FictionFan Awards 2021 – Vintage Crime Fiction

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…

THE CRITERIA

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

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

Short Story Collections & Anthologies

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2021

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 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.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

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!

Click to see the full review

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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.

Click to see the full review

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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.

Click to see the full review

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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.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2021

for

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!”

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Next week: Best Factual

43 thoughts on “FictionFan Awards 2021 – Vintage Crime Fiction

  1. Oh, my! It’s Awards time! I must get my hair done and pull out my ‘banquet’ dress and shoes! Can’t be seen looking like this! You do have some excellent choices there, FictionFan. I think you’ve had a good year for vintage crime, and I’m glad. And I’m not surprised this one was the winner; I remember how highly you spoke of it when you first posted about it. In fact, I suspect you’re the reason it’s on my TBR list. Those years in Harlem – right during and after the Harlem Renaissance – are absolutely fascinating, and the characters sound well-developed and complex, too. Glad you had such a good vintage crime-reading year!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, indeed, it’s going to be a glittering party this year with some fabulous special guests! The vintage crime authors for some reason haven’t turned up though… 😉 The Conjure-Man Dies is fabulous and just that bit different to make it stand out from the crowd. But it was hard to decide on the shortlist – lots of good books had to be left off. A vintage year for vintage! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I was drawn to your Maigret for a nominated award because I’m currently reading Maigret defends himself which begins with a meal with the Pardons, whose daughter there is called Solange — presumably the sister of poor Cécile. Maybe I’ll discover more as I read on…

    Liked by 1 person

    • You know, I hadn’t made that connection and I’m not sure that those Pardons can be related to Cécile. Now I’m wondering if I’ve got her name wrong, or if Maigret just recycled it later…

      Like

      • Dr Pardon is both friend and physician to Maigret, and their daughter Solange is expecting her second child, so I guess that Cécile may be another daughter who happens to be a spinster: if so, then it may explain why she’s familiar enough with the DCI to visit his offices regularly, being from his friend’s family.

        Liked by 1 person

        • No, I’m sure Cécile isn’t related to those Pardons – I don’t even remember her having a sister. She didn’t know Maigret until she started reporting that she thought someone was entering her flat overnight, and it was because she felt that he was sympathetic that she kept returning. The names must be coincidence. Maybe it’s a fairly common French name.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Yay! Awards season! I have to admit I burst out laughing when I read your NB for the winner. “unlikely to publish another book due to being dead” I’m still laughing! 😂

    All of these sound good to me and I think I added several of them to my wish list at the time of review.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hahaha, I had to add that years ago when someone pointed out that since my winner was dead I might have a long wait for his next book… 😂

      It’s been a great year again for vintage crime and they’ve kept me reading even when my slump was at its height, so hurrah for vintage! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hahaha, imagine how I feel then! Though I think I’ve moved past vintage now and should be classed as antique… 😉 The Conjure-Man Dies is great and I really think you’d enjoy it – so well written and such a great picture of Harlem!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Nice, if slightly frightening to think we’ve reached this time of year now, where does the time go? These all sound fab, the Conjure-man especially, it is good to see a spot of diversity among vintage crime writers, though a shame Fisher passed away at such a young age. I’ll certainly give his book a try.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, I know, but my awards take weeks to do so you’ve still got plenty of shopping days left! 😉 🎅 It’s been another great year for vintage crime, and they saved my reading life during my slump. The Conjure-Man Dies was special though – even now crime fiction is still remarkably low in diversity. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did – I think you will! I see it’s out on Audible now, though the sample is from the intro so no idea whether the dialect would be an issue. I tried another Harlem-set mystery novel recently on audio and had to give up – couldn’t catch the meaning half the time. 😀

      Like

    • It’s a great time for vintage crime – so many publishers bringing some great authors back to the fore! And during my slump I often found a nice old-fashioned mystery was the only thing I could cope with. Don’t forget to dig out your party frock for the overall Book of the Year Award ceremony… 🍾💃

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Yay for The Conjure-Man! It’s great when a well-written mystery brings so much more of interest and enjoyment to the story. I relished this book too. A couple of the others you mention are also on my TBR, thank you 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you enjoyed The Conjure-Man too! It still makes me smile whenever I think of it – the writing is so good! Thank goodness for all these vintage crime re-releases – they kept me reading even during the worst of my slumpiness.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Oh I remember you loving that Rudolph Fisher book in your original review of it, I think you remarked that it may be your favourite of the year, so not surprising this came out on top! This category in particular must be hard for you to judge considering it (seems to be?) one of your favourite genres 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’ such a great book – an easy choice for winner! But yes, the shortlist was hard. There were lots of other books that deserved to be on there just as much. I’m definitely enjoying vintage crime most at the moment, and vintage horror, and classics! I think I’ve just given up on modern life… 😉

      Like

  7. Delighted that your awards are back! I’ll have to dust off my nicest outfit and pour myself a glass of bubbly. This post has reminded me to pick up The Conjure-Man Dies after your excellent review. Looking forward to reading the rest of your posts!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, indeed, the party for overall Book of the Year should be massive this year, and all those sparkly frock with matching masks will make it a glittering occasion! 💃😋 The Conjure-Man Dies is really well worth your time, if you can fit it in.

      Like

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