he notices the door of a toyshop is open. His curiosity gets the better of him so he enters, but is shocked to find the corpse of a woman lying on the floor. Then he is hit on the head and falls unconscious. When he comes round some time later he finds himself locked in a cupboard, but manages to make his escape and go to the police. However when they return with him to the spot, not only has the corpse disappeared but the whole shop has gone, and in its place is a grocer’s shop! Not unnaturally, the police have difficulty believing his story after this, so he turns to his old friend, the amateur sleuth and university professor, Gervase Fen…

This is one of those crime novels that goes way beyond the credibility line, but makes up for its general silliness by being a whole lot of fun. Cadogan and Fen make a great duo as they bicker their way through the investigation, and as a little added bonus, this is the book that inspired the brilliant fairground scene in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. Highly entertaining!

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2019

for

BEST VINTAGE CRIME FICTION

Death in Captivity by Michael Gilbert

I gave sixteen vintage crime books five stars this year, so the decision was by no means easy. However, Gilbert had two in serious contention, this one and Smallbone Deceased. In the end, the unique setting of this one made it stand out from the crowd.

It’s 1943, and the British officers held in a prisoner-of-war camp in north Italy take their duty to escape seriously, so the camp is riddled with tunnels. The biggest and most hopeful of these is under Hut C, elaborately hidden under a trapdoor that takes several men to open. So when a body turns up in the tunnel the question is not only how did he die but also how did he get into the tunnel? The dead man is Cyriakos Coutoules, a Greek prisoner who was widely unpopular and whom some suspected of having been an informer. When it begins to look as if his death was murder, the camp authorities quickly fix on one of the prisoners as the culprit, but the Brits are sure of his innocence. So it’s up to them to figure out how and why Coutoules died, and who did kill him…

This is a very different take on the classic “locked room” mystery. In fact, to a degree the mystery becomes secondary to the drama of what’s happening in the prison camp as the Allies approach and it looks as though the Italians may surrender. The prisoners doubt this will lead to their release – they anticipate the Italians will hand them over to the Germans before the Allies arrive – so it’s all the more important that they get their plans for escape ready urgently. Tense and hard-hitting, but the general camaraderie and patriotism of the prisoners also give the story a kind of good-natured warmth and a fair amount of humour. One that shows the wonderful versatility in the genre – great stuff!

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Next week: Best Factual

PS – I suddenly realised I couldn’t bring myself to write any reviews this week, so I’m taking a week or two off till my enthusiasm revives. I’ll still be posting the awards posts on Thursdays though. See you soon! And to those who celebrate it, Happy Thanksgiving! I’m thankful for all of you… 😀

38 thoughts on “FictionFan Awards 2019 – Vintage Crime Fiction

  1. I’m happy to say I have some of these! Namely The Poisoned Chocolates and Murder By Matchlight. I’m listening to Fire in the Thatch at the moment 😁Enjoy your time off.

    • Thank you! I do feel I’ve worked awfully hard recently… 😉

      The Poisoned Chocolates is great fun – I’m sure you’d enjoy it. Any one of these would have been a worthy winner of the award… 😀

  2. Oh, my, FictionFan! Award time already? And I don’t have a proper dress or shoes to wear to the ceremony and banquet! Must slip in the back so I won’t be noticed… I think you have a great choice for this one. Gilbert has written some fine books, and I’m glad you liked this one so well. It had some solid competition, too. I look forward to the rest of your awards, and I hope you enjoy your richly-deserved time off!

    • It seems to come faster every year! Make sure you wear comfy shoes for the dancing afterwards… 😉 Any of these would have been a worthy winner, but I did like the setting of the Gilbert one – there’s such variety in the genre. Haha – I’m looking forward to the rest too, if only I actually had any idea about what books will win… 😀

  3. I expected Michael Gilbert to be among the honorees, but it is nice to see Death in Captivity getting the Grand Prize in the mystery category.

    • There were so many great ones this year in my reading, and really any of these could have won. But I loved the setting of Death in Captivity – it made it feel unique. Here’s hoping they keep republishing these vintage books for a long while… 😀

  4. I’ve read just one of these – Murder by Matchlight, which I think is very good. I have Smallbone Deceased waiting to be read.

    I don’t know if it’s the time of year or what but I’m finding I can’t bring myself to write reviews either. I sit down determined to get on with it and end up doing anything but!

    • I loved Murder by Matchight – my favourite ECR Lorac so far. Smallbone Deceased is excellent too, and only didn’t get nominated because I didn’t want to give Gilbert two of the slots. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

      I think I’ve been reading too many classics – it always takes me much longer to write reviews of them. Roll on all the vintage crime I have lined up for next month… 😀

    • It should! It really is very good, and just a bit different to the usual because of the setting and the more thrillerish aspect in the later stages. I hope you enjoy it if you get to it! 😀

  5. Good for you — time off is definitely something to be thankful for! Your first award seems to be going to a worthy competitor. I don’t think I’ve read Michael Gilbert before.

    • Ha – I never know when I’ll suddenly lose my enthusiasm for writing reviews but I’ve learned now not to fight it! A break always does the trick… 😀 The BL has republished a few of his books now and I’ve enjoyed them all, but this one stood out because of the unique setting. A worthy winner indeed!

  6. This is perfect timing! I am ready for more vintage crime. The winner didn’t really come as a surprise. Like you, I am struggling with reviews at the moment, but I have taken to mini reviews, which is less demanding. Enjoy your break!

    • Thank you! Any of these would be well worth your time – they could all have won the award. This seems like the perfect time of year for a vintage binge – I have loads lined up for the next few weeks. Ha – funnily enough I find mini reviews even harder! It’s like when I was studying and my tutors were always telling me to make my essays shorter… 😉

  7. I need to try and get hold of some ECR Lorac, as I think she would probably fit in quite nicely with my taste in crime fiction. I hope you enjoy your well earned rest, and I look forward to the rest of your awards.

    • Thank you – now all I have to do is decide who else has won! 😉 I think you’d enjoy ECR Lorac – her plots are fine, but it’s the strength of her settings that makes them stand out from the crowd, especially the ones set in war-time.

  8. I really loved Smallbone Deceased but haven’t read Death in Captivity yet – I must pick it up. I can’t acquire any more books until I’ve moved house though – these awards posts are definitely going to test my willpower!

    • Haha – a Kindle would soon solve that problem! 😉 Death In Captivity is excellent, and very different from Smallbone Deceased. He used his own experiences as a war prisoner in Italy so it feels very authentic…

  9. Aside from the fact that poisoning chocolates is blasphemy, that one was my favourite of all your picks. I love crime fiction, I love chocolate, and i love poisoning-a perfect trio for a book.

  10. Thanks for this review. I love Chandler, Hammett and Cain, but have read very little in the way of crime fiction by their contemporaries. I look forward to trying this one, especially as it is set in WWII, an era that lasted just five years yet casts a long shadow all these years later. One shudders to think what will come of us if such a test of democracy’s resolve is presented in the years ahead.

    • I do think there’s a huge difference between the US and Britain in early crime fiction. American writers tend to go towards noir and action, whereas UK vintage crime tends to be cosy-ish and all about the puzzle. And there’s no doubt the whole of British culture has remained obsessed – unhealthily, in my opinion – with the whole WWII thing. I too often wonder if we’d be up to the task if it happened today – we tend to be less willing to follow our government’s lead than we once were. I wonder what would happen if either of our countries ever decided to impose a compulsory draft again…

  11. It makes me feel better that you sometimes don’t feel like writing reviews either. 🙂

    I remember when you wrote the original review of Death in Captivity and it still sounds good! I can see why the setting would make it stand out.

    • Ha! I regularly get lazy about it, and yet I have far more free time than most bloggers. Death In Captivity is really excellent – but then so many of these vintage crime novels are. I’m enjoying them far more than contemporary crime at the moment…

  12. Just bought Death in Captivity for my sister on the strength of your decision to award it top prize.
    Enjoy your holiday from reviewing. I don’t know how you manage to do so many anyway; you’re a one woman production factory for most of the year .

    • Oh, I do hope she enjoys it! It’s very well written, and the setting makes it a bit different from the usual. Haha! It’s a great excuse for not doing other things though… like housework! 😉

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