In the past twelve months I’ve added more than a hundred books to my shelves, after finishing the final chapter and closing the cover. Choosing the ‘best books’ from so many simply isn’t possible, or fair to all those authors. So here instead is a selection of the most memorable crime-thrillers and murder-mysteries which I’ve enjoyed in 2014 – several were published earlier but I only discovered them this year. Many books on my list are from independent authors and small publishers; quite a few titles refuse to be pigeon-holed in any particular genre, but calling them ‘thrillers’ feels appropriate. They all gave me hours of entertainment, and more than one left me awed at the authors’ achievement…
FEAST DAY OF FOOLS by James Lee Burke. Crime-thrillers can be simple mysteries. Or police procedurals. Or action adventure. Or social commentaries. Or great literature, delivered in an accessible format for mass consumption. JLB writes all of the above, and this is one of his best. If you’ve never read a JLB book, and might only ever read one of his complex examinations of America’s underbelly, then this is the one to read. If you’ve dabbled with his Dave Robicheaux stories but not yet met Hackberry Holland then, again, Feast Day of Fools comes recommended. It unites the recurring themes of Burke’s extensive writing career and delivers them in a relentless cascade, a compelling narrative of bad men doing bad things. And of good men trying to do the right thing. And everything else in between.
THE SMALL CHANGE TRILOGY by Jo Walton. The premise of these alternate-history spy stories hooked me from the get-go: Britain made peace with Nazi Germany in 1941 leaving the USSR to fight alone. Churchill never came to power, most of WW2 and the social revolution of the post-war period didn’t happen. The first book mixes the frivolity of a traditional, cosy crime, country house whodunnit with an increasingly sinister political situation. That theme develops over the trilogy as the political intrigue increases alongside the more obvious murder-mystery plot threads. It’s a sly, subtle and sophisticated series.
AN AMERICAN OUTLAW by John Stonehouse. This aspires to be a great American novel, and it almost makes the grade – a considerable achievement for an independent author and a first novel to boot. AO very much has the sense and style of a 21st century western, right down to the traditional ‘good man doing bad things for the right reason’ motif. It features a relentless pursuit among the sun-scorched mountain trails and dirt tracks of west Texas, with a committed US marshal tracking a fleeing trio after a bank raid goes horribly wrong. Stripped back descriptions and short sentences perfectly portray the landscape of highway diners, remote hill cabins and dusty border towns.
FIRST CONTRACT by Frank Westworth: I admit a personal interest here (being just a tiny bit married to the author), but this intriguing quick thriller caught me totally unawares. I knew Frank intended to write some short stories to accompany the publication of his full-length novel, A Last Act of Charity, but what I hadn’t expected was how much I’d enjoy a brief encounter with the younger, harsher, less equivocal version of JJ Stoner. The opening sequence of death in the desert genuinely shocked me: by the final paragraph I couldn’t wait for the next Stoner story. A perfect introduction to my favourite musician / motorcyclist / murderer.
MALICE by Keigo Higashino. A Japanese ‘whydunnit’. It starts with a locked-room murder mystery which then spirals outward as the story sprawls backwards in time through the lives of the killer and his victim. Every twist, every chapter, every word and every syllable feels meticulously planned; examined in fine detail and then painstakingly assembled in exactly the right place. The final resolution reveals as much about the turbulent condition of Japanese society as it does about the motivation of the killer.
MANNERS COST EVERYTHING by Paul Chambers. A guilty pleasure if ever there was one, this wild-eyed revenge romp lets the reader indulge in gratuitous and vicarious violence directed at all those irritating people whose snubs and sneers make modern life miserable. The writing is rough around the edges and the style won’t suit everyone, but Mr Manners perfectly captures the roiling frustration and extreme exasperation of everyday existence. Then all that tension is released in graphically glorious gore. Perfect after a hard day at the office and a nightmare commute on the Northern Line.
BEAT THE REAPER by Josh Bazell. This medical thriller is a wicked delight. Mixing medicine and the mafia seemed a little unlikely but the result is a gripping, witty, well-written page-turner. It indulges in instances of brutal violence, goes into graphic detail about the bloodier aspects of human anatomy, exposes personal holocaust histories, dabbles in recreational chemistry, isn’t scared of an occasional explicit sex scene… and lets rip with some bitingly bitter observations on modern medicine, relationships and society. Just my kinda thing.
THE GOOD LIFE by Frank Wheeler Jr. A vivid, vicious slice of modern American noir, which exposes the hard-faced truth behind apple-pie façades. Wheeler creates an authentic, bitter and gritty reality as he explores the corruption in small town America. In a taut, twisted, no-holds-barred narrative he debates the hard choices made by those entrusted with keeping a lid on ‘civilised’ society, and the appalling acts this leads them to commit. He delivers memorable, three-dimensional characters who leap off the page and stay with you for weeks. Hard-hitting, sharp-edged and inventive: delivered with the stunning impact of a sucker punch.
DECOMPRESSION by Julie Zeh. Far from being a conventional thriller, this powerful psychodrama combines the serene rapture of the underwater environment with the claustrophobic collapse of identity under pressure. It’s unpredictable, offbeat and edgy; unsettling and almost incidentally erotic. The pivotal diving scenes will have you holding your breath with the vertiginous thrill of free-floating above an underwater abyss, freed from time, tide and moral responsibility. Intelligent and absorbing, Decompression is easily Juli Zeh’s most accessible novel to date. It’s nothing like as weird as Dark Matter (which I also adored), but still strays far from the path of the typical action-adventure crime-thriller.
CORROSION by Jon Bassoff. An everyday tale of psychopathic mountain folk: the feeble, the febrile, the flat-out freaky, Corrosion seizes the reader by the entrails and drags you into its warped and intensely credible reality. This is a story set on the extreme borders of modern American noir. It nuzzles up to the raw edge of horror, bleeds into the convoluted depths of the twisted psychological thriller. It’s a crossover, a genre-defying blend, blurring multiple boundaries, and is all the better for being that little bit beyond definition. This is definitely not a novel to start late at night; you’ll be haunted by the imagery into the dark hours. It’s grim and utterly gripping.
All books on this page read and reviewed by Rowena Hoseason. Some were provided FOC by the publishers but mostly I try to buy my own books to support the authors I admire and who provide me with so much reading pleasure.
Thanks to everyone who has offered me a book to read or brought an interesting new title to my attention. I only wish there were enough hours in the day to read them all!
RH, 31 Dec 2014