FictionFan Awards 2018 – Vintage Crime Fiction

Drum roll please…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2018.

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 2017 and October 2018 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

Genre Fiction

Factual

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2018

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 both the British Library Crime Classics and the Collins Crime Club working hard to keep me entertained with some of my most enjoyable reads of the year, not to mention my slowly ongoing Murder, Mystery, Mayhem Challenge.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Fire in the Thatch by ECR Lorac

The Second World War is drawing to a close when the tenancy of a piece of land complete with thatched cottage falls vacant on the estate of Colonel St Cyres, in Devon. The Colonel is determined the lease shall go to someone who shares his love of the land and who wants to work it productively. However, his daughter-in-law June has different ideas. A Londoner by birth and a party-girl by nature, June is staying with her father-in-law because her husband, the Colonel’s son, is a prisoner of war in Burma. She wants the Colonel to give the cottage to a “friend” of hers, a Mr Gressingham, who would use it as a place to entertain his (and June’s) rather decadent London friends. Fast forward a few months, and Inspector MacDonald of the Yard is on his way to investigate what might have been a case of accidental death, or possibly one of arson and murder…

Lorac’s writing is excellent and the picture she creates of rural England during the war years is totally convincing. Inspector MacDonald is an appealing detective – a thoughtful and kindly man, strictly moral on his own account but with the capacity to make some allowance for moral weakness in others. Although convoluted, the plot is firmly grounded in human nature, giving it a timeless quality. Lorac and MacDonald deserve their return to the limelight!

Click to see the full review

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The Eye of Osiris by R. Austin Freeman

One November day in 1902, John Bellingham disappears from the study of a friend’s house where he had been waiting for his friend to return home. Two years later, there has still been no sign of him and his potential heirs are left in limbo, unable to execute his rather strange will. And then pieces of a dismembered skeleton begin to show up in odd places. Meantime, young Dr Paul Berkeley, our narrator, has fallen in love with Ruth Bellingham, the missing man’s niece, whose father is one of the potential heirs. He persuades Ruth’s father, Godfrey Bellingham, to allow Dr John Thorndyke, an expert in medical jurisprudence, to look into the case. It’s up to Thorndyke to find a way to identify the remains and to find out what was behind Bellingham’s disappearance.

The prose is elegant, reminding me of Conan Doyle’s easy style, and the wit in Berkeley’s observations of the other characters made me chuckle aloud several times. And I adored the romance! Ruth feels remarkably modern considering the book was written in 1911 – humorous and intelligent, strong and self-reliant. A thoroughly entertaining read!

Click to see the full review

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The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson

It’s the early 1930s. Britain’s finances haven’t yet recovered from the Great War and now the Stock Market collapse has brought matters close to crisis. So the Home Secretary has invited an American financier to a private dinner at the House of Commons to schmooze him into agreeing to make the government a substantial loan. But when the Division Bell sounds, the Home Secretary has to leave the room to go and vote. The Home Secretary’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, young Robert West, is also hurrying along the corridor to vote, but as he passes the room where the financier waits alone, he hears a shot. Rushing in with the other people in the corridor, he finds the financier dead! Who killed him? And why? Robert finds himself working as a liaison with the police to find the answers…

This is a lot of fun, with two likeable lead characters in Robert and Grace, a feisty young Socialist MP based on the author herself, who wrote the book during a temporary halt in her own Parliamentary career. The plot is a bit messy perhaps, but that’s more than compensated for by the humour and especially the enjoyable insider look at all the quirky traditions that surround parliamentary procedures. Great fun!

Click to see the full review

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The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux

Mademoiselle Mathilde Stangerson is attacked in her yellow bedroom by a murderer wielding a mutton-bone. When her father and the other people in the house break down the door, Mlle S is on the floor and her murderer is nowhere to be found. How did the murderer get out of a room in which the only door and window were securely locked? Enter our hero, Joseph Rouletabille, a young journalist who at the age of eighteen has already acquired a reputation as an inspired amateur detective.

A classic ‘locked room’ mystery with another ‘impossible crime’ thrown in for good measure, this is a fabulous little romp that is more and more fun as it goes along. Hercule Poirot himself described it as a masterpiece, and who am I to disagree? Essential reading for vintage crime fans and so nearly the winner…

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2018

for

BEST VINTAGE CRIME FICTION

The Murder of My Aunt by Richard Hull

Good though the shorlisted books are, the decision was an easy one. The Murder of My Aunt entertained me as much as any book I’ve read this year.

Edward Powell is an unhappy young man. He lives with his annoying Aunt Mildred who, as his guardian and trustee of his inheritance, holds the purse-strings, rather too tightly in Edward’s opinion. To make matters worse, he’s forced to live in the family home in a small village in Wales, surrounded by landscape and hills and sheep and all that awful stuff, when he should be mingling with artists and bright young things in one of the fashionable hotspots of the world. Really it’s too much to bear. So he decides there’s only one thing to be done… the clue is in the title!

Edward’s voice is what makes the book so special. The writing is fantastic, so that Hull manages to let the reader see both the truth and Edward’s unreliable interpretation of it simultaneously. One couldn’t possibly like Edward, and in real life one would pretty quickly want to hit him over the head with a brick, but his journal is a joy to read. It’s a brilliant portrait of a man obsessed with his own comforts, utterly selfish, and not nearly as clever as he thinks he is. An expert example of how to make an unlikeable character work, and full of wicked humour – brilliant!

Click to see the full review

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Next week: Best Genre Fiction

Excellent Intentions by Richard Hull

Snuffed out…

😀 😀 🙂

Henry Cargate has offended just about everyone who has had anything to do with him, so when he takes a huge pinch of snuff unaware it’s been laced with potassium cyanide and dies, really anyone could be a suspect. But a person has been charged with the crime and is now about to be tried. As the lawyer for the prosecution lays out the investigation and evidence for the jury, the reader is invited to tag along. But unlike the jury, the reader is not told the identity of the accused until the end.

This is a rather fun conceit, where most of the story is therefore told in flashback through the eyes of the various people called to give evidence at the trial. Although the whole world had a motive (if being deeply unpleasant is a good enough reason to be murdered, that is), the poison that was mixed with the snuff was only accessible at certain very limited times in Cargate’s own study, so the actual pool of suspects is quite limited.

I’ve had a great run with these British Library Crime Classics recently, but unfortunately I didn’t enjoy this one as much as I hoped. I’d read and loved Hull’s other entry, The Murder of My Aunt, so had high expectations for this one. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the book. It’s just that it depends almost entirely on timing and alibis to discover who could have had access to the poison, and that’s never my favourite kind of crime book. I know loads of people love to try to beat the detective in this kind of puzzle, but my tastes don’t run in that direction. I prefer books that concentrate on characterisation and motives rather than on means and opportunity. I’m afraid as the detective began to make lists of who could have been in a corridor at a specific four-minute period, or calculate whether it would be possible for someone to be seen from a certain angle through a door and so on, my eyes glazed over. I didn’t know, but what was worse, I didn’t care. I eventually began to skip whole pages, though I tuned in again in time for the solution and the rather enjoyable twist in the tail.

Richard Hull

This is very definitely a subjective criticism – a case of wrong reader, wrong book. The quality of the writing is good, there are enough touches of humour to make it entertaining rather than grim and I’m pretty sure all the alibi stuff is very clever. So if that’s the type of puzzle that intrigues you, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the book far more than I did. But sadly, not my cup of tea.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 172…

Episode 172…

After last week’s disaster, I’m back on track this week – a little older, a little wiser and down one to 232. (That’s the TBR, not my age.) Little jumps are definitely the way to go…

Here are a few more that I should leap over soon…

Horror

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. Another exciting anthology of classic horror stories to send the fretful porpentine into a frenzy...

The Blurb says: John Polidori’s classic tale The Vampyre (1819), was a product of the same ghost-story competition that produced Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The present volume selects thirteen other tales of mystery and the macabre, including the works of James Hogg, J.S. LeFanu, Letitia Landon, Edward Bulwer, and William Carleton. The introduction surveys the genesis and influence of The Vampyre and its central themes and techniques, while the Appendices contain material closely associated with its composition and publication, including Lord Byron’s prose fragment Augustus Darvell.

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Crime

Courtesy of Little, Brown Book Group via NetGalley. This sounds like an intriguing way to visit South Korea for my Around the World challenge. Getting mixed reviews so far, though, so fingers crossed…

The Blurb says: Yu-jin is a good son, a model student and a successful athlete. But one day he wakes up covered in blood. There’s no sign of a break-in and there’s a body downstairs. It’s the body of someone whom Yu-jin knows all too well.

Yu-jin struggles to piece together the fragments of what he can remember from the night before. He suffers from regular seizures and blackouts. He knows he will be accused if he reports the body, but what to do instead? Faced with an unthinkable choice, Yu-jin makes an unthinkable decision.

Through investigating the murder, reading diaries, and looking at his own past and childhood, Yu-jin discovers what has happened. The police descend on the suburban South Korean district in which he lives. The body of a young woman is discovered. Yu-jin has to go back, right back, to remember what happened, back to the night he lost his father and brother, and even further than that.

The Good Son deals with the ultimate taboo in family life, and asks the question: how far will you go to protect your children from themselves?

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Fiction

Courtesy of Serpent’s Tail via NetGalley. The Booker Prize has become a joke now, with mediocre crime bestsellers jostling alongside graphic novels. I’m betting next year it will include cross-stitch manuals and colouring books. Entirely British/Irish/North American with not a sniff of Africa or India or any other area of the Commonwealth it used to showcase so well. Not sure how this one snuck onto the longlist, because it actually sounds rather interesting. Written by a Canadian, thankfully, because obviously we don’t want books written by actual Barbadians, do we? (Do I sound grumpy? That’s because I am… 😉 )

The Blurb says: When two English brothers take the helm of a Barbados sugar plantation, Washington Black – an eleven year-old field slave – finds himself selected as personal servant to one of these men. The eccentric Christopher ‘Titch’ Wilde is a naturalist, explorer, scientist, inventor and abolitionist, whose single-minded pursuit of the perfect aerial machine mystifies all around him.

Titch’s idealistic plans are soon shattered and Washington finds himself in mortal danger. They escape the island together, but then Titch disappears and Washington must make his way alone, following the promise of freedom further than he ever dreamed possible.

From the blistering cane fields of Barbados to the icy wastes of the Canadian Arctic, from the mud-drowned streets of London to the eerie deserts of Morocco, Washington Black teems with all the strangeness and mystery of life. Inspired by a true story, Washington Black is the extraordinary tale of a world destroyed and made whole again.

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Vintage Crime

Courtesy of the British Library. I adored the only other Richard Hull I’ve read, The Murder of My Aunt, so I’m looking forward to this one hugely…

The Blurb says: Great Barwick’s least popular man is murdered on a train. Twelve jurors sit in court. Four suspects are identified but which of them is on trial? This novel has all the makings of a classic murder mystery, but with a twist: as Attorney-General Anstruther Blayton leads the court through prosecution and defence, Inspector Fenby carries out his investigation. All this occurs while the identity of figure in the dock is kept tantalisingly out of reach. Excellent Intentions is a classic crime novel laced with irreverent wit, first published in 1939.

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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?

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The Murder of My Aunt by Richard Hull

All in the family…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Edward Powell is an unhappy young man. He lives with his annoying Aunt Mildred who, as his guardian and trustee of his inheritance, holds the purse-strings, rather too tightly in Edward’s opinion. To make matters worse, he’s forced to live in the family home in a small village in Wales, surrounded by landscape and hills and sheep and all that awful stuff, when he should be mingling with artists and bright young things in one of the fashionable hotspots of the world. Really it’s too much to bear. So he decides there’s only one thing to be done…

It’s not often a book has me laughing out loud before I even get through the first page, but this one did! The book is narrated for the most part by Edward, taken from the journal he keeps as events unfold. It begins with his disgust at living in a place which he insists is impossible to pronounce, Llyll, – it takes him three (hilarious) paragraphs to explain how one is supposed to say it. He then describes his surroundings, not in the idyllic terms we’ve come to expect of descriptions of picturesque countryside…

I see I spoke of “sodden woods”. That was the right adjective. Never, never does it stop raining here, except in the winter when it snows. They say that is why we grow such wonderful trees here which provided the oaks from which Rodney’s and Nelson’s fleets were built. Well, no one makes ships out of wood nowadays, so that that is no longer useful, and it seems to me that one tree is much like another. I’d rather see less rain, less trees and more men and women. “Oh, Solitude, where are the charms?” Exactly so.

The title gives a broad hint, so it’s not a spoiler to say that the book is about Edward’s plan to murder his aunt. Now I’m a bit like Hercule Poirot in that I don’t approve of murder, but in Edward’s defence I have to admit that Aunt Mildred really asks for it – she finds fault with everything Edward does (with some justification), nags him constantly and is not averse to shaming him in public. All of which makes the thing far more entertaining than if she’d been a sweet old soul. This is a battle of two people who are opposites in every way except for their desire to come out on top.

Edward’s voice is what makes the book so special. The writing is fantastic, so that Hull manages to let the reader see both the truth and Edward’s unreliable interpretation of it simultaneously. One couldn’t possibly like Edward, and in real life one would pretty quickly want to hit him over the head with a brick, but his journal is a joy to read. It’s a brilliant portrait of a man obsessed with his own comforts, utterly selfish, and not nearly as clever as he thinks he is. He’s also delightfully effeminate, a total contrast to rugged old Aunt Mildred who’s a hardy daughter of the soil.

Richard Hull

Written in 1934, it’s hard for modern audiences to know whether Hull intended Edward to be read as gay or just effeminate, but he would certainly be seen as stereotypically gay now, with his finicky desire to have all his clothes flamboyantly colour-matched, his eye for interior decoration, his little Pekinese dog, and so on. But if it’s deliberate, it’s done in a way that seemed to me affectionate, even though we’re supposed to laugh at him. Seeing him as gay also adds an element of humour to the fact that Aunt Mildred (who I’m quite sure has never even heard of homosexuality!) is constantly accusing him of trying to seduce the maid. I wondered if I was reading too much “gayness” into the character, so was rather pleased to read in Martin Edwards’ introduction (which of course I read as an afterword) that ‘Anthony Slide, in Lost Gay Novels: A Reference Guide to Fifty Works from the First Half of the Twentieth Century (2013) has argued that the book is “the best, and by far the most entertaining, of the early English mystery novels with a gay angle.”’ From my limited experience, I can’t argue with that!

But that’s only one aspect of Edward’s character and not the most important one. It’s his self-obsession and grouchy, distorted view of the world that makes him so enjoyable. I don’t want to say any more about the plot because the suspense element comes from not knowing whether Edward’s plans will succeed. I found it compulsively readable and while it isn’t laugh-out-loud all the way, it’s consistently funny, in a wicked, subversive way, full of lightly black humour. Loved it! One of the gems of the BL’s Crime Classics collection for me.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, British Library.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 158…

Episode 158…

Better news this week, but only a little. The TBR has dropped by a miniscule 1 to 220. Still, it’s just a matter of continuing to take baby steps…

Here are a few more that will slide my way soon…

Vintage Crime

Courtesy of the British Library. This one popped through my letterbox last week out of the blue. I know nothing about either the book or the author, but the blurb makes it sound as if it’ll be a lot of fun! An immoral masterwork? Oooh…

The Blurb says: In this darkly comic, quite immoral masterwork, Edward is an effete, poor young man who has something in store for his only relative, his wealthy aunt. First published in 1934, this classic mystery is considered a masterpiece of the inverted detective story, in which it is known “whodunit.” The question is “how will they catch ’em?” Highly unpredictable, it contains one of the most surprising denouements in all of detective fiction.

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Scottish Fiction

Courtesy of Canongate via NetGalley. Another one I know nothing about other than the blurb, but the Shetland setting appeals and Canongate do a good job in promoting quality Scottish fiction, current and classic, so fingers crossed for this début…  

The Blurb says: Shetland: a place of sheep and soil, of harsh weather, close ties and an age-old way of life. A place where David has lived all his life, like his father and grandfather before him, but where he abides only in the present moment. A place where Sandy, a newcomer but already a crofter, may have finally found a home. A place that Alice has fled to after the death of her husband.

But times do change – island inhabitants die, or move away, and David worries that no young families will take over the chain of stories and care that this valley has always needed, while others wonder if it was ever truly theirs to join. In the wind and sun and storms from the Atlantic, these islanders must decide: what is left of us when the day’s work is done, the children grown, and all our choices have been made?

The debut novel from one of our most exciting new literary voices, The Valley at the Centre of the World is a story about community and isolation, about what is passed down, and what is lost between the cracks.

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More Vintage Crime

Courtesy of NetGalley again. Farrago are gradually reissuing all twelve of Colin Watson’s Flaxborough Chronicles – this is number 4. I’ve read them all before, some of them many times, so am only selecting the ones I haven’t re-read for a long while, but they’re all great fun…

The Blurb says: Whatever can have happened to Lil?

Flaxborough butcher Arthur Spain is worried that his sister-in-law hasn’t been in touch lately, so he pays her a visit. But Lil’s not at home, and by her porch door are a dozen bottles of curdling milk… Alarmed, he calls in the local police, D.I. Purbright and his ever-reliable Sergeant Sid Love.

It transpires Lilian Bannister is the second middle-aged woman in the town to mysteriously vanish, and the link is traced to a local lonely hearts agency called Handclasp House. So when a vulnerable-seeming lady with the charming title of Lucy Teatime signs up for a romantic rendezvous, the two detectives try extra hard to look out for her. But Miss Teatime has a few surprises of her own up her dainty sleeve!

Witty and a little wicked, Colin Watson’s tales offer a mordantly entertaining cast of characters and laugh-out-loud wordplay.

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Classics Club

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. A few years back, I listened to Heart of Darkness on audio with Kenneth Branagh narrating, during my daily commute. Frankly, I didn’t have a clue what was going on – not a unique occurrence for me with audiobooks, which I find require a different kind of concentration. I decided this was one that needed to be read on paper, so stuck it on my Classics Club list. And to be extra safe, I begged a copy from OWC so that if I still don’t understand it, their intro and notes should help! Plus I get a bonus of ‘Other Tales’…

The Blurb says: The finest of all Conrad’s tales, Heart of Darkness is set in an atmosphere of mystery and menace, and tells of Marlow’s perilous journey up the Congo River to relieve his employer’s agent, the renowned and formidable Mr. Kurtz. What he sees on his journey, and his eventual encounter with Kurtz, horrify and perplex him, and call into question the very bases of civilization and human nature. Endlessly reinterpreted by critics and adapted for film, radio, and television, the story shows Conrad at his most intense and sophisticated.

The other three tales in this volume depict corruption and obsession, and question racial assumptions. Set in the exotic surroundings of Africa, Malaysia, and the east, they variously appraise the glamour, folly, and rapacity of imperial adventure. This revised edition uses the English first edition texts and has a new chronology and bibliography.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

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

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