LoiteringWithIntent: Top five books of 2011

4 Mins read

Picking your top five books of the year seems like the quickest way to annoy everyone else you’ve read without the hassle of going round their houses and setting fire to their pets – which I just don’t have time for. So… been a pretty good year in crime fiction hasn’t it? A new Sherlock Holmes courtesy of Anthony Horowitz and the swansong of Akunin’s Erast Fandorin, some obnoxiously impressive debuts, notably AD Miller’s Snowdrops, which was a fag paper away from making the cut. Beyond the ‘big six’ a hardy band of indie publishers have been cranking out top quality Kindle-fodder – sleazy, pulpy offerings full of blood and grit, the kind of irresistible nastiness Kindle’s plain wrapper was made for. Choosing just five books was painful, getting them in order was worse, but here goes…

5 – The Adventures of Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles by Edward A Grainger
There’s just something about cowboys. I don’t know if it’s the hats or that dusty stoicism but you show me a banging western and I’ll be on it. 2011 has been a great year for the genre, with new-guard authors like Grainger and Icy Sedgwick taking it towards what could best be described as cowboy noir. It’s a crisper, more modern interpretation – think hardboiled not historical. Ironically Grainger’s work is resolutely old school, with a focus on solid storytelling and characterisation. It’s earnest stuff with proper good guys and proper bad guys, which is quite refreshing after years of moral relativism in fiction. The collection of stories is uniformly strong but Kid Eddie was a personal favourite. I loved seeing a charming liar squirm. Melanie, where Cash plays guardian angel to an abused flower girl, is just heartbreaking. The second instalment looks to be continuing in the same vein and with more due out in 2012 Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles could be on their way to the Cowboy Hall of Fame.
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4 – Dig Ten Graves by Heath Lowrance
My New Year’s resolution is to shut the hell up about how great Heath Lowrance is. It probably won’t last. This collection was my introduction to his work and almost four months on images from it still swim up occasionally – a father using his young son to bait crocodiles; a shot man on a rain-swept street corner trying to understand his killer, only to find he had no motive beyond curiosity. These are dark, misanthropic stories, preoccupied with self-destruction and loss. The humour, when in comes, is black and the moments of tenderness are fleeting. The horror elements make for great winter reading, although if you’re snowed in you might want to avoid The Most Natural Thing in the World, especially if you have a dog.
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3 – Dead Mony by Ray Banks
I’m a total sucker for books about poker. The problem is they’re usually not up to much, turned out by players who can’t write or writers who can’t play. Ray Banks does both and it tells. Dead Money is about poker as it is really played, day in day out, by wage slaves and grinders. There’s no glamour, no rail bunnies, just men competing at higher stakes than they should with money they can’t afford to lose. When a bent dealer cleans out his friend, double-glazing salesman Alan Slater finds himself on the hook for the debt and implicated in a murder. His job’s on the line, his marriage is crumbling and even his mistress is getting bored. You know it won’t end well for anyone involved. Banks is a strong writer with a punchy style, one of the best on the British crime scene right now and, if Dead Money is anything to go by, a name to watch in 2012.
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2 – All the Young Warriors by Anthony Neil Smith
With all due respect to Smith’s wranglers, Blasted Heath, this is not what you expect from a small publishing house. Give it an embossed cover and a puff quote from some dick-lit bigshot and it wouldn’t look amiss in an airport bookstore. Because it’s one hell of a thriller, pacy and brutal, with characters that grab you off the page and a blockbuster plot encompassing Islamic extremism, the mercenary business and Somali piracy. In lesser hands it could have been a pimped-up Hardy Boys mystery but Smith puts a lot of heart on the page, writing with subtle eloquence about the nature of power, friendship and the annihilating force of grief. Just amazing.
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1 – Beautiful, Naked and Dead by Josh Stallings
This is a tough, rambunctious bastard of a book which is fitting considering the build and proclivities of Stallings’ protagonist Moses McGuire. He’s an ex-con, stripper-loving hardman with a taste for drink and gun oil. There’s more than a whiff of Crumley about Moses and you get the impression he’d make a good buddy for Milo Milodragovitch if they found themselves on adjacent barstools one night. Stallings’ prose is pure noir, polished and lean, the dialogue clipped; in the world he builds anything else would feel like a lie. The plot is a classic revenge trip. Moses is tracking down the murderer of strip club waitress called Kelly, the woman he thought might fix him one day, but Stallings’ writing has more than enough depth to flesh it out. The story feels solid, underpinned with firsthand knowledge of the places and the characters he’s showing us. There are no bum notes, no mis-steps, and for me that’s the hallmark of true talent – an appearance of absolute authenticity. Book of the year.
Buy now on Amazon


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