We’ve seen the honorable mentions for my best crime books of 2017. They were (and indeed are) all great books. But, dear reader, there have been some which have blown my socks off.
Without further ado, here are the creme de la creme, my top five crime books of 2017.
5. The Dry, by Jane Harper
The first book I read in 2017, The Dry is a gritty, superbly atmospheric crime noir where the heat and tension in the small tight-knit community practically ooze off the page and the pages demand to be turned. Jane Harper weaves a net of intrigue packed with twists and turns, secrets and lies more than the odd red herring along the way. There’s a deft sleight of hand going on as the plot unfolds leaving you thinking that you’ve finally figured it out, only for the cards to be turned over one by one and, of course, the lady has vanished.
I said at the time I would be surprised if The Dry didn’t grace my books of the year list, and so here it is.
Back in March I went along to the Orenda Roadshow at Waterstones in Leeds, and amongst the considerable writing talent on display was a lad from Newcastle telling a story about a murder. As you’ve no doubt guessed (you clever so-and-so), that lad was Matt Wesolowski and he was reading from his debut novel, Six Stories.
Six Stories is unlike anything I’ve read before. Told in the form of six episodes of a Serial-style podcast, we delve into the mysterious events at Scarclaw Fell twenty years ago when a young boy goes missing and is ultimately found dead.
Each episode is an interview with one of the group of friends who were there that evening, and Matt deftly weaves an intricate, multi-layered plot, letting us in on one secret at a time. And there are so many secrets…
It’s an astonishingly confident and compelling novel, all the more impressive for being a debut. Matt manages to capture the distinct voices of the cast of characters perfectly, with all of their teenage angst and worries, the shifting group dynamics and emotions.
Six Stories is dark and disturbing in places, with an unsettling feeling of dread creeping up as you delve further into the story and the events on Scarclaw Fell.
Another one where I will called it – “Six Stories will be one of my books of 2017, and I would be very surprised if it’s not very near the top of the list.” It is indeed here, and very high on the list, for very good reasons.
Next up is another Orenda author. Antti Tuomainen, King of Finnish Noir and owner of some quite splendid shirts. The Man Who Died is a departure from his usual Helsinki Noir, and is a sheer delight. Perhaps he has created a new genre, Mushroom Noir?
It’s delightfully different – here we have a man who knows that he’s been (or being) poisoned, and sets out to solve his own murder. The cast of suspects is fairly short, and Jaakko does like making lists. Could it be his wife? The strange characters at the shiny new mushroom processing plant in town? Or the Japanese clients?
Jaakko follows the trail around town as he investigates, coming across a whole bunch of fabulous characters who wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of Fargo. The humour in The Man Who Died is layered and oh so very dark and exactly the way I like it. Superb.
Back in May I found myself with a copy of Tall Oaks on my kindle (blame falling firmly on the shoulders of @lizzy11268) I settled in for a story of a small town and a missing child, thinking that I’d read stories like this before.
How wrong I was. Tall Oaks is a beautifully wrought tale of small town America, shot through with a deft line in wit and with what were to become some of my favourite characters in a book, ever. Manny and Abe, I’m looking at you.
The characters in Tall Oaks all have their story to tell, and what stories they are. There’s a real depth to these people, quirks, secrets and lies playing out over the days and weeks following the disappearance of three year-old Harry.
The sense of small town America seeps through the pages of this book and I was surprised to find out that Chris Whitaker is, in fact, British – born in London and living in Hertfordshire and yet has captured the feel of the town so brilliantly. What’s even more astonishing is that this is a debut novel – the writing, plotting and characterisation are confident and accomplished.
I said at the time “if this is just the start of Chris’s writing career, I cannot wait to see what he comes up with next.”
What Chris came up with next turned out to be my favourite crime book of the year. And, as we’ve seen, that’s a phenomenally strong field.
At number one, we therefore have All The Wicked Girls, by Chris Whitaker
How foolish I was. I thought Tall Oaks was good. How could he top that? The bar had been set pretty high.
All The Wicked Girls is so utterly brilliant, though in a different way to Tall Oaks. I’d struggle to pick one to recommend to you if pressed, and would probably insist that you just buy both and thank me (or rather thank Chris) later.
It’s deep and complex, harrowing and heartbreaking, a story of a young girl’s hunt for her missing sister in a small southern bible belt town. Chris Whitaker does small-town America really really well, and the town and townsfolk are pitch perfect. As with Tall Oaks, All The Wicked Girls is a character piece, and what characters they are – from the distraught parents to the fire & brimstone preachers, the harried cops and Raine’s unlikely partners, Noah and Purv.
Much like Manny and Abe from Tall Oaks, I loved the three kids, each with their own secrets, each trying to make it in their own version of the world.
All The Wicked Girls sits firmly alongside Tall Oaks in my books of the year. As I said earlier, don’t make me choose – buy both and settle down for some of the best storycrafting you’re likely to see for a long time.
Chris Whitaker can be found on twitter @whittyauthor. Go say hi. The go read his books.
Phew. So, there we have it. Get them on your christmas lists, boys and girls.
And I couldn’t resist a sneaky peek at 2018 – I thought long and hard about this and whether to include it on the list (and to be honest I partly left it out so I didn’t have to choose between this and All The Wicked Girls, if I’m honest!) Technically it’s not out until 2018 so I’ve dodged that bullet, but it’s bloody brilliant and you should definitely add this to your list.
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is, to put it simply, one of the best books I’ve read in a long, long time. It’s fabulously mind-twistingly clever, with a high-concept plot, a host of splendid, characters and a delightfully Christie-esque setting. It’s a book which demands that you pay attention, and rewards you handsomely for doing so. You know who dies from the title itself, but unlike your common or garden whodunnit, you follow the course of a day many times over, from different viewpoints as our protagonist tries to solve the question of who killed Evelyn Hardcastle, and more importantly, why.
I’m in awe of the plotting at work here – multiple characters interwoven across a day and the rooms and grounds of Blackheath. It’s been compared to Agatha Christie meets Inception, but it’s so much more than that – throw in a dash of Quantum Leap, and a smidgeon of Cluedo, topped off with a light dusting of Groundhog Day. I can picture the author in a room with a large map and a ball of red string, laying out the timelines.
Look. It’s genius. Just go and order yourself a copy. The hardback comes with maps, and who doesn’t love a good map in a book? I’ve already got a copy on order so I can read it again and savour it. There’s not many books I get a chance to re-read, but I’m looking forward to re-reading this one again. And again. And again…
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is published in the UK by Raven Books in February 2018.