Mal McEwan: Top five books of 2016

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The glorious potential of crime fiction to lead us into other lives and times is unsurpassed. My list will lead you to various corners of the globe but I have, inevitably, opted for a slice of Scotland too. All these books have a strong sense of place and the memorable stories will stay with you.

5 – Dead Lemons by Finn Bell
The debut novel of self-published author Finn Bell is set on the southernmost tip of the South Island, New Zealand. The main character, also named Finn Bell, is disabled after crashing his car. A recovering alcoholic, separated from his wife, he is unsure if he can scrape a life back together.

Finn ticks the boxes for flawed heroes but Dead Lemons doesn’t descend into maudlin self pity. He moves into a small cottage with a tragic past and is soon drawn into the disturbing mystery of the missing daughter. His unsettling neighbours, the Zoyl brothers, cast a macabre shadow over his life in the community. The inevitable confrontation is signalled from the first few pages but Bell keeps up the tension and pulls us onwards, keeping us in suspense until the final conclusion. Full review here.
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4 – Black Widow by Chris Brookmyre
I’ve been a Brookmyre fan since 1996 when his debut novel, Quite Ugly One Morning, introduced us to the investigative journalist Jack Parlabane. This tale centres around a driven career surgeon, Diana Jager, whose second husband Peter dies in a car accident within months of a whirlwind romance. Parlabane is called in by Peter’s sister to do some investigating. Brookmyre has, at times, tended to the polemic but Black Widow is a twisty thriller with little spare fat on its story bones. Black humour leavens the psychological suspense to great effect. Black Widow is the winner of the inaugural 2016 McIlvanney Prize and showcases Brookmyre at his best.
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Dodgers, Bill Beverly3 – Dodgers by Bill Beverly
Dodgers has been described as a literary crime novel. The danger is that some may read this as a coded message that although deliciously written the story or its intensity are weak. It is true that the dialogue is tone perfect and the writing is richly evocative. However, Dodgers is also tightly plotted and captures the hopes and fears of the teenage corner boys on a 2000 mile road trip from LA to Wisconsin to perform a hit. The main character, East, is just one of four young black men lighting out across middle America. It’s a gritty coming-of-age tale yet also an intense thriller wearing a literary overcoat. It is a gem. Full review here. The paperback has just been released.
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2 – A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee
It is 1919 and after the bloody squalor of World War I, Captain Sam Wyndham arrives in Calcutta to take on a new role with the police squad. He is soon investigating the brutal murder of a senior British official. As you’d expect our protagonist is carrying his own demons. If the horror of the trenches was not enough his wife died in the influenza pandemic and he has an opium habit to boot. His bigoted second-in-command John Digby resents Wyndham but Indian-born Sergeant Banerjee is a rising star. The complex political context of the British role in India and the Raj is handled deftly as Wyndham unpicks the mystery. A rewarding read. You can read the full review here.
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1 – Cambodia Noir by Nick Seeley
You’ll feel like a bath and a detox after traipsing along in the wake of the yaba fuelled, alcoholic sweat-haze of the dysfunctional photo journalist, Will Keller. A mysterious woman has asked him to find her sister, a journalist who has gone missing. Keller steers his way through some familiar tropes of the genre but with a hefty dose of unfamiliar Cambodian politics stirred into the pot. The steamy atmosphere of ‘Cambo’ drips off the page. It is achingly hardboiled, just straying towards pastiche at times, but Seeley keeps it in check and serves up an exotic treat. I loved it. Read the full review here.
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Find out what other CFL contributors chose as their Top Five here.

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