This year we bid farewell to one of crime fiction’s iconic investigators, Bernie Gunther. His final outing, which was published in April, was completed shortly before author Philip Kerr’s untimely death last year and is just as gripping and immersive as its predecessors. The last novel in a sequence begun in 1989 with March Violets, Metropolis (Quercus) is set in Berlin in 1928, where the young Gunther finds himself on the trail of a killer of sex workers and a serial murderer who targets disabled war veterans.
This year’s most impressive debuts include the brilliant literary thriller Kill [redacted] by Anthony Good (Atlantic), an inventive exploration of the morality of revenge, and Holly Watt’s To The Lions (Raven), winner of the Crime Writers’ Association Ian Fleming Steel Dagger and the first in what promises to be an excellent series featuring investigative reporter Casey Benedict. Other first novels worth seeking out are Kia Abdullah’s thought-provoking legal thriller Take It Back (HQ); Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s vivid evocation of the slave trade in Georgian England, Blood & Sugar (Mantle), and Scrublands (Wildfire), an accomplished slice of Outback Noir by Australian journalist Chris Hammer which won the Crime Writers’ Association’s John Creasey New Blood Dagger. American Spy (Dialogue), Lauren Wilkinson’s intelligent and pacey debut novel, is the story of black FBI agent Marie Mitchell, recruited in the mid-eighties by the CIA as the bait in a honeytrap for Thomas Sankara, president of Burkina Faso, whose fledgling government the Americans are keen to destabilise.
Established practitioners who continue to go from strength to strength include Mick Herron, whose Slough House series of spy thrillers – the sixth and most recent title being Joe Country (John Murray) – is being televised, with Gary Oldman slated to play the spectacularly repulsive Jackson Lamb. The final thriller in Don Winslow’s ‘Cartel’ trilogy, The Border (HarperCollins), is social fiction at its finest, showing how Mexican gangsters, enriched by decades of America’s wrong-headed ‘war on drugs’, are now taking advantage of the opioid crisis. There’s more astute state-of-the-nation commentary, this time on the subject of Brexit, from John Le Carre in Agent Running in the Field, and on US race relations, in Heaven, My Home (Serpent’s Tail), the second book in Attica Locke’s hard-hitting Highway 59 series. Also on the police procedural front, but in the UK, Jane Casey published her eighth DS Maeve Kerrigan book, Cruel Acts (HarperCollins), and Sarah Hilary’s DI Marnie Rome made her sixth appearance in Never Be Broken (Headline) – two intelligent series whose protagonists have real emotional depth.
Tana French took a break from her superb Dublin Murder Squad series for The Wych Elm (Viking), a compelling examination of the unreliability of memory, the effects of trauma and the relationship between privilege and what we perceive as luck. Other changes of direction include The Chain (Orion), a standalone thriller from Adrian McKinty, author of the Sean Duffy series, which invests the unlikely idea of a pyramid kidnapping scheme with compellingly appalling plausibility; and The Whisper Man (Michael Joseph), a chilling police procedural with supernatural overtones by Steve Mosby writing as Alex North. After almost a decade, Kate Atkinson returned to her series character, Jackson Brodie. In Big Sky (Doubleday) the gruff private detective returns to his native Yorkshire and becomes involved in a case of human trafficking and a historic paedophile ring.
Catastrophically dysfunctional friendships are the key ingredient in an increasingly popular Domestic Noir sub-genre, of which The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley (HarperCollins) is an outstanding example. When a group of thirty-something chums have a mini-break in an exclusive hunting lodge in the Scottish Highlands, things soon begin to unravel as everyone, it turns out, has something to hide… Another exceptional read in this vein is Mel McGrath’s The Guilty Party (HQ), in which a group of friends all have their own reasons for not reporting the rape of a stranger who is later found dead.
Something that this reviewer is delighted to see on the rise is what might be described as ‘hot flush noir’ – put-upon middle-aged women against the world – a hitherto neglected sub-genre that, given the crime-reading demographic, publishers really ought to be actively encouraging. Two stand-out examples this year are Helen Fitzgerald’s sublime Worst Case Scenario (Orenda) a foul-mouthed, satirical revenge thriller in which Glasgow probation officer Mary Shields battles career burn-out and the menopause as her life implodes in a welter of bad decisions, and The Godmother (Old Street) by Hannelore Cayre, translated from French by Stephanie Smee. Winner of both the Grand Prix de La Litterature* Policiere** and the European Crime Fiction Prize, this witty, acerbic gem is the story of a fifty-something widowed mother of two who, facing a precarious future, decides to become a drug dealer.
There has also been a greater-than-usual amount of fiction about cults, possibly because this July saw the 50th anniversary of the murders of Sharon Tate and friends by the followers of Charles Manson. Notable examples include Lisa Jewell’s The Family Upstairs (Century) and Fog Island (HQ) by Scientology survivor Mariette Lindstein, translated from Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles.
Lastly, there have been a number of welcome reissues, including Susanna Moore’s erotic classic, In the Cut (W&N), a terrifying tale of death and sex first published in 1995, and, from several decades earlier, The Listening Walls and A Stranger in My Grave (both Pushkin Vertigo), by the Queen of North American Domestic Noir, Margaret Millar (1915-1994). By any measure, it’s been a bumper year.
*Acute accent on first ‘e’
**Grave accent on first ‘e’
©Laura Wilson, 2019