Right. We’ve seen the sci-fi books of the year, and the fantasy books. Now it’s time for the gritty crime and thrillers!
Again, in no particular order, can I respectfully present my favourite 13 crime/thriller books.
Attend – West Camel (Orenda Books, November 2018)
Ok, so Attend isn’t really a crime book, though it does feature a criminal and doesn’t really fit into either of the other two lists and it HAD to go somewhere, so it’s going here.
Look, it’s my blog, I’ll put it where I want, ok?
Attend is a book which doesn’t quite fit, yet fits perfectly.
It’s a wonderfully weird web of stories, deftly interwoven across time. It’s the story of Sam, a young gay man in Deptford. It’s the story of Derek, small-town gangster (see, I told you it fit in the crime section!). It’s the story of Anne, middle-aged ex-junkie. Each thread of the story is held by the enigmatic, mysterious Deborah, always present, always overlooked.
The characters are all fascinating in their own way, but it’s Deborah who demands the most attention, despite all but disappearing in the real world. It feels that she’s embedded into the very fabric of Deptford, in a house that’s almost as invisible as she is.
West Camel has given us a gorgeous, multi-faceted novel, a book to curl up with and lose yourself in. One of those where you don’t know what to expect, but know that you don’t want to end.
Hunted – G.X. Todd (Headline, May 2018)
And boy, what a hunt it is. It’s going to be hard to talk about this book without spoiling anything, but trust me on this. If you read and loved Defender, you *need* to read this. Pick up a copy, set aside a day, stockpile the biscuits, take the phone off the hook and strap yourself in for the chase.
Hunted takes the beautifully realised world of Defender, with it’s panoply of fantastic (albeit unpleasant in some cases) characters and expands the mythos. Those voices grow louder, the dystopia grows even more widescreen cinematic in scope, and the ending? Holy moly.
You are not ready for that ending. It’s a proper Empire Strikes Back kind of moment. Bereft, yet with a glimmer of hope that some things might just come right in the end.
The tension ratchets throughout the book, but it’s a slow burn, taking its time to catch light, but when the fire starts to burn, you need to stand back. The plotting is intricately woven through multiple viewpoints, multiple strands and the characters, oh the characters we meet. They’re complex, layered, always fascinating, often frustrating, and sometimes infuriating, but so utterly believable, facing down challenge after challenge, and when you think they can’t possibly take any more…
The Anomaly – Michael Rutger (Bonnier Zaffre, June 2018)
The Anomaly is a huge amount of fun. A film crew head off to the Grand Canyon to investigate a mysterious cavern found (and lost) decades earlier, reportedly filled with treasures galore.
Look, this was never going to end well, was it? A bunch of amateur explorers wandering around ancient dark caves? What could *possibly* go wrong?
Lots. Lots of things could go wrong. And boy, do they go wrong.
The Anomaly could easily be written off as yet another summer blockbuster thriller, the kind that Michael Crichton churned out back in the day. But it’s so gleefully done, with some great characters, snappy dialogue and a refreshing lack of people going ‘Oh, I’ll just wander off down this dark tunnel by myself armed only with a flashlight and an unhealthy disregard for horror tropes’.
The Anomaly is head and shoulders ahead of the competition. It zips along, the characters are ace, the dark tunnels sufficiently dark *and* scary, and it bounces along to an entirely satisfying conclusion. Someone said it was like the X-Files meets Indiana Jones, and they’d be entirely correct.
Oh, and Michael Rutger? It’s Michael Marshall Smith, hiding under a pen name. Sneaky.
The Collector – Fiona Cummins (Macmillan, December 2017)
I loved Fiona Cummins’ first book, Rattle. It was splendidly creepy with a fantastic serial killer, full of twists and turns. The Collector sees a return of the Bone Collector, thwarted by Detective Etta Fitzroy, and now looking for revenge. Except this time he’s got help…
Great characters, gripping plot and just a fantastic story. I rattled (sorry) through The Collector in the course of a day. Definitely a page-turner, one more chapter sort of a book, Fiona Cummins has a knack for ratcheting up the tension a notch further than you think possible, until the breathtaking final third, where she just turns the dial all the way up to eleven.
The Collector is one of the more memorable serial killers I’ve read for quite some time, and it’s fascinating to see part of the story from his point of view – it’s disturbing and twisted, but well thought out – he’s not just killing for the sake of it, he has his own, albeit warped, reasoning for doing what he does.
Fault Lines – Doug Johnstone (Orenda Books, May 2018)
Fault Lines takes place in an alternate Edinburgh, where a new volcanic island, The Inch, has risen in the Firth of Forth. It’s an interesting premise and makes the setting feel distinctly unique. The Inch looms large over the story as it unfolds and feels like an actual character in the book. And you all know how much I love a good location when it comes to books. Dare I suggest #VolcanicNoir?
It’s a short book, but packs a lot into its 200-odd pages. There’s the suspicious death of Tom, out on The Inch. It’s a classic whodunnit, with a small cast of characters in a relatively confined small-town location, but done so well. Surtsey is a brilliant character, flawed and genuine, not only dealing with the death of her boss and lover, but also her mum’s terminal cancer and her sister’s seeming indifference towards it. I wouldn’t be remotely surprised to see this developed for television and think it would work brilliantly on screen. Should we start the fantasy casting?
It’s a gripping story which rumbles along at pace to a satisfying conclusion.
Good Samaritans – Will Carver (Orenda Books, November 2018)
I sat and glared at a blank page for a good half hour trying to sum up my thoughts about Good Samaritans.
I’ve read a lot of Orenda Books’ output over the past couple of years (and indeed this list has a fair few on there), and you always get something different, something unique, something unlike you’ve come across before.
And that’s definitely the case with Good Samaritans. It’s very dark, very graphic and gripping, and demands that you read just one more chapter.
After all, the chapters are short, so one more can’t hurt, can it?
Narrator: Oh yes it can. They can hurt a lot.
Told from multiple viewpoints, Good Samaritans is a story of crossed lines and crossed fates. Good Samaritans is definitely *not* for the squeamish, featuring some very graphic (and energetic) sex, and some very unpleasant things done with bleach. A phenomenal read.
The Lingering – SJI Holliday (Orenda Books, September 2018)
The Lingering is a deliciously creepy gothic tale of strange goings-on in a mysterious former psychiatric institution populated by some slightly odd characters.
It’s also part psychological thriller, part domestic intrigue, part ghost story, and entirely brilliant. It’s got a lovely slow-burn build up where the characters and setting are introduced and you think that things might be a *bit* odd but then the tension starts ratcheting up, notch by inevitable notch. Given that the story is set in an abandoned asylum, you know that the characters aren’t in for a nice little summer holiday.
You’ll never look at a bathtub in quite the same way ever again, I can assure you.
Nightfall Berlin – Jack Grimwood (Michael Joseph, May 2018)
I do love a good Cold War spy thriller and Nightfall Berlin is a superb example of the genre. Less glitzy than Bond, more real than Bourne, it feels utterly authentic of the time and Fox is a complex, believable protagonist. A real sense of time and particularly place too, something which I really like in a book.
Grimwood ratchets up the tension with a relentlessly as Tom Fox finds himself in increasingly perilous straits as he navigates the back streets of East Berlin and beyond. I’ve long been a fan of his books and love his way with language, drawing us into the story, sketching out the political and cultural climate of the time.
(On a side note, Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s Arabesk books (Pashazade, Effendi and Felaheen) are bloody brilliant, and count amongst my favourites – I urge you to give them a try. Or if you prefer something a little more… vampiric and Venetian, The Fallen Blade is also superb. Enjoy!)
Palm Beach Finland – Antti Tuomainen (Orenda Books, October 2018)
Antti Tuomainen’s The Man Who Died made it onto my top five crime books of last year and created a new genre of Mushroom Noir. Palm Beach Finland is another welcome venture into the darkly comic. And darkly comic it is. Billed as ‘Sex, lies and ill-fiting swimwear’, Palm Beach Finland is a splendidly odd romp set in the hottest beach resort in Finland.
If The Man Who Died evoked memories of Fargo, then Palm Beach Finland is a heady neon cocktail of Miami Vice, with a dash of Baywatch and a beach umbrella to top it off. Antti Tuomainen delivers another beautifully judged dark vein of humour running through the neon and pastels, but lurking behind the colourful facade, there’s a splendid noirish tale of murder.
I loved Palm Beach Finland, another gem from the King of Helsinki Noir. Antti gave us #mushroomnoir, and now #flamingonoir. What will he come up with next?
Slow Horses – Mick Herron (John Murray, June 2010)
I’d heard a lot of good things about Mick Herron’s Slow Horses, so when I saw him on one of the panels at Hull Noir last year, I took the opportunity to pick up a copy and get him to sign it for me.
Slow Horses opens with a scene at King’s Cross station, where we follow River Cartwright in pursuit of a suspect. It’s an incredible opening, with a deft hand for detail and tension. What follows is the story of the ‘slow horses’, sidelined to the nondescript Slough House, each a failure of sorts, put out to pasture where they can cause the least harm.
Slough House is filled with some brilliant characters, not least their leader and chief misfit, the unforgettable Jackson Lamb. I’ve read a fair few thrillers and have never come across his like. Grumpy, sarcastic and almost entirely unpleasant, Lamb is a fabulous character who’ll grow on you over the course of the book, whilst still maintaining his gruff, unkempt and almost entirely unpleasant exterior. But there’s more going on beneath – Lamb is a smart, savvy character who will quite happily eat you for breakfast before breaking wind and sloping off for an actual breakfast.
White Rabbit, Red Wolf – Tom Pollock (Walker Books, May 2018)
Ok. So far the books have been very good. Now is where I start gushing.
Every now and then you come across a book which just grabs you from the very first page and refuses to let you go. White Rabbit, Red Wolf is one of those books.
It’s astonishingly good. I’ve been a huge fan of Tom Pollock’s Skyscraper Throne trilogy (and if you haven’t read that, go and do so with all haste) and so the news that he had a new book out was met with great excitement and regular trips to the bookshop to see if it was in yet.
The first page hits you like an unexpected thunderstorm on a cloudless day. It’s dark and brutal and introduces Peter Blankman in a scene you’re not going to forget in a hurry. Peter is one of the most original, honest characters I’ve read for a long time, and Pollock’s presentation of a young man’s mental health issues holds nothing back.
What follows is an adventure into the mind, maths and murder, with a side order of spies, violence and some genuinely funny moments. Unreliable narrators are ten a penny these days, but here you’ll be questioning everything. Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, we’re off down another rabbit hole, wolves snapping at our feet.
Stunning. If you read nothing else on this list, read this one.
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle – Stuart Turton (Raven Books, February 2018)
It 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 had the great pleasure of meeting Stuart at the fantastic Sledge-Lit in Derby in November, where he wrote very nice things about this little blog in my copy of his book.
Now, go and get your own copy. 🙂
Changeling – Matt Wesolowski (Orenda Books, January 2019)
Last year I snuck a book from 2018 onto the ‘best of’ list, and this year I’m following with tradition.
Matt Wesolowski’s Six Stories was one of my books of 2017. In Hydra we met Scott King with another of his Six Stories podcasts, this time much darker and much, much spookier. If Nana Wrack gave you nightmares the first time round, the black-eyed children in Hydra might just keep you awake all night.
Changeling is another beast, and easily Matt Wesolowski’s best yet. And that, my friends, is a pretty damn high bar. The plotting is ingenious, and the way those six stories mesh together is played to perfection.
Changeling deals with some pretty dark subjects – a missing child is never an easy read, but it’s so much more, and so much more that I can’t say without giving away too much. Trust me in this, it’s massively relevant, incredibly intense and just so, so good.
So, there we have my favourites of the year. As with the others, have you read any of these? Any favourites? Any you think I’ve missed?