FictionFan Awards 2019 – Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

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…

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

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…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

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.

Click to see the full review

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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.

Click to see the full review

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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.

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2019

for

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.

Click to see the full review

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Next week: Best Literary Fiction

The Man With No Face by Peter May

Hold the front page…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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 one of Peter May’s earliest books, first published in 1981 and now being republished. In the introduction, May says he carried out a “light revision” of the text, but made only minor changes. When I learned it was such an early novel and long out of print, I lowered my expectations going in, but was intrigued to see how one of my long-term favourite authors started out. Well! No need to make allowances – this is a great thriller, right up there with the best he’s ever done!

Mostly we see the story from Bannerman’s perspective though in the third person, but there are also chapters throughout where the perspective shifts to Kale, the hired assassin who carries out the killings. This doesn’t in any way diminish the mystery, since Kale doesn’t know who has hired him or why – he’s simply doing a job. These chapters give an extra edge of darkness to the story. Kale is a damaged man, unsurprisingly given his profession, and a cold, clinical killer who doesn’t make mistakes. Until this time. Unknown to him, Slater’s young autistic daughter, Tania, has witnessed the killings, but her condition makes her unable to speak. She can draw however, and she draws a detailed picture of the killer, with just one thing missing… his face.

Bannerman is an excellent protagonist – hard, uncompromising, relentless when he’s on the track of a story, but with his own vulnerabilities and troubled past. He is drawn towards Tania, and she, sensitive to others’ feelings and starved of affection, finds herself equally drawn to him. So when it seems she might be in danger because of witnessing the crime, Bannerman has an extra reason to find the killer. Tania has a regular babysitter, Sally, who provides a love interest for Bannerman, but she of course also has a troubled past! I wouldn’t describe the book as full-on noir, but there’s certainly a noirish feel to it with all these 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.

In the introduction again, May says that the portrayal of Tania’s autism is “a reflection of prevailing opinion at the time”. I must say I think it’s stood the test of time very well, and still reads to me as far more authentic and less sensationalised or mawkish than many of the more recent fictional portrayals of people with autism. The reader is occasionally allowed inside Tania’s mind where we see her frustration at her inability to express herself, and that helps to explain her sometimes extreme behaviour. It’s a sympathetic and somewhat understated picture, and I found her entirely credible.

Peter May

The plot is complex and Bannerman’s search for the truth is again very credible, well within the realism of investigative journalism. May, of course, was a journalist himself back in the day, so it’s hardly surprising that the aspects surrounding the newspaper business ring true. The book is set in 1979, so no internet or mobile phones, and it reminded me how much I preferred thrillers back in the days when the protagonist was a real old-fashioned gumshoe, always on the move, dealing with people face to face. There is some violence, but nothing that felt overly graphic or out of place, and there’s a real and increasing sense of danger as the story unfolds, all leading up to an excellent thriller climax.

I must say I loved this as much as any of his later books, and am now hoping that Quercus dig out his other early thrillers and dust them off. A special treat for fans, but would work just as well for newcomers to his work. Highly recommended! It’s left me wanting to go back and re-read all his China thrillers, too…

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….“It’s a bit of a climb from this side,” said Parker.
….“It is. He stood here in the ditch, and put one foot into this place where the paling’s broken away and one hand on the top, and hauled himself up. No. 10 must have been a man of exceptional height, strength and agility. I couldn’t get my foot up, let alone reaching the top with my hand, I’m five foot nine. Could you?”
….Parker was six foot, and could just touch the top of the wall with his hand.
….“I might do it – on one of my best days,” he said, “for an adequate object, or after adequate stimulant.”
….“Just so,” said Lord Peter. “Hence we deduce No. 10’s exceptional height and strength.”
….“Yes,” said Parker. “It’s a bit unfortunate that we had to deduce his exceptional shortness and weakness just now, isn’t it?”
….“Oh!” said Peter. “Well – well, as you so rightly say, that is a bit unfortunate.”

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In truth I sometimes lost track of where Buddy’s thoughts ended and mine began. For years I couldn’t tell if I liked a movie or a book or a New Yorker short story without consulting him first. Then later I disagreed for the sake of disagreeing, failing to see how much I was still in his sway. In later years on the show I learned to write lines for his monologues in his voice and to come up with the sort of questions he’d be likely to ask in his interviews. He told me once that I’d become the other half of him, which he meant as a compliment but made me feel weird, like his soul had subsumed mine. One reason I left New York for the Peace Corps was a desire to silence his voice within my thoughts

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“Let them go,” he said – “let them go, Catharine, those gallants, with their capering horses, their jingling spurs, their plumed bonnets, and their trim mustachios: they are not of our class, nor will we aim at pairing with them. Tomorrow is St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird chooses her mate; but you will not see the linnet pair with the sparrow hawk, nor the Robin Redbreast with the kite. My father was an honest burgher of Perth, and could use his needle as well as I can. Did there come war to the gates of our fair burgh, down went needles, thread, and shamoy leather, and out came the good head piece and target from the dark nook, and the long lance from above the chimney. Show me a day that either he or I was absent when the provost made his musters! Thus we have led our lives, my girl, working to win our bread, and fighting to defend it. I will have no son in law that thinks himself better than me; and for these lords and knights, I trust thou wilt always remember thou art too low to be their lawful love, and too high to be their unlawful loon. And now lay by thy work, lass, for it is holytide eve, and it becomes us to go to the evening service, and pray that Heaven may send thee a good Valentine tomorrow.”

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….The Osage had been assured by the U.S. government that their Kansas territory would remain their home forever, but before long they were under siege from settlers. Among them was the family of Laura Ingalls Wilder, who later wrote Little House on the Prairie based on her experiences. “Why don’t you like Indians, Ma?” Laura asks her mother in one scene.
….“I just don’t like them; and don’t lick your fingers, Laura.”
….“This is Indian country, isn’t it?” Laura said. “What did we come to their country for, if you don’t like them?”
….One evening, Laura’s father explains to her that the government will soon make the Osage move away: “That’s why we’re here, Laura. White people are going to settle all this country, and we get the best land because we get here first and take our pick.”

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….Bannerman remembered a cartoon he had seen once in an old Punch magazine. Two crocodiles basking in a jungle swamp, heads facing each other above the muddy waters. One of them saying, ‘You know, I keep thinking today is Thursday.’ Bannerman smiled. It had amused him then, as it amused him now. What bloody difference did it make . . . today, tomorrow, yesterday, Thursday? It was ironic that later he would look back on this day as the day it all began. The day after which nothing would ever be quite the same again.
….But at the moment, so far as Bannerman knew, it was just a day like any other. He gazed reflectively from the window a while longer, out across Princes Street, the gardens beyond, and the Castle brooding darkly atop the rain-blackened cliffs. Even when it rained Edinburgh was a beautiful city. Against all odds it had retained its essential character in the face of centuries of change. There was something almost medieval about it; in the crooked hidden alleyways, the cobbled closes, the tall leaning tenements. And, of course, the formidable shape of the Castle itself, stark and powerful against the skyline.

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So…are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 188…

Episode 188

I’m in a bit of a reading slump at the moment, but fortunately I appear to be in a book-acquiring slump too, so the TBR has increased by just one to 226.

Maybe these will help pull me out of the doldrums…

Quotes

A gift from my brother. A little bit of Dickens sounds like a wonderful way to brighten every day of the year, doesn’t it? 

The Blurb says: A charming memento of the Victorian era’s literary colossus, The Daily Charles Dickens is a literary almanac for the ages. Tenderly and irreverently anthologized by Dickens scholar James R. Kincaid, this collection mines the British author’s beloved novels and Christmas stories as well as his lesser-known sketches and letters for “an around-the-calendar set of jolts, soothings, blandishments, and soarings.”

A bedside companion to dip into year round, this book introduces each month with a longer seasonal quote, while concise bits of wisdom and whimsy mark each day. Hopping gleefully from Esther Summerson’s abandonment by her mother in Bleak House to a meditation on the difficult posture of letter-writing in The Pickwick Papers, this anthology displays the wide range of Dickens’s stylistic virtuosity—his humour and his deep tragic sense, his ear for repetition, and his genius at all sorts of voices.

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Fiction

Courtesy of Scribner. I thoroughly enjoyed Tom Barbash’s writing in his short story collection, Stay Up With Me, although, as with a lot of modern short stories, I found some of them rather too fragmentary for my taste. I’ve been waiting patiently for a long time for his next production and am delighted that he’s chosen the novel form this time. Sounds good…

The Blurb says: An evocative and wildly absorbing novel about the Winters, a family living in New York City’s famed Dakota apartment building in the year leading up to John Lennon’s assassination.

It’s the fall of 1979 in New York City when twenty-three-year-old Anton Winter, back from the Peace Corps and on the mend from a nasty bout of malaria, returns to his childhood home in the Dakota. Anton’s father, the famous late-night host Buddy Winter, is there to greet him, himself recovering from a breakdown. Before long, Anton is swept up in an effort to reignite Buddy’s stalled career, a mission that takes him from the gritty streets of New York, to the slopes of the Lake Placid Olympics, to the Hollywood Hills, to the blue waters of the Bermuda Triangle, and brings him into close quarters with the likes of Johnny Carson, Ted and Joan Kennedy, and a seagoing John Lennon.

But the more Anton finds himself enmeshed in his father’s professional and spiritual reinvention, the more he questions his own path, and fissures in the Winter family begin to threaten their close bond. By turns hilarious and poignant, The Dakota Winters is a family saga, a page-turning social novel, and a tale of a critical moment in the history of New York City and the country at large.

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Classic Thriller

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. One for my Classics Club list. I don’t know anything about this other than the blurb and the fact that it’s considered a classic of espionage fiction. It sounds good, though, and I’ll know a lot more once I read the OWC introduction… and the book, of course!

The Blurb says: One of the first great spy novels, The Riddle of the Sands is set during the long suspicious years leading up to the First World War. Bored with his life in London, a young man accepts an invitation to join a friend on a sailing holiday in the North Sea. A vivid exploration of the mysteries of seamanship, the story builds in excitement as these two young adventurers discover a German plot to invade England.

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Thriller

Courtesy of Quercus via NetGalley. I didn’t realise when I requested this one that it’s not actually a new novel from May – it’s a re-publication from way back in his first incarnation as a novelist, long before he rose to the bestseller lists. I’ve always wanted to see how he started out, but the early books have been out of print since before I became a fan – he had a pause in novel writing when he spent several years writing and producing dramas for Scottish television. So I’m intrigued, but have lowered my expectations a little to allow for the fact that he was still learning his craft…

The Blurb says: There are two men on their way to Brussels from the UK: Neil Bannerman, an iconoclastic journalist for Scotland’s Daily Standard whose irate editor wants him out of the way, and Kale–a professional assassin.

Expecting to find only a difficult, dreary political investigation in Belgium, Bannerman has barely settled in when tragedy strikes. His host, a fellow journalist, along with a British Cabinet minister, are discovered dead in the minister’s elegant Brussels townhouse. It appears that they have shot each other. But the dead journalist’s young autistic daughter, Tania, was hidden in a closet during the killings, and when she draws a chilling picture of a third party–a man with no face–Bannerman suddenly finds himself a reluctant participant in a desperate murder investigation.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads.

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