Autumn always brings a sheer avalanche of books as so many publishers put their eggs in one basket, and this September selection offers a sheer plethora of wonderful books and a level of quality that leaves me breathless. Indeed, some titles had to be left out (some to hopefully make a belated appearance next month) which could well have been equally highlighted as Books of the Month or Highly Recommended on a separate occasion (as do most of the books reviewed under). So gorge yourself with some stunning volumes in translation, a resurrected classic, some fascinatingly quirky, memorable characters, explosive as well as labyrinthine and ingenious plots, humour, pathos, a whole gallery of humanity at its worst and best, and untold thrills galore. It would be criminal to miss out of any of these!
BOOK OF THE MONTH: Victor Del Arbol/A MILLION DROPS (Other Press) Del Arbol is known across Europe as one of the main contemporary Spanish crime authors at work today but this belated introduction to his work already has me hunting down other examples of his work, even if I have to read them in Spanish or French. A MILLION DROPS is certainly ambitious and something of a doorstopper, but not a single page is wasted. At the risk of sounding pretentious, it’s the WAR AND PEACE of modern thriller writing, encompassing a horde of fascinating characters spanning generations and the brutal story of Spanish politics and crime spanning the desolate years between the Civil War and the fall of Franco, but also touching on lofty themes as the looming spectre of death, family ties and the sheer sweep of history and the way its waves drag us all along like puppets. A disgraced policewoman commits suicide and it’s left to her brother Gil, a meek Barcelona lawyer whose business is crumbling to delve into the past and pull together the strands of truth and betrayal that led to her death even at the risk of destroying his own marriage. The hornet’s nest he clumsily uncovers reveals a complex web of events, bloody and cruel, that mirror the tragic history of his country, his family and the ties that bind between torturers and victims, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters under the dark moon of revenge, policemen and corruption, the past and the present. Brutal, unflinching and both full of hope and despairing, this is a major piece of work that will lodge in your mind for a long time. Truly rewarding and brings thriller writing into a whole new, fully grown-up dimension. Should not be missed.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: Sara Gran/THE INFINITE BLACKTOP (Faber & Faber) The wonderful Claire DeWitt returns after a few years absence with a new case which, as ever, will exercise her quirky ratiocinations and question her deeply held theories of detection based on apocryphal French detective Jacques Sillette’s writings that question both the nature of reality and the murky story of her own origins. If that sounds ‘heavy’, have no fear, the prose and characters are light-footed and endearing and Sara Gran is totally unique, actually funny, but also dreamy and trickfully unreliable, with her Nancy Drew-like heroine both hardboiled and vulnerable, now travelling between Las Vegas and San Francisco to investigate the case of the death of a washed-up painter whose more successful girlfriend died a few months earlier, and finds herself targeted in a bloody car hit and run attack which leaves her shattered both physically and mentally. But as ever with Claire (and the mischievous Sara Gran) the case is anything but straightforward and the action is slowly unveiled through a shimmering veil of drug dreams and alcohol mirages as the ersatz sleuth revisits her youth and memories and tries to establish the tenuous connections between past, present and her detecting journey. A truly modern heroine and it’s great to have Claire DeWitt back after a five year interval, but I still wouldn’t want to meet her in a back alley!
Marcelle Perks/NIGHT DRIVER (Urbane): A somber, impressive debut from a British film writer now living in Germany whose main area of interest is the horror film as pinpointed by the names of some of the characters. Frannie, a transplanted British expat, is heavily pregnant, lives in Hanover and sadly coming to realise that her marriage to a German man is not all it should be. She’s desperate to learn to drive in order to have some measure of independence once the baby arrives. The only problem is that she is anything but a good driver, and when one day on a lesson her path crosses that of a homicidal lorry driver who also happens to be a psychopathic serial killer, the scene is set for a breathless, strongly claustrophobic exploration of the evil side of life, along the network of night roads surrounding Hanover, prostitution, shady clubs, all twisted types of sexuality, body harvesting and worse. As much as you root for the often hapless heroine with a knack for taking the wrong decision or choosing the worst possible friends, you shudder at the risks she is taking and the disturbed states of mind she races through throughout her ordeals. By the time you finish this novel, you’re likely to be sweating in the extreme and have your pulse doing the light fantastic, and I know for sure I’d never agree to have Marcelle Perks drive me anywhere, whether it be night or day!
Carlos Ruiz Zafon/THE LABYRINTH OF THE SPIRITS (Weidenfeld & Nicolson): At long last, the wonderful saga of The Cemetery of Forgotten Books comes to a fitting conclusion, and this final volume, weighing in at almost 700 pages and counting, ties the literally hundreds of plot strands into a satisfying knot and conclusion, while deepening many of the mysteries, revisiting a gallery of past characters and locations and, to compound complications and make us question our previously-held thoughts and theories, introducing new characters and plot strands that both amplify and contradict past pages. Truly a labyrinth and a compelling one at that! And who better to lead us through a maze but a young woman called Alicia? A crippled survivor of Spain’s bloody civil war, Alicia Gris is on an unstoppable path of revenge as she treads through troughs of treachery, corruption, lost books, generations of families in thrall to Barcelona and Zafon’s endless box of mysteries, the shadow of enigmatic writers littering the pages as we welcome back many of the protagonists of the previous three volumes and are forced to reconsider their motivations and history. Sweeping through half a decade of violent Spanish history and unafraid to revisit its dark seams of violence and despair filtered through an almost magical realist portrayal of a city unlike any others, Zafon crowns his mighty saga with a bravura volume. They don’t make books or series like this anymore. Indispensable.
Lawrence Osborne/ONLY TO SLEEP (Hogarth): A retired private eye takes on the task of determining the truth about the death of a failed property developer in a Mexico drowning accident at the request of an insurance company and sees this as a last hurrah. Naturally, the man had left a widow with striking eyes whom the sleuth ambiguously falls in love with even as he realises she is double-crossing him and benefited from her husband’s lucrative policy. The journey takes him down South past the border and his travails, with much alcohol consumed along the way, see him move from hotel to hotel and town to town, with beautifully evocative descriptions of Mexico and its colourful horizons and people, and a melancholy mood which underlines how the sleuth is ready to welcome his inevitable death and the waning of his physical and mental powers. Just like Chandler, the plot is secondary and is never truly resolved, what with the black widow’s enigmatic behaviour, mistaken identities and moral compromises the sleuth is quite ready to assume in full. If that was all there was to the novel, it would be a wonderful achievement. However, the character just isn’t Philip Marlowe, the glittering prose is nowhere like Chandler’s and the dialogue, albeit cultured and clever lacks the sparkle and banter of the author of THE BIG SLEEP. As such it’s a major disappointment, even though it’s a good book. Go figure!
Gaston Leroux/THE MYSTERY OF THE YELLOW ROOM (HarperCollins Detective Crime Club Classics) The Locked Room Murder or Impossible Crime is one of crime fiction’s most fascinating sub-categories and it has always been a source of amazement to me how often ingenious authors have managed to improvise dazzling as well as puzzling new variations, to the extent that the essential Bob Adey reference title on the subject lists over a thousand methods used in the past to organise perfect murders in an enclosed, locked space which no one appears to have entered. Indeed, the challenge still remains one of the genre’s highest accolades, in the prestigious footsteps of Edgar Allan Poe, John Dickson Carr, Edward Hoch and many others. But, for me, the all-time classic remains this fascinating novel by the creator of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, written as far back as 1907, in which hardy journalist and orphan with a troubled past Rouletabille has to solve such a case without initially realising it has a close connection to his own origins. When Mathilde Stangerson, daughter of an eminent scientist is badly assaulted in her room in a pavilion, Rouletabille investigates alongside policeman Larsan. Outrageously romantic, at times poignant, and with the looming shadow of a terrible villain shadowing the action, the plot continuously twists and twists again but what makes the complicated ‘Howdunnit’ puzzle even more compelling is the human element involved and the slowly unveiled clues to even deeper mysteries. Even though all is explained by the end of the book, the mystery of Rouletabille’s complicated involvement with the Stangersons continues in THE PERFUME OF THE LADY IN BLACK, which I hope will also soon be reissued again.
Martin Edwards/GALLOWS COURT (Head of Zeus) Following the deserved success of his reference books on Golden Age crime and his close involvement with the British Library’s programme of classic reissues from the same period, it seemed inevitable that Martin Edwards would accept the challenge of writing a historical crime thriller set in the past, paying both homage and revitalising some of that period’s tropes. Which he has done with brio. Set in London in the 1930s, this follows amateur sleuth Rachel Savernake, daughter and heiress of a former ‘hanging judge’, still bruised by her severe upbringing, and something of an enigma as she finds herself closely involved in a series of dark murders, alongside the somewhat guileless crime reporter Jacob Flint, of the Clarion, including the obligatory locked room case. Edwards’ plot is precision engineered while also evoking the city and bringing its past to life with sharp atmospherics. A varied cast of characters ranging from the glamorous and romantic to the decidedly shady populate the pages as they weave their way through a fast-moving patchwork puzzle that will satisfy both traditional crime readers and more modern ones who enjoy a drop of moral complexity and darkness in their brew.
Ivy Pochoda/WONDER VALLEY (Indigo Press) US author Ivy Pochoda is very much a protean talent. Her first novel, THE ART OF DISAPPEARING, was a sublime slice of magic realism with overflowing emotions and stunning imagery, while her second, VISITATION STREET, deservedly championed by Dennis Lehane, travelled the lands of noir with an assured touch. Her new novel, however, is altogether different but still strikingly original, a tale of tense California angst set amongst a sun-drenched horizon of spaghetti junctions and desolate, concrete freeways, desert outreaches and feed roads. Linking six diverse characters, the book begins with a disaffected lawyer distracted during the course of the drive to his office by a naked runner winding his way through the traffic, who then decides on an impulse to try and follow him. The quest will destroy his marriage and lead him to a commune in the Mojave desert and intersect with the lives of other drop-outs and characters alienated by life and society. Not strictly a thriller, but a fascinating exercise in mood writing with a deft touch of both the absurd and the alien nature of American society today, a book about landscapes, lost lives, that scatters its seeds in all sorts of uncommon and unexpected directions and sidesteps all your expectations from page to page.
David Gordon/THE BOUNCER (Head of Zeus) Reminiscent at times of Elmore Leonard in his heyday, this tale of a Dostoyevsky-reading night club bouncer who gets drawn into a web of crime is a sheer delight that will have you both laughing out loud on a regular basis and holding tight to your seat as the madcap, if violent, story speeds to its conclusion much too fast. Joe Brody is the eponymous character and his budding relationship with FBI agent Donna Zamora who is convinced he is behind some of the criminal shenanigans she is investigating but can’t help her feelings for him is an additional pleasure. The organised theft of a rare perfume from a high security compound, which turns out to be not what it seems drags a colourful cast of characters through the mill, ranging from mafia bosses including Joe’s high school chum Gio, CIA goons, Triads, Jewish crooks, the military and a whole gallery of sharply-drawn grotesques that have you rooting for the laconic anti-hero. Action full, bloody at times and with always a further twist up its sleeve, this is pure fun and a salutory reminder how entertaining crime books can be, if you leave your prejudices about morality, good and evil and all that jazz, back in the cloakroom and just enjoy the ride. Gordon’s previous novels THE SERIALIST and MYSTERY GIRL were equally enjoyable, but went partly unnoticed; surely, people will now accept him as the current heir to the Leonard throne (with a touch of Hiaasen thrown in for good measure…)
Scott Von Doviak/CHARLESGATE CONFIDENTIAL (Hard Case) The heist is another of crime fiction’s classic plots (as well as a staple of so many memorable movies). This first novel by a new US author revisits the genre with impressive maestria and proves at time reminiscent of the great, late Donald Westlake at the top of his form. Actually partly inspired by a real life art robbery at a Boston museum in the late 1940s, which has never been satisfactorily solved, the story develops both in the past at the time of the audacious heist and the present where matters are not so much resolved but where we find the college thieves now confronted by the ghosts and consequences of their criminal action thirty years back, with an ironic if necessary coda in the present day. The heist in question succeeds only for the hoard of stolen paintings to be lost and the protagonists scattered. But was the booty hidden somewhere in the notorious Charlesgate building, which has in turn been a doss house hotel, a student dormitory and is now a prestigious apartment block? So many different parties are hot on the trail of the loot and some have no scruples as to how to locate it. Streamlined action, likeable characters and a nicely convoluted plot make this a great, unpretentious, rewarding read.