There’s no competition, I don’t have a prize to offer, but there are are certainly no losers. like many other amateur book reviewers I can only be grateful to publicists, publishers and, of course, writers, who trust me with their work. Here are five of the best books of 2019 – feel free to agree or disagree with my thoughts.
Val McDermid’s wonderful odd couple Tony Hill and Carol Jordan don’t have it in them, for a variety of complex reasons, to love each other in any conventional sense, and How The Dead Speak finds their relationship more fractured than ever. Tony is in prison and Carol’s bosses have finally lost patience, and she is left to pace the moors around her solitary home. Tony’s venomous mother makes an appearance as she coerces Jordan into investigating a fraud case, while the equally abrasive Bronwen Scott seeks her help as she tries to put together a case for an appeal against a murder conviction. Back in Bradfield, Jordan’s former team are almost literally knee deep in the mysterious case of dozens of skeletons found in the grounds of a former Roman Catholic care home. As ever, McDermid puts in front of us a plate full of delicious mysteries and a few elegantly salted red herrings – crime fiction haute cuisine at its best.
James Lee Burke celebrated his eighty third birthday earlier this month and, thankfully, shows no sign that his powers have deserted him. His brooding and haunted Louisiana lawman Dave Robicheux returned in The New Iberia Blues with another adventure set in the humid bayous and crumbling colonial mansions of Acadiana. Dave – with, of course, his long-time offsider Clete Purcell – tries to solve a series of grisly killings involving a driven movie director deeply in hock to criminal backers, a preening and narcissistic former mercenary and a religious crazy man on the run from Death Row. We even have the return of the bizarre and deranged contract killer known as Smiley – surely one of the most sinister and damaged killers in all crime fiction. As ever, there’s a deep vein of morality and conscience running through the book, amid the corpses, shoot-outs and hot spoonfuls of Southern Noir.
There is an understandable temptation to lionise a book, irrespective of its merit, when it is published posthumously, the last work of a fine writer who died far too soon. Metropolis, by Philip Kerr, however, is a bloody good book irrespective of any sentiment the reader may have about the passing of its author. Kerr’s Bernie Gunther, has traversed the decades – and half the globe – in his adventures. Peron’s Argentina, the cauldron of Nazi Germany, Somerset Maugham’s Riviera in the 1950s and the haunted Katyn Forest. Now, though, Kerr puts Gunther firmly back where it all started, in 1920s Berlin. While Gunther poses as a crippled war veteran in an attempt to catch a serial killer, we rub shoulders with the likes of Otto Dix, George Grosz and Lotte Lenya. Philip Kerr is gone, but Bernie Gunther – cynical, brave, compassionate and resourceful – will live for ever.
Sometimes, the sheer bravura, joy and energy of a writer’s work makes us happily turn a blind eye to improbabilities. Let’s face it, Christopher Fowler’s Arthur Bryant and John May have been solving crimes since the Luftwaffe was raining bombs down on London and, by rights, they should be, like Betjeman’s Murray Posh and Lupin Pooters “Long in Kelsal Green and Highgate silent under soot and stone.” But they live on, and long may they defy Father Time. In The Lonely Hour, in this case the haunted moments around 4.00 am, they try to track down a killer who is using an arcane and archaic weapon – a surgical device called a trocar. The trocar was a tube devised to allow the body to be punctured in order to facilitate the escape of gases or fluids. There is comedy both high and low, a mesmerising journey through hidden London – and just enough darkness to remind us that murder is a serious business.
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