Drum roll please…
…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2021.
For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around in previous years, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…
All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2020 and October 2021* regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.
(*my reviews have been running late recently so some drifted into November this year)
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
Short Story Collections & Anthologies
Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller
Book of the Year 2021
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!
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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 1971 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.
Tragedy at Law by Cyril Hare
Mr Justice Barber is a High Court judge, currently acting as His Majesty’s Judge of Assize in the Southern Circuit of England. When he receives a threatening anonymous letter he doesn’t think much of it, since threats tend to come with the position and as the King’s representative he is surrounded by police and officials to protect his dignity and, if necessary, his life. However, when he then receives a box of chocolates which turn out to have been poisoned, he begins to take the matter more seriously…
Cyril Hare drew on his personal experience as a barrister and Judge’s Marshal to give a wonderful depiction of the Assizes, an archaic and now defunct system of travelling justice. The characterisation is excellent, especially of the judge’s wife, Hilda, a brilliant, qualified barrister in her own right who now acts as a kind of power behind the throne to her husband. The mystery is fair play, but of course I failed to work it out!
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The Corpse in the Waxworks by John Dickson Carr
Inspector Bencolin and his friend Jeff Marle take on a case involving a woman who walked into the Musée Augustin waxworks one evening and was never seen alive again. Her body later turned up in the Seine. Before they can discover who killed her, they must find out why she went to the waxworks, and why so many other unlikely people seem to find it a place worth visiting late in the evenings…
This is the fourth in the series about the Mephistophelian Bencolin, head of the Parisian detective force, and his American sidekick Marle. The plots are always intricate versions of the “impossible” crime subgenre for which Carr was famous, and this is just as fiendish as the others. But what makes them stand out most from the crowd is Carr’s ability to create wonderfully macabre settings, steeped in decadence and the gruesomeness of the Grand Guignol. Carr is brilliant at spooking both poor Jeff and the reader too, and the decadent evil at the heart of the plot seems right at home in this waxen world of shadows and horrors.
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Cécile is Dead by Georges Simenon
Cécile Pardon had become a regular visitor to Inspector Maigret at his office in the Police Judiciaire building in Paris. A spinster who lived with her elderly widowed aunt, Cécile had become convinced that someone was coming in to their apartment at night while they slept. Maigret had made a superficial gesture towards investigating, but everyone thought she was imagining things. So on this morning, when Maigret saw her sitting patiently in the waiting room he left her there and got on with other things. When eventually he went to collect her, she was gone. Later, the body of her aunt is found in the apartment, strangled, and Cécile is nowhere to be found. The title gives a clue as to her fate.
This is one of the best of the Maigrets I’ve read so far. Simenon’s portrayal of the unglamorous side of Paris is as excellent as always, but this one is better plotted than some, the themes have depth, and the characterisation throughout is excellent. And I always enjoy when the solution manages to surprise me but still feel credible. Quite a bleak story, but Maigret’s fundamental decency and integrity always stop these stories from becoming too depressingly noir.
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The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey
When country solicitor Robert Blair is contacted by Marion Sharp with a request for his help in a matter involving the police, his first reaction is to refer her to another lawyer specialising in criminal matters. But Miss Sharpe is adamant and the case sounds intriguing, so Robert heads off to Miss Sharpe’s house, The Franchise, to meet her, her mother and Inspector Grant of Scotland Yard. The Sharpes are eminently respectable ladies, so the story that schoolgirl Betty Kane tells sounds fantastical – she claims that the two women abducted her, locked her in their attic and tried to force her to work as their servant, doling out regular vicious beatings when she didn’t comply.
This is considered a classic of crime fiction, and it fully deserves its reputation. The writing is great and the plot is perfectly delivered. I found a lot of unintended amusement in Tey’s clear snobbery and good old-fashioned Tory values, but she gives a very insightful picture of the kind of trial by media with which we’re all only too familiar today.
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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2021
BEST VINTAGE CRIME FICTION
The Conjure-Man Dies by Rudolph Fisher
I gave ten vintage crime books five stars this year, and yet the decision was quite easy. This one stood out, mostly because of its sheer enjoyability, but also partly because Rudolph Fisher had the distinction of being the first black American author to write a mystery novel, then remaining the only one to have done so until several decades later. He was considered to be part of the Harlem Renaissance, but sadly he died a young man just a few years after publishing this, his only mystery novel.
It’s a late evening in Harlem, in the early 1930s, and a little group of people are waiting to see Frimbo, a conjure-man with extraordinary powers to see the future and even to change it, or so the locals believe. But while Jinx Jenkins is sitting in Frimbo’s dark consulting room, Frimbo seems to lose the thread of what he’s saying and then goes silent. Jinx turns the single light on him, only to discover he is dead. But how did he die? And how could anyone have killed him without Jinx seeing it? Sergeant Perry Dart and his friend Dr Archer will have to find their way through a maze of motives and superstition to get to the truth…
Well, this is just fabulous fun! There’s a real Golden Age style mystery at the heart of it, complete with clues, motives, a closed list of suspects, and so on. But the setting makes it entirely unique. Fisher gives a vivid, joyous picture of life in Harlem, bringing to life a cast of exclusively black characters from all walks of life, from the highly educated Dr Archer to the new arrival from Africa, Frimbo, to the local flyboys hustling to survive in a Depression-era America that hasn’t yet moved far from the post-Civil War era. Amid the mystery and the lighthearted elements of comedy, a surprisingly clear picture emerges of this black culture within a culture, where poverty and racism are so normal they are barely remarked upon, and where old superstitious practices sit comfortably alongside traditional religion. Life is hard in Harlem, for sure, but there’s an exuberance about the characters – a kind of live for the moment feeling – that makes them a joy to spend time with. Great stuff!
….In the narrow strip of interspace, a tall brown girl was doing a song and dance to the absorbed delight of the patrons seated nearest her. Her flame chiffon dress, normally long and flowing, had been caught up bit by bit in her palms, which rested nonchalantly on her hips, until now it was not so much a dress as a sash, gathered about her waist. The long shapely smooth brown limbs below were bare from trim slippers to sash, and only a bit of silken underthing stood between her modesty and surrounding admiration.
….With extraordinary ease and grace, this young lady was proving beyond question the error of reserving legs for mere locomotion, and no one who believed that the chief function of the hips was to support the torso could long have maintained so ridiculous a notion against the argument of her eloquent gestures.
….Bubber caught sight of this vision and halted in his tracks. His abetting of justice, his stern immediate duty as a deputy of the law, faded.
….“Boy!” he said softly. “What a pair of eyes!”
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