A Review of Reviews of
Crime Fiction published in Britain
Editor of CADS (Crime and Detective
magazine of comment
criticism about crime and detective novel.
was a fraught year for anyone wishing to compile a totally accurate
survey of the year in crime fiction published in the UK as libraries
are no longer archiving all newspapers and their supplements. Even
visiting the relevant websites is not a solution as the columns of
some individuals, such as Mark Timlin writing for The Independent,
do not always appear.
Nevertheless I can report
that approximately 550 new titles were published in 2006 in the UK
and at least 350 of those titles were accorded one review or more.
At almost 64% this is an unprecedented figure in recent times. One
reason for this change is possibly the decision of The Times in
July 2005 to feature crime and thriller reviews on alternate weeks
in their weekend Review,
a move that seem to also increase more reviews in the Independent and
the Daily and Sunday Telegraph.
the biggest single influence on the increase is undoubtedly the change
of critic on the Literary Review after the death of Philip
Oakes. Jessica Mann took over in March 2006 and opted for a column
where the reviews are more wide-ranging, shorter and more numerous.
One other change to note, this time for 2007. Maxim Jakubowski has
left The Guardian after eight years, and will
be succeeded by writer Laura Wilson, who has done such a great job
in the paperback section recently.
In no particular order
the best newspapers for crime fiction coverage in 2006 – and hopefully
in 2007 too - are the he Literary Review, The Times, the Independent, the Morning
Star, the Sunday Telegraph, the Times Literary
Supplement, the Independent on Sunday, and the Birmingham Post. The
best is till Saturday's Guardian Review,
where coverage by the regulars (Maxim Jakubowski, Matthew Lewin and
Laura Wilson) is astutely supplemented by well-chosen ‘celebrity'
reviewers, for instance Michael Dibdin on Christine Falls.
Top Sellers of 2006 (in order, and remember, new books only) were
firstly Martina Cole's Close (Headline), then – and
on one month's sales – Thomas Harris's Hannibal Rising (Heinemann).
Thirdly came James Patterson's Cross (Headline)
followed by Ian Rankin's The Naming of the Dead (Orion)
then Dick Francis with Under Orders (Michael Joseph).
Review coverage was variable though Close and Cross attracted
no reviews whatsoever.
Meanwhile, Hannibal Rising not
only became one of the three most reviewed, but also without doubt
the most rapidly reviewed possibly the of the carefully orchestrated
publisher's marketing tactics (dispatched for review under plain
brown cover, midnight embargoes etc).
However the rumoured
penultimate Rebus tale received general acclamation. His “most ambitious
book for several years... flawlessly executed” remarked Mike Ripley; “the
best crime novel you'll read this year” said Aileen Reid in the Daily
Telegraph. It took Frances Fyfield to suggest that Rankin's
love of big themes (the book's backdrop is the G8 Edinburgh summit)
is sometimes at odds with the needs of the crime novel and that therefore “the
emotional core of this book is so hard to find.”
titles came high in the numbers of reviews. The first, One Good Turn
(Doubleday by Kate Atkinson, a literary author turning her hand to
the genre received a massively favourable response. Most rapturous
was Mat Coward in the Morning Star mirroring my own response
when I finally got around to reading the immortal Case Histories. “One
of the most satisfying books I've read this year – funny, exciting
and emotionally authentic,” he said. Justine Jordan (the Guardian) added: “The
pleasure... lies in Atkinson's wry, unvanquished characters, her
swooping, savvy, sarcastic prose and authorial joie de vivre.” However,
Amanda Craig (Independent) in a meaty review concluded: “unlike
its dark and dazzling predecessor... neither a good literary novel
nor a satisfying detective story.” On the other hand, Sarah Hughes
(in the Observer) had no doubt: it was “that rarest of
things” a combination of both.
Michael Cox's 600 page Victorian
pastiche The Meaning of Night which took some years
to write received a critical drubbing. “More Wilkie Collins than
Wilkie Collins himself” was one response. Crime critics in general
however avoided this one, though Roz Kaveney (in the Independent )
gave it thoughtful treatment. “Gloriously highbrow” was the Guardian's summary
of Giles Foden's review . Others were more wary. “Stubbornly
page-bound” said Judith Flanders in the TLS,” a mass of redundant
minutiae” added Tom Deveson in the Sunday Times.
in the mainstream critical hits included Denise Mina's second Paddy
Meehan novel The Dead Hour (Bantam). An “unusual
and unusually well-written novel...a taut thriller combined with
a memorable portrait of Glasgow 's tribes” said Jessica Mann; “a
touching and memorable heroine, “ added Susanna Yager. The book has
since been shortlisted for a Best Novel Edgar. Meanwhile Philip Oakes's
final set of reviews included a rave for Laura Wilson's A
Thousand Lies (Orion): “Desolate but compelling... triumphantly
worthwhile,” he said. That set the tone, and, apart from a dissenting
voice (Ruth Morse) in the TLS (“as suspense fiction it cuts
too many corners”) acclaim was otherwise unanimous. A Dagger nomination
Though long, Vikram Chandra's Sacred
Games (Faber), a saga of gangland and political life set
in modern Mumbai was described by Mike Ripley as “stunning...one
of the best crime novels of the year”. Seven years in the writing,
it has “a master's grandeur and scope and a miniaturist's precision
and tenderness” said Jane Shilling in the Daily Telegraph.
Similar reviews followed elsewhere.
Another lengthy book,
Sara Paretsky's Fire Sale (Hodder & Stoughton)
drew bracing, but favourable reviews. “A narrative as gripping as
it is emotionally wrenching (Joan Smith, Sunday Times); “among
her best (Marcel Berlins, The Times). Meanwhile sales from Through
A Glass Darkly (Heinemann) moved Donna Leon onto the next
level in the Bookseller rankings (the one that includes
Reg Hill and Michael Connelly). “Has the exuberance of a Puccini
opera” said Barry Forshaw in the Independent.
in Britain is writing better crime fiction” said Marcel Berlins of John
Harvey's new Frank Elder novel Darkness and Light (Heinemann).
Good then to see him in the upper reaches of the best-seller lists
at last with the paperback version. A great year too for C.J. Sansom
with both his standalone Winter in Madrid and Sovereign (both
Macmillan), the third in his 16th century Matthew Shardlake series.
A good year too for Duncan Lawrie Dagger winner Ann Cleeves. Characterised
by Natasha Cooper (TLS) as a “village mystery” her Raven
Black (Macmillan) was “a lively and surprising
addition to a genre that once seemed moribund.”
Hannah's highly ingenious baby swap mystery Little Face (Hodder & Stoughton)
took some time to build its sales, but by mid-September it was ticking
along at about 2000 copies a week. Australian veteran
Peter Temple made his UK breakthrough with The Broken Shore (Quercus): ”Indispensable” (Maxim
Jakubowski), “powerful” (Peter Guttridge), “written with sensitivity
and subtlety” (Marcel Berlins), “very fine” (Susanna Yager).
McDermid's modern Fletcher Christian/ William Wordsworth mystery The
Grave Tattoo (Harper Collins) was also a critical hit: “handled
with panache” was the view from Peter Guttridge. The superb Dagger
nominated Red Leaves (Quercus) from Thomas H.Cook,
on the other hand, was noticed by too few critics. “Outstanding” was
Mark Timlin's verdict, “compelling” added Susanna Yager. And a critical
comeback for Frances Fyfield, out of favour of late. “Fyfield at
her best” said Susanna Yager, amongst others, of The Art
of Drowning (Little, Brown).
The modern spy and/or
topical thriller staged a comeback in 2006. “If you read one thriller
this year make it this one” said Jessica Mann about Robert Wilson's The
Hidden Assassins (Harper Collins), the third in his Javier
Falcón series and probably the best received. “Few writers
mix tension and action with sheer elegance as effectively” said Matthew
Lewin in the Guardian. Later in the year came le Carré's
latest The Mission Song (Hodder & Stoughton). “One
of his tautest works, harking back to the lean thrillers he wrote
in the early 1960s” said Michael Saler in a full-page review in the TLS . “Intricate
storytelling... tantalising plot” said Sebastian Shakespeare in the Literary
Review . Similarly acclaimed was Charles Cumming's The
Spanish Game (Michael Joseph) his second book to feature
Alex Milius. “Impressive and convincing, with a stunning twist at
the end” (Susanna Yager). “A new le Carré?” No, said Toby
Litt in The Times, but “if Cummings keeps up this standard,
he deserves to become an institution in his own right.” Meanwhile
literary type William Boyd fled back into the recent past for Restless (Bloomsbury),
his by all accounts successful attempt at a spy thriller. “A
rare pleasure” said Amanda Craig in the Literary Review.
it is unlikely that a crime novel will ever win the Booker, could
one of the new breed of literary crime writers carry off the Dagger?
Just that possibility (“if there's any justice”) was mooted
by Michael Dibdin (the Guardian ) as he reviewed Christine
Falls (Picador) by Benjamin Black, who was perhaps too
quickly revealed to be last year's Booker winner, John Banville.
Quite a few reviewers supported that opinion, though Joan Smith took
the opposite view: “too self-absorbed and dated to fulfill even the
basic demands of the genre.”
Louise Welsh's The
Bullet Trick (Canongate), positioned perhaps as the book
to bring the two approaches together, was deemed less successful. “Plotting
no more than workmanlike” said genre critic David Robson in the Sunday
Telegraph ; “ponderously reliant on formulaic aspects of noir” thundered
Dan Gunn in the TLS . Gilbert Adair's Christie tribute, The
Act of Roger Murgatroyd (Faber), on the other hand, was “an
essentially affectionate parody (Matthew Dennison, TLS ), “a
rather good whodunnit... delightful entertainment” (Marcel Berlins).
Jessica Mann however spoke for many: “this jolly romp contains all
the ingredients except Dame Agatha's magic touch.” Meanwhile Daniel
Woodrell, rescued from the ghetto represented by No Exit Press by
Sceptre, found himself lauded, not before time in my view, in both
the non-crime pages of the Literary Review and the Guardian. His Winter's
Bone was a work of “tremendous... ferocious power (Niall
Griffiths, Observer) ; “it takes noir into poetic territory
(Stevie Davies, Guardian).
be a split vote over Crime Fiction Publishing Event of the Year.
Perhaps it should be the gradual republication in Harper's Perennial
paperback series (new introductions, other ‘extra' material, though
sadly not in new translations) of the classic Maj Sjöwall and
Per Wahlöö Martin Beck police procedurals? Or Serpent's
Tail reissues of Derek Raymond's Factory series along with his last
novel Nightmare in the Street, never previously
published in the UK ? Or should it be the restoration to the canon
of the three crime novels from Friedrich Dürenmatt published
by the University of Chicago Press (see The Wider World elsewhere
in this issue). Or even Elmore Leonard's The Complete Western
Stories (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) accorded a full page
(acclamatory) review in the TLS ? Personally I would
choose Black Friday & Selected Stories (Serpent's
Tail), the first ever English language collection of David Goodis
short stories, 12 in all (plus Black Friday, his
1954 novella), and not just because this was my prediction when I
reviewed it back in April. For surely Goodis is the epitome of on-the-skids,
deadbeat noir, and Black Friday and at least three
of the stories are classic Goodis (“I loved every word': Laura Wilson
in the Guardian).
Some might consider that
the changes in the Crime Writers' Association awards last year which
created a separate award for translated crime fiction would make
the sector less attractive for publishers. It seems not as I found
39 translated titles were reviewed in my searches. Names new to the
UK included (again) a strong Nordic element: the stylish Swede Häkon
Nesser (with Harvill Secker's International Dagger short-listed Borkman's
Point) and his female compatriot Mari Jungstedt (Unseen,
Doubleday), Norwegian Anne Holt (Punishment, Time
Warner) and the Dane Christian Jungersen's The Exception (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).
Italy gave us Giampiero Rigosi's roller-coaster Night Bus along
with A Walk in the Dark, an equally good second
novel from Gianrico Carofiglio (both Bitter Lemon). Meanwhile the
French were represented (25 years after its publication there) by
the unmissable The Prone Gunman (Serpent's Tail)
from the legendary Jean-Patrick Manchette. One of the quirkiest titles
came from Germany . Leonie Swann's Three Bags Full (Doubleday)
because the detectives looking to nail the murderer of the local
shepherd, are in fact the sheep themselves led by a “Miss Maple”! “Touching
without being sentimental” remarked Jane Jakeman in the Independent.
Exception was, in fact, a Critical hit. “Huge, ambitious,
literary psycho-thriller...wincingly nasty” said Jessica Mann; “powerful
yet disquieting (Susanna Yager); “fiendishly clever” (Carole Angier
in the Independent). Also well-received was The
Redbreast (Harvill Secker) the second novel in the UK from
Norwegian Jo Nesbø, featuring the “shambolic” Harry Hole. “A
cracking good thriller” said Mike Ripley; “witty, melancholy and
thought-provoking” remarked Jake Kerridge in the Daily Telegraph.
Reviewed was Henning Mankell's standalone Depths (Harvill
Secker), with Boris Akunin's Pelagia and the White Bulldog (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
as runner-up. Depths, which concerns “an apparently
conventional naval officer turning into a murderous psychopath” (Jessica
Mann) split the critics ‘Literary' critics being generally ‘pro'
if cautionary and crime critics were generally ‘anti': “only a professional
shrink could care about this mad, bad man.” (Jessica Mann again).
Toby Clements in the Daily Telegraph suggested that Pelagia was “a
pastiche of a 19th-century Russian novel” so it was “absurd to claim
that it does not really stand up as detective fiction.” Joan Smith
found the plot “lively”, the denouement “exciting”.
been an uncommonly successful year for debut novels. The most successful
has been Jed Rubinfeld's The Interpretation of Murder (Headline).
It was first a Most Reviewed title (always favourably), was later
chosen for feature on Richard & Judy's tv programme, and was
heading The Bookseller Top 50 by early February 2007. “An
unusually intelligent novel which entertains, informs and intrigues
on several levels” said Marcel Berlins. Did I mention that Sigmund
Freud plays a starring role?
On the other hand, Stef Penney's The
Tenderness of Wolves (Quercus), which later beat William
Boyd's Restless to the Costa Book of the Year award,
picked up only two reviews across my panel. Well-spotted Mike Ripley
(“an atmospheric and delicately written mystery...a quite remarkable
debut novel”) and Susanna Yager (“a fascinating, suspense-filled
adventure... refreshing). The paperback has since been rushed out
and looks set to become a major seller. Two reviews were also the
lot of Nick Stone's Haiti-set thriller Mr. Clarinet (Michael
Joseph). “A hot shot debut” said Mark Timlin; “more James Ellroy
than Graham Greene” cautioned Tibor Fischer in the Guardian.
Nevertheless it went on to win the Steel Dagger and become a major
seller in paperback.
More modest successes included
Patrick Quinlan's Smoked, for Maxim Jakubowski,
among others, “non-stop
narrative tempered by a strong sense of humour.” Jason Goodwin's The
Janissary Tree (Faber) featured the genre's first eunuch
detective and was set in 19th century Istanbul (“the real star” said
Lisa Hilton in the Daily Telegraph). It went onto pick
up nominations for both the best novel Edgar and the Ellis Peters
Not the best of years for
Old Masters. Marcel Berlins had a good word or two for Simon Brett's The Stabbing in
the Stables (Macmillan); “plots meticulously” were two
of them. “A sly sense of humour” were another five. Probably the
most notable manifestation of Old Masters came in Allison & Busby's The
Verdict of Us All , an anthology published in tribute to
Harry Keating, an old friend of this column, on the occasion of his
80th birthday. As Mike Ripley was alone in noting, this featured
the talents of not only Dick Francis, Reginald Hill, PD James, Catherine
Aird, Lionel Davidson and Jonathan Gash, but also Len Deighton (his
first short story for thirty years) and Colin Dexter.
a new category. Mike Ripley inadvertently gave me the idea when he
reviewed Douglas Lindsay's new Barney Thomson novel, The
Last Fish Supper (Long Midnight Publishing). “Good jokes
and wonderfully outrageous characters...” he said. Douglas Lindsay,
he went on to say, is Disgracefully Overlooked (my capitals). My
2006 nomination in this category would be a translated German debut
novel, Jan Costin Wagner's Ice Moon (Harvill Secker).
This unique, unclichéd novel was, to my mind, the year's most
individual and moving tale of multiple murder (I'm trying to avoid
the off-putting phrase ‘serial killer'), written in prose so hushed
that at times it recalls the best of Thomas H.Cook. That it was not
at least short-listed for the first International Dagger (eventually
won by Fred Vargas for The Three Evangelists (also
Harvill Secker) I find astonishing.