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The Readymade Thief

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

ON MY SHELF … August 2017

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KFC

Brian MastersThe grisly exploits of the Muswell Hill murderer Denis Nilsen still defy belief over thirty years later. As you read the story you can rub your eyes and hope that you have woken up from a particularly sordid and violent dream, but you haven’t: everything on the page in front of you is the grim reality. We covered the case briefly in our True Crime section, but Brian Masters (left) has written the definitive account of one of London’s worst serial killings.

This is a brand new edition of the book, which first came out in 1985. Masters subsequently wrote The Shrine of Jeffrey Dahmer and She Must Have Known: The Trial of Rosemary West. Killing For Company is published by Arrow Books, and will be available on 24th August.

 

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Gus-Rose2From the ghastly to the ghostly – or at least, a world where fantasy and literary trickery take us away from the mundanity of murder. The Readymade Thief is the debut novel from the Chicago based teacher and screenwriter Augustus Rose, (right) and has just been published by William Heinemann. It is set in Philadelphia, and we follow the progress of a teenage delinquent girl, Lee Cuddy, as she casts herself adrift in a city full of shadows and shocks. Escaping a juvenile detention centre, Lee finds herself in The Crystal Castle, a sinister place where reality blurs with the imagination, and her world begins to develop echoes of the disturbing images created by the chess-playing surrealist painter Marcel Duchamp. (below)

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Samantha KingSamantha King (left) also serves up a nightmare, but unlike the shifting and illusory Philadelphia of Augustus Rose and Lee Cuddy, hers is very real and down-to-earth, but equally chilling. Madeleine and Dom have twins, Aidan and Annabel. Make that past tense. Had twins. For now Annabel is gone. Just a memory of red-gold curls in a photograph. “Choose one, bitch,” the killer said, and Madeleine chose. This terrifying psychological thriller is a startling debut from an author who is a former editor and is also a qualified psychotherapist. You can find out more on her Twitter account. The Choice is published by Piatkus, which is an imprint of Little, Brown Publishing.

The Choice

Mark PepperMark Pepper is an actor, and in his wryly self- deprecating potted biography he wonders why he never received the Oscar he deserved for his pivotal role in TitanicBest Floating Corpse in a Motion Picture. He was the one Leonardo pushes away from him in disgust. Pepper (right) has also appeared in many fine British TV shows, including Coronation Street, Heartbeat, Prime Suspect and Once Upon A Time In The North. His third novel Veteran Avenue was self published in 2015, but will be reissued by Urbane Publications in September. It tells the tale of John Frears who was the victim of a bizarre kidnapping when he was on holiday in America with his parents. Frears survives, returns to England, and goes on to serve in the army and fight in the Gulf War. Thirty five years after his abduction he returns to America to attend the funeral of a fellow veteran, who has been murdered. After paying his respects, Frears embarks on a sightseeing expedition, but things take a strange turn as the traumatic events of 1978 burst through into the present.

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AOSFrom the badlands of Oregon to the cloistered calm of Oxford, in the late nineteenth century. The opening lines set the tone:

“A bird of ill-omen, a rook or a raven, flapped its way through the bright November sky on its journey from Magdalen Deer Park to its lair in Christchurch Meadows.”

This is the Oxford of scholars, eccentric academics, ivy clinging to honey coloured Cotswold stone, lights twinkling through the darkness – the line of festal light in Christ Church hall – and, of course, murder. The unique atmosphere of Oxford, so memorably used as a backdrop to the investigations of Inspector Morse, is the setting for the third novel in Norman Russell’s Oxford series. The central character is not an opera-loving, crossword solving connoisseur of decent beer, but Inspector James Antrobus. A successful and popular tutor at St Gabriel’s College, Anthony Jardine, becomes the focus of a murder case when his wife, Dora, is found dead in a tram out in the suburb of Cowley. When Jardine’s mistress is also killed, Antrobus and his friend Dr. Sophia Jex-Blake are led to London in pursuit of the killer. An Oxford Scandal is published by Matador, and is out now.

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