The best of Brit noir with Barry Forshaw

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With his new book Brit Noir : The Pocket Essential Guide to British Crime Fiction due out on 24 March, we invited crime fiction expert Barry Forshaw to pick his top 12 books in the British crime fiction category. So, it’s over to Barry…

The best of British…
Phew. It was much more difficult this time. When Crime Fiction Lover asked me to pick a selection of Nordic noir classics as a guide for readers, I remember that I came up with my choices fairly quickly. And it was the same when I wrote a Pocket Essentials guide to Euro Noir. But now that I have turned to my own countrymen and women by writing Brit Noir, I have to admit the request – this time to pick British contemporary crime books of significance – a much tougher call. And, frankly, I really don’t know why that is, other than to suggest (perhaps) that there is such a wide range of accomplished writers and novels in the UK at present that I’ve been somewhat spoiled for choice. But – damn it – deadlines are deadlines, and in the end I came up with the following, which I hope represents a cross-section (in no particular order) of some of the best writing from what might be called a new Golden Age of British crime fiction.

I offer preliminary apologies to any writers from the Republic of Ireland, who may be nationalists and object to their inclusion in something called Brit Noir; their inclusion is all part of my agenda of celebrating as many interesting and talented writers as I can. Though it’s not quite the same, sometime before the last Scottish referendum, I asked both Val McDermid and Ian Rankin if they would still want to be included in any a study of British crime writers if the vote were ‘yes’ to cutting loose from the UK. Both opted for inclusion, which is why I took this decision regarding the Republic of Ireland. In any case, when writing the book Brit Noir, I hadn’t been commissioned to write a separate study of Irish crime writers, and I wanted to commend some of my favourite crime novelists who I couldn’t otherwise have included.


The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter by Malcolm Mackay
Every new debut in the crime fiction field is inevitably trumpeted by its publisher, though many such books fall neglected by the wayside. But every so often, one comes along that not only justifies the publisher’s hyperbole but has critics attempting to come up with new adjectives to praise it. Recent examples include Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands (see below) and Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising – along with the youngish Malcolm Mackay’s debut. The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter burst upon the scene with the impact of a hand grenade, uneasily placing the reader in the mind of a hitman. Using the familiar trappings of the crime novel, the book was still utterly original, and it was clear that a major new voice had appeared, virtually fully formed. What made this novel particularly impressive was its terrifyingly laidback, authentic toughness – surprising, coming from a quiet, unassuming 30-year-old author from Stornoway (where Mackay still lives). Crime Fiction Lover reviewed the book here.
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Killing Floor by Lee Child
The tall and charming Lee Child has long enjoyed phenomenal sales and a truly devoted readership thanks to his irresistibly page-turning Jack Reacher novels, but Child’s bête noire – one that really rankles with him — is the low esteem in which he feels that crime and thriller writers are held. But he should worry. Since the Coventry-born Child inaugurated his series of kinetic and compelling thrillers, he has maintained an unfaltering standard of excellence. Killing Floor (1997) had Jack being ‘let go’ by an ungrateful military (just as his creator had been dispensed with in another field), and soon finding himself up to his neck in trouble in the town of Margrave, Georgia, arrested for a murder he didn’t commit (not for the last time). Reacher has become a favourite of readers of both sexes: the kind of man other men want to be, and the kind of man women want to go to bed with – or so female readers say.
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A Place of Execution by Val McDermid
Just what kind of a novelist do you think Val McDermid is? If you’re happy to regard her as the creator of the damaged criminal profiler Dr Tony Hill in a series of commanding (and operatically violent) thrillers – and would be happy if she ploughed that particular furrow ad infinitum then perhaps her more ambitious books such as A Place of Execution are not for you. Crime thrillers, yes – but also searing pieces about society and wasted lives that cram more insight and anger into their pages than many a non-crime novel. Actually, McDermid has been freighting in such things for years, and A Place of Execution is, some would claim, her most accomplished book. Set in 1963 with the UK in the grip of Beatlemania, a young girl goes missing in a remote Derbyshire village. A detective becomes obsessed by the case, and what follows is one of the most scarifying novels in the genre – a book, what’s more, that influenced and is namechecked by no less a writer than the late Stieg Larsson.
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Sleepyhead by Mark Billingham
For some time now, Mark Billingham’s lean and gritty urban thrillers featuring Detective Inspector Tom Thorne have been massive commercial successes. And such books as In the Dark, a standalone novel in which Thorne makes only a cameo appearance, demonstrate that Billingham can make trenchant comments about British society while never neglecting his ironclad storytelling skills. Billingham once quoted some interesting statistical findings: many women would rather spend time reading a thriller than having sex. He appeared to be bemused by this statistic but, if the truth were told, the author himself is part of the problem: his crime novels featuring Thorne are undoubtedly a source of pure enjoyment… without the bother of having to take off one’s clothes! Billingham’s main achievement is the steady and relentless orchestration of tension, as in his signature novel, Sleepyhead.
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The End of the Wasp Season

The End of the Wasp Season by Denise Mina
At the height of her success, did Denise Mina become blasé about the crime fiction awards that routinely came her way? And the concomitant praise? The process was accelerated by the superb The End of the Wasp Season. One of the finest practitioners of the modern criminous art, she is also a social commentator of perception and humanity, as this novel reminds us. Concealed beneath the surface here is an agenda that has been a consistent element of Mina’s work over the years: a passionate concern for the vulnerable and damaged in society – and a rage at injustice. Our sympathy is both invited and tested in the most rigorous of fashions (it is to Mina’s credit that she is never sentimental towards her victims), and The End of the Wasp Season is a complex, crowded novel.
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In the Woods by Tana French
Yes, Tana French is Irish, however her inclusion is not meant to cause offence (see above). She is an author who possesses one thing many writers would kill for – impeccable word of mouth among readers and critics. There are few aficionados of crime fiction who do not speak approvingly of her work; in fact, more than approvingly – with massive enthusiasm. French has said that most of us have had at least one moment when we wanted to simply leave our own lives behind, just put them down and walk away. In her work, some of the characters actually follow that impulse: they try to erase their old selves and start over from scratch. But it’s a dangerous thing to do. French’s novels are equally ambitious and gripping, though perhaps the best starting point for new readers is In the Woods, which details an appalling tragedy that takes place during an Arcadian summer, casting a dark shadow over the one survivor in their adult life. It’s a remarkable debut novel.
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The Blackhouse by Peter May
After a lengthy career – and critical acclaim with a variety of different series including one set in France and one in China – the Scottish crime novelist Peter May has now firmly made the transition from connoisseurs’ taste to popular bestseller. The Blackhouse, the first entry in the author’s celebrated trilogy set on the Isle of Lewis, boasted a powerful sense of locale. The second and third books enjoyed an equally enthusiastic response, but after finishing the Lewis sequence with The Lewis Man and The Chessmen, May vowed not to visit the territory again, although a recent book, the weighty Entry Island, suggested otherwise. This forbidding landscape is inhabited by only a hundred or so islanders, and the books are shot through with the dark legacy of history, and, with quiet authority, May marries the scars of past injustice with the damaged psyches of his central characters – and not just the troubled ones.
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Little Face by Sophie Hannah
Apart from recently reactivating Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot franchise, Sophie Hannah writes highly involving contemporary thrillers, set in a fictional UK town, that blend the psychological suspense genre with the police procedural. She has said, “I wanted to combine the direct, visceral appeal of the first-person woman-in-peril narrative with recurring police characters whom readers would get to know better with each book.” Hannah’s detectives are DC Simon Waterhouse, who has never, to his colleagues’ knowledge, had a romantic or sexual relationship, and Sergeant Charlotte Zailer, who is mouthy, promiscuous, and in love with Waterhouse. Their relationship evolves over the course of the books. In Little Face, Hannah’s first crime novel (a debut that effortlessly rose above the plethora of first crime books), a woman claims her newborn has been swapped for another baby, and nobody believes her.
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A Quiet Belief in Angels RJ Ellory
Forget the feuds with other crime novelists (now something of an embarrassment for the writer) – what counts with RJ Ellory are his books, and one in particular. The choice of his A Quiet Belief in Angels for a TV book club selection shifted thousands of copies in the UK, but somehow Ellory, despite being highly prolific, has largely maintained the momentum of that book with a series of novels that almost always enjoy more than respectable sales if not the massive success of the earlier book. What’s more, these are never slim novellas, but bulky, arm-straining epics – such as A Dark and Broken Heart, weighing in at over 400 pages. Ellory is not interested in making things easy for himself. Like Lee Child, Ellory is an Englishman who chooses to set his novels in the States; both men pride themselves on getting all the US detail correct in their books, but there the resemblance ends. While Lee Child chronicles the bone-crushing exploits of his series hero Jack Reacher, all of Ellory’s books are standalones, introducing us to a whole new set of characters and conflicts each time.
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Blacklands by Belinda Bauer
All popular entertainment fields end up chasing their tails, so why should crime fiction be any different? Most of the time, it isn’t. A book or an author makes a mark with a new idea, and publishers scramble over themselves to get their authors writing similar books, staying just the right side of plagiarism. There are, however, some talented writers who are either so quirkily idiosyncratic or just plain bloody-minded that their books resolutely resist conforming to whatever the latest modishness is. Foremost among this admirable company is the award-winning Belinda Bauer who, in the space of half a dozen books, has become one of the most individual of crime writers. Her first novel was the very distinctive Blacklands, shortlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger and, a year later, winning the CWA Gold Dagger. A more recent book, Rubbernecker, had her admirers claiming that this was in fact her best work. But Badlands is still a key book, with a growing sense of menace lurking at the edge of the narrative that ensures an intensity of reading experience.
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Black and Blue

Black and Blue by Ian Rankin
If Charles Dickens remains the definitive chronicler of London, then Ian Rankin can claim the mantle for his beloved Edinburgh. His series featuring the sardonic copper John Rebus has produced a forensically detailed picture of the city in all its splendour and grittiness that is as evocative as one could wish. Having kept company with the alcoholic Rebus over many years, Rankin has also produced a memorable new character in Internal Affairs specialist Malcolm Fox, who holds down the unpopular job of policing the police. But the Rebus novel Black and Blue remains a crucial entry point. It’s hard to know what to praise first here – the sinewy narrative grip, or the matchless characterisation. However sick you may be of damaged alcoholic coppers (and many of us are), Rankin will have changed your mind by the end of the novel; he is always able to carve out new facets of the bolshie bugger Rebus.
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The Boy In The Snow

The Boy in the Snow by MJ McGrath
Wrap up warmly. MJ McGrath’s earlier Arctic-set outing, White Heat, may have made people sit up and take notice, but it inevitably raised expectations for its successor. McGrath managed to match her achievement with The Boy in the Snow, the second book to feature her female Inuit hunter/sleuth Edie Kiglatuk. Edie is an Arctic guide who knows every inch of the Alaskan forests, but when — on one of her expeditions — she is led by a ‘spirit bear’ (a ghostly white creature held in awe by the aboriginals) to discover the frozen corpse of a child, she little realises the grim consequences it will have for her. The Anchorage authorities are keen to link the death to a dangerous Russian sect, the Dark Believers — and Edie determines to force herself to forget the sight of the body of a boy wrapped in yellow fabric, even though she must remain in the territory. Her ex-husband, Sammy, has entered an important and challenging dogsled race (ending in Nome, Alaska), and Edie has agreed to help him. But while Sammy sets out on his journey across hostile territory, Edie is drawn into finding out the truth behind the death of the child. Crime Fiction Lover reviewed the book here.
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Make sure you grab your own copy of Brit Noir: The Pocket Essential Guide to the Crime Fiction, Film & TV of the British Isles by Barry Forshaw, published by No Exit/Oldcastle, by clicking the button below.

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