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!

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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 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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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… 😀

A Voice Like Velvet by Donald Henderson

Whatever happened to cat-burglars?

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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 (the BBC’s listings magazine) means that he is also recognised by the Great British Public wherever he goes. Which makes his second career as a cat-burglar even more risky! We follow along as he takes ever greater risks and comes ever closer to having his identity uncovered…

This is a crime novel in the sense that Bisham is a criminal, but there’s no mystery to solve and, although there are some tense episodes, it doesn’t sit comfortably in the thriller category either. According to the informative introduction by Martin Edwards, Henderson’s original publishers put it out as “a novel” under the name The Announcer, and it failed to attract much of an audience. It was his American publishers who changed the title and marketed it as crime fiction, cashing in on the success of Henderson’s earlier crime novel, Mr Bowling Buys a Newspaper (note to self: acquire!). I understand where both sets of publishers were coming from because, 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.

In general, I’ve never been much of a fan of the gentleman thief or indeed of books where the criminal is the hero. But I make an exception for Bisham – he’s an extraordinarily likeable chap and I enjoyed his company very much. He steals for the excitement rather than for monetary gain and has strict rules about only taking from those who can afford the loss and making sure he doesn’t take things of great sentimental value. He’s a bit like one of those birds who steal shiny things just to jazz up their nest a bit. The risk is everything and one gets the impression that for a long time he’s felt his life was so empty he wasn’t risking much.

But recently he has married again – a rather placid middle-aged marriage between two people each of whom were burned in their disastrous first marriages and are somewhat cautious about love as a result. A large part of the story is about this new marriage and whether he and Marjorie, his wife, will grow together or apart as they get to know each other better. It’s beautifully done, I must say – I was rooting for both of them all the way, even while I was laughing indulgently at their inner thoughts. And this marriage is making Ernest rethink 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… or maybe two… and meantime the police are patiently waiting for the man whom the newspapers call the Man In The Mask to make a mistake…

I found this thoroughly enjoyable – one of those books you read with a smile on your face. It’s not at all certain how it will end, so that there is a steady build-up of tension especially once the police become involved. By that stage I was fully on Ernest’s side, and even more so on Marjorie’s – but I was kinda also on the side of the police, because basically I’m a law-abiding sort and the police detective was a nice chap too! Would Henderson be able to get me out of the moral dilemma he’d created for me? Well, you’ll have to read it to find out…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Collins Crime Club.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 177…

Episode 177…

Well, I read up a storm during my break but unfortunately all the books were about a million pages long, so the actual number read wasn’t huge. BUT… the TBR has gone down FOUR to 228! Impressive, eh? Proves conclusively that it’s when I hang around with you lot that things go wrong…

So, friends, here’s another batch that I should get to soon…

Factual

Courtesy of Particular Books (Penguin Random House). I love this kind of book on a rather quirky subject written by a real enthusiast. What particularly attracted me to this is that it includes the Bell Rock Lighthouse, built by Robert Stevenson, grandfather of Robert Louis of that ilk. Plus I adore the title – it conjures up images of wild storms and human endurance…

The Blurb says: Lighthouses are striking totems of our relationship to the sea. For many, they encapsulate a romantic vision of solitary homes amongst the waves, but their original purpose was much more utilitarian than that. Today we still depend upon their guiding lights for the safe passage of ships. Nowhere is this truer than in the rock lighthouses of Great Britain and Ireland which form a ring of twenty towers built between 1811 and 1904, so-called because they were constructed on desolate rock formations in the middle of the sea, and made of granite to withstand the power of its waves.

Seashaken Houses is a lyrical exploration of these singular towers, the people who risked their lives building and rebuilding them, those that inhabited their circular rooms, and the ways in which we value emblems of our history in a changing world.

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Fiction

Courtesy of Archipelago. I requested this ages ago since I thought it might fit into my Russian Revolution challenge, and then forgot to include it. Still, if the first novella is good, I can still add it to the final list…

The Blurb says: Two novellas from one of the most exciting writers in contemporary Russia.

Horsemen of the Sands gathers two novellas by Leonid Yuzefovich: “Horsemen of the Sands” and “The Storm”. The former tells the true story of R.F. Ungern-Shternberg, also known as the “Mad Baltic Baron”, a military adventurer whose intense fascination with the East drove him to seize control of Mongolia during the chaos of the Russian Civil War. “The Storm” centers on an unexpected emotional crisis that grips a Russian elementary school on an otherwise regular day, unveiling the vexed emotional bonds and shared history that knit together its community of students, teachers, parents, and staff.

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Vintage Crime

Courtesy of Collins Crime Club. I’ve only read two of the CCC books so far and have found them a little more thrillerish and perhaps a little pulpier than the more detective mystery-based British Library Crime Classics. That’s not a criticism – I love good quality pulpy thrillers! I’m intrigued to see if this one falls into the same category. The blurb makes it sound like it will…

The Blurb says: A sensational wartime crime novel about a BBC announcer who abuses his position to commit crimes against the rich and famous…

By day Ernest Bisham is a velvet-voiced announcer for the BBC; the whole country recognises the sound of his meticulous pronouncements. By night, however, Mr Bisham is a cat-burglar, careless about his loot, but revelling in the danger and excitement of his running contest with Scotland Yard. But as he gets away with more and more daring escapades, there will come a time when he goes too far . . .

When Donald Henderson’s Mr Bowling Buys a Newspaper caused something of a sensation, his publishers were keen to capitalise on their author’s popularity, quickly reissuing The Announcer (originally published under his pen-name ‘D. H. Landels’) with the more alluring title A Voice Like Velvet. Despite a small edition of just 3,000 copies, it was his best reviewed work, as suspenseful and offbeat as his earlier success.

This Detective Club classic includes an introduction by The Golden Age of Murder’s Martin Edwards, who explores Henderson’s own BBC career and the long established tradition of books about gentlemen crooks. The book also includes a rare Henderson short story, the chilling ‘The Alarm Bell’.

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Horror

Courtesy of Collins Chillers. I was thrilled to receive a selection of three horror anthologies newly published by this imprint from HarperCollins – an imprint I wasn’t previously aware of! The porpy, however, is muttering about the state of his quills and demanding danger money. Here’s the first – I’ve never come across these authors before, but it sounds great…

The Blurb says: A collection of the finest supernatural tales by two of the best Victorian writers of weird tales – Erckmann–Chatrian, authors who inspired M. R. James, H. P. Lovecraft, and many others.

Emile Erckmann and Louis Alexandre Chatrian began their writing partnership in the 1840s and continued working together until the year before Chatrian’s death in 1890. At the height of their powers they were known as ‘the twins’, and their works proved popular translated into English. After their deaths, however, they slipped into obscurity; and apart from the odd tale reprinted in anthologies, their work has remained difficult to find and to appreciate.

In The Invisible Eye, veteran horror anthologist Hugh Lamb has collected together the finest weird tales by Erckmann–Chatrian. The world of which they wrote has long since vanished: a world of noblemen and peasants, enchanted castles and mysterious woods, haunted by witches, monsters, curses and spells. It is a world brought to life by the vivid imagination of these authors and praised by successors including M.R. James and H. P. Lovecraft. With an introduction by Hugh Lamb, and in paperback for the first time, this collection will transport the reader to the darkest depths of the nineteenth century: a time when anything could happen – and occasionally did.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?