A final selection for the closing year, with an accidental emphasis on speculative fiction with a criminal element, what with two books set off-planet with some interesting similarities and a classic from between the wars which has not aged one iota. In addition, two reissues for which the word classic is actually an understatement as well as a smattering of talented debuts and neglected veterans. It’s been a good year, 2017, and indications are already that 2018 will be equally full of treasures, from both what has already landed through my post box and publishers’ announcements.
BOOK OF THE MONTH: Chris Brookmyre/PLACES IN THE DARKNESS (Orbit) A major departure for Brookmyre who delivers a first class crime investigation set on a space station with highly original female characters leading the merry, murderous dance. Unlike so many other writers who move between genres with a sense of unease, Brookmyre it totally comfortable with his material, visibly a great fan of classic science fiction (with a few nods to SF tropes confirming the fact). Ciudad De Cielo is a space station where humanity is readying its next evolutionary step, with a trip to further stars planned and is seen as an ideal society, devoid of crime. But the lines between corruption and enlightenment are paper thin and gay local cop Nikki Fixx navigates it with talent and flexibility until both the arrival of Alice Blake, a new overseer from Earth and the space station’s first actual murder. A fast paced thriller which raises so many questions about ethics and idealism, but never neglects the thrills and the grit, this is a most welcome addition to cross-genre fertilisation. Brookmyre’s next book (in collaboration with his wife) is reputed to be a historical series! I can’t wait.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: Yevgeny Zamyatin/WE (Alma) A timely reissue for one of the all-time classics of dystopian fiction, written between the first two World Wars, although not made available in its own country, Russia until the late 1980s. Written in parallel to Huxley’s groundbreaking Brave New World and as much of a punch to the gut as Orwell’s 1984, which it visibly inspired, this is the story of a United State in a post-apocalyptic world, where people are not individuals but numbers, but serenity outwardly reigns. When brilliant mathematician D-503, until now a pillar of the establishment, meets radical I-330, his eyes are opened in all sorts of ways to the imperfections and fallacies of his own beliefs and the structures of what was thought to be the city of glass’s perfect society. Witty, and often full of moments of absurdist comedy, this was both a satire and a warning about the ideals of Bolshevism but attains a universal status through the wide-eyed narrative that follows the forbidden affair between the two protagonists. Hasn’t aged a bit and still all too relevant in these troubled contemporary times.
Kem Nunn/CHANCE (No Exit Press) Now the object a TV series which only utilises the book’s main premises and character, this is another winner from the criminally underrated Kem Numm, whose earlier novels like Tapping the Source, Pomona Queen or The Dogs of Winter established as a most distinct and original voice in what could be termed as surf or desert noir. Dr Eldon Chance is a San Francisco forensic neuropsychologist whose life is empty despite his professional brilliance, and who falls into an ill-thought out affair after the collapse of his own marriage. Alas, it is with one of his own patients with a striking personality disorder and lumbered with a pathological ex-husband who is a cop in Oakland. Thus the wheels are greased for a painful descent into a hell of complications involving sometimes horrific sidekicks from the main characters’ past and a race against sanity in the dark California setting, which is very much Nunn’s signature. Rather unique.
Emelie Schepp/MARKED FOR REVENGE (HQ) I somehow missed out on Marked for Life, the first in this entertaining trilogy by a new, young Swedish writer, featuring precocious public prosecutor Jana Berzelius. I’ll be catching up soonest! Talented but emotionally cold and detached, Jana comes from a lineage of lawyers but conceals a dark past of her own. Following the death by overdose of a Thai prostitute she is drawn into a murky case involving not just the rampant Stockholm drug trade but also child trafficking rings, and hesitantly manoeuvers her way through the flip side of Swedish society and its perilous attractions. Intricately plotted, with Schepp tantalisingly holding all her strands in the air like a juggler before cleverly bringing the sordid matters to a sometimes surprising conclusion, this is full of fascinating characters navigating the uncertain line between black and white, good and evil and a central character torn herself between the two worlds, despite her impeccable, tailored and heeled exterior. Have we a successor to Lisbeth Salander on our hands?
Michelle Richmond/THE MARRIAGE PACT (Penguin) An interesting spin on domestic noir, this imaginative thriller sets up a whole world of conflicting possibilities that runs off in all sorts of unexpected and uncomfortable directions. Jake and Alice, respectively a therapist and a lawyer who was once a singer, fall in love and decide to marry despite knowing the odds these days against successful marriages. As a wedding gift, a friend with maybe dark reasons behind his action offers them access to an occult society to which they must contract and follow the rules of to make their union a success. Naturally, despite the initial glamour, cracks soon appear and a whole other world behind the curtain of acceptable society begins showing its face. Tantalising, at times disturbing, and a compulsive read, a thriller that will lurk for a long time inside your own mind, whether you are married or not, happily or less so. Take the challenge!
Lara Dearman/THE DEVIL’S CLAW (Trapeze) The opening volume in a new crime series set on Guernsey, this introduces lead character Jenny Dorey, who returns to the Channel island after a traumatic period as an investigative journalist in London where her meddling with a dangerous case brought her to the attention of dangerous gangs and characters who might still be on her trail. She is now working for a local newspaper and the drowning of a young woman soon turns out to be the latest in a series of similar suspicious deaths, which quickly in Jenny’s mind still imprinted by stories of island myths told to her by her late and much-missed father, raises the strong possibility of a serial killer who has been operating for an improbable amount of time over the centuries. Intriguing, fast-moving and highly atmospheric with a strong sense of place and a talent for foreboding, a character and a series well worth following in the future.
Andy Weir/ARTEMIS (Ebury Press) The second title this month to boldly take crime into outer space and featuring a doughty, likeable female heroine with very flexible morals or honesty, this follow up by Andy Weir to the bestselling The Martian, sets up an impossible heist on the eponymous moon base. Inevitably technically laden and no doubt precisely correct to every the inch and every scientific fact on the dot, this one nonetheless has the power to grip and even surprise. Jazz Bashara is not amongst the rich of this new, unequal world and scrabbles a living as a porter and small-time smuggler until the day the opportunity arises for a major payday if she succeeds in the sabotage of a strategic premise for the benefit of a rival organisation. Naturally, nothing never goes as planned and much pluck and ingenuity are required to keep afloat, let alone alive in such a dangerous environment. Likeable. Science fiction for those who never read science fiction.
Marc Behm/THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER (Arcadia) A reissue that I couldn’t let pass and which I have already included in my best of the year books (disclaimer: I was the book’s original UK publisher, until rights migrated elsewhere over the years). A mysterious young woman who preys on men and leaves a trail of corpses across the country in her murderous but seductive wake. A lonely private eye, mourning for his lost daughter, who comes across her trail and, irrationally, begins to cover up for her. Their paths cross, separate, converge again, like atoms attracting and repelling each other throughout. A thriller, a love story, an elegy for melancholy, all those things and more. A modern classic which exists in sui generis; filmed twice without ever quite catching the haunting flavour of the book. I think you’ll gather that I hold this in great esteem. A veritable nova of a book.
Marc Behm/AFRAID TO DEATH (Arcadia) Another reissue, this time of a slightly later Behm book, written before he passed away (leaving a handful of books which still haven’t all been published in English). Both a thriller and a fantasy story, in which death, in the persona of a beautiful blonde, appears to be the main character, haunting the lives of many, including hapless Joe Egan who notices her on the horizon or out of the corner of his eye every time something tragic occurs in his life. He goes on the run in an attempt to escape her, fearing her to be the devil, or maybe just the figment of his imagination, but naturally fails. Like The Eye of the Beholder this is another sad paean to the immensities of the American highways and a sad, lingering ballad of life and death. Only Behm could make that territory his own with such devastating effect. He is much missed.
Kevin Wignall/A FRAGILE THING (Thomas & Mercer) British author Kevin Wignall is a much under-appreciated talent, whose fine-tuned thrillers, usually set across Europe, a territory he knows well, are both original and gripping as their tales of mayhem and personal striving race along to sometimes breath-taking conclusions. Spare prose, strongly delineated characters are amongst his forte. His latest rings all the bells: Max Emerson is a large scale, assured money launderer for criminals but justifies to himself that he is the lesser evil of the partnerships, but when his parents die in what seems like an accident, he soon realises opposing forces are after him. He will have to find out the reasons before it is too late and call up many favours from a bunch of shady acolytes, never knowing who is for or against him, Streamlined, driven, ingenious, a character whose moral ambiguities have you both rooting for him even as you question his choices, a tailor-made read at high octane speed. Fun, but with surprisingly hidden depths.