Not just another ‘best of 2013′ reading list

santa_klausThis week’s post is from Rich Westwood

Back in December 2011, when I was still new to blogging, I was struck by a piece Maxine Clarke wrote for her blog Petrona. Rather than do a simple ‘best of the year’, she opted to follow the ‘End of the Year Book Meme’, which enabled her to highlight more of her year’s reading. She didn’t originate the idea, but it was her
version I saw first.

Everybody who has written for Petrona Remembered has pointed out how supportive Maxine was to other bloggers, and I can only echo that. So here by way of thanks is a Petrona-inspired End of the Year Book Meme.

(Disclaimer: I tend to review classic mysteries, so I’m taking 2013 to mean ‘read in 2013’ rather than ‘published in 2013’. Don’t worry, there are some recent titles in here as well.)


Best book of 2013
‘Best’ is a very difficult thing to pin down. Are we being subjective or trying for objectivity? Petrona’s strapline was ‘intelligent crime fiction from around the world’, so I’m going to offer some global candidates, all of which I awarded five stars.

From Ireland: Gene Kerrigan’s THE RAGE (2012). Set in post-Celtic Tiger Dublin, this is a tough crime novel with a moral core. In true noir style, it focuses on a committed career criminal working on his first big job but about to fall prey to his own weakness – in this case, revenge.

From the US: Patricia Highsmith’s THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY (1955) is an acknowledged classic which, however, seems to divide opinion quite sharply. The moral of the story could be summed up as ‘what a tangled web we weave…’ as we follow anti-hero Tom Ripley in his leech-like career in a beautifully described Italy.

From Holland (sort of): Nicholas Freeling’s GUN BEFORE BUTTER (1963), of which more later.

From France: Didier Daeninckx (trans. Liz Heron) MURDER IN MEMORIAM (1984) is a cold-case story with its roots in the brutal treatment of Algerian protesters in the 60s. The hero Cadin is a wily cop with a talent for making enemies. Despite the unpleasantness that underlies this case, the overall tone is light and reminiscent of Camilleri. Cadin, like Montalbano, is a slight obsessive, adept at blundering through local politics, and has a history of falling in love with witnesses and victims.

Worst book of 2013
Geoffrey Household’s ROGUE MALE (1939)

Having failed to assassinate a European dictator, the protagonist of ROGUE MALE bolts to the English countryside and then disappears from view by digging himself a hole in the bank of a country lane. There are hints of Robinson Crusoe as he builds himself the perfect den.

Why don’t I like it? I can’t stand the (nameless) protagonist. He’s angry, arrogant, and a snob. ‘A hideous word – hiker. It has nothing to do with the gentle souls of my youth who wandered in tweeds and stout shoes from pub to pub. But, by God, it fits those bawling English-women whose tight shorts and loose voices are turning every beauty spot in Europe into a Skegness holiday camp.’

Most disappointing
Michael Innes’ THE JOURNEYING BOY (1949)

This started so well. A fussy schoolmaster named Thewless accepts a job tutoring the problem child of a nuclear scientist and finds himself drawn into a confusing world in which his charge may or may not the target of kidnappers. Meanwhile, somebody has killed the boy’s former tutor. By the half-way point I had no idea what was going on (in a good way). Then I did (in a bad way). Once the mystery begins to resolve itself, the book becomes an adventure story with shades of Enid Blyton. And I lost all interest.

Most surprising in a good way
Scott Turow’s PRESUMED INNOCENT (1987)

I would never have picked up PRESUMED INNOCENT in a million years. A 1980s American legal thriller? No way. But it was one of the Crime Writer’s Association’s top 100 novels and so I tried it.

It is the story of Rusty Sabich, a Prosecuting Attorney in Kindle County, USA. Rusty is already mixed up in a tense and competitive political struggle when his ex-mistress Caroline is found raped and strangled. The book follows his investigation, and then in a volte-face, his trial for Caroline’s murder.

What is fascinating is that Rusty knows the game so well. His trial isn’t about guilt or innocence, it’s about winning. Nobody on his side even considers the question of guilt or innocence. And so the reader has to presume…

Book you recommended to people most
Harry Kemelman’s THE NINE-MILE WALK (1968)

This relatively obscure collection of Harry Kemelman short stories features Nicky Welt, an armchair detective who works as Professor of English at Fairfield University but is often on hand to advise his friend the County Attorney. The stories (which first appeared in ‘Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine’ between 1947 and 1967), are neat little bits of old-school mystery. Kemelman’s virtuoso piece is a thought-experiment in which Welt reconstructs a crime from a chance remark overheard by his friend, so convincingly he realises it must have actually happened.

Best series you discovered
A toss-up between Barbara Nadel’s Hakim and Arnold, and Anya Lipska’s Kiszka and Kershaw.

I’m a fan of Barbara Nadel’s other series – the Istanbul-set Inspector Ikmen and the Blitz-ridden undertaker Francis Hancock. She’s good at depicting cosmopolitan communities – and the ways in which very different people get along (usually). Nadel brings the same approach to her new PI series Hakim and Arnold. Mumtaz Hakim is a veiled Muslim woman with real courage and strength of purpose. Lee Arnold is a former East End copper with an unexpected soft side.

Anya Lipska is a new author with reader-friendly prose and characters who make for engaging company: Janusz Kiszka and Natalie Kershaw. He’s a successful fixer to London’s Polish community; she’s an ambitious young detective. Some of the most interesting scenes are the meetings between Natalie and Janusz, initially exposing their prejudices: Polish thug vs harmless girl.

Most hilarious book
William Stephens Hayward: REVELATIONS OF A LADY DETECTIVE (1864)
Mrs Paschal is one of those ‘much-dreaded, but little-known people called Female Detectives’. Her eminently Victorian opponents are an enthusiastic mix of aristocratic bank robbers, Italian unificationists, evil nuns, live-rat-eating sideshow performers, the enormous wife of a pork-and-butter merchant, bent solicitors, evil twins, and larcenous postmen. Detection is kept to a bare minimum. Mrs Paschal’s MO is 1. Dress up as a servant. 2. Catch villain.

She displays a sly wit:

‘Thermopylae was not defended by men who lived upon the fat of the land, but by those who ate coarse bread and spring onions – rather objectionable in feminine eyes, but conducive to physical development.’

But more often than not, the humour is frankly unintentional: ‘Oh! How egregiously I have been duped!’ cried the abbess, in despairing accents.

Most thrilling, unputdownable book
John Fowles’ THE COLLECTOR (1963)

I think the putting down of a book depends as much on mood and circumstance as anything else. I can read a good book and find myself leaving it alone for no good reason, or charge through something demonstrably bad just because I am enjoying it. I have noticed this year that I’m no longer a big fan of the classic thrillers. Twenty years ago I hung on to every word of THE DAY OF THE JACKAL; this year I enjoyed it but wouldn’t describe it as immortal any more. Perhaps oddly, the book I had trouble leaving alone was THE COLLECTOR, John Fowles’ story of a butterfly collector who wins the pools and builds himself a prison in his cellar.

Book you most anticipated
Agatha Christie’s CROOKED HOUSE (1949)

This came highly recommended by fellow bloggers, and it is pretty good. Agatha herself rated it very highly: ‘This book is one of my own special favourites… writing CROOKED HOUSE was pure pleasure…’

Young diplomat (and son of a Scotland Yard brass hat) Charles Hayward falls for Sophia Leonides in wartime Cairo, and when the war is safely over he gets in touch to see if she wouldn’t mind awfully getting married. Unfortunately Sophia’s got some baggage in the form of a recently murdered grandfather and a very suspicious family. The family lives together under one roof, and Charles ends up staying with them while the police try to sort it all out.

The end is a classic Christie twist (you’ll kick yourself), and the book is definitely a cut above the majority of country house murder mysteries.

Favourite cover of a book you read
I can tell you the worst, straight off: Georges Simenon’s THE IRON STAIRCASE/THE iron_staircaseTRAIN.

My favourite covers this year are probably from the British Library’s classic crime series, with Mavis Doriel Hay’s THE SANTA KLAUS MURDER being the most seasonal (I didn’t go a bundle on the story, though).

Most memorable character
Tricky: I think I tend to like big, colourful characters best.

The Victorian lady detective Mrs Paschal was a real find. She’s not afraid to get stuck in, adopting a take-no-prisoners approach reminiscent at times of Mike Hammer.

Mortimer Shay, the semi-mythic Royalist spymaster from TRAITOR’S FIELD, has a lot of potential and would be great on screen, I think.

R.M., the anonymous hero of ROGUE MALE, is memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Fred and Miranda from John Fowles’ THE COLLECTOR are neither big nor colourful, but they are a memorable pair. He’s a control freak with a girl in his cellar. She’s a control freak who is, unfortunately, in his cellar. Their struggles for supremacy are gripping.

Most beautifully written
Robert Wilton’s TRAITOR’S FIELD (2013)

I’ve read some excellent prose this year, from Dashiell Hammett’s THE GLASS KEY to Scott Turow’s PRESUMED INNOCENT. Their style is what has made them classics, so I’ve chosen to pick a new entrant.

TRAITOR’S FIELD is set during the English Civil War. It’s the story of two intelligence men working on opposite sides: The Royalist Sir Mortimer Shay and the Parliamentarian John Thurloe. They share an obsession with a suspicious death during a botched attempt at a kidnapping. Wilton’s prose is dense and he is adept at conveying atmosphere – from a besieged town to a run-down prison to a remote country house. His fight scenes are brilliant:

‘Then the nightmare: the earth shuddering and the heads screaming and the drowsy clusters of men dragging themselves awake and somehow up, and staggering and clutching for shoulders and weapons and clarity and the nightmare is on them. The nightmare is Cromwell, vast leather-and-metal men on rampaging horses, exploding dark out of the night, monstrous grey-brown shadows and a madness of noise.’

Book that had the greatest impact on you
Georges Simenon’s THE TRAIN (1964)

This has surprised me a little bit. I didn’t especially enjoy it, in fact I didn’t review it beyond a brief mention in my reading review for September. It is the story of an ordinary man from a small town in France at the very beginning of World War Two. He flees the approaching German army with his family, but loses them and without drawing breath takes up with the Belgian refugee who proves to be his soul-mate. They enjoy a bizarre honeymoon is a refugee camp before his ‘real’ life catches up with him. What’s snuck into my mind and won’t leave, is an incredible act of betrayal in the final few paragraphs. His return to normality, to duty, eclipses everything else. And his soul-mate, of course, understands.

Book you can’t believe you waited until 2013 to read
Nicolas Freeling: GUN BEFORE BUTTER (1963)

Van der Valk is a cop show I remember my parents watching in the 70s (and the theme tune, available on YouTube, will doubtless be familiar to many. However, for some reason I had never considered reading the Nicolas Freeling books until I found this in my local second-hand bookshop. Van der Valk is an unconventional and whimsical detective who I think probably influenced Fred Vargas when she came up with her Commissaire Adamsberg. Van Der Valk is similarly unconventional, a thinker and dreamer whose mental processes do not fit into the standard police mould, but who yet has his uses: ‘He got thrown the queer jobs. Anybody with a funny name or a funny business. Or who talked other languages…’

So there we have it: my pick of the 60-odd books I read in 2013.

Rich blogs at Past Offences and is a regular reviewer for Euro Crime.

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