The darkness that brightened my year.
Just ten?! I always want to cheat with these lists and include about twenty books, but rules is rules, so here goes. These novels aren’t just riveting reads, there is something special about each of them. Rather than dwell on the stories I have tried to explain what is it that made me feel that way:
1. Blue Night by Simone Buchholz (Orenda)
This was the surprise of the year for me, I love this novel. Buchholz nails the spirit of Euro-noir with this Hamburg-set story. I sense something of Jean-Claude Izzo and Massimo Carlotto in Blaue Nacht, as well as a nod to the great decadent cultural history of Germany. State Prosecutor Chastity Riley has become a problem for her bosses after she blotted her copy book by arresting a senior officer for corruption and blowing away a gangster’s ‘bits’. They find an uncontroversial corner to stick her in: Witness Protection. Chastity knows a victim of a vicious assault, who won’t talk, has a story to tell. This is a novel in perfect balance; dark and light, comedy and tragedy, joy and pain. Chastity is an outsider, she has her own gang, a group she grew up with; some are screw ups, but they will go out of their way to protect their pal, and this is the pivot of the novel. This story is hard edged, witty, modern and original. It’s infused with the spirit of the cosmopolitan city, its people and the break down of society – all in precise, punchy, tense, page turning prose.
2. Paris in the Dark by Robert Olen Butler (No Exit Press)
A perfect example of how crime novels can contribute to modern debates on the human condition; press freedom, interfering in the affairs of other nations, rogue politicians, terrorism. Set in 1915, Christopher ‘Kit’ Cobb, reporter and part-time spy, has to reactivate an old identity to foil a German bomb plot in Paris. An intelligent and highly literate historical thriller that manages to be a page turner and an education at the same time. Hits all the right notes in terms of the geographical and political setting.
3. When Trouble Sleeps by Leye Adenle (Cassava Republic Press)
Naija Noir has arrived – this one novel sold me, I want more Naija noir – now! Amaka, self-appointed people’s champion, comes up against the nastiest of villains but won’t back down. Beautifully rich with the colour and traditions of Nigeria but also the dark, corrupt political structure and complex regional and tribal differences. A strong evocation of Africa and African issues, this novel also has a very international feel. An up-to-date thriller that is a match for anything out there. Tackles issues of people trafficking, paedophilia, gangsters and corrupt politicians.
4. Don’t Send Flowers by Martin Solares (Grove Press, Black Cat)
This novel just oozes class. There’s something about the style that makes me comfortable from the first page. Reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy and Sam Hawken – this is borderland, narco-noir territory. The landscape, the characters and pace of the plot all add to the smooth build up of complexity and tension as the story unfolds. A girl is kidnapped south of the border, but unlike the many thousands who go missing, she has rich parents. Retired police officer Carlos Trevino is hired to negotiate her release. Corrupt cops, gangs, and murder. Could be a decent but ordinary novel but for the way Solares tells it, he elevates this tale to the point where Don’t Send Flowers is a work of noir art.
5. Stick Together by Sophie Henaff (MacLehose Press)
The Awkward Squad 2. Witty and barbed, the most fun I’ve had reading a thriller this year. They gave Anne Capestan the misfits, drunks, washouts, crazies and deadbeats, she turned them into a real cops, a fighting machine, well sort of, they do solve cases but their methods aren’t in the police manual (strange, eclectic, eccentric and slightly absurd). When a prominent policeman is killed the awkward squad Investigate; surprise, surprise – they find that the reality doesn’t match the public image. Smart, sassy, wicked and so French.
6. Naked Men by Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett (Europa Editions)
A literary novel that definitely fits the noir mould. A satire on post-crash Spain. Gimenez-Bartlett is a fine thriller writer but this novel is special; loaded with insight, superb characters and blackly comic. Javier is a teacher without a job, how will he make ends meet? Irene discovers a new lease to life when her husband leaves her, it leads her into a world of male stripping and prostitution – characters spiral into decline with disastrous results. Intelligent, sharp, emotionally draining. A perfect example of a crime story that resonates.
7. Tombland by C.J. Sansom (Mantle)
It’s a toss up between this novel and Destroying Angel (next on the list) as to which is my historical thriller novel of the year, fortunately it’s my list so I can have both. This one for its pitch perfect historical setting, over 800 pages that explore the medieval world, bringing it to life. Edward VI is on the throne, Shardlake is working for the Lady Elizabeth on a delicate matter involving the Boleyn family and the nation is unsettled by religious and political strife. Richard Rich still hates Shardlake, he is looking to embroil him and the lady Elizabeth in a plot against the king. Shardlake appears in Norwich just as the 1549 rebellion breaks out. Sansom manages to blend the complex political and religious situation into a riveting tale of murder, holding the reader in thrall to the very end.
8. Destroying Angel by S.G. MacLean (Quercus)
This one gets it for character, Seeker may be less sympathetic than Shardlake but there is something about his honest harshness that is pure and attractive. Although he is more nuanced than ever here. Again we have a complex political and religious world; the Commonwealth, the Major Generals, the Puritans, the Royalists etc. Captain Damian Seeker has been sent north, he becomes involved with local politics and enmities as a person is murdered right under his nose. The Seeker is one of my favourite characters, ruthless for the cause, above corruption, but he is also vulnerable. This is one of the most fascinating periods of British history and MacLean let’s you feel that. MacLean has a wonderful talent for bringing the Interregnum world to life.
9. South Atlantic Requiem by Edward Wilson (Arcadia)
Simply the latest in a truly great series of novels that chronicle the post-WWII world. The best spy stories being written now. Deeply sceptical of government and national motives. An indictment of the judgements that led us to war in the Falklands. Wilson doesn’t save all the best lines for the good guys, he isn’t afraid to look at the other side of the argument. However, South Atlantic Requiem is an angry novel, angry on behalf of the dead, of those who suffered. Smart, clear sighted fury, agree or disagree this novel enlightens. Fabulous characters and attitudes that ooze the Zeitgeist.
10. Beside the Syrian Sea by James Wolff (Bitter Lemon Press)
Jonas is a British spy with plenty of secrets. When his father is kidnapped by ISIS, how far will be go to get him back? How far will others go to stop him? Best new spy novel by a mile. Questions loyalties, love, patriotism and values. Properly cynical in the vein mined by le Carré and McCarry. Don’t let this one pass you by if you are a fan of intelligent complex spy thrillers.
Plenty of choice there, I hope something takes your fancy, but if you’re a noir fan they are all for you!