Books of 2017: Criminally good books, part 2

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.

4. Six Stories, by Matt Wesolowski

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.

3. The Man Who Died, by Antti Tuomainen

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.

2. Tall Oaks, by Chris Whitaker

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.

Utterly brilliant.

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 7 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle – Stuart Turton

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.

Books of 2017: Criminally good books, part 1

Ah, December. That time of year when a young[1] chap’s thoughts turn to the annual Books of The Year List.

I’ve read 55 books so far this year, and there’s a couple of weeks left. How does one narrow it down to a top ten?

Easy. You don’t.

I’ve split the list into crime and non-crime, and then each into two halves. Even then I was left with some tough choices…

First up, the honorable mentions in the crime genre. All great books.

In no particular order…

All the Missing Girls – Megan Miranda

All The Missing Girls is a small town thriller with a splendid cast of characters. Everyone thinks they know everyone else, and it’s only when an outsider comes along that things start to unravel. This is a book which absolutely demands that you pay attention. It’s meticulously organised and beautifully constructed. If you like your crime dark and twisty, this one is most definitely for you. Highly recommended.

The Fourth Monkey – JD Barker

I read this one over the summer and despite spotting the twist fairly early on (perils of reading too many crime thrillers!) I loved it. I also really liked the way the main story is interspersed with the diary extracts of 4MK as a young boy – they really gave the story added depth and intrigue – you’re torn between wanting to find out more about the diary, but also more about the investigation in the present day.

It’s creepy and twisty and has definite shades of Jeffrey Deaver. Definitely falls into the ‘page-turner’ category, The Fourth Monkey is highly recommended.

Need to Know – Karen Cleveland
Sometimes a book turns up which piques your interest right off the bat. I do love a good spy thriller and Need to Know doesn’t disappoint. It’s clever, rattles along at a fair old clip and poses some interesting questions – what would you do when faced with a choice between your country and your family? It’s one of those can’t put it down books which I polished off in a single sitting, more or less.

Cursed – Thomas Enger

Despite being the fourth book to feature Henning Juul, this can easily be read as a standalone – there are hints at previous cases and events, but this story stands firmly on its own two feet. Henning and Nora are two fantastic characters, with a real and compelling depth to their relationship and backstory.

I particularly loved Nora and her story – a strong, wilful investigative journalist who will stop and nothing, and brook no nonsense from anyone in pursuit of the truth, whilst dealing with a complex and challenging personal life.

Cursed is dark and riveting, with a plot which zigs and zags through a twisting landscape of suspense, truth and lies. Brutal in places, but beautifully layered and plotted.

Murder on the Orient Express – Agatha Christie

Many months ago I decided that this year I was going to read a ‘classic’ crime novel once a month, both to catch up with books I’ve always intended to read, but also to see how they compare with their modern-day equivalents.

First up was the case of a Murder On the Orient Express, featuring one M. Poirot and his ‘little grey cells’ (and splendid moustaches).

It’s utterly wonderful, and I’m vaguely horrified that I’ve not read any of her books before. WHY DID NO-ONE TELL ME? The setting is glorious (and I’m a sucker for a book which immerses you in a location to the point where you can almost feel it), the characters splendid and varied, Poirot is cunning and devilishly clever and the mysterious murder is, at the end of the day, delightfully solved. It’s not Poirot’s first case, but you don’t really need to have read the others to benefit from it.

Rattle – Fiona Cummins

Last, but by no means least, and I’m not sure how I’ve missed reviewing this, we have Rattle, by Fiona Cummins.  I read it over the summer and loved it. Superbly creepy with a fantastic serial killer, full of twists and turns. Great stuff!

So, there we have the first half of the first list – the honorable mentions. Keep an eye out next week for the top five[2] crime books of the year!

[1] stop sniggering at the back. Yes, you.
[2] spoilers – there are more than five…

The Dali Deception – Adam Maxwell

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Five criminals. Two forgeries. And one masterpiece of a heist.

Violet Winters—a professional thief born of a good, honest thief-and-con-artist stock— has been offered the heist of a lifetime. Steal a priceless Salvador Dali from the security-obsessed chairman of the Kilchester Bank and replace it with a forgery.

The fact that the “painting” is a signed, blank canvas doesn’t matter. It’s the challenge that gives Violet that familiar, addicting rush of adrenaline. Her quarry rests in a converted underground Cold War bunker. One way in, one way out. No margin for error.

But the reason Violet fled Kilchester is waiting right where she left him—an ex-lover with a murderous method for dumping a girlfriend. If her heist is to be a success, there will have to be a reckoning, or everything could go spinning out of control.

Her team of talented misfits assembled, Violet sets out to re-stake her claim on her reputation, exorcise some demons, and claim the prize. That is, if her masterpiece of a plan isn’t derailed by a pissed-off crime boss—or betrayal from within her own ranks.

Now then, regular readers will be aware of my fondness for a good heist story, be it in the movies (The Thomas Crown Affair is one of my favourites) or in print.

The Dali Deception is a fine addition to the list. It’s a cracking ensemble piece – Violet Winters must assemble a crack team to lift a priceless painting from an impregnable vault whilst various obstacles stack up in her way, including one very annoyed crime boss, Big Terry.

It’s all too easy for these ensemble stories to fall a little flat when it comes to character, but Adam has shown a neat flair for characterisation, with each getting their own moment in the sun. They’re all essential to the plot and all feel like real, well-rounded individuals. I particularly loved Katie. She might not say much, but she’s a refreshing change to The Muscle you normally find in such tales. The classics are all there – computer hacker whizkid, the wheelman, the con-artist, but they all feel fresh. And Big Terry is a character I’d love to see more of.

There’s a lovely stream of wit throughout too, with sarcastic put-downs, pithy one-liners and a real feeling of camaraderie amongst the gang.

However, you can have all the fabulous characters in the world but a heist story lives or dies on the strength of its plot. And The Dali Deception’s plot delivers in spades. Plenty of twists and turns along the way, with more than one moment of ‘how *exactly * are they going to get away with it now?’.

How do they get away with it? You’ll just have to read it and find out!

The Dali Deception is out now in ebook. You can find Adam Maxwell on twitter @LostBookshop or on his website. Go say hi, then go read the book.

Many thanks to Adam for the review copy. The opinions are, as ever, my own.

Missing, Presumed, by Susie Steiner

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A student has been missing for 72 hours. Her parents are bearing up.

Detective Sergeant Manon is bearing down.

Edith Hind, the beautiful, earnest Cambridge post-grad living on the outskirts of the city has left nothing behind but a streak of blood and her coat hanging up for her boyfriend, Will, to find. The news spreads fast: to her parents, prestigious doctor Sir Ian and Lady Hind, and straight on to the police.

Detective Sergeant Manon Bradshaw soothes her insomnia with the din of the police radio she keeps by her bed. After another bad date, it takes the crackling voices to lull her to sleep. But one night she hears something. A girl is missing. For Manon the hunt for Edith Hind might be the career-defining case she has been waiting for. For the family this is the beginning of their nightmare.

As Manon sinks her teeth into the investigation and lines up those closest to Edith, she starts to smooth out the kinks in their stories and catch the eyes that won’t meet hers. But when disturbing facts come to light, the stakes jolt up and Manon has to manage the wave of terror that erupts from the family.

Missing, Presumed is somewhat different from a lot of crime novels I’ve read recently.  Yes, there’s a missing persons case, and Edith Hinds comes from a well-connected family, making her a high-profile ‘misper’. But this is more character driven than most.

We follow the investigation in the hours and days following Edith’s disappearance, but the focus is always on the characters’ lives and how they’re affected by the case. We follow the lives (and loves) of DS Manon Bradshaw as she follows up the clues, sparse as they are. Edith’s mother, Lady Miriam Hind and her relationship with Sir Ian. Edith’s best friend, Helena and the tabloids’ reaction to her friend’s disappearance.

There’s quite the supporting cast too – everyone is there for a reason, and they’re all well fleshed out, adding a depth to the story that you sometimes find lacking.

DS Manon is a fantastic character, and by far my favourite in the book. She feels like a real, complex person, likeable and warm, but prone to mistakes and missteps along the way. I really hope that we get to see more of her in future books.

If I had any quibbles with the characters, it would have to be Will, the boyfriend. He feels the least developed of them all and his story feels slight in comparison, though there are so many other great characters in the book that this could be easily forgiven.

The case itself feels realistic, from the initial flurry of activity in the hours following the discovery of Edith’s front door open, blood on the floor, to the gradual slowing down of the case as leads dry up, and the frustations of everyone involved. There’s also a nice bit of commentary on the struggles facing a police department beset by cuts in funding, but pressured by people with connections in high places to get the job done.

Missing, Presumed is not your average crime story, and I’d highly recommend it.

 

Missing, Presumed is published on 25th February by Borough Press. Thanks to Hayley at HarperCollins for the review copy. As always, the opinions in the review are entirely mine. The blog tour continues tomorrow at Boonsbookcase.blogspot.com. Enjoy!

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Disclaimer – Renee Knight

DisclaimerDisclaimer by Renee Knight

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An interesting premise – you receive a book which turns out to reveal your darkest secret. Who wrote it, and why? And what happens when your nearest and dearest read it?

A real page-turner, I started it this morning on the train into work and polished it off this evening. It’s not often I come across a book which grabs me like that – one more chapter, one more twist to discover. Atmospheric and beautifully written, it draws you in from the start and keeps the suspense going all the way.

Highly recommended – a great psychological thriller.

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Review: My Criminal World

My Criminal World
My Criminal World by Henry Sutton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Really enjoyed this – interesting idea too, a struggling crime writer getting caught up in his work a little too much. I liked the way you got snippets of the fictional author’s book throughout the main story, and got to experience some of the frustrations of being a writer, seeing how it all pans out. Great fun.

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