FictionFan Awards 2018 – Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

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

MODERN CRIME FICTION/THRILLER

I’m still struggling with the obsession with identikit so-called psychological thrillers that is dominating modern crime fiction at the moment, so have read fewer books in this category this year than every before in my adult life, I think. I can’t help thinking that the astonishing rise in popularity of vintage crime over the last few years suggests I’m not alone in this. However, happily I’ve still managed to find a few great reads, none of which have the ubiquitous and terminally unoriginal woman in red/yellow coat on the cover, you’ll note…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

The Death of Mrs Westaway by Ruth Ware

Hal (Harriet) Westaway is struggling to keep her head above water. The bills keep pouring in and in these winter months she doesn’t get enough custom at her kiosk on Brighton’s West Pier to pay them all. Things are reaching a crisis. So when she receives a letter from a solicitor informing her that she has been left a legacy by her grandmother it seems like the answer to a prayer. There’s only one problem – Hal knows there’s been a mistake. Her real grandmother died years ago… 

All I ask for in crime fiction is a good story well told; some characters I can like, hate, worry about, mistrust; enough uncertainty about how it will play out to keep me turning pages; a minimum of unnecessary padding; and told in the past tense, preferably third person. And that’s exactly what Ruth Ware has given me in this hugely enjoyable thriller. Add in a dark and dusty old house full of attics and cellars and narrow little staircases, the shade of a wicked old woman who tyrannised over her family, a bunch of squabbling siblings, and a scary old housekeeper who knows more than she’s telling, and I’m pretty much in modern-Gothic heaven!

Click to see the full review

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Broken Ground by Val McDermid

DCI Karen Pirie of Police Scotland’s Historic Cases Unit is in the middle of re-investigating a series of rapes when she is diverted to a crime scene in the Highlands. A woman and her husband are on a kind of treasure hunt, looking for something that the woman’s grandfather buried in a peat bog long ago. They find the spot, but when they dig down into the peat, they are shocked to discover not only the looted items but the body of a man, almost perfectly preserved…

Now that a national police force has taken the place of the old regional forces in Scotland in real life, it gives fiction writers the ability to have their detectives travel all over the country, and McDermid is as comfortable writing about the Highlands as she is her hometown of Edinburgh. She gives an amazingly good sense of place and a wholly authentic feel to contemporary Scottish life and to a professional police force where dysfunctional drunken mavericks wouldn’t be tolerated. The fifth book in the Karen Pirie series and an excellent addition.

Click to see the full review

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Sweet William by Iain Maitland

A man escapes from a secure psychiatric hospital to find his little son, sweet William, and run off to a new life, just the two of them, in the south of France. This is the story of the next forty-eight hours…

And what a story! A complete roller-coaster during most of which we’re stuck inside the head of Orrey, the father, whose frequent assertions that he’s not mad somehow fail to convince us! Dark and disturbing doesn’t even begin to describe it. By all rights, I should have hated it – I’ve bored on often enough about my dislike of using children to up the tension in crime fiction. But it’s a tour de force piece of writing with one of the most brilliantly drawn disturbed central characters I’ve read in a long time – think Mr Heming or The Dinner or Zoran Drvenkar. Then add in relentless pacing that drives the book forward at a speed to leave you gasping – the definitive page-turner! 

Click to see the full review

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Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee

Roused from a drug-addled stupor in an opium den in the backstreets of Calcutta, Sam Wyndham, Captain in the Calcutta police, discovers the place is being raided. Discovery of his addiction will finish his career so he flees, only to stumble across the body of a horribly mutilated Chinaman. Or did he? Next day, when no report of the murder comes in, Sam is left wondering if he hallucinated the whole thing. That is, until he is called out to another murder, where the body has been mutilated in exactly the same way…

This series goes from strength to strength with each new instalment – this is the third. Set in the early 1920s, the dying days of the Raj when the Indian Independence movement was well under way, Mukherjee always manages to work the political situation into his stories without allowing it to overwhelm them or feeling like a history lesson. As always, though, the plot is founded much more on human nature than on politics. I feel this is his strongest plot so far, which takes us into some dark episodes in the dealings between the Raj and their subjects. There’s a good deal of moral ambiguity in there, and some excellently complex characterisation to carry it off. And it all builds to a first-rate, entirely credible thriller finale that I found fully satisfying.

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2018

for

MODERN CRIME FICTION/THRILLER

The Accident on the A35 by Graeme Macrae Burnet

Since I couldn’t find a single thing to criticise about this book, it was the only possible choice to be this year’s winner.

When Bertrand Barthelme runs his car off the A35 into a tree one evening and dies, Inspector Georges Gorski has no reason to think it was anything other than an unfortunate accident. But Barthelme’s widow thinks there’s something odd about her husband having been at that spot at that time and asks Gorski to look into it a bit more. Mme Barthelme is an attractive 40-something with more than a touch of the femme fatale in this first meeting, so Gorski finds himself agreeing. Meantime, Barthelme’s 17-year-old son Raymond starts a kind of investigation of his own, in an attempt to learn more about the father with whom he had always had a rather cold, distant relationship. Both investigations will head off in unexpected directions.

This is on the face of it a crime novel, but the quality of the writing, the depth of the characterisation, the creation of place and time and the intelligence of the game the author plays with the reader all raise it so that it sits easily into the literary fiction category, in my opinion at the highest level. The setting – the small town of Saint-Louis, in the corner of France that borders Germany and Switzerland, some time in the 1970s – is brilliantly drawn, but it’s the human characters who make it such an absorbing story.  Not a word is wasted – with the briefest of descriptions, Burnet can create a person who feels real, solid, entire, as if they might be a neighbour we’ve known all our life. I loved every lean and beautifully placed word of this slim book, and was wholly absorbed from beginning to end. Superb!

Click to see the full review

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Next Week: Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2018

Sweet William by Iain Maitland

Whom the gods would destroy…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A man escapes from a secure psychiatric hospital to find his little son, sweet William, and run off to a new life, just the two of them, in the south of France. This is the story of the next forty-eight hours…

And what a story! A complete roller-coaster during most of which we’re stuck inside the head of Orrey, the father, whose frequent assertions that he’s not mad somehow fail to convince us! Dark and disturbing doesn’t even begin to describe it. By all rights, I should have hated it – I’ve bored on often enough about my dislike of using children to up the tension in crime fiction. But it’s a tour de force piece of writing with one of the most brilliantly drawn disturbed central characters I’ve read in a long time – think Mr Heming or The Dinner or Zoran Drvenkar. Then add in relentless pacing that drives the book forward at a speed to leave you gasping – the definitive page-turner!

I don’t want to say too much about the plot since it’s always best to know as little as possible in advance when reading thrillers, but I will mention that little William, who’s only three, goes through a lot, so if you really struggle with bad things happening to fictional children this may not be for you. There is no sexual abuse however.

The book is written in two voices. One is a third-person, past tense narrator who tells us the events of this forty-eight hours as they happen to William’s new family, who adopted him after his mum died and his father was put in the hospital. Although we do learn the names of these characters, for the most part the narrator refers to them as ‘the young woman’, ‘the old man’, etc. This is a fantastic device for keeping us distanced from them – in fact, they’re not even particularly likeable in the beginning – so that somehow we’re not sucked in to being 100% on their side – not for a while, anyway.

I can see her, evil cow, trying to keep up with Veitch. She’s holding William’s hand and every time he stumbles, because she’s going way too fast for his little legs, she pulls him to his feet and keeps walking.
Poor little mite.
I’d like to push on up behind her and jostle her to the ground next time she does that and then, as she stumbles and falls, I’d take little William by the hand and be away into the crowd.
He’d look up at me in surprise and I’d look down at him and smile and say something sweet and kind and he’d smile back as we disappeared away together forever.
You know what, I might even kiss him on the forehead. That’s what you do, that is.
Kiss little children.

Orrey however tells us his own story in the present tense, talking directly to us (or maybe talking to another voice inside his head, but the effect is the same). He doesn’t have much of a plan and has to react to each event as it happens. Frequently, a chapter will end with him summing up what he thinks his options are and then asking what would you do? Now, it’s perfectly possible I’m a very sick person because I found myself being forced to agree that sometimes the most extreme option was really the only possible one. When I discovered that at one point I was agreeing that he really had to do something that no normal person would ever dream of doing, I laughed at how brilliantly the author had pushed me so far inside Orrey’s insane world view that he’d made it seem almost logical.

Despite the darkness of the story, Maitland keeps the graphic stuff firmly off the page for the most part, though that doesn’t stop it from seeping into the reader’s imagination. But it does make it a bearable – dare I say, even an entertaining – read, which wouldn’t have been the case for me had every event been described in glorious technicolor. The oblique references to what has happened during the gaps in Orrey’s narration actually frequently made me laugh in a guilty kind of way – there’s a thin vein of coal black humour buried very insidiously in there, I think, in the early parts, at least. Although the stuff relating to William is difficult to read, if Orrey has a redeeming feature it’s that he truly does love his son, which somehow made it possible for me to remain in his company if not on his side.

Iain Maitland

However, as the book goes on, the darkness becomes ever deeper and Maitland changes the focus with a great deal of subtlety and skill so that gradually our sympathies become fixed where they should have been all along – with William and his adopted parents. But we are left inside Orrey’s unreliable mind right up to the end, so that the book might end but our stress levels take a good deal longer to get back to normal. I finished it four days ago, and I’m still waiting…

I believe this is Maitland’s fictional début – well, I’m kinda speechless at that. While the subject matter might make this a tough read for some, for me the quality of the writing, the way the author nudges and pushes the reader to go exactly where he wants, and the utterly believable and unique voice of Orrey, all make this a stunning achievement. Set aside a few hours to read it in a block though – you’ll either stop for good very quickly or you won’t want to stop at all…

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

‘I am slain,” she cries, “alas! I am slain!” I did not write the line, so I am not responsible for the older woman stating what must already have been obvious. The younger woman screams, not in shock, but in exultation.

The older woman staggers some more, turning now so that the onlookers can see the blood. If we had not been in a palace, then we would not have used the sheep’s blood, because the velvet gown was too rich and expensive, but for Elizabeth, for whom time does not exist, we must spend. So we spend. The blood soaks the velvet gown, hardly showing because the cloth is so dark, but plenty of blood stains the lavender silk, and spatters the canvas that has been spread across the Turkey carpets. The woman now sways, cries again, falls to her knees, and, with another exclamation, dies. In case anyone thinks she is merely fainting, she calls out two last despairing words, “I die!” And then she dies.

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Josh Griffin was racing to beat the news deadline clock with his last story of the week when he heard his name.

It wasn’t in dulcet tones, either. “Griffin – you got a minute?”

Looking up from his computer, Josh zeroed in on his editor, seated in her office, clear across the crowded newsroom. She was wearing her usual scowl as she shuffled a stack of wire copy, confident her minion would jump to attention and present himself before her throne.

Josh felt his heart quicken. Any time Millie String bellowed at a hapless colleague, Josh cringed, knowing his turn would come one day, too. This must be my day of reckoning, he decided.

“I’m on deadline, Millie,” he called, without rising but with a point to the Seiko on his wrist. “Can’t it wait?”

Millie fixed a stare on him and shook her head. “Now,” was all she said.

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Haruo’s room was near the front door. A child’s crayon drawings of “a general” and “a soldier with tulips” were pinned to the wall. In the middle of the room stood a potted fir tree, with braids of golden wire and chains of coloured paper threaded between the branches, topped by snow made of white cotton. It was the Christmas tree Sanshirō had bought for his son just before he had left for his temporary assignment.

But the first thing I noticed as I entered the room was the empty bed of the little master of the Christmas tree standing in front of a small desk in one corner. The blankets had been thrown back and the child who should have been sleeping there was nowhere to be seen. The silver paper stars of the Christmas Tree that had lost its master sparkled as they started to turn and sway in the cold currents of air.

From The Cold Night’s Clearing by Keikichi Osaka

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If I move, even ever so slightly, this stair will creak and they will hear me. They’re all around me and one of them will cry out, that’s for sure. Bound to. Then I’m done for. I’ll never get another chance like this to get away. And I need to get away tonight, come what may. No matter what.

If I turn my head oh-so-slowly to the right and look up, I can see three doors on the first-floor landing above me. All shut. Ainsley is in the room at this end of the landing, closest to the stairs. He’ll be sitting there now, rocking gently back and forth and mumbling to himself. He’s sharper than you’d think, though. If he hears me, he’ll shout out, “Who’s there?” at the top of his thin, whiny voice. And he’ll do it over and over, each time louder than the last.

Sprake is in the middle room. He’ll be staring out of the window across the lawn. Absolutely motionless, he’ll be. I know. I’ve seen him. He sits that way for hours at a time. Like he’s in a trance. If I get out of here, I’ll have to stay round the side of the building to get away. If Sprake sees me he’ll start shouting and banging on the walls with his fists. He turns quickly, that one. He’s mad, proper mad. I’ve even seen him biting his toenails until they bleed.

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From the Archives…

“Well, I’d got to talk so nice it wasn’t no comfort – I’d got to go up in the attic and rip out awhile, every day, to git a taste in my mouth, or I’d a died, Tom. The widder wouldn’t let me smoke; she wouldn’t let me yell, she wouldn’t let me gape, nor stretch, not scratch, before folks -” (Then with a spasm of special irritation and injury) – “And dad fetch it, she prayed all the time!”

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The minister gave out the hymn, and read it through with a relish, in a peculiar style that was much admired in that part of the country. His voice began on a medium key and climbed steadily up till it reached a certain point, where it bore with strong emphasis upon the topmost word and then plunged down as if from a spring-board:

“Shall I be car-ri-ed toe the skies, on flow’ry BEDS of ease,
Whilst others fight to win the prize, and sail thro’ BLOOD-y seas?”

(Click for full review)

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So…are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 140…

Episode 140…

The bad news is that the TBR hasn’t gone down this week. The good news is it hasn’t gone up either! Staying stable on 219 – or to be more detailed – three out, three in.

Last week every book I listed was over 90 years old, so in the spirit of balance, here are some of the new releases that I will be reading soonish…

Crime

Courtesy of the publisher, Saraband. Having thoroughly enjoyed His Bloody Project, I was delighted to be offered Burnet’s new one. It sounds very different. However I note it says it’s a follow-up to an earlier book… hmm! Hopefully it will work even though I haven’t read that one…

The Blurb says: The methodical but troubled Chief Inspector Georges Gorski visits the wife of a lawyer killed in a road accident, the accident on the A35. The case is unremarkable, the visit routine.

Mme Barthelme—alluring and apparently unmoved by the news—has a single question: where was her husband on the night of the accident? The answer might change nothing, but it could change everything. And Gorski sets a course for what can only be a painful truth. But the dead man’s reticent son is also looking for answers. And his search will have far more devastating consequences.

The Accident on the A35 is the spellbinding follow-up to Graeme Macrae Burnet’s debut noir novel The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau.

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NB A Verboballistic Invention – talking of His Bloody Project, the editor of the book, Craig Hillsley, popped into the comments section of my review to say “For those discussing the authenticity (or not) of Roddy’s voice, you might find it interesting to look up the real life case of Pierre Rivière.” I did, and it’s an intriguing story… here’s a link.

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Historical Fiction

Courtesy of NetGalley. Having enjoyed Cornwell’s Viking sword-and-sandals novel, The Last Kingdom, I’m intrigued at what seems to be something of a departure for him…

The Blurb says: Fools and Mortals follows the young Richard Shakespeare, an actor struggling to make his way in a company dominated by his estranged older brother, William. As the growth of theatre blooms, their rivalry – and that of the playhouses, playwrights and actors vying for acclaim and glory – propels a high-stakes story of conflict and betrayal.

Showcasing his renowned storyteller’s skill, Bernard Cornwell has created an Elizabethan world incredibly rich in its portrayal: you walk the London streets, stand in the palaces and are on stage in the playhouses, as he weaves a remarkable story in which performances, rivalries and ambition combine to form a tangled web of intrigue.

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Thriller

Courtesy of the publisher, Saraband, who kindly popped a couple of extras in along with the new Burnet. It sounds dark

The Blurb says: Life and death played out over 48 hours. A father intent on being with his young son escapes from a secure psychiatric hospital, knowing he has just one chance for the two of them to start a new life together. Sweet William is a breathtakingly dark thriller that spans forty-eight hours in the life of a desperate father and a three-year-old child in peril. Brilliant and terrifying, this is a debut novel that will stay with its readers long after they finish turning the pages.

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Vintage Crime

Courtesy of the publisher, The British Library. The latest in their collection of anthologies of short stories, as always edited by the wonderful Martin Edwards. This one has a twist though – these are all translated… sounds fab!

The Blurb says: Today, translated crime fiction is in vogue – but this was not always the case. A century before Scandi noir, writers across Europe and beyond were publishing detective stories of high quality. Often these did not appear in English and they have been known only by a small number of experts. This is the first ever collection of classic crime in translation from the golden age of the genre in the 20th century. Many of these stories are exceptionally rare, and several have been translated for the first time to appear in this volume. Martin Edwards has selected gems of classic crime from Denmark to Japan and many points in between. Fascinating stories give an insight into the cosmopolitan cultures (and crime-writing traditions) of diverse places including Mexico, France, Russia, Germany and the Netherlands.

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NB All blurbs 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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