One thing readers and critics alike agree on: women are leading the way at the moment in crime fiction. Just look at the worldwide success of authors such as Gillian Flynn, Paula Hawkins, Val McDermid and JK Rowling (under her crime pseudonym Robert Galbraith). These are all established names, but what about those fresh faces, women who are just at the start of their crime writing career? They are often much harder to spot in the deluge of debuts you encounter every year.
Here at Crime Fiction Lover, we try to spot the most promising talent before it hits the big time and enjoys all the frenetic buzz of the media. For the past five years, we have been offering our readers an annual list of ‘women to watch’, for whom we predict a long and varied writing career. Last year we even extended the list to include six authors, but this year we are back to the more usual five.
Róisín Burns, the protagonist in Siren, Neary’s searing debut novel, was both a victim and a perpetrator during the Troubles (what wonderful understatement) in Northern Ireland. After growing up in 70s Belfast, she thought she had managed to create a new life for herself in New York, but then she gets involved in contemporary affairs when someone she used to know in her childhood, Brian Lonergan, re-emerges as a rising star politician. Róisín feels compelled to unmask Lonergan, but is it just personal rage and desire for revenge which drives her?
Wisely, the author sets most of the action not in Belfast itself, but on Lamb Island, adding to the sense of impending doom and claustrophobia. For there is nothing more fearsome than a thwarted, closed community, where age-long grudges fester and where no-one cares about the outsider. Annemarie Neary has worked for many years as a lawyer in London, but is now spending most of her time writing. Given this outstanding debut, such a timely reminder that the political and personal are very tightly bound indeed, we can hardly wait for her next book. The Orphans is scheduled for release in summer 2017.
This author requires no introduction for those who follow the literary gongs as she was shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. However, she may be less popular with crime fiction fans, especially after courting some controversy by saying that her novel Eileen started out as a joke, following the guidelines of a ‘How to Write a Novel in 90 Days’ manual. This implication that the crime fiction genre is a colouring by numbers exercise has irritated many respectable crime authors, but this noir tale is well-constructed and deserves to be read.
Eileen is a young woman with self-destructive tendencies, profoundly unlikable, working as a secretary at a Massachusetts boys’ prison. Trapped in small-town New England during the winter of 1964, with an alcoholic father and no real friends, she allows herself to be seduced by the promise of a redheaded femme fatale called Rebecca. Things unravel from there. The build-up of atmosphere is excellent, although the ending will not satisfy everyone. It may not be the most suspenseful novel ever, but it is an excellent character study of an unloved girl trying to break free.
Beth Lewis worked as an editor for many years, and wrote four which probably won’t see the light of day, before her striking debut this year with The Wolf Road. Seven-year-old Elka is lost in the forests of British Columbia and stumbles across a heroic outlaw she calls Trapper. He teaches her everything about survival in the harsh wilderness, but when she grows up, she discovers that the father figure she has been living with is a wanted criminal. The story may have the feel of a good old Western, but it’s set in a post-apocalyptic world, where it seems to be perennial winter and the population has been wiped out in a nuclear war. Determinedly genre-bending, playing around with the tropes of crime fiction, Western and dystopian fantasy, Lewis’ book is a rich, complex coming-of-age story. Not the easiest of reads, as Elka has her own very idiosyncratic language, but it’s a very distinctive voice and an impressive example of world creation.
This Israeli writer has now had a second novel translated into English. Her first was a panoramic historical saga about the birth of Israel, but her second – Waking Lions – fits much more neatly into the crime genre. In fact, it’s a psychological thriller addressing not just domestic but also social issues.
Dr Eitan Green is a good man, a surgeon who saves lives. Then, speeding along a deserted moonlit road in his SUV after an exhausting hospital shift, he hits an African migrant and flees the scene. The consequences of his decision that night are far-reaching. In a brilliant double-twist, his wife is the police officer in charge of investigating the case, while the victim’s wife comes knocking on his door the next day, but she cannot be bought off with money. It’s a fascinating story of survival and guilt, the lies we tell ourselves in order to maintain our lifestyles, and the way we turn away from real differences. Above all, it asks that terrifying question: what would you do? The author makes no excuses for any of her well-rounded, believable protagonists, and Waking Lions feels very different from other, contemporary psychological thrillers.
Freelance journalist Michelle Davies this year turned her hand to writing fiction with a very well received crime novel entitled Gone Astray. Lesley and her husband are the sudden winners of a £15 million EuroMillions jackpot. They move with their teenage daughter Rosie to a gated estate in Buckinghamshire, leaving behind their ordinary lives and friends. They have the dream life. Or so they think. It soon turns into a nightmare when Rosie disappears. DC Maggie Neville is assigned to be family liaison officer to Lesley and Mack, supporting them while quietly trying to investigate the family. Maggie has her own secrets to protect, but this is about much more than just a missing person case – it is about all the things that money can and cannot do for you.
Michelle Davies has an excellent ear for dialogue and the plot is confident. There is no soggy middle, just a crescendo all the way to the finish and good use of three alternating POVS, which for once makes perfect sense rather than being confusing. Above all, putting a family liaison officer in as the key character provides a very different look at policing. It’s a tricky job full of moral conflicts, diligently providing tea and sympathy for the family, but also reporting anything of interest to the investigative team.
Now it’s over to you – what exciting new women writers have you discovered this year? Let us know in the comments below.