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:
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
MODERN CRIME FICTION/
I’m still out of synch with most modern crime fiction and have abandoned several this year, including some from authors I’ve previously enjoyed. However, happily there have also been some that I’ve loved, proving that it’s still possible to win the judge’s approval with a good story, written well! I gave a total of seven the full five stars, and have selected my shortlist on the basis that these five were all new releases within the last eighteen months or so…
The Final Twist by Jeffery Deaver
In the third and final part of Deaver’s Colter Shaw trilogy, Shaw has come to San Francisco on the trail of the conspiracy which he believes led to his father’s murder, finishing the story arc that has been running in the background of the previous two books. Here, he’ll find he is both hunter and prey, as the people behind the conspiracy try to stop him from getting the evidence he needs to bring them down.
Although it’s essential to switch off one’s credibility monitor, I enjoyed this one just as much as the other two in the trilogy. There are conventions to this kind of thriller and Deaver is a master of them, so that when he goes over the top, the reader is quite happy to go along with him. There is hardly any swearing, remarkably little gruesomeness and gore, and no graphic sex, so it’s all very tasteful despite the constant violence! I’ve enjoyed spending time with Deaver after a long gap away from his books.
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The Silence by Susan Allott
In 1997, in her flat in London, Isla Green gets a phone call from her dad in Sydney. He’s worried. He tells her that the police have been looking into the disappearance of Mandy Mallory, who used to be their next-door-neighbour back in 1967 when Isla was a very little child, and they seem to have him in their sights as a suspect in her possible murder. Isla has always been close to her dad, so she decides to go home to Sydney to support him through all this – the first time she has been home in years. At first she is convinced her father could never have killed anyone, but once she’s home old memories begin to resurface and she sees the people she thought she knew through different, more experienced eyes, and suddenly she’s not so sure any more…
The writing is terrific, the pacing is perfect, and Allott handles the subject of race and forced separations in the Aboriginal community with a great deal of subtlety, showing the differences in society’s attitudes between the two timelines and indeed with our current attitude too. The story itself is straightforward, never stretching credulity, and told with deceptive simplicity – all the complexity is in the excellent characterisation. A great début!
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The Pact by Sharon Bolton
It’s the night before A-level results and a group of six friends have gathered together as they’ve done most nights of this gorgeous summer. They’re confident they’ll get the results they need for their chosen Universities, for they’re the cleverest group in their expensive, academically-renowned school. But drink and drugs and youth are a dangerous combination, and they all agree to one last mad escapade that results in the death of a woman and her two young children. Panicked, they flee the scene, but they’re sure the police will soon trace the car they were in. And then Megan, the quiet one, the outsider, offers to take the rap for them all on one condition – that when she gets out, they’ll each do her one favour, whatever she asks. Fast forward twenty years… Megan is back, and she’s ready to call in the debt…
Goodness, when Bolton’s on form there’s no one to touch her for truly thrilling thrillers! This one grabbed me right from the start as I watched these six kids – selfish, yes, but also programmed to be high achievers by pushy parents and ambitious schools – do one stupid thing and then follow it up with another, even stupider. Even though the blurb reveals this early part of the plot, the tension that Bolton creates is irresistible, the definition of page-turning!
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The Less Dead by Denise Mina
When Margo Dunlop decides to seek out her birth mother, she discovers she’s too late – her mother, Susan, died shortly after giving Margo up for adoption. But the counselling service puts her in touch with her mother’s sister, Nikki, and they arrange to meet. Nikki has a strange story to tell, and a request to make. Like Nikki herself, Susan was a street prostitute on the Drag – Glasgow’s red light zone – back in the late1980s. Susan was brutally murdered and left lying naked in the street – one of a spate of murders of prostitutes over the course of a few years. Nikki is convinced the murders were carried out by one man, although the police disagree. The man in question had an alibi for the time of Susan’s murder, but Nikki hopes that Margo will be able to use her privileged position as a doctor to help break the alibi. At first, Margo thinks Nikki is some kind of fantasist, but events soon convince her that there may be some truth in her story…
This was a time of huge change for Glasgow, dragging itself out of the poverty and gang violence of the post-war era and recreating itself as a modern, vibrant cultural centre. Mina’s story straddles this transformation, Susan a product of the old times and Margo of a new, more affluent and perhaps more hopeful future, but still saddled metaphorically as well as literally by the city’s past. Mina’s knowledge of Glasgow appears to be encyclopaedic and this is a far more accurate depiction of the city than in the vast majority of contemporary crime fiction, written, I feel, with unromanticized affection, and the strength of the story of these despised and disregarded women well outweighs the slight weakness of the mystery plot.
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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2021
BEST MODERN CRIME FICTION/THRILLER
The Last Trial
by Scott Turow
Despite the quality of the shortlisted books, there was never any doubt over the winner this year. Not only is this an excellent novel in its own right, it represents the finale for one of modern crime fiction’s most brilliantly drawn characters – Sandy Stern.
Lawyer Alejandro “Sandy” Stern is old now and beginning to fail both physically and mentally, but when Kiril Pafko finds himself in trouble, Sandy agrees to defend him. Facing his own mortality, Sandy finds himself thinking back to the people who have been important in his life – his family and friends. Kiril is one of those friends, a brilliant Nobel prizewinner, who has developed a drug that combats cancer with spectacular results. Too spectacular – Kiril is on trial for suppressing negative studies into the side-effects of the drug, and for the murder of patients who, the prosecution claims, had their lives shortened by taking it. Kiril is also accused of having made a fortune by selling shares in the drug just before the negative studies became public. Although for Sandy the main aim is to have Kiril legally acquitted, Kiril is just as concerned about the damage to his reputation in the scientific community, and Sandy finds that their differing objectives mean that his client often impedes his attempts to argue the case on legal grounds.
Sandy Stern first appeared in Presumed Innocent in 1987 and Turow has used him over the series to present a thoughtful and realistic picture of how the law works in the US, slowly and not always achieving true justice, but an essential part of the democratic system of ensuring the rights of the individual. The books are always billed as legal thrillers which I think does them an injustice. To me, these long ago crossed the line into literary fiction – they are far more about the human condition in all its frailties and strengths than about exciting courtroom drama, and the writing is of the highest quality. A wonderful finale to what has been a superb series.
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