FictionFan Awards 2016 – Crime Fiction/Thrillers

A round of applause please…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2016.

In case you missed them last week, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2015 and October 2016 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.

There will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories:

Genre Fiction – click to see awards

Factual – click to see awards

Crime Fiction/Thrillers

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2016

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

CRIME FICTION/THRILLERS

Domestic thrillers continue to dominate the crime fiction market at the moment, and my distaste for them continues to dominate me! So this year I’ve been reading mostly police procedurals or thrillers, with a fair sprinkling of vintage crime fiction and some re-reads of old favourites. Despite the ongoing march of the misery-fest there’s still some great stuff out there, even if it’s not getting hyped as much as the latest “First-Person Present-Tense Grief-Stricken Drunk Girl in a Mini-Cab with a Red Coat and a Killer Twist”. And because I read more crime/thriller fiction than any other genre, it seems only fair to mention some of the books that didn’t quite make it on to the shortlist. All of these books were great reads, and I look forward to reading more from each of these authors in the future.

NOMINEES

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

night blindNightblind by Ragnar Jónasson

It’s autumn in tiny Siglufjördur but it feels like winter is on the way. Ari Thór Arason, one of the town’s two police officers, is off sick with flu, so his colleague Herjólfur is on his own as he stands in the wind and rain outside an old, abandoned house a little way out of town, watching a light inside that seems to come from a torch. Summoning up his courage, he goes to investigate. It’s only when his wife reports him missing the next day that he is found, shot through the chest…

This is a cracking start to what turns into an excellent book. The combination of Jónasson’s great descriptive writing and Quentin Bates’ flawless translation create an atmospheric sense of the isolation of this small weather-beaten place on Iceland’s northern shore. Great plotting and characterisation too – all round, this is about as good as the police procedural gets.

Click to see the full review

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a rising manA Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee

The corpse of a white man is discovered in an alleyway in an unsavoury part of Calcutta, and Inspector Sam Wyndham is assigned to investigate. It is 1919, and Wyndham has just arrived in India after recovering from injuries he received during the war, so he will have to depend for local knowledge on his two colleagues – Sergeant Digby, an Englishman with all the worst attitudes of imperial superiority and a grudge against Wyndham for getting the job he felt should be his own; and an Oxford educated Indian from a well-to-do family, Sergeant “Surrender-Not” Banerjee, so called because Digby finds his real name too difficult to pronounce.

Mukherjee knows his stuff for sure, and the picture he paints of Calcutta and the Indian political situation of the time positively reeks of authenticity. His British characters are equally believable and there are many references to Scottish culture that again have the ring of total truthfulness, and are often very funny. A great novel – hard to believe it’s a début. And I’m delighted that it’s apparently the first book in a series.

Click to see the full review

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open woundsOpen Wounds by Douglas Skelton

Davie McCall is a gangster with a moral code – he doesn’t hurt women, children or ‘civilians’. But that doesn’t stop him from hurting other people – badly, when they’ve done something that crosses one of his personal lines. He’s always felt in control of his violence though, until recently, when he suddenly found he was enjoying it. Now he wants out of the ‘Life’, but he’s scared – not of what his boss might do to him, but scared that he won’t be able to change, won’t be able to leave the desire for violence behind him. Meantime, he’s still working as a heavy for Rab McClymont, who’s not just his boss but an old friend. So when Rab asks him to lean on a man, Fergus O’Neill, at first Davie’s fine with that. O’Neill was convicted a few years back of a horrific burglary that involved rape, but is now out pending appeal and is publicly accusing Rab of having fitted him up for the crime. When Davie begins to believe that O’Neill may have been innocent, he still can’t believe that Rab would have been involved in a rape, even indirectly. So he begins to investigate.

This is genuine Tartan Noir, grounded in the real recognisable Glasgow of today. The book is set in Glasgow gangster culture and has a totally authentic feel to it. As well as giving a great sense of place, using mainly real locations, Skelton has a complete grip on Glaswegian “patter”, the humour that covers the harshness of life on the edges of society. Put that together with great characterisation and plotting, and this book takes its place amongst the very best of Scottish crime writing.

Click to see the full review

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daisy in chainsDaisy in Chains by Sharon Bolton

Hamish Wolfe is a prisoner, convicted of the murders of three young women. Maggie Rose is a defence barrister and author of several books regarding possible miscarriages of justice, some of which have resulted in the convicted men being released. Hamish and his little group of supporters on the outside are keen to get Maggie to take on his case. Pete Weston owes his promotion to Detective Sergeant to his success in catching Hamish, and he’s adamant that no mistakes were made.

This is Sharon Bolton at her twisty, twisted best, and her best is pretty brilliant! Bolton’s skill is not just in the plotting, great though that is. Where she really excels is in setting up an atmosphere of growing tension and dread, always helped by the settings she chooses. Her descriptive writing is fabulous – the lowering snow clouds, freezing cold and short dark days of her Somerset setting all adding beautifully to a scary sense of creepiness and fear. But there’s a healthy dose of humour which prevents the book from becoming too dark, meaning that it’s a truly enjoyable read even while it’s deliciously tingling the reader’s spine. This book so nearly won…

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2016

for

BEST CRIME FICTION/THRILLER

 

magpie-murders

Magpie Murders
by Anthony Horowitz

Susan Ryeland, editor for Cloverleaf Books, settles down happily to read the new manuscript from their star author – Magpie Murders by Alan Conway. Susan may not like the author, but she loves his books, a series of Golden Age style mysteries starring Atticus Pund and his sidekick James Fraser. But she will find that on this occasion the mystery extends beyond the book, and murder might have leapt from the pages into real life…

This is a fantastic take on a Christie-style murder mystery – country house, lots of characters all with secrets and motives, a nicely unpleasant victim so we don’t have to venture into grief territory, some great clues and red herrings, an intriguing detective in the German-born Pund, and a rather charming if intellectually challenged sidekick in James. It is in fact two books – the one involving Susan and “real” life, and the fictional book involving Atticus Pund and a gruesome murder in the village of Saxby-on-Avon. Like Christie, it gets that perfect balance between dark and light, depth and entertainment. Again, as with his take on the Holmes mysteries, Horowitz has shown how effectively he can play with these much-loved, established fictional worlds, always affectionately but always with an original twist that prevents them from being mere pastiche. Great stuff, that I’m sure will be enjoyed by any mystery fan.

Click to see the full review

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Next week: Best Literary Fiction Award

Longlist (and Longlisting) for Bloody Scotland and the McIlvanney Prize…

Be careful what you wish for…

Bloody Scotland logo 2

A few months back I told you all how excited I was at getting the opportunity to be involved in the longlisting for the Scottish Crime Book of the Year, to be awarded at this year’s Bloody Scotland event in September. The longlist has now been announced, so I thought I’d share my experience and thoughts about the process with you…

Bloody Scotland asked for volunteers to read and rate the fifty books or so that were put forward for the award. They got three hundred or so volunteers, though I don’t know if they used them all. The idea was that each reader would read five books picked randomly from the list – picked by Bloody Scotland, that is, not the reader. Each book would be read by several readers, then the ratings – a simple score from 1-10 – would be collated to create the longlist that would go to the panel of judges.

Now, as you know, and as I am very aware, I have… shall we say… certain prejudices when it comes to crime-writing. Present tense – ugh! Alcoholism – yawn! Foul language – yeuch! Misery-fest – blarrrrghhh! So I decided I needed to find a way to judge the books as impartially as I could… which of course was a golden opportunity for…

A Speadsheet!

Bloody scotland ratings

I have to say I enjoyed using this so much I’m now using it for all the crime novels I read. Did it make a difference to the ratings? Hard to say, in truth, because each one ended up with the same rating as I would have given it with my usual off-the-top-of-my-head star ratings. But I suspect I’ve been using a system like this subconsciously for my ratings for a long time.

* * * * *

Enough about the system, I hear you cry, what about the books? Well, it turns out the initial list is produced by publishers nominating books on their own lists. Sadly, some publishers either think really bad books are really good, or they hope that somehow they’ll get some publicity or reviews out of the process. Bad move, in my opinion. So far, I’ve only published a review of one of them – Open Wounds by Douglas Skelton, which scored a perfect ten for me. And I will review The Rat Stone Serenade, which got 6. But were I to review the other three (and I may at some point, on Goodreads, at least) they would be getting thoroughly slammed. No wonder they asked for volunteer readers! If I was invited onto a judging panel and had to read 50 books as bad as most of these, I’d… I’d… well, I don’t know what I’d do, but it wouldn’t be pleasant!

custard pie

I’ve removed the names of the three worst ones, because this post isn’t about slamming them – it’s about slamming the time-wasting publishers who put them forward. Mostly small, independent publishers from the small sample of 5 books that I received – the bigger ones put forward their best, and it showed. But here’s a brief résumé of the books…

Book 1 – a crossover crime/sci-fi/dystopian novel aimed at “middle-teens”. Why would any publisher put that forward even if it was good? Sadly it wasn’t. The plot was a mess, parts of it were clearly cut and paste jobs from wiki or suchlike, it was tedious and repetitive, and it seemed to suggest that the most reasonable response to poor parenting is to encourage children to brutally murder their parents. When the kids weren’t too busy murdering each other, that is. Ugh! Truly one of the worst and most repellent books I’ve ever read. Score – a generous 1.

the rat stone serenade

Book 2The Rat Stone Serenade by Denzil Meyrick. I really enjoyed the quality of writing and characterisation in this, and it had a great, well-realised Scottish setting in Kintyre. Unfortunately the plot went way over the top – I lost count of the bodies in the end and ceased to care long before that. However, there was enough good about it that I’d be happy to try another book by this author in the future. Full review to follow. Score – 6.

Book 3 – abandoned after roughly 20 pages of swearing, bullying and violence. Characterisation terrible or non-existent, and how any book can become repetitive within 20 pages beats me, but this one managed it. So clichéd and derivative. Ugh! But at least it wasn’t as bad as Book 1, and by that stage I no longer felt obliged to plough through the whole thing – how easily our good intentions get tossed aside! Score – sadly 1, because minus 10 wasn’t allowed.

open wounds

Book 4Open Wounds by Douglas Skelton. Brilliant book, and quintessentially Scottish! A definite contender for the prize, I should think. Here’s my review. Score – 10.

Book 5 – This was an adequate police procedural which I enjoyed well enough, but not enough to make me search out more from the author. Nothing original about it, average standard of writing and the famous saggy middle. Again, why the publisher thought it should be in the running defeats me. Score – 5.

The end result was that, when I sent in my ratings, I gave feedback to Bloody Scotland to the effect that, unless the standard was in some way improved, I wouldn’t put myself through it again in future years.

* * * * *

Then the longlist came out…

bloody scotland long list

(The name of the award has now been changed to the McIlvanney Prize in tribute to perhaps the greatest of all Scottish crimewriters, William McIlvanney, who died last year. I’m delighted – I think it’s a most appropriate tribute and I would imagine winners of the award in future years will be proud of the association.)

And wow! I have to say it’s a great looking longlist! Mostly excellent, bestselling authors, but with room for some lesser known ones too. Mostly actually set in Scotland (which as far as I’m concerned should be one of the criteria). Proper crime writing for the most part, and no ‘experimental’ or supernatural ones, as far as I can see. Only one misery-fest domestic noir, and a serious lack of murdered children! Nine past tense, one present tense, from what I can see on the Kindle samples.

Quality books that the general reading public might actually enjoy, in fact! Looks like the volunteers did a fine job after all of weeding out the sillier or weaker nominations and avoiding over-hyped, over-done ‘trends’. I’d be happy in principle to see almost any one of these win. I’ve only read a couple so far, but had already planned to read a couple of the others, and will certainly look out for the rest. And I might volunteer in the future again after all…

And, not that I’m biased or anything ;), but because it was my pick and scored a perfect 10, I do hope Open Wounds wins…

What do you think of the shortlist? Have you read any of them? Will you read any of them?

Have a great weekend! 😀

C'mon, Andy!
C’mon, Andy!

Open Wounds (Davie McCall 4) by Douglas Skelton

Genuine Tartan Noir…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

open woundsDavie McCall is a gangster with a moral code – he doesn’t hurt women, children or ‘civilians’. But that doesn’t stop him from hurting other people – badly, when they’ve done something that crosses one of his personal lines. He’s always felt in control of his violence though, until recently, when he suddenly found he was enjoying it. Now he wants out of the ‘Life’, but he’s scared – not of what his boss might do to him, but scared that he won’t be able to change, won’t be able to leave the desire for violence behind him. Meantime, he’s still working as a heavy for Rab McClymont, who’s not just his boss but an old friend. So when Rab asks him to lean on a man, Fergus O’Neill, at first Davie’s fine with that. O’Neill was convicted a few years back of a horrific burglary that involved rape, but is now out pending appeal and is publicly accusing Rab of having fitted him up for the crime. When Davie begins to believe that O’Neill may have been innocent, he still can’t believe that Rab would have been involved in a rape, even indirectly. So he begins to investigate…

This is a great book that I’m strongly recommending you don’t read. At least not straight away. It’s actually the fourth and final book in the Davie McCall quartet, and I very much wish I’d read them in order, partly because there are lots of references to the previous books in this one which meant I was a bit lost at the beginning, and partly because having now read this one, the first three will have been a little spoiled for me since I know how the series resolves. That won’t stop me reading them though! The first in the series is Blood City.

The book is set in Glasgow gangster culture and has a totally authentic feel to it. These are low level gangsters, running dodgy businesses, small-time drug dealing, protection rackets and loan-sharking. As well as giving a great sense of place, using mainly real locations, Skelton has a complete grip on Glaswegian “patter”, the humour that covers the harshness of life on the edges of society. The dialogue isn’t really written in dialect so non-Scots would have no difficulties with it, but the speech patterns and “voices” are spot on.

Normally I would have a serious problem with being able to empathise with a man who uses violence as a tool, but Skelton provides a ton of moral ambiguity, both about Davie’s victims and regarding his background, that makes him understandable. And his own internal struggle to hold onto some kind of moral code lets the reader be on his side, willing him to win out against the demons that haunt him. I couldn’t help but think of McIlvanney’s Laidlaw – Davie might be how Laidlaw would have turned out if he’d been born into the life of the gangster, and with a few better breaks in life Davie could have turned into Laidlaw. They share that sense of clear-sighted vision about the society they move in, the same philosophical acceptance that there’s only so much any one man can do to change things and the same core of morality that makes them swim against the tide even when they feel themselves being sucked under.

Douglas-Skelton
Douglas Skelton

Though I struggled at first from not having read the earlier books, by about a third of the way through I had gathered enough about the background for that aspect to stop being an issue, and from that stage in this worked fine as a standalone. The plotting is great, with several strands weaving in and out of each other. Davie is a kind of mentor to a younger thug, trying hard to stop him from losing his humanity. He’s increasingly at odds with his boss Rab, whose growing suspicions of Davie’s motives threaten their old friendship. There’s a corrupt police officer on the take, and this strand is handle particularly well – Skelton shows him believably as the exception rather the rule within the police, disliked as much by his fellow officers as by the lowlifes he bullies and uses. The characterisation throughout is exceptional, with every character ringing true – no clichés or stereotypes here. And in the end all the strands come together to an ending which is credible and satisfying without being falsely uplifting.

This is genuine Tartan Noir, grounded in the real recognisable Glasgow of today – a rare treasure amidst some of the overblown melodramatic dross which is so often wrongly acclaimed as giving an authentic picture of life here. I’m delighted to have stumbled across Douglas Skelton and he is now part of that select band of Scottish crime writers to whose future books I will look forward with keen anticipation.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Luath Press.

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