A round of applause…
…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2019.
For the benefit of new readers, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…
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 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 2019
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/ THRILLER
This has been my worst year for modern crime fiction ever. I’m simply out of tune with what’s being produced now and I’ve pretty much given up the attempt to find the occasional one I enjoy. I suspect this may be the last time it appears as an award category unless something changes dramatically in the genre, and I’m seeing no signs that it will. In total, I only gave four books the full five stars, while in comparison I abandoned eleven, including several by authors I’ve previously enjoyed. So a very short and rather uninspired shortlist this time, I’m afraid…
The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths
Clare Cassidy is writing a biography of the writer RM Holland, who was best known for his terrifying ghost story, The Stranger. So she’s happy to be teaching at Talgarth Academy, a school in Sussex which was once Holland’s home and where his study is still intact, giving Clare access to his papers. Clare uses The Stranger as part of her lessons, both for her school pupils and for the adults who attend her creative writing classes in school holidays. But when one of her colleagues is brutally murdered, Clare is shocked to learn that a piece of paper was found by her body containing a line from Holland’s story. And soon, as the plot thickens, it becomes clear that somehow the story holds the clue to the case…
I loved the way Griffiths gradually fed us the story of The Stranger, which in itself is a pretty good pastiche of a real Victorian ghost story. But the spookiness doesn’t stop with it – the main story has some seriously goose-pimply moments, and at least two where I gasped out loud! Lovely Gothic stuff, with the old house and all the diary-writing and mysterious messages and other things I’ll leave you to discover for yourself. Even the investigation has a rather old-fashioned feel to it, with the emphasis on suspects, motives and clues rather than on forensics.
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The Man with No Face by Peter May
When a new editor takes over at The Edinburgh Post and begins to dumb it down in an attempt to increase circulation, top investigative journalist Neil Bannerman makes his feelings only too clear. So he is swiftly banished to Brussels, to the headquarters of the EEC (as the EU was called back then), tasked with digging up some stories in the run-up to the forthcoming British Parliamentary elections. No-one is expecting quite such a big story though. Bannerman’s fellow journalist, Tim Slater, is murdered along with a rising man in British politics, Robert Gryffe. When the story is quickly hushed up on orders from on high, Bannerman’s journalist interest is only more heightened, and he sets out to discover who carried out the killings and, perhaps more importantly, why.
This is actually a re-issue of a book first published in 1981, so only barely counts as “modern”. I wouldn’t describe the book as full-on noir, but there’s certainly a noirish feel to it with lots of damaged characters and corrupt politicians. But May doesn’t overplay his hand, and allows at least some of his characters some hope of redemption, all of which prevents the tone from becoming too bleak. A very good thriller and the EEC setting gives it an added layer of interest.
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Cruel Acts by Jane Casey
Leo Stone was convicted of killing two women and sentenced to life imprisonment. But now one of the jurors has revealed that the jury broke the rules and as a result his conviction is certain to be overturned when it comes before the Appeals Court. There will be a retrial, but Superintendent Godley wants to make certain that he’s convicted again, so Detective Sergeant Maeve Kerrigan and Detective Inspector Josh Derwent are assigned to reinvestigate the case and to find more evidence if they can. In the midst of the investigation, after Stone has been released, another woman goes missing…
The eighth in the Maeve Kerrigan series, one of very few contemporary series I’m still following. In general, I’m not wild about serial killer stories and helpless females being tortured and killed, but Casey handles it with her usual sensitivity and good taste. While Maeve’s personal life might be a bit complicated, she’s no angst-ridden maverick. The same goes for her colleagues, in fact – they’re probably the most realistic police team I can think of, and while there are petty jealousies and squabbles, they behave overall like the kind of professional force I’d like to think we actually have.
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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2019
BEST MODERN CRIME FICTION/THRILLER
Deadland by William Shaw
When a severed limb turns up inside an urn on loan to the local art gallery, DS Alex Cupidi and the team have a real mystery on their hands. First they have to try to work out to whom it belonged and if the owner is dead, and why it was left in a place where it was bound to be discovered, all before they can even begin to investigate who put it there. At the same time, two local lads, Sloth and Tap, are starting out on a life of petty crime. They decide to steal a mobile phone, but unfortunately for them they pick the wrong victim, and soon find themselves being hunted by someone who seems willing to go to any lengths to recover his property, so they run off into hiding. While Alex is tied up in the possible murder investigation, she can’t help being worried for the safety of the boys – criminals they may be, but they’re also victims, of difficult homes, of substandard schools, of a society that doesn’t seem to care. And they’re the same age as Alex’ own daughter, Zoe…
This is part police procedural, part fast-paced thriller. Alex is another detective who avoids being angst-ridden and her relationship with her daughter is very credible. The two boys, Tap and Sloth, are great characters – Shaw makes us care so deeply about them that the tension level ramps ever higher as the story unfolds, with some real heart-thumping moments along the way. And there’s no cosiness about it, so that there’s a real feeling of fear that one or both of them may pay the ultimate price for their stupid crime. But equally their story is not too grim or gritty to be enjoyable.
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