It’s been a year when self-publishing and the rise of the digital book have made a huge impact on the range of crime fiction available to reviewers and the reading public. Anyone who has the stamina and bloody-mindedness to plan, plot and complete a book can now see it on screen, if not feel the pages with their fingertips. One of my choices came out as digitally self-published novel, but the top four made it into print, which suggests that, rightly or wrongly, the much-maligned traditional publishers don’t always get it wrong.
5 – Sparkle by Rudy Yuly
Joe Jones and his severely autistic brother Eddie – a pair echoing Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men – make up a firm who have the grisly task of cleaning up crime scenes. Joe’s whole life is based round keeping Eddie safe, while making a precarious living from his autistic brother’s bizarre and obsessive cleanliness. Joe is tired, permanently at his wit’s end, and his social life is a car-crash, but when Eddie discovers something at a murder scene which defies logical explanation and then becomes fixated by a gentle female zoo attendant, Joe’s tolerance is stretched to the limit. Sparkle‘s plot initially requires some suspension of disbelief, but as well as being a terrific whodunnit the book is an absorbingly written account of a condition which lies somewhere between an affliction and a gift. There is a real surprise at the end, which I certainly did not see coming. (On Lulu the book is just £3.16, while Amazon is charging £15.75.)
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4 – Derby Day by DJ Taylor
My number four was not placed higher because I suspect it wasn’t written specifically as a crime story. Derby Day, by Norfolk author DJ Taylor, is a daring and magnificent pastiche of a Victorian novel, sitting somewhere between Hardy, Dickens and Thackeray. Laid over a visual background of Frith’s celebrated painting of Epsom Downs, this is a complex tale of deception, desperation and daring among the chancers and confidence tricksters of 1860s England as they prepare for the country’s most celebrated horse race. Derby Day is a literary tour de force, as Taylor contrasts life in a haunted and crumbling Lincolnshire mansion with the cut-throat world of London sporting gentlemen and debt discounters. There is comedy, pathos, triumph and tragedy as events unfold. Like the painting, the book bustles with memorably drawn characters from both the highest reaches of society to London’s mean streets, and is an absolute firecracker of a read.
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3 – The Silence by Alison Bruce
This crime novel finds us in Cambridge. We have the warm glow of ancient stone, the russet shades of autumnal ivy around gothic windows, and the eccentricities of homicidal academics. Alison Bruce, however, has the skill and courage to cast aside this template, and write a brilliant novel set in the mundane yellow-brick streets of a provincial city, with a cast of ordinary youngsters who are trying their best to do well in an academic world far removed from the glittering prizes. Her young detective, Gary Goodhew, is a solitary and enigmatic figure, with an ascetic lifestyle and very much an individual view of the world. This nuanced and sensitively written book is a long way from being a standard police procedural as Goodhew, against a background of tragedy and disillusionment, steps gingerly through a tangle of family breakdowns to arrive at the truth.
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2 – Creole Belle by James Lee Burke
This is the 19th in the best-selling series featuring the Louisiana detective Dave Robicheux and his terrible and terrifying buddy, Clete Purcel. Burke would have been forgiven by his legion of admirers for simply producing another formulaic good-versus-bad potboiler, but in Creole Belle he takes the Bobbsy Twins almost to the point of extinction. They face a set of grotesque villains who are bad enough on their own but are almost unassailable through their connections to multinational corporations and crooked politicians. When their families are threatened, Robicheux and Purcel cast conventional morality aside to save those they love. The writing style is sensuous, full of the smells and sounds of the bayoux, and shot through with the metallic taste of blood. As he enters his mid-70s, James Lee Burke is at the peak of his powers.
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1- Talking to the Dead
My runaway favourite by a military mile is Talking To The Dead by Harry Bingham. This was so far ahead of the field in my estimation that had it been in an under-12s rugby game, they would have stopped it at half-time. Bingham defies logic and procedure by creating a heroine so credible and so heart-warming that the reader is prepared to put up with all manner of improbable plot twists. Cambridge graduate DC Fiona Griffiths is drawn away from her paperwork to investigate the death of a prostitute and her young daughter. Griffiths develops a chilling but revealing rapport with the dead child and, despite the scepticism of her boss, she uncovers a sinister web of organised crime. Fiona is difficult, dangerous and unpredictable, but her pursuit of the bad guys is energetic and relentless. I have to confess that the final scene where she achieves some kind of redemption with her family had me in tears.
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