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Best Books 2016

BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2016 … The winner!

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THE FULLY BOOKED BEST BOOK OF 2016

We already have selections for Best Dialogue, Best Historical Novel, and Best Psychological Thriller. Next up came the awards for Best Non-UK Novel, Best Police Procedural and Best PI Novel. Now, though, it’s drum roll time, and this is the book which, for me, was the outstanding publication of 2016.

Strange Tide by Christopher Fowler

The Peculiar Crimes Unit is a kind of lost property facility for London’s Metropolitan Police. Orphan crimes, unsolved murders, unexplained disappearances – in short, investigations which would cost the cash-strapped Met Police valuable man hours are left on the doorstep of the PCU. Its two senior detectives, Arthur Bryant and John May are impossibly ancient but have an irreplaceable knowledge of London’s unique criminal history. The odd couple, particularly the apparently shambolic Bryant, have an almost visceral connection to the countless misdeeds committed on the capital’s ancient streets and lanes.

strange-tideBut all is not well. Arthur Bryant is physically sound enough, but his encyclopaedic mind is starting to betray him. He is suffering episodes of serious dislocation. He causes havoc in what he thinks is an academic library when he’s actually in the soft furnishings department of British Home Stores. While soaking up the ambiance of a Thames-side crime scene, all he can sense are the sights, sounds and smells of the early 20th century docks. John May and the more sprightly members of the PCU have to keep Arthur virtually under lock and key, for his own protection.

While trying to stop Arthur from wandering off and doing himself a mischief, the PCU team are investigating a bizarre death. A disturbed young woman has been found – drowned – chained to a concrete block on what had been an artificial Edwardian beach on a neglected section of the riverbank. She was several months pregnant, but her insouciant chancer of a boyfriend is innocent of both her demise and her impregnation. Why was there only one set of footprints leading towards the corpse?

As well as being among Britain’s best current crime writers, Fowler also carries the torch passed on by the great English humourists. With his gentle, quirky but needle sharp observations of the sheer daftness of the way we live now, he links hands with such writers as George and Weedon Grossmith, JB ‘Beachcomber’ Morton,  John Betjeman, Israel Zangwill and Colin Watson.

Behind the gags, the knowing cultural references, the ingenious plotting and the clever characterisations, we have Fowler’s unique take on London itself. No living writer save, perhaps, in their different ways, Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair, knows London quite like Christopher Fowler. In other books in the series he has turned his expert eye on the theatres, the city’s lost rivers, and its medieval legends. The star of the show in Strange Tide is the River Thames itself. The crime is eventually solved, Arthur’s malaise is mostly cured, but the powerful river remains the city’s lifeblood. In a telling paragraph, Fowler reveals the deep, dark, blue centre of what he is about.

“…the metropolis is ultimately changeless. Its people remain the same because London is a state of mind. They do not make London. London makes them.”

Strange Tide is published by Doubleday.

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BOOKS OF THE YEAR … part two

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My first three selections were in the Best Dialogue, Best Historical Novel and best Psychological Thriller categories, and you can review those by clicking this link. Here are my next three ‘best of’ choices.

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BEST NON-UK NOVEL

Murder In Mt Martha by Janice Simpson
There was certainly some red hot competition in this category, particularly from such American superstars as Harlan Coben and Walter Mosley, but there was something about this book that struck a chord. I’ll own up to being a fan of most things Australian, having lived and worked in The Lucky Country, but this story had something rather special.

On the one hand we have the murder itself, based on a real-life crime in the 1950s which remains unsolved to this day. It is true mystery in the sense of both words, but in the book we pretty much know who the killer is quite early in the piece. Simpson treads the tightrope of telling a story through different eyes and times, and she performs like a seasoned veteran, never once coming close to losing her balance. The modern day narrative involves a young Melbourne post graduate student, Nick Szabo, transcribing the memories of the elderly Arthur Boyle.

mimmThe past times take us back to the 1950s, both in Melbourne and then further north in rural Queensland. We enter the home of the young Arthur Boyle, who is looked after by his adult sister. Also resident in the Melbourne home is Ern Kavanagh, a twenty-something young man who has ambitions to be something other than a car mechanic. He then leaves Victoria and travels north, in search of fortune, if not fame in Queensland.

One of the great qualities of this book is the way Simpson plays a game with us about the exact relationships between Arthur, Ern and ‘Sissy’. We think we know what’s what, but it becomes clear as the story unfolds that we most certainly do not. There is, if you will, a two part harmony here, because Simpson then introduces another ‘tune’ which involves the history of the Szabo family, refugees from the Hungarian uprising, and once again, as the two melodies complement each other, family secrets unfold like a timelapse video of a flower opening.

The ghost of the murdered girl, clubbed to death and brutalised in a seaside resort near Melbourne, never quite goes away, and the sheer pity and wasteful nature of her death winds like a deep purple thread of mourning through the fabric of the story. The details of ordinary life in the 1950s are compelling and are given with a sense of wistfulness which never descends into mawkish sentiment. The conclusion of the book is brilliant, and the story comes to an end in a way which I least expected, but is entirely fitting and in keeping with the tone of the narrative. Murder In Mt Martha is published by Hybrid Publishers.

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BEST POLICE PROCEDURAL

Death Ship by Jim Kelly
Odd couples are many and varied in the world of crime fiction, and many authors have explored the Yin & Yang possibilities that open up.  There are many critical appraisals of the device, such as this one from Early Bird Books. I have chosen a beautifully mis-matched duo who are perfect foils for each other. They are Detective Inspector Peter Shaw and Sergeant George Valentine of Norfolk Constabulary, based in King’s Lynn.

Shaw is the younger of the two. In fact, so much so that Valentine actually served on the force with Shaw’s late father. Shaw is a physical fitness enthusiast, a cerebral deep thinker, and is married to an exotic wife whose family is of Caribbean origin. George Valentine is a widower, a suicidally heavy smoker, curmudgeonly but with a razor sharp eye for detail. Together, they have appeared in Jim Kelly’s ‘Death’ series, the previous novels being Death Wore White, Death Watch, Death Toll, Death’s Door and At Death’s Window.

death-shipIn Death Ship, as with all the previous books, the sea is never far away. The seaside town of Hunstanton has been literally rocked by an explosion on its crowded beach. Something buried deep beneath the sand is triggered by some boys determined to dig a sink-hole sized pit before the tide sweeps in. There is a brief moment when something metallic and shiny appears in the wall of their excavation, but then hell is unleashed. Miraculously, no-one is seriously hurt, but the beach is closed to holidaymakers while forensic experts and a bomb disposal team from the army do their stuff.

But the sea holds other mysteries. In the terrible storm of January 31st 1953, a tempest that battered the East Anglian coast and claimed over 300 lives, a dilapidated Dutch coaster, the Coralia, went down, taking its captain and crew with her. With this in mind, Shaw’s investigations are further complicated by the discovery of a dead diver, tethered to the underwater remains of Hunstanton’s Victorian Pier, destroyed by storms in 1978. Eventually, he learns that the murdered diver is the son of one of the crew members of another wrecked ship, the ill-fated Lagan, whose remains are rotting on the seabed a couple of miles distant from the pleasure beach.

Shaw and Valentine eventually pull the different threads of the mysteries together, with a combination of good solid police work and a touch of vision – the classic combination of perspiration and inspiration. All fine novels offer something extra, however, and as in all Jim Kelly’s novels, there is a deep rooted awareness of the past and the long shadows it can cast over the present. In Death Ship the past is like a sunken ship that has lain undisturbed on the sea bed for decades. Then, with a freak tide, or maybe some seismic shift, the ship’s blackened timbers surface once again, breaking through the surface of the present. There can be few novels where the metaphor is more apt. Death Ship is published by Severn House.

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BEST PI NOVEL

A Time of Torment by John Connolly
It is safe to say that Irish author John Connolly has taken the PI genre out of its care home for elderly gentlefolk, given it a good scrub down, bought it a new suit of clothes, given it a good slap and generally breathed new life into it. The beneficiary of this rejuvenation? A haunted (literally) and violent investigator from Portland Maine by the name of Charlie Parker.

atotParker’s ghosts are those of his wife and daughter, brutally and shockingly murdered years ago by men whose physical presence was all too temporal, but men whose puppet strings were being pulled by evil forces not entirely of this world. In this novel, Parker is contacted by a former public hero who went from hero to zero when child pornography was found on his computer. Jerome Burnel was given a long jail sentence and suffered the usual fate at the hands of other prisoners for whom sex crimes against children are worse than murder.

Moved by the man’s brutal jail-time story, Parker tries to reassure him that he can rebuild his life. Bernel disappears, however, and his conviction that his days are numbered becomes sadly prescient. Parker and his two New York associates, Louis and Angel, track down Burnel’s chief prison tormentor, Harpur Griffin, also now a free man. Griffin is found in a bar with two companions who register off the scale on Parker’s danger meter. When Griffin is found burned alive in his car shortly after the meeting, Parker, Louis and Angel realise that they are dealing with men who are fueled with something more potent than simple criminality.

Eventually, Parker narrows down his search for Burnel’s tormentors, and his investigations lead him to an isolated – and incestuous – community in Plassey County, West Virginia. The people and their village are known as The Cut, and they have lived in Amish-like seclusion for as long as anyone can recall. The comparison with the Amish begins and ends with reclusiveness, as the god of The Cut isn’t the one found in The Bible. Their god is called The Dead King.

Parker and the people of The Cut circle each other relatively cautiously in the fashion of partners in a courtly dance, but when they do engage, the last 50 pages of the book are violent and remorseless. This is dry mouth time – superb entertainment, but very unsettling too. A Time of Torment is published by Hodder & Stoughton.

BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2016 … part one

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Newspapers, television, radio, bloggers – they’re all at it in these dog days between Christmas and New Year. Alert followers will have noticed that Fully Booked has a rather Post-Brexit feel to it, with content dating only from late June 2016. That is, as they say, is another story, but I have been reading and enjoying CriFi all year. Here are my views on the books that made a big impact during 2016. Six categories, and then one final book which, for me, was simply The Best.

best-dialogue

BEST DIALOGUE

The Other Side of Silence by Philip Kerr
Kerr has cleverly positioned Bernie Gunther – former Berlin cop, soldier, lover and sometime anti-hero – squarely astride the most eventful years of the 20th century. This enables him to meet a stellar cast of fascinating historical characters, including Eva Peron, Adolf Eichmann, Reinhardt Heydrich, Paul von Hindenberg and now, in his latest saga, the celebrated writer W. Somerset Maugham. It is 1956 and Gunther is working under an assumed name as a concierge at a smart hotel in St Jean Cap Ferrat. As well as recognising that a hotel visitor is a former high ranking Nazi, Gunther discovers a plot to blackmail Somerset Maugham.His meetings with the great man are full of excellent verbal sparring.

“I dislike a man who’s not precise about what he wants to drink,” said Maugham. “You can’t rely on a man who’s vague about his favourite tipple. If he’s not precise about something he’s going to drink then it’s clear he’s not going to be precise about anything.”

the-other-side-of-silence-e1458288166948Gunther is something of a ladies’ man, and he usually manages to attract the attention of females, most of whom are either damaged, or damaging, and sometimes both. Here, he makes a night-time visit to an English woman who says that she is anxious to meet Somerset Maugham with a view to writing a biography.

“Oh, I’m glad it’s you, “ she said. “I thought it might be the gardener.”
“At this time of night?”
“Lately he’s been giving me a funny look.”
“Maybe you should let him water the flower beds.”
“I don’t think that’s what he has in mind.”
“The heat we’ve been having? He’s in the wrong job.”
“Did you come here to mow my lawn, or just to talk?”

Despite the smart talk and the wisecracks, there is always something deeply serious going on in the Gunther novels, and in this case it’s the fact that the former Nazi who Gunther recognises  at the hotel was responsible for the death of his lover, a young woman who, along with 9,400 others, perished when the troop ship Wilhelm Gustloff was sunk in January 1945. Near the end of the book, Gunther confronts Harold Hennig.

“You’re not the type to kill me, remember?” He was starting to sound scared now. “You said so yourself, Gunther. You’re a decent man. I knew that the first time I saw you.”
“No, I said I wasn’t the type to leave a man to die chained to a radiator, like an abandoned dog. But this is different.” I pointed the gun at him.
“This is for those nine thousand people who died on the Wilhelm Gustloff in January nineteen forty-five. It’s been eleven years in coming, and for them this is an act of vengeance. But for Captain Achim von Frisch, Irmela Louise Schaper and her unborn child – my unborn child – it’s revenge, pure and simple.”

Gunther is a flawed hero, but a beguiling  one, and his interactions with the famous and infamous men and women of the century are fascinating on their own, but in this novel, as in all the previous stories, it is Gunther’s speaking voice that brings the man to life. The Other Side of Silence is published by Quercus.

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BEST HISTORICAL NOVEL

A Straits Settlement by Brian Stoddart
Superintendent Christian Le Fanu is an English policeman working in Madras. Despite considerable bravery during World War I, he has vowed never to set foot in the land of his birth again. His lover is a woman of mixed race, and he strives to do his job efficiently while treating law abiding Indian people with fairness and respect.

assHe is asked to investigate a disappearance and a death. The disappearance is of a minor functionary of the Raj from the country town he helped administer, and the death is that of the son of a powerful – and widely disliked – British entrepreneur and colonialist. Le Fanu’s search for the missing Southlake, and the all-too-dead Hargood takes him far from Madras, and to the exotic Malay island of Penang, where he finds a beguiling mixture of colonial and Chinese culture. He also finds himself in the equally beguiling arms of a beautiful Chinese woman. Unfortunately, she is the daughter of a wealthy merchant who appears to be right at the centre of Le Fanu’s investigations.

Brian Stoddart is a university professor who has studied South Asia extensively, and his knowledge of India and its history is immense. The beauty of his writing, however, is that he shares his learning with the lightest of touches, so that after a chapter or two you’ll feel you know all the steps in the elaborate dance between the British administration and the steadily growing but irresistible forces of Indian nationalism.

The title refers to three British colonies at the time called Straights Settlements – Penang, Malacca and Singapore. Not least of Stoddart’s skills is his ability to weave together different themes to make a beautiful whole. Thus, we have a police procedural, a political thriller, an historical drama, a romance, and an intense portrait of a gifted but very complex man. No-one currently writing manages this with as little fuss and fanfare as Stoddart. A Straits Settlement is published by Crime Wave Press.

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BEST PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER

The Missing Hours by Emma Kavanagh
One of the most secretive service industries in the modern world is that of K & R consultants. The initials stand for kidnap and ransom, and the operatives who pit their wits against kidnappers play their cards very close to their collective chests. Emma Kavanagh trained as a psychologist and, after leaving university, started her own business as a psychology consultant, specialising in human performance in extreme situations. For seven years she provided training and consultation for police forces and NATO and military personnel throughout the UK and Europe. Here, in this tense and  nerve-tingling novel, she puts all her insights and experience to good use, telling the tale of a woman who disappears, but then mysteriously reappears, but with no recollection of the intervening hours.

Selena Cole is a widow, her husband having been killed while working for The Cole Group. Since his death she has pretty much handed over the running of the group to her sister-in-law, Orla Britten, and her husband Seth. Their centre of operations is the Cole’s elegant period house in a village not far from Hereford. Then, Selena goes missing. One minute she is watching her girls Heather and Tara play on the swings in the playground. The next, she is gone, and a neighbour has gathered up the distressed children, and the police are called.

tmhThe police investigation into Selena’s disappearance is handled by an unusual crime fiction pairing. Finn Hale and Leah Mackay are brother and sister. Finn has leap-frogged his sister in the promotion stakes, despite her evident superiority – evident, that is, to us readers, but not the local constabulary personnel department. Kavanagh plays the relationship between the siblings with the touch of a concert violinist. There are all manner of clever nuances and deft little touches which enhance the narrative.

Kavanagh reveals the inner workings of K & R consultants by letting us browse through the files of The Cole Group in between chapters focusing on one or other of the main characters. The police procedural aspect of the novel is sure-footed and convincing, while the touches of domestic noir work well, despite following a well-trodden path. After all, who has ever read a novel where a detective has a blissfully happy marriage with a fully supportive spouse?

The plot twists come, as they should, at regular intervals, but we see the big reveal with only a few pages to go. By then you will have been totally hooked by the excellent writing, Kavanagh’s well-tuned ear for dialogue and her handling of the intricate plot. The Missing Hours is published by Century.

 

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