Catherine Turnbull: Top five books of 2020

4 Mins read

It’s not been the best year and travelling to more challenging past eras through the portal of modern historical crime novels and thrillers has been a welcome holiday from 2020. My selection includes books set in War World II, the dark and dangerous world of 19th century Sweden and the turmoil of strife-ridden post-partition India on the eve of 1950. My final choice is not set in the past, but it’s a contemporary world peopled by detectives stuck in the mindset of the 1940s and a welcome comic diversion…

5 – Oranges and Lemons by Christopher Fowler

Oranges and Lemons by Christopher Fowler front cover

Arthur Bryant is an old man in a woke world and the Peculiar Crimes Unit he inhabits with his fellow detective John May and a cast of other eccentric characters has been shut down. When the speaker of the House of Commons Michael Claremont is badly injured under a delivery of citrus fruit near St Clement’s Church, it’s clear (to some) that this is no freakish accident. The mothballed unit is reopened on a temporary basis, joined by a couple of extra oddballs, as a series of weird deaths occur, with clues linked to the old nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons. In this 18th Bryant & May novel, Christopher Fowler continues to dish up a delicious serving of dark humour and confusion with verve. Spending time with this fabulous gang is a joyous pastime. Read more here.
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4 – Midnight at Malabar House by Vaseem Khan

Midnight at Malabar House by Vaseem Khan

The author of the Baby Ganesh Agency series that features a baby elephant sleuth has created Inspector Persis Wadia, India’s first female police detective. Persis is on the midnight graveyard shift on New Year’s Eve 1950 when an English diplomat, Sir James Heriot (no, not the vet) is murdered and she’s thrust into a political minefield as she insists it’s her case. With India gripped in the conflict and power struggles of post-partition turmoil, Persis is steely and a little naïve as she fights sexism and racism from a hostile high society and prejudiced colleagues hoping she will fail. She teams up with Scotland Yard criminalist Archie Blackfinch to solve the murder and navigate red herrings, a cipher and a cast of suspects and motives in this satisfyingly complex puzzle. Vaseem Khan skilfully takes us on a fascinating trip back to post-partition India on the 70th anniversary with a well plotted and informative read. I can’t wait to see what Persis and Archie are faced with on their next adventure.
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3 – The Dead of Winter by Nicola Upson

The Dead of Winter Nicola Upson

Nicola Upson continues her series featuring Golden Age crime writer Josephine Tey and embraces the tradition of the classic mystery in this thrilling homage to the genre. The Dead of Winter is a festive whodunit set in December 1938, as storm clouds of impending war close over Europe. Tey, her lover Marta and her friend Detective Chief Inspector Archie Penrose of Scotland Yard gather with other guests, including a world famous film star, for a Christmas house party in the castle on the tidal isle of St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, and are cut off in a blizzard. They have only been in residence a few hours when one of their number is brutally slain. This is a Christmas treat to bring comfort and joy if you enjoy the thrill of the chase and fancy racing the detective to unmask a killer. Read our full review.
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2 – To Cook a Bear by Mikael Niemi

To Cook A Bear by Mikael Niemi

This beguiling book by Mikael Niemi is a mash up of genres with historical crime, coming-of-age and literary novel tropes that manages to be reflective and page turning. In Sweden in 1852 real life revivalist Pastor Lars Levi Laestadius, and Jussi, a runaway Sami boy, turn detective and use pioneering forensic methods to investigate the death of a milkmaid and an attack on another young woman. The alcoholic sheriff and the superstitious and inward-looking community believe a killer bear is responsible. But Laestadius suspects the killer with a taste for murder is a much more dangerous human. As his investigations bring him closer to the truth, he realises too late the danger that threatens him and makes young Jussi a target of hate too in this beautiful and violent world. If you love Nordic noir you’ll enjoy the horror and dark themes woven in the plot as you are thrust into the convincing world of 19th century Sweden. Read our full review here.
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1 – When We Fall by Carolyn Kirby

When We Fall by Carolyn Kirby

Two women and an airman with ice blue eyes are in jeopardy, and at the heart of this smart World War II thriller by Carolyn Kirby. Vee Katchatourian is a pilot ferrying new aircraft to RAF airfields in England when she meets Polish-born flier Stefan Bergel and falls in love. Meanwhile, in German-occupied Poland, Ewa Hartmann, a member of the resistance, is mourning the loss of her lover Stefan – but then he suddenly reappears. Stefan carries a lot of baggage in his flight bag. Soviet forces captured him and during his captivity he made a catastrophic decision. His guilt drives him to ask the two women to help him expose the truth behind the Katyn massacre in 1940. It’s chocks away for a tale of love, loyalty, betrayal and a quest to expose one of the war’s worst atrocities and biggest secrets. Read our full review here.
Buy now on Amazon

See my top five books of 2019 here.

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