Sunday, 30 December 2018

My favourite reads of 2018

My favourite reads of 2018 have been a mixture of historical, true crime, debut novels, non-fiction and continuing series.  It has been rather difficult to narrow them down.  They all made me realise why I enjoy reading this genre so much and also why it is in such robust health. In alphabetical order my favourite reads are as follows –

Jonathan Abrams’s All The Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire (Oldcastle Books) is in my opinion a love affair to The Wire. Since its final episode aired in 2008, the acclaimed crime drama The Wire has only become more popular and influential. The issues it tackled, from the failures of the drug war and criminal justice system to systemic bias in law enforcement and other social institutions have become more urgent and topical. It is arguably without doubt one of the great works of art America has produced in the 21st century.  But while there has been a great deal of critical analysis of the show and its themes, until now there has never been a definitive, behind-the-scenes take on how it came to be made. With unparalleled access to all the key actors and writers involved in its creation, Jonathan Abrams tells the astonishing, compelling, and complete account of The Wire, from its inception and creation through to its end and powerful legacy.  It may be over ten years ago since the last episode of The Wire was shown but its impact has certainly not been dimmed and All The Pieces Matter just re-enforces why The Wire is such a seminal piece of writing.  If you are wishing for another season of The Wire then hopefully All The Pieces Matter will suffice.

Dark Sacred Night by Michael Connelly (Orion Publishing) picks up the story of detective Harry Bosch in the first novel in a new series, pairing Bosch’s talents with that of Renee Ballard, who made her entrance in the Ballard series-opener The Late Show.  At the end of a long, dark night Detectives Renee Ballard and Harry Bosch cross paths for the very first time.  Detective Renee Ballard is working the graveyard shift again, and returns to Hollywood Station in the early hours only to find that an older man has snuck in and is rifling through old file cabinets. The intruder is none other than legendary LAPD detective Hieronymus ‘Harry’ Bosch, working a cold case that has crept under his skin.  Unimpressed, Ballard kicks him out, but eventually Bosch persuades her to help and she reluctantly relents. Because Bosch is on the trail of a cold case which refuses to stay buried; investigating the death of fifteen-year-old Daisy Clayton, a runaway who was brutally murdered. It’s a case that haunts Bosch - who crossed paths with Daisy’s devastated mother on a previous case. As Bosch and Ballard are drawn deeper into the mystery of her murder, they find there are more surprises awaiting them in the darkness.  Michael Connelly is in top form with Dark Sacred Night and it is interesting to see him team up with another detective to solve a cold case.  Furthermore it is good to see Bosch realising that he can no longer do some of the things he used to be able to and has to rely on someone else. As usual impeccable writing, compelling storyline and incredibly descriptive. Michael Connelly never lets the reader down and in his case he has brought another brilliant partnership to our attention.

The Woman in the Woods by John Connolly (Hodder and Stoughton) features of course that eponymous private detective Charlie Parker who first came to our attention in the debut novel Every Dead Thing.  Since then John Connolly and Charlie Parker have consistently been amongst my favourite reads.  The Woman in the Woods is no exception. It is spring, and the semi-preserved body of a young Jewish woman is discovered buried in the Maine woods. It is clear that she gave birth shortly before her death. But there is no sign of a baby.  Private detective Charlie Parker is engaged by the lawyer Moxie Castin to shadow the police investigation and find the infant, but Parker is not the only searcher. Someone else is following the trail left by the woman, someone with an interest in more than a missing child, someone prepared to leave bodies in his wake...  Charlie Parker is a brilliant, sympathetic anti-hero that finds himself fighting a progressively sinister and complex world.  As a recurring series Charlie Parker is amongst the best.

I am always sceptical when authors are asked to continue long running series after the original author has passed away and tend to view and read them with a large dose of salt.  Some get it right, some don’t.  In the case of Money in the Morgue (Harper Collins), Stella Duffy got it spot on. It's business as usual for Mr Glossop as he does his regular round delivering wages to government buildings scattered across New Zealand's lonely Canterbury plains. But when his car breaks down he is stranded for the night at the isolated Mount Seager Hospital, with the telephone lines down, a storm on its way and the nearby river about to burst its banks.  Trapped with him at Mount Seager are a group of quarantined soldiers with a serious case of cabin fever, three young employees embroiled in a tense love triangle, a dying elderly man, an elusive patient whose origins remain a mystery ... and a potential killer.  When the payroll disappears from a locked safe and the hospital's death toll starts to rise faster than normal, can the appearance of an English detective working in counterespionage be just a lucky coincidence - or is something more sinister afoot? Roderick Alleyn is back in this unique crime novel begun by Ngaio Marsh during the Second World War and completed by Stella Duffy in a way that has delighted reviewers and critics alike.  Murder in the Morgue is so superbly written that as a reader one is in the unique position of reading a seamless book.  Fans of Ngaio Marsh also get to renew their acquaintance with an author who is considered to be one of the Queen’s of crime!  A wonderful book to read and savour.

The Poison Bed is by E C Fremantle (Penguin Books) and is a chilling, noirish thriller ripped straight from the headlines.  A king, his lover and his lover's wife. One is a killer.  In the autumn of 1615 scandal rocks the Jacobean court when a celebrated couple are imprisoned on suspicion of murder. She is young, captivating and from a notorious family. He is one of the richest and most powerful men in the kingdom. Some believe she is innocent; others think her wicked or insane. He claims no knowledge of the murder. The king suspects them both, though it is his secret at stake. Who is telling the truth? Who has the most to lose? And who is willing to commit murder?  The Poison Bed is a fascinating tale of intrigue and ambition and full of period detail.   It is dark, riveting and murderous and with its immaculate detail overwhelmingly atmospheric. This is a Jacobean mystery that does not pull any punches.

Mick Herron’s The Drop (Hodder and Stoughton) is a Slough House series novella.  Old spooks carry the memory of tradecraft in their bones, and when Solomon Dortmund sees an envelope being passed from one pair of hands to another in a Marylebone cafe, he knows he's witnessed more than an innocent encounter. But in relaying his suspicions to John Bachelor, who babysits retired spies like Solly, he sets in train events, which will alter lives. Bachelor himself, a hair's breadth away from sleeping in his car, is clawing his way back to stability; Hannah Weiss, the double agent whose recruitment was his only success, is starting to enjoy the secrets and lies her role demands; and Lech Wicinski, an Intelligence Service analyst, finds that a simple favour for an old acquaintance might derail his career. Meanwhile, Lady Di Taverner is trying to keep the Service on an even keel, and if that means throwing the odd crewmember overboard, well: collateral damage is her speciality.  A drop, in spook parlance, is the passing on of secret information.  It's also what happens just before you hit the ground.  Elegantly written, wry with a subtle wit The Drop is a welcome addition to the Slough House series.  Mick Herron’s redundant spies are a joy to be around and surely this must be the best series around featuring a wonderful team of inept and frustrating spies.  Unlike the novels, The Drop is much more of a classic spy novel with a traditional setting along with agents in the field.  However, this is novella is worth reading for the outrageous jokes alone. Sublime.

If you have never read Gregg Hurwitz Orphan X series then I suggest that you do so pretty quickly. It is one of those series that keeps on getting better and is full of intense action and emotional rollercoasters.  In Hellbent (Penguin Books) to some he is Orphan X. Others know him as the Nowhere Man. But to veteran spymaster Jack Johns he will always be a boy named Evan Smoak.  Taken from an orphanage, Evan was raised inside a top-secret programme designed turn him into a deadly weapon. Jack became his instructor, mentor, teacher and guardian. Because for all the dangerous skills he instilled in his young charge, he also cared for Evan like a son. And now Jack needs Evan's help.  The Orphan programme hid dark secrets. Now those with blood on their hands want every trace of it gone. And they will stop at nothing to make sure that Jack and Evan go with it.  With little time remaining, Jack gives Evan his last assignment: to find and protect the programme's last recruit. And to stay alive long enough to uncover the shocking truth ...  Hellbent is a brilliant twisty page turning thriller that will leave you gasping. This is the type of novel that in my opinion reiterates how well thrillers are doing and why they continue to be amongst the widest read.

Laura Lippman is one of the few authors whose books make me wish that I actually wrote novels. She is one of the best novelists around and her work constantly gives the reader not only hours of joy but food for thought.  Sunburn (Faber & Faber) is a noir gem of a novel that is reminiscent of James M Cain.  What kind of woman walks out on her family? Gregg knows. The kind of woman he picked up in a bar three years ago precisely because she had that kind of wildcat energy. And now she's vanished - at least from the life that he and his kid will live. We'll follow her, to a new town, a new job, and a new friend, who thinks he has her figured. So who is this woman who calls herself Polly? How many times has she disappeared before? And who are the shadowy figures so interested in her whereabouts?   There is a sultry femme fatale ambiance that permeates throughout the novel and this certainly brings a sense of noir to the fore despite the fact that the novel is set in the 1990s. If you haven’t done so already then read Sunburn and also Laura Lippman’s backlist. You certainly won’t regret it.

Everyone has a secret... Only some lead to murder. The House on Half Moon Street by Alex Reeve (Bloomsbury Publishing) introduces Leo Stanhope: a Victorian transgender coroner's assistant who must uncover a killer without risking his own future When the body of a young woman is wheeled into the hospital where Leo Stanhope works, his life is thrown into chaos. Maria, the woman he loves, has been murdered and it is not long before the finger of suspicion is turned on him, threatening to expose his lifelong secret. For Leo Stanhope was born Charlotte, the daughter of a respectable reverend. Knowing he was meant to be a man - despite the evidence of his body - and unable to cope with living a lie any longer, he fled his family home at just fifteen and has been living as Leo ever since: his secret known to only a few trusted people. Desperate to find Maria's killer and thrown into gaol, he stands to lose not just his freedom, but ultimately his life.  This is a mysterious Victorian crime novel with a troubled but fascinated narrator.   His transgenderisim is handled incredibly well along with the other resulting issues that take their toll.  Told in first person this is an enthralling psychological murder that is original and has a brilliant premise.  Wonderfully atmospheric The House on Half Moon Street is exactly what a Victorian murder mystery should be.

A Treachery of Spies by Manda Scott (Transworld Publishing) is an espionage thriller to rival the very best; a high stakes game of cat-and-mouse, played in the shadows, which will keep you guessing every step of the way. An elderly woman of striking beauty is found murdered in Orleans, France. Her identity has been cleverly erased but the method of her death is very specific: she has been killed in the manner of traitors to the Resistance in World War Two. Tracking down her murderer leads police inspector Ines Picaut back to 1940s France where the men and women of the Resistance were engaged in a desperate fight for survival against the Nazi invaders. To find answers in the present Picaut must discover what really happened in the past, untangling a web of treachery and intrigue that stretches back to the murder victim's youth: a time when unholy alliances were forged between occupiers and occupied, deals were done and promises broken. The past has been buried for decades, but, as Picaut discovers, there are those in the present whose futures depend on it staying that way - and who will kill to keep their secrets safe....  If you are a fan of espionage thrillers then this is a fascinating read. It is beautifully written and one of the best spy thrillers that has recently been written.

Stuart Turton’s debut novel The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (Bloomsbury Publishing) is a brilliant, high concept murder with nods to Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie and Robert Altman’s Gosford Park.  Somebody's going to be murdered at the ball tonight. It won't appear to be a murder and so the murderer won't be caught. Rectify that injustice and I'll show you the way out.'  It is meant to be a celebration but it ends in tragedy. As fireworks explode overhead, Evelyn Hardcastle, the young and beautiful daughter of the house, is killed. But Evelyn will not die just once.  Until Aiden - one of the guests summoned to Blackheath for the party - can solve her murder, the day will repeat itself, over and over again. Every time ending with the fateful pistol shot. The only way to break this cycle is to identify the killer. But each time the day begins again; Aiden wakes in the body of a different guest. And someone is determined to prevent him ever escaping Blackheath...  A story within a story, a highly original read with an intriguing storyline and a depiction of Blackheath that will leave you fascinated. The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is an unusual concept that plays with all the tropes and conventions of the Golden Age of detection and is certainly worth reading.   

The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World by Sarah Weinman (Orion Publishing).  For many Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita is one of the most beloved and notorious novels of all time. And yet, very few of its readers know that the subject of the novel was inspired by a real-life case: the 1948 abduction of eleven-year-old Sally Horner.  Weaving together suspenseful crime narrative, cultural and social history, and literary investigation, The Real Lolita tells Sally Horner's full story for the very first time. Drawing upon extensive investigations, legal documents, public records and interviews with remaining relatives, Sarah Weinman uncovers how much Nabokov knew of the Sally Horner case and the efforts he took to disguise that knowledge during the process of writing and publishing Lolita.  Sally Horner's story echoes the stories of countless girls and women who never had the chance to speak for themselves. By diving deeper in the publication history of Lolita and restoring Sally to her rightful place in the lore of the novel's creation, The Real Lolita casts a new light on the dark inspiration for a modern classic.  I will freely admit that I am not a big reader of true crime books.  However, I managed to devour The Real Lolita and was thoroughly captivated by the literary detective work that was clearly undertaken to bring to life the poignant story of Sally Horner.  A stupendous read that will make you look at Nabokov’s Lolita in a very different light.

Honourable mentions also go to Val McDermid’s Broken Ground (Little, Brown), The Darkness by Ragnar Jonasson (Penguin) The Syndicate by Guy Bolton (Oneworld Publishers) Robicheaux by James Lee Burke (Orion) and Name of the Dog by Elmer Mendoza (Quercus)

No comments: