European crime fiction in the crosshairs

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Retrospective 2006: A Review of Reviews of
Crime Fiction published in Britain

Bob Cornwell
Editor of CADS (Crime and Detective Stories),
an irregular magazine of comment and
criticism about crime and detective novel.


It 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.

However, 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.

The 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.”

Two more 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.

Back 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 duly followed.

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 “ 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.

“No-one 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.”

Poet Sophie 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).

Val 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.

Whilst 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).

There could 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.

Jungersen's The 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.

Most 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”.

2006 has 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 Award.

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.

Finally 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.

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