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BOOK OF THE YEAR 2017 . . . All Of a Winter’s Night, by Phil Rickman

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Phil RickmanThere are no honourable mentions here, because, (if you’ve been good) you will have seen them all in the previous four posts. Regular readers of this blog, and those who read my interviews, reviews and features on Crime Fiction Lover, will know that I am a massive fan of Phil Rickman’s books and, in particular, the series featuring the thoroughly modern, but often conflicted, parish priest, Merrily Watkins. She is one of the most intriguing and best written characters in modern fiction, but Rickman (left) doesn’t stop there. He has created a whole repertory company of supporting characters who range in style and substance from the wizened sage Gomer Parry – he of the roll-up fags and uncanny perception (often revealed as he digs holes for septic tanks) – to the twin-set and pearls imperturbability of the Bishop’s secretary, Sophie. In between we have the fragile genius of Merrily’s boyfriend, musician Lol Robinson, the maverick Scouse policeman Frannie Bliss and, of course, Merrily’s adventurous daughter Jane, for whom the soubriquet ‘Calamity” would fit nicely, such is her propensity to go where both angels – and her anxious mother – fear to tread.

These actors flit in and out of the stories, but there is one other character, ever present and formidable. I am in the autumn of my days and, casting aside false modesty, widely read, and I have likened Rickman’s use of landscape to that of Thomas Hardy. The Welsh Marches – Hereford, Radnor, Brecon, Monmouth – combine to make this extra character. The windswept hills, sullen valleys, glittering streams and abandoned chapels all play a part in Rickman’s novels, and never more effective than in my Best Book of 2017 – All Of a Winter’s Night.

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The art of Morris Dancing has often been ridiculed, never better than when it was suggested that a Morris team could be an effective counter-display by the England Rugby team when faced with New Zealand’s ferocious Haka. But here, the faintly ridiculous concept of men dancing around with bells on their trousers and funny hats on their heads becomes as sinister as anything ever dredged up from the fevered imaginations of Poe or Lovecraft. Rickman has his finger on the pulse of an old Britain, a land steeped in superstition, symbolism, and distinctly un-Christian – not to say pre-Christian – traditions.

AOAWNIn All Of a Winter’s Night a young man has been killed in a mysterious car crash, and his funeral attracts bitterly opposed members of the same family. Merrily tries to preside over potential chaos, and her efforts to ensure that Aidan Lloyd rest in peace are not helped when his body is disinterred, dressed in his Morris Man costume, and then clumsily reburied. Rickman adds to the mix the very real and solid presence of the ancient church at Kilpeck, with its pagan – and downright vulgar (in some eyes) carvings. The climax of the novel comes when Merrily tries to conduct a service of remembrance in the tiny church. What happens next is, literally, breathtaking – and one of the most terrifying and disturbing chapters of any novel you will read this year or next. With its memorable mix of crime fiction, menacing landscape, human jealousy, sinister tradition and pure menace, All Of a Winter’s Night is my book of 2017.

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BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2017 … Best thriller

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What constitutes a thriller? I suppose that could be one of those ‘how long is a piece of string questions’. I would hope that any crime novel worth its salt would be ‘thrilling’ in some shape or form, but for the sake of clarity, I’m excluding books which rely heavily for their impact on police investigations, or are given added ambience by an historical setting. So, what did I enjoy? Harlan Coben always delivers, and his renegade policeman Napoleon ‘Nap’ Dumas left official procedural behind and certainly did the business in Don’t Let Go. Domestic Noir has become a very fruitful field for many authors and publishers, and I enjoyed having the wool pulled over my eyes by Simon Lelic in The House.

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Another writer who kept one or two brilliant tricks up his sleeve was Tim Weaver when he gave us another mystery for David Raker to solve in I Am Missing. Michael Robotham played the ‘unreliable narrator’ trick when he challenged us to decide just which of the expectant mums was telling the truth in The Secrets She Keeps, while Karen Perry dangled several versions of the truth in front of us in a brilliant tale about memory, old friendships and illusion in Can You Keep A Secret? 

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unleashed1So, who thrilled me the most? First across the line by a nose, in a very competitive field, was Unleashed, by Peter Laws. Laws sends his alter ego, Professor Matt Hunter, to the dull south London suburb of Menham to investigate a Hieronymus Bosch-like scene at a primary school concert, where the highlight of the evening is the music teacher being found dead in a cupboard full of recorders, plastic tambourines and chime bars – with her throat ripped out, apparently by her own pet dog. Hunter’s investigations lead him to to 29 Barley Street, where a young girl was found hanging from a beam in her bedroom. The soul of Holly Watson, however, is not at rest, and her presence still lingers in the claustrophobic gloom of her home. Occasionally – and unashamedly – playing to the gallery, and using every colour on his palette, Laws paints a picture that disquiets us. He makes us think to ourselves, “This is nonsense, but …..” The ‘but’ is his key weapon. He evokes old fears, conjure up ancient and deep-rooted uncertainties – and makes us glad that Unleashed is only a book.

My verdict?

“Laws takes a leaf out of the book of the master of atmospheric and haunted landscapes, M R James. The drab suburban topography of Menham comes alive with all manner of dark interventions; we jump as a wayward tree branch scrapes like a dead hand across a gazebo roof; we recoil in fear as a white muslin curtain forms itself into something unspeakable; dead things scuttle and scrabble about in dark corners while, in our peripheral vision, shapes form themselves into dreadful spectres. When we turn our heads, however, there is nothing there but our own imagination.”

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BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2017 … Best debut novel

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Writing as an aged hack, and a commentator on other people’s creativity (having little of my own), I can hardly imagine what a mixture of triumph, joy – and trepidation – must run through the minds of writers when they finally have a book that makes it into print. I have read some very good self-published books this year, but to have actually convinced a hard-nose publisher that your novel is worth printing – that must be an amazing feeling. Likewise, it must be what sports commentators call “squeaky bum time” waiting to see if members of the public actually stump up and buy your book.

The notable debuts in crime fiction this year have been many and varied. I was much taken by the main character in RG Oram’s Much Needed Rain, whose perceptions and awareness of his fellow mortals are so acute that he is, effectively, a human polygraph. Lloyd Otis served up a dystopian London in 1977 with his Deadlands – splendidly both crime and grimy. In another urban landscape similarly blighted, Augustus Rose, in The Readymade Thief, described a delinquent girl turned loose in a Chicago that was a potent mixture of gritty realism and fantasy.

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Without doubt the most compelling three words uttered in a 2017 debut novel were, “Choose one, bitch”, the strapline for Samantha King’s The Choice, where she created a nightmare world of domestic Noir where a mother is forced to choose between the lives of her two children. TA Cottrell provided another peep between the curtains of an apparently normal house, when What Alice Knew laid bare the scars of memory, guilt and bitterness that can be borne by old relationships. Peter Laws is an intriguing chap. He is a serving Baptist minister, with a fascination for horror and the supernatural. In Purged, he introduced us to Matt Hunter, a former minister himself who, in between lecturing on comparative religions, investigates dark deeds – in this case a series of murders connected to a charismatic church and its congregation. A novel which received huge praise around the world for its power and elegiac qualities was The Dry, by Australian Jane Harper. This was a compelling account of how a Federal policeman returns to his hometown, a five hour dusty drive from Melbourne, to investigate the slaughter go a local family.

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KnoxEvery book I’ve mentioned won admirers from different sections of the reading public but, for me, the die was cast when a rather shy young man read the opening paragraphs of his soon-to-be-published novel at a book promotion evening in a smart Fitzrovia Hotel. Joseph Knox (left) may still have work to do to become a Richard Burton in the making, but Sirens is comfortably my debut novel of 2017. On a very superficial level it’s a police procedural, set in Manchester, where we share the trials and tribulations of a young copper, Aidan Waits. Waits is a complex character, attended by his own demons and obsessed with bringing down a local drug baron. That’s where any resemblance to a bog-standard cops and robbers tale ends. Knox writes with the kind of savage poetry which reminded me very much of the great Derek Raymond and the bleak world and urban eloquence of his Factory novels. I am delighted that a follow-up novel is on its way, but what a challenge, to equal such a stunning debut!

“Knox has penned a black tale which is certainly not a comfort read. There are passages which made me physically wince, but the author has the confidence to give us an ending, once the mayhem has died down, which is both bitter-sweet and poignant.”

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Click the links to see who won

Best historical crime novel

Best police procedural novel

BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2017 … Best historical crime novel

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I was delighted that John Lawton’s Friends and Traitors showcased a return for his charismatic copper, Fred Troy, and even more pleased that the beautiful and enigmatic Meret Voytek featured once again, after her ordeals in A Lily of The Field. Norman Russell certainly brought Victorian Oxford to life with An Oxford Scandal, and his consumptive Inspector Antrobus was an intriguing fellow, finishing the novel trying to avoid the sight of his bloodstained handkerchief. In Dangerous Crossing, Rachel Rhys captured beautifully the potent cocktail of snobbery, suspicion and political uncertainty among passengers on an ocean liner on the eve of World War II. In The Well Of The Dead, Clive Allan skilfully wove together two stories, the first being an account of the calamitous events surrounding The Battle of Culloden in 1746, and the second an assured modern police procedural plot.

My winner this year, in spite of the fierce competition, is On Copper Street, by Chris Nickson. I have grown to love the stories featuring Inspector Tom Harper, a brave and determined copper treading the cobblestones of Victorian Leeds. Here, Harper investigates the death of a petty crook, and the horribly modern-sounding attack on two children who have acid thrown at them. Against the background of the lonely and impoverished death of a pioneering political activist, Harper pursues the villains in his usual implacable way, supported at every turn by his admirable – and very bonny – wife. I wrote:

“I would imagine that Nickson is a good old-fashioned socialist, and he pulls no punches when he describes the appalling way in which workers are treated in late Victorian England, and he makes it abundantly clear what he thinks of the chasm between the haves and the have nots. Don’t be put off by this. Nickson doesn’t preach and neither does he bang the table and browbeat. He recognises that the Leeds of 1895 is what it is – loud, smelly, bustling, full of stark contrasts, yet vibrant and fascinating.”

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BOOKS OF THE YEAR, 2017 … Best police procedural

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Police procedural novels are the core items of crime fiction and, if you like, its beating heart. Police officers, young and old, serene and anguished, drunk and sober, are endlessly attractive to both readers and writers. There have been several outstanding examples during 2017, and special mention should go to Eva Dolan’s Peterborough partners, Zigic and Ferreira in Watch Her Disappear, Max Wolfe, as imagined by Tony Parsons in Die Last and, from another era, the dogged and warm-hearted copper from Victorian Leeds, Chris Nickson’s Tom Harper in On Copper Street. There was yet another strong story, Wild Chamber, featuring Arthur Bryant and John May but, as fans will be well aware, Christopher Fowler loves having his ancient investigators do anything but follow accepted police procedure. I also loved the distinctly different talents of Chief Superintendent Simon Collison, Inspector Bob Metcalfe and Sergeant Karen Willis as they probed the eccentric criminal classes in Guy Fraser Sampson’s Hampstead in A Death In The Night.

The clear winner this year, however, was another case for thoroughly decent, well-mannered, but extremely perceptive copper, Inspector Tom Reynolds, of Dublin’s An Garda Síochána, and his pursuit of a serial killer in Sleeping Beauties. The book was outstanding in so many ways. It has a brilliant plot, with the author joyfully deceiving us on several occasions. The astonishing sense of place makes the Irish landscape a character in its own right. Thirdly, but perhaps most telling, is Spain’s uncanny ability to create characters so real and so convincing that they are in the room with us, talking to us, as we turn each page of the book. The full review is here and, if you will forgive me the conceit of quoting myself:

“Jo Spain writes like an angel. No fuss. No bother. No pretension. The narrative flows as smoothly as a glass of Old Bushmills slips down the appreciative throat”

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