I’ve read more crime fiction than I usually do over the last fourteen months, so here’s a lockdown round-up bringing it all together in one post.
Ruth Ware, The Turn of the Key (2019)
A heart-poundingly addictive page-turner about a young woman who takes a job as a nanny for a wealthy family who just happen to live in a sinister ‘smart’ house located in the middle of nowhere. All is not as it seems, including our protagonist! The Turn of the Key is a wild ride and quite terrifying in places. Ware updates classic gothic tropes in a book that plays expertly on our fears about a world that seems to be increasingly controlled by invisible technology. The smart house is a masterpeice of the uncanny. She also has some things to say about gender and class. I loved it!
Josephine Tey, The Franchise Affair (1948)
I’ll call this one my ‘problematic fave’ because I had issues with its politics, which I wrote about at length here. But this story about two women accused of kidnapping a young girl is just so well written, compelling and perfectly constructed that it gave me one of the most enjoyable afternoons of reading that I’ve had in a long time. I’m now looking forward to exploring the rest of Tey’s work.
Tana French, The Wych Elm (2019)
Readers seem to be divided by The Wych Elm. I liked it but I can see why. It’s a very slow burn and quite different to French’s Dublin murder squad novels, being told from the perspective of a suspect, rather than a detective. Toby is a highly unreliable narrator, a once privileged and ‘lucky’ person, whose life begins to unravel when he is severely injured in a burgulary. He and his girlfriend go to stay with his terminally ill uncle while Toby recovers, but things only get worse when the skeleton of a school friend, who disappeared years ago, is found stuffed into a hole in the elm trree in the back garden. Toby finds himself under suspicion and begins to wonder if he might actually be guilty, while also suspecting his two cousins of hiding something. The Wych Elm isn’t really about a murder, it’s about memory and privilege, especially the privilege that creates completely different experiences of the world and allows some people not to ‘see’ what’s really going on.
Barbara Vine, A Dark Adapted Eye (1986)
I’ve seen this book on ‘best of’ crime fiction lists for years and thought I’d give it a go. My goodness, this is another page-turner. A Dark Adapted Eye is also a novel about seeing and not seeing. It’s an incrediblly compelling story about a murder which works backwards from the execution of the murderer, Vera Hillyard, as years later her neice, Faith, tries to piece together what really happened. It’s more of a ‘whydunnit’ than it whodunnut. The twist seems obvious about halfway through the book, but Vine (Ruth Rendell) is better than that and all your assumptions will be undermined by the end. An addictively unsettling read and hugely influential on the development of the twisted psychological thriller that’s so popular today.
Barbara Neely, Blanche on the Lamb (1992)
Barbara Neely’s novel, Blanche on the Lamb (1992) turns the cosy mystery genre on its head by making the hired help into the detective. It’s a brilliant twist on a genre in which servants often see ‘too much’ and may well end up dead as a result. The book is overtly political and delves into social justice issues. Blanche is a brave, angry heroine who uses the skills she’s gained as a maid to solve the mystery. A series I will be reading more of and one that deserves to be better known.
Alafair Burke, All Day and a Night (2014) and Long Gone (2011)
I read two thrillers by Alafair Burke, the fifth Elle Hatcher novel, All Day and a Night (2014) and one of her standalones, Long Gone (2011). Burke is very reliable and both books are good reads with her usual feminist themes. All Day and a Night is an intelligent thriller in which a young lawyer starts looking into the murder of her half-sister many years before. In Long Gone the daughter of a famous film director finds herself a suspect in a murder she didn’t commit. Long Gone has an absolutely preposterous plot, but was so pacy and enjoyable to read, I happily overlooked it (CN: rape theme, but not graphic).
Louise Penny, Chief Inspector Gamache series, Still Life and A Fatal Grace (2007)
I read the first two books in Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series, Still Life and A Fatal Grace. Set in Quebec, these are basically cosy mysteries (picturesque village setting, quirky characters, lots of descriptions of food and nice things), but there’s definitely an unsettling undertone that makes them interesting. Despite all the cosiness, I think Penny has quite a bleak view of human nature. Gamache is a bit of a ‘Gary Stu’ (he’s perfect, everyone loves him, except for people who are obviously evil) but if you don’t mind that too much, it’s a satisfyingly detailed world to sink into. Perfect reading for a rainy afternoon.
Dorothy L Sayers, The Nine Taylors (1934)
My first Lord Peter Whimsy novel. I really enjoyed this book, which is often considered one of her best. After a car accident strands Lord Peter in the isolated East Anglian village of Fenchurch St Paul, he finds himself recruited by the local bell ringers club for an all-night New Year ringing session, only then to be invited back a few months later when a mutilated corpse is discovered in the grave of a local woman. As he delves into the matter, Lord Peter finds that the murder may be connected to the theft of an emerald necklace many years before. The Nine Taylors has a complex, multilayered plot, an atmospheric setting and well-drawn characters, including the bells that increasingly take on a life of their own. Some aspects of this book haven’t aged that well, but if you’re going to read Sayers I think you just have to go with it really.
Agatha Christie, And Then There Were None (1939) and Death on the Nile (1929)
I’ve been slowly working my way through Agatha Christie’s works. Over the last year I read And Then There Were None and Death on the Nile. I really liked And Then There Were None. I can see why it’s considered a classic. It’s so well constructed, it’s a pleasure to read and the idea of making everyone guilty is very clever. Death on the Nile is a tense read, but not as good as I expected. The characters are all so unpleasant and the reveal is silly.
Elly Griffiths, Ruth Galloway series
I read three more in Elly Griffiths’s Ruth Galloway series, A Dying Fall, The Outcast Dead, and The Ghost Fields. This series provided my bedtime reading for the first part of last year, but I found myself losing interest as the books got more and more bogged down in silly relationships between not very interesting side-characters. Also, I’ve completely lost patience with Ruth and her mooning after Nelson. For goodness sake, get a grip woman! I think I’m done with this series.
Historical crime fiction
I read two historical crime novels, Heartstone by CJ Sansom (2010), fifth in the Matthew Shardlake series, and The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor, which is the first in the James Marwood and Car Lovett series. I usually enjoy Sansom’s Shardlake books, mainly because he’s created a whole world to sink into and the story always inolves a well-researched aspect of the period, in this case the Court of Wards and the war with France that led to the sinking of the Mary Rose. This is one of the less gruesome installments, but content note for a rape scene towards the end. I thought The Ashes of London was very well done and I liked the characters, but this one has a nasty rape scene at the beginning and ongoing references to rape and sexual threat which run throughout the book. This is not my kind of thing and it did put me off, so I might continue with the series, but I’m not sure.
Two books really disappointed me. There was The Sentence is Death by Anthony Horowitz in which a bit of charming meta fiction could not make up for a boring detective and a lot of misogyny. Finally, my last read of 2020, was also one I found most disappointing and it’s Elly Griffiths again with The Postscript Murders. I enjoyed The Stranger Diaries so I was looking foward to this sequel. There were some clever ideas in there, but I thought the narrative was a mess; it leapt all over the place and there were far too many point of view characters. I thought the ending was a bit of a cheat too.