A crim­i­nally good year: The best thrillers and crime fic­tion of 2017

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - CULTURE - By JAKE KER­RIDGE

Not since Sher­lock Holmes clam­bered back up the Re­ichen­bach Falls has the res­ur­rec­tion of a seem­ingly de­funct char­ac­ter been so ea­gerly an­tic­i­pated. In A Legacy of Spies (Pen­guin, £20) John le Carré has re-en­tered the se­cret world of Ge­orge Smi­ley af­ter a quar­ter-cen­tury’s ab­sence. Nar­rated by Peter Guil­lam, a pa­tri­cian, au­thor­ity-bait­ing oc­to­ge­nar­ian (where does le Carré get his ideas from?), it starts like a dream but feels by the end like a su­per­flu­ous com­men­tary on his early master­pieces, books that still speak mag­nif­i­cently for them­selves.

Among the old friends namechecked is Con­nie Sachs, who Clive James once naugh­tily sug­gested was one of “le Carré’s most inspired cre­ations, since she makes any sec­re­tary who buys his books think that there is some­thing really dan­ger­ous and ro­man­tic about fil­ing”. It is cer­tainly true that we read­ers like even the most melo­dra­matic thriller to have some point of re­lata­bil­ity to our own hum­drum lives, which is per­haps why Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train was so phe­nom­e­nally pop­u­lar with the mil­lions of com­muters who day­dream about what they see out of the win­dow.

Hawkins’s fol­low-up, Into the Wa­ter (Dou­ble­day, £20) is less in­gra­ti­at­ing in this re­spect and many oth­ers, de­scrib­ing from a dozen dif­fer­ent view­points the ef­fect of a se­ries of vi­o­lent deaths on a Northum­brian vil­lage. It may be less easy to warm to than The Girl on the Train, but I think it is a bet­ter book. Like Into the Wa­ter, Jane Harper’s The Dry (Lit­tle, Brown, £8.99) has a pro­tag­o­nist re­turn­ing from a self­im­posed ex­ile to a tiny home­town riven with fear, though the back­drop here is the drought-plagued Aus­tralian out­back. Harper de­picts it so well that the book would have re­duced me to a sweaty, crum­pled heap on the floor had I not been en­er­gised by her di­a­bol­i­cally clever plot­ting.

The Dry was a good pick for this year’s Crime Writ­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion Gold Dag­ger, but I would have given the prize to Denise Mina’s The Long Drop (Harvill Secker, £12.99), a study of the se­rial killer Peter Manuel, who was hanged in Glasgow in 1958. If, while wish­ing Ian Brady or Charles Man­son a sin­cere good rid­dance, you found your­self won­der­ing what it would be like to ex­pe­ri­ence their sul­phurous charisma in per­son, Mina’s ver­sion of Manuel is prob­a­bly the clos­est you can get. When I fin­ished it I wanted si­mul­ta­ne­ously to burn it and to buy copies for ev­ery­body I know.

Al­most as good is Erin Kelly’s He Said/She Said (Hod­der & Stoughton, £12.99), which de­tails the ter­ri­fy­ing con­se­quences for a young cou­ple who wit­ness a sex­ual as­sault. It has been sug­gested that there are so many great fe­male crime writ­ers be­cause women can chan­nel the fear that (it be­comes in­creas­ingly ap­par­ent) they live with ev­ery day; even so, few write di­rectly about rape. Kelly is to be con­grat­u­lated on her brav­ery, and for her heart­felt field­ing on Woman’s Hour of the ac­cu­sa­tion that her novel ex­ploits the suf­fer­ing of as­sault vic­tims. It’s a fair ques­tion, but I don’t often hear it put to, say, male spy nov­el­ists who write about ter­ror­ist at­tacks.

Thriller cov­ers

Mick Her­ron’s Spook Street (John Mur­ray, £7.99), be­gan with an atroc­ity tar­geted at teenagers, which seemed hor­ri­bly pre­scient come the Manch­ester Arena at­tack in May. But it’s these dis­com­fit­ing dips into the real world that give Her­ron’s en­ter­tain­ing se­ries about in­com­pe­tent MI5 re­jects its depth.

In De­fec­tors (Si­mon & Schus­ter, £14.99), Joseph Kanon ex­am­ined, with his cus­tom­ary sub­tlety, the mo­tives of a CIA agent spilling se­crets to the KGB. Nicholas Searle drew on his own back­ground in in­tel­li­gence to por­tray an IRA ter­ror­ist and his wife forced into dif­fer­ent types of be­trayal in A Traitor in the Family (Pen­guin, £14.99).

The crime novel with the most un­usual premise of the year, You Don’t Know Me (Michael Joseph, £12.99) by Im­ran Mah­mood, a crim­i­nal bar­ris­ter, takes the form of a mono­logue de­liv­ered to a jury over 10 days by a young black man de­fend­ing him­self on a mur­der charge. It some­times strains cred­i­bil­ity, but it’s churl­ish to ask for per­fec­tion from a novel writ­ten with so much orig­i­nal­ity.

Three more de­buts in­tro­duced splen­did anti-he­roes. Ali Land’s Good Me, Bad Me (Pen­guin, £7.99), told by a se­rial killer’s teenage daugh­ter try­ing to make a new life for her­self, made read­ers’ sym­pa­thies flip-flop more often than the Gov­ern­ment out­lin­ing its so­cial care pol­icy. The Pic­tures by Guy Bolton (Point Blank, £8.99) fol­lows a morally du­bi­ous stu­dio fixer in a su­perbly re­alised Thir­ties Hol­ly­wood. And Ai­dan Waits, the trou­bled Manch­ester cop who nar­rates Joseph Knox’s Sirens (Dou­ble­day, £12.99) is a bad-boy-cum-white-knight in the great tra­di­tion of hard-boiled crime.

For those who think crime fic­tion be­gins and ends with Sher­lock Holmes, this ar­ti­cle will do the same. I thor­oughly en­joyed H B Lyle’s The Ir­reg­u­lar (Hod­der & Stoughton, £17.99), which imag­ines Wig­gins, the street urchin who helps Holmes in Co­nan Doyle’s tales, grown up and work­ing for the real-life spy­mas­ter Ver­non Kell. And IQ by Joe Ide (W&N, £8.99) is a bliss­fully funny up­date of The Hound of the Baskervilles with an African-Amer­i­can Holmes fig­ure in mod­ern LA. These are two smart, so­phis­ti­cated books but they will still ap­peal to those un­re­fined read­ers — like me — who de­voured the Holmes sto­ries when we were young, and se­cretly be­lieve that noth­ing in life has been as ex­cit­ing since.


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