One of the most diverse months in memory as we enter a new year, with no book similar to any other. Ranging from a potent slice of dark Americana, a fascinating look into the paperback jungles of the past, French thrills and racial politics, a version of San Francisco far removed from what tourists expect, a clever and involving nod to Hitchcock, the return of an old-time favourite at the top of his game, a decidedly experimental crime investigation that comes right out of the blue, a possible successor to James Bond with a techno edge and a change of gender, a bleak dystopian future and a corruscating look into the London power scene through a legal lens, all these titles stand out for their originality and sheer readability in spite of their differing approaches, techniques, locales and plots.
BOOK OF THE MONTH
Tim Baker/CITY WITHOUT STARS (Faber & Faber)
The savage and unsolved deaths of hundreds of Mexican women in the bordertown of Ciudad Real is a sad reality but in this powerful second novel, following up on his award-shortlisted debut FEVER CITY, France-based Australian-born author Tim Baker, provides a stunning fictional spin on the ongoing case. A Mexican cop fleeing the taint of corruption, a would be photo journalist, a feisty if headstrong union organizer, an ambiguous local writer and celebrity all combine forces to break open the sinister mystery alongside the unfolding of a ferocious drug war with sadistic killers and chieftains with changing allegiances, while in the background a story of saints, well-meaning but murderous priests and holy sorcerers gives the propulsive narrative an added, almost mystical dimension. With all the moral uncertainties of an Ellroy or a Winslow but with a more straightforward -and might I add readable?- structure and style, this is a considerable achievement.
Iain McIntyre & Andrew Nette, editors/GIRL GANGS, BIKER BOYS, AND REAL COOL CATS (PM Press)
An indispensable collection of essays and articles about the golden years of paperback originals, this lavishly-illustrated compendium, worth it for the iconography alone, not only provides hitherto unavailable information about both mysterious, forgotten authors but also invaluable information on some of the pseudonyms who freely invested the paperback, genre jungle which was at the essence of postwar pulp fiction phenomenon. Examining stories of bikers, skinheads, hippies, sleuths, sex cults and a whole assortment of downright odd inhabitants of the many genres that bloomed briefly before disappearing to become collectibles, this is not just a resource but a fascinating read. It even sheds light on Jane Gallion, the obscure Essex House author of which so little was known, and the pseudonymous production of many writers now better known under their own name, and confirms there are still treasures to be discovered in those paperback treasures of yesteryear . A collection to be dipped in again and again.
Sabri Louatah/SAVAGES:THE WEDDING (Corsair)
The opening volume in a quartet of books which reputedly made something of a splash in France, this is a mixed bag.
On one hand, it attempts to give the reader a slice of the dark immigrant reality behind contemporary French society and on the other attempts to be a thriller, opposing the manifold members of a large Algerian family involved in a sprawled wedding against an assassination attempt aimed at the first Arab to become a candidate for the French presidency. The multiple plotlines involving members of the Nerrouche family can prove contrived at times, particularly over the one day period the book covers, as the author tries to connect them with the actual thriller strand, which actually leaves matters on something of a cliffhanger so, overall, this is a more of a social realist novel than a thriller, and might disappoint some readers expecting something more immediate and fast-paced, but maybe the following volumes when they appear in English will bring things together and prove more rewarding.
Jonathan Moore/THE NIGHT MARKET (Orion)
I was much taken by Moore’s first novel to appear in the UK, THE POISON ARTIST (although an earlier one, REDHEADS is still to see the light of day here) and its VERTIGO-like atmospheric descriptions of San Francisco at its most mysterious. His new novel remains in his favoured setting but takes its investigating cops into new, paranoid directions as a mysterious death they are called upon to investigate is soon annexed by occult authorities and their memories of the case are strangely expunged. As Carver and Jenner flounder, the appearance of the seemingly well-meaning beautiful neighbour, Mia in Carver’s life adds to the degrees of mystery and deceit, while a vast conspiracy looms across the night horizon. Unsettling, evocative, and twisting in all sorts of unexpected directions, this is a first class thriller with echoes of classics of paranoia like THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE but still with a voice of its own. A must read, and even more so if you are a lover of all things San Francisco.
A.J. Finn/THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (HarperCollins)
Heralded long before publication as another major blockbuster in the lineage of GONE GIRL and THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, this breathless thriller by an American editor under a pen name is a direct homage to Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW but manages to offer a new, clever spin on the classic theme. Following the break-up of her marriage and family, Anna Fox is a recluse, living alone in her big house, observing the Russels, her new neighbours but unable to walk outside. When she witnesses a mysterious altercation through her window and calls in the police, she is confronted by a different set of facts which cast a doubt on her sanity. However, she persists as at the same time the reader begins to suspects her own version of the facts is not necessarily truthful. The scene is set for a series of well-planned twists and seeds of new doubts sprouting every chapter. Ingenious, gripping and unputdownable and one the more superior examples of grip lit on offer.
James Lee Burke/ROBICHEAUX: YOU KNOW MY NAME (Orion)
Already the 21st volume in the saga of Louisiana cop Dave Robicheaux, which began so many years back with NEON RAIN, a superior series which sadly, we have come to take almost for granted. But, again, James Lee Burke reminds us why no one writes like him on New Orleans, the bayous, the stains of the past, guilt and family ties. Haunted by the nightmares of Vietnam, the loss of his wife and his struggle with booze, Robicheaux is confronted in his latest investigation by the fact he might actually prove to have been the murderer. Attempting to clear his name, he has to face a gallery of nuanced characters and a society which he no longer feels part of. As ever, Burke writes like a fever dream and there are subtle rewards on every single page, which never distract from the plot and the rich atmospherics. American crime has no better, stylish and heartfelt writer.
Tony White/THE FOUNTAIN THE FOREST (Faber & Faber)
A truly intriguing venture into the crime genre by the talented White who had hitherto been seen as a lauded mainstream experimentalist. A mutilated, murdered corpse is discovered in the wings of a Covent Garden theatre and Detective Sergeant Rex King is called on to investigate. But who is King, and what were his connections with the dead man? From a classic premise, White then ensnares us into a complex web of intrigue and mystery ranging from the Holborn police station where the cop is based, the psycho-geography of modern and past London, a village in rural France in the 1980s, and the Battle of the Beanfield at Stonehenge. But there is more to the novel than the actual plot, as White unveils a series of literary challenges which throw the whole story a softball curve, while never slowing the plot down. Engaging and at the same time a challenge, this is both a good read and a cheeky divertimento, and all rather unique.
Sarah Vaughan/ANATOMY OF A SCANDAL (Simon & Schuster)
An assured debut by a young British journalist, ANATOMY OF A SCANDAL is a slow-burning psychological and legal thriller set in the British corridors of power involving James, a junior minister who transgresses badly in the sexual realm, something not unknown to keen followers of the political scene, his wife Sophie who strongly believes in his innocence, family and Kate, the fierce, obsessive lawyer called on to prosecute him, this is a tale of secrets, lies and private moments confirming the fact we don’t always know everything about our closest and dearest. Moving between Oxford and London, this painstaking exploration of past and present is compelling and realistic in its tale of social entitlement, power and dark places. An impressive first novel.
Nick Clark Windo/THE FEED (Headline)
A cautionary tale about the way technology has invaded our lives and how we would be affected if it just vanished (coincidentally an aspect of my own forthcoming novel THE LOUISIANA REPUBLIC, which comes out in May!). Think of the relentless invasion of the Facebook feeds many of us follow daily and imagine they are transmitted directly to your brain and make you almost telepathic in understanding and reacting to others. And then, it’s all gone and ther world regresses to a savage limbo! Tom, Kate and their daughter Bea are survivors of the techno apocalypse and now fight their way through a desolate Britain where fuel is at a premium and hackers can steal your life while you sleep. When Bea disappears, Tom and Kate roam a ravaged landscape full of decay and bizarros in search of her. Bleak but compassionate, a future adventure that sets the mind thinking in overdrive.
Antony Johnston/THE EXPHORIA CODE (Lightning Books)
Johnstone was best known until now as the creator of the comic that gave rise to the ATOMIC BLONDE movie and his first novel immediately establishes him as a fresh voice in spy thriller writing. Brigitte Sharp is a feisty techno spy still scarred by a past disaster in the field in which a colleague was killed (and still haunts her) when she is called to investigate strange messages and codes appearing on the internet. A top secret drone project has been infiltrated by a mole and she is, reluctantly, forced back into action away from the safety of her desk and computer screen, undercover to a French lab where some answers might be found. An engaging character, top flight technological expertise made easy for the reader, fast action and a web of intrigue make this a propulsive read and, one hopes, the first of many outings for Brigitte, a spy with a marked difference and a breath of fresh air, compared to all the old spies of yesteryear.