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Sonja van der Westhuizen: Top five books of 2020

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Most readers want the same basic elements from their crime fiction: an engaging plot; enough momentum to sustain the plot; well-developed characters; some misdirection; and a satisfying ending.

This year my top five favourites not only had all the essential elements, they all included a strong sense of place, a pinch of dark humour, or both. Maybe the lockdown situation had me longing for a different setting and the gloomy state of the world required some twisted and humorous crime reading. Who knows?

Make no mistake, choosing five was no easy task. Despite, or maybe because of the pandemic, we’ve seen some brilliant books and they should all be on this list. As usual, most of my reading is translated fiction and it’s also reflected in these five books.

5 – The Fox by Sólveig Pálsdóttir

The Fox by Solveig Palsdottir front cover

Thanks to newly launched publisher, Corylus, The Fox sneaked up on us out of nowhere this year.

This is the first of Sólveig Pálsdóttir’s books translated into English by the prolific Quentin Bates, who also released his own next instalment of the Gunnhildur series, Cold Malice, in June. Sólveig has written four other books, and Quentin is already busy with the second instalment.

In The Fox, Sri Lankan woman Sajee is stranded in Iceland, where she finds the silence unsettling and the scarcity of people terrifying. Desperate for work she ends up on a farm in a remote part of the country, looking after an elderly lady and her son. When Sajee disappears it falls on Guðgeir Fransson to solve the mystery of her sudden disappearance. It’s a perfect mix of the elements readers expect from Nordic noir novels. Read my full review of The Fox.
Buy now on Amazon

4 – Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

Despite the fact that Olga is a Nobel Prize and Man Booker winner, this quiet, unassuming novel could easily have gone unnoticed.

On the surface it’s the simple story of Janina Duszejko, a woman in her 60s, who lives in a remote Polish village close to the Czech border. Late one night Oddball, her neighbour knocks on her door, informing her that their other neighbour has been murdered – the first of a series of killings.

The crimes are surprisingly not what captures the reader. It’s the intricate, detailed observations of Janina and her colourful narration of the town and its inhabitants. Drive your plow over the bones of the dead paints a vivid picture of the psychological challenges of living in isolation and the eccentricity of small town living with a murder mystery as backdrop.
Buy now on Amazon

3 – Three Bodies by NR Brodie

Three Bodies by NR Brodie South African crime fiction

If you want to read a crime novel that truly encapsulates the current social and political climate in South Africa, this is it. Set in Johannesburg it’s unapologetically and uniquely South African and most likely the best South African equivalent to Nordic noir.

This is the second in the series featuring detectives Reshma Patel and Ian Jack, the first being Knucklebone. The bodies of young women of West-African descent are found in rivers in the Johannesburg area. Reshma, a police detective, and Ian, an ex-policeman and Reshma’s partner, realise that their different cases are connected.

At its core, Three Bodies is about femicide and the overwhelming increase of gender-based violence in South Africa. It is worth noting that NR Brodie is also an established non-fiction author. In June, Femicide, the result of seven years’ PhD research on violence against women in South Africa, was released. Three Bodies is a riveting, nail-biting and action-packed, plot-driven crime novel which highlights the authentic South Africa. Read the full review here.
Buy now for Kobo

2 – The Mist by Ragnar Jonasson

The Mist by Ragnar Jonasson

The Mist concludes the Hidden Iceland trilogy, which tells the story of Reykjavik police detective Hulda Hermansdottir. What sets this trilogy apart from some other police procedurals is the order in which Hulda’s story is told. It started with the first novel, The Darkness and Hulda about to retire and it ends with The Mist more than 30 years earlier.

It’s 1988 and 40-year-old Hulda is investigating the disappearance of Unnur, a 20-year-old woman from Reykjavik who spent her gap year hitchhiking across Iceland. Two months after Unnur’s disappearance Hulda is called out to a crime scene in a remote part of eastern Iceland where an elderly farmer and his wife are found murdered.

A perfectly contained, cleverly executed crime fiction trilogy with a satisfying conclusion reminiscent of an Agatha Christie novel. Read the full review.
Buy now on Amazon

1 – The Lost and the Damned by Olivier Norek

The Lost and the Damned by Olivier Norek

The Lost and the Damned is everything I love in a crime fiction novel and is, without hesitation, my favourite read of 2020.

It is the first of Olivier Norek’s trilogy set in set in Seine-Saint-Denis, where the author lives and where he has worked for the past 18 years as a police lieutenant. The main character is Capitaine Victor Coste of the 93, a character loosely based on the author himself. The part of Paris Norek depicts is gritty, violent and often shocking. It’s not the romanticised tourist city we are used to reading about, but rather the underbelly of Paris, the district with the most violent, brutal criminal activity in France, a working-class district branded a breeding ground for hooliganism, drug trafficking and radical Islam.

In The Lost and the Damned, Coste has to deal with a body coming to life on the mortuary slab, one that spontaneously combusts and another drained entirely of blood. Norek describes the violent and graphic details with wry humour and it provides the perfect balance. His writing style also matches the gloomy setting perfectly – pacey, fast and hard, building suspense gradually through the snappy chapters.

Simultaneously, Coste receives anonymous notes informing him of the deaths of two women. Neither of them are on police record, nor have they been identified.

According to Norek, 95 per cent of his books are derived from facts and real events and this is what makes his writing both engrossing, unsettling and authentic. Nick Caistor is working on the translation for the second in the series, Turf Wars, and it should be heading our way in 2021. Read the full review.
Buy now on Amazon

Read about my top five of 2019 here.

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