“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Feature: The Best Books of 2014

’Tis the season to be jolly, the herald angels sing, deck the halls with boughs of frankincense and myrrh, tra-la-la-la, etc. Ho yes! It’s that time of year again, when we check our lists (twice) and decide which books have been naughty or nice over the previous twelve months. My choice of the nice ones, in the order I read them, runs thusly:

Blue is the Night, Eoin McNamee
Blue is the Night is the final novel in a loose trilogy that began in 2001 with The Blue Tango (which was longlisted for the Booker Prize) and continued with Orchid Blue in 2010. The trilogy is woven around Sir Lancelot Curran, whose career took him from lawyer to judge and on to Attorney General and Member of Parliament, but Blue is the Night investigates the brutal murder of Curran’s daughter, Patricia, outside their home in Whiteabbey in 1952. It focuses on Lance Curran’s wife, Doris, and his right-hand man and political fixer, Harry Ferguson. The book is by no means a straightforward crime fiction investigation, however: on one level the novel is about the timelessness of evil and how it reappears in different guises in all cultures throughout history. McNamee refers to the ‘ancient malice’ represented by the mummy Takabuti that Ferguson sees in a Belfast museum, and the novel also stretches back in time to late Victorian London, and Jack the Ripper. It’s a superb novel in its own right, but also a terrific conclusion to the ‘Blue trilogy’, in which McNamee explores the concept of noir as being a kind of Calvinist idea of pre-determination – that what happens to you is destined to happen, that there’s a hand on the scales and all you can do is rage against it.

The Missing File, DA Mishani
Set in the small Israeli city of Holon on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, D.A. Mishani’s debut The Missing File begins with the mother of a young boy reporting his disappearance to Inspector Avraham Avraham. Perplexed but initially unconcerned – children are never kidnapped or killed in Israel, Avraham tells us – the inspector only belatedly swings into action, by which time the reader has already encountered the boy’s sinister neighbour, Ze’ev, an English teacher and frustrated author who craves the inspiration that will spark his writing to life. D.A. Mishani is a crime writer and scholar in his native Israel, and here he blends a subversive take on the standard police procedural with ruminations on the crime novel itself, cross-referencing the work of Agatha Christie and Stieg Larsson with that of Kafka and Dostoevsky, and advancing Avraham’s theory as to why there are no detective novels in Hebrew. The well-meaning but hapless Avraham is a delightful creation, particularly as Steven Cohen’s translation is strewn with Avraham’s humorously morose observations on the human condition. With its finely crafted plot constantly confounding expectations, The Missing File marks D.A Mishani out as a writer to watch.

Unravelling Oliver, Liz Nugent
Liz Nugent’s Unravelling Oliver opens with Dublin-based writer Oliver Ryan viciously beating his wife Alice. The assault is described in the first person by Oliver himself, but Oliver’s is only one of a number of first-person accounts on offer here, each one a piece of the jigsaw that gradually assembles itself into portrait of a pathetic young boy who grew up to become a monster who writes best-selling children’s books. The reader is given no framing device relating to who might have collated the various accounts, or why, but the narrative gambit pays off handsomely. Oliver Ryan may be a vain, shallow and ultimately violent sociopath, but his story grows more compelling and nuanced the more we learn about him and the factors that influenced the man he would become, some of which were set in train even before he was born. More an investigation into psychology than a conventional crime thriller, Unravelling Oliver is a formidable debut and a deserved winner of this year’s crime fiction gong at the Irish Book Awards.

The Black Eyed Blonde, Benjamin Black
Benjamin Black (aka John Banville) resurrects Philip Marlowe again in The Black-Eyed Blonde, a novel that finds Marlowe still trying to come to terms with the events of The Long Goodbye. Indeed, the tone falls somewhere between the bitter defeatism of Chandler’s The Long Goodbye and that of Robert Altman’s 1973 film of the same name, a movie disliked by many Chandler fans for its portrayal of Marlowe as a hapless klutz who understands that he is, ultimately, powerless when trapped in a vice constructed of money and power. In The Black-Eyed Blonde, Black acknowledges the general thesis of Chandler’s novel, with Marlowe increasingly aware that he has outlived his time and his code, and wondering if he shouldn’t fold his tent in Los Angeles and move to Paris to become a rich woman’s husband. I liked it a lot, and I hope there’ll be more Marlowe novels from Benny Blanco.

Irène, Pierre Lamaitre
Pierre Lamaitre’s Alex (2013) garnered rave reviews last year, not least for the way Lamaitre reworked the tropes of the conventional serial killer novel to create a clever police procedural which worked as a superb thriller even as it confounded readers’ expectations of the genre. The follow-up, Irène, is equally clever, as the diminutive Parisian detective Camille Verhoeven is initially confronted with a murder scene so horrific it puts him in mind of Goya’s ‘Saturn Devouring his Son’. Were Verhoeven the son of an author rather than a painter, he might have recalibrated his instincts: it soon emerges that the carnage is a note-perfect homage to the double murder carried out by Patrick Bateman in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. Pitting his wits against a killer the media quickly dubs ‘The Novelist’, Verhoeven – who is distinctly unimpressed by the crime fiction genre – uncovers a series of murders which mirror killings detailed in classic crime novels by James Ellroy, John D. MacDonald and William McIlvanney. Just as the reader begins to suspect that the novel is a macabre compilation of the genre’s ‘greatest hits’, however, Lemaitre pulls a switch that forces the reader to reassess everything that has gone before. Translated by Frank Wynne, Irène builds on the considerable promise of Alex and confirms Camille Verhoeven as one of the most intriguing protagonists to emerge in the crime genre in recent years.

The Wolf in Winter, John Connolly
John Connolly blends his usual tropes of the classic private investigator and a gothic flavouring with a simmering rage at the way in which modern American treats its economically disenfranchised. The twelfth of John Connolly’s novels to feature the haunted private eye Charlie Parker, The Wolf in Winter begins with the disappearance of a homeless man, who was himself trying to track down his disappeared daughter. Parker’s investigations take him to the town of Prosperous, an ostensibly civilised and modern community, but one which harbours dark secrets inextricably bound up in its shadowy origins. Arguably the best Charlie Parker tale to date. (And while we’re on the subject of John Connolly, the collection of short stories called ‘Death Sentences’ edited by Otto Penzler includes John’s Anthony Award-winning short story ‘The Caxton Lending Library & Book Depository’).

The Boy That Never Was, Karen Perry
‘Karen Perry’ is a pseudonym for a new writing partnership composed of author Karen Gillece and poet Paul Perry. The story opens with a prologue set in Tangier in 2005, where the readers learns that one of the central protagonists, Harry, is guilty of negligence in the death, during an earthquake, of his young son Dillon. The story then moves to Dublin five years later, when Harry believes he sees his missing son during an anti-government demonstration on O’Connell Street. When he fails to convince the Gardai that Dillon is alive and well, Harry confesses all to his wife, Robin, which is when we start to realise that Harry has a history of obsession and instability, and that Robin also has secrets she needs to conceal. This is by no means the first time we’ve encountered the unreliable narrator – it’s a staple of the crime / mystery genre – but The Boy That Never Was goes one better by giving us a pair of devious narrators, neither of whom we can trust very much. The result is an impressive debut that is equally adept at blending thriller and mystery into an absorbing psychological study.

The Tailor of Panama, John le Carré
Not a book that was first published in 2014, of course, but the best book I read all year.

The Avenue of the Giants, Marc Dugain
Marc Dugain’s The Avenue of the Giants offers an unusual take on a genre tradition, that of the sociopathic serial killer. Set in California in the late 1960s and based on the life of Ed Kemper, aka ‘the Co-Ed Killer’ (whom Dugain acknowledges in his Author’s Note), the story switches between third- and first-person voices, as convicted killer Al Kenner writes an autobiographical account of a trail of destruction that began when, as a disaffected teenager, Kenner murdered his grandparents. It’s an unusual account, not least because Kenner claims that his literary influences include Dostoevsky and Raymond Carver, with the result that the story unfolds in a style of downbeat realism that grows increasingly unsettling and claustrophobic the more Kenner reveals of his prosaically literal mind-set. There are echoes of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me in Kenner’s ability to fool those closest to him with his gee-shucks public persona, which allows the charming but manipulative killer to exploit the virtues of peace and love espoused by his hippy victims.

The Silkworm, Robert Galbraith
Set in London during the bleak winter of 2010, The Silkworm is a sequel to The Cuckoo’s Calling, and again features the private detective and war veteran Cormoran Strike. Strike is intrigued when he is approached by Leonora Quine, who wants him to find her missing husband, the author and former enfant terrible, Owen Quine. Soon, however, Strike discovers that Quine has gone to ground because he has written a slanderous novel, titled Bombyx Mori – which translates as The Silkworm – in which vicious pen-portraits of his wife, editor, publisher, agent and peers are easily identifiable to anyone in the publishing industry. It’s a fine sequel; if Robert Galbraith / JK Rowling is in the crime-writing game for the long haul, this reader will be very pleased indeed.

Young Philby, Robert Littell
The exploits of Adrian Russell ‘Kim’ Philby have been picked over many times, but Robert Littell’s Young Philby takes an intriguing approach to exploring the motivations of the notorious British spy, who defected to the Soviet Union when his cover was finally blown in 1963. The novel begins with a Prologue in 1938, with a Russian ‘handler’ of Philby being interrogated in a Moscow prison, before going back to 1933, and Philby’s arrival in Vienna as Fascism begins to take hold in Austria. Essentially a series of portraits of Philby offered by those he worked with, the story comprises fictionalised encounters between, among others, Philby and his first wife Litzi Friedman, Guy Burgess, Teodor Maly, who first recruited Philby in London, and Evelyn Sinclair, the secretary who recorded conversations at the heart of the British secret service. This last account is the most fascinating of a beautifully detailed mosaic, offering as it does a revolutionary theory on Philby’s career and activities. In re-imagining one of the most familiar figures of the Cold War landscape, Robert Littell has given us a spy thriller of the very highest order.

Perfidia, James Ellroy
Some readers, myself included, might have preferred to meet James Ellroy’s iconic characters in a state of grace, in order to better appreciate their fall. It wasn’t to be, but Perfidia was still one of the best crime novels of the year. It opens in Los Angeles in December 1941, with young LAPD detective Dudley Smith investigating what appears to be a ritual suicide by a Japanese-American family. Expecting a quick result, Smith is confounded with the Japanese navy bombs Pearl Harbour and turns his open-and-shut case into a political time-bomb. Dense, incident-packed, irreverent and intense, it is – for good or ill – vintage Ellroy.

The Surfacing, Cormac James
Cork author Cormac James’ second novel begins in the Arctic Circle in 1850, when we find ourselves aboard the stout ship The Impetus, under the command of Captain Myers and his second-in-command Lieutenant Morgan, as they go in search of the Franklin expedition, which went missing some years previously during a bid to discover the fabled Northwest Passage. The all-male environment aboard The Impetus – now trapped in the shifting ice – is disrupted by a stowaway, Kitty, who is pregnant with Morgan’s child. It’s a fabulously detailed tale, both in its historical research and its depiction of the savagely harsh landscape, but despite the apparent ‘Boys’ Adventure’ nature of the tale, it’s very much a tender, intimate novel about one man’s horror and joy and the prospect of becoming a father. The announcement two months ago by the Canadian government that they had located the wrecks of the Franklin Expedition puts the efforts of the characters here into some perspective, and amplifies the magnificent futility of their epic journey. Superb.

The Monogram Murders, Sophie Hannah
Sophie Hannah ‘resurrects’ Agatha Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot for The Monogram Murders, which is set in 1929. When a terrified young woman called Jennie blunders into a London coffee shop and sits at Poirot’s table, however, his famous little grey cells are energised by Jennie’s bizarre story of her impending murder – and her assertion that nothing must be done to stop it, because only then will justice be done. Enter Edward Catchpool of Scotland Yard, a police detective who stands in for Poirot’s regular sounding-board Arthur Hastings, to narrate the story of Poirot’s latest investigation. It centres on a triple killing at the Bloxham Hotel, in which two women and a man are discovered identically murdered in three separate rooms, each with a monogrammed cufflink in their mouths. Sophie Hannah provides a double function in The Monogram Murders: The story is told in Agatha Christie’s style, but it also partly serves as a critique of Christie’s style and methods. ‘I must say,’ Catchpool observes, ‘I did not and never would understand why he required such a sizeable audience. It was not a theatrical production. When I solved a crime … I simply presented my conclusions to my boss and then arrested the miscreant in question.’ All told, it’s a terrific piece of literary ventriloquism.

Us, David Nicholls
Us is David Nicholls’ fourth novel, and probably his most entertaining. As the story begins, Douglas Petersen appears to be suffering the reverse of the conventional male mid-life crisis. A pedantic biochemist contemplating the imminent departure of his teenage son Albie from the family nest, Douglas is – according to the rules of fiction, at least – a prime candidate to be eyeing up a Maserati and tumbling into an ill-advised affair with a woman half his age. As it happens, Douglas rather likes bumbling along in his comfortable, suburban existence, and is very much looking forward to ‘growing old and dying together’ with his wife, Connie. “Douglas,” says Connie, “who in their right mind would look forward to that?” The truth of it is that, now their son is reared and on his way to university, Connie is thinking of leaving Douglas. With a typically old-fashioned ‘grand tour’ of Europe’s galleries and museums already planned, Douglas hopes that the family’s final holiday together will reignite old passions for love, art and life itself – but once they get on the road, things very quickly go from bad to worse. Us is very much an escape, a laugh, a comfort and a thrill, but it is above all a thought-provoking meditation on how very fragile are the ties that bind.

The Burning Room, Michael Connelly
The shot was fired a decade ago but Orlando Merced, a mariachi band member, has only now succumbed to his injuries, which means Harry Bosch has a very unusual ‘open-unsolved’ (aka ‘cold case’) investigation to pursue in The Burning Room, Michael Connelly’s 17th novel to feature the veteran LAPD detective. Bosch, already on borrowed time as a working detective courtesy of the DROP programme, is less than a year from retirement as the story opens, but he has lost none of his edge. What appears at first glance to be a depressingly routine drive-by shooting develops, largely due to Bosch’s instincts, into a complex tale of jealousy, arson, robbery and politically motivated murder, as Connelly, in a story that wears its Raymond Chandler influences lightly, links the street-level crimes of Los Angeles with the city’s highest seats of power. Bosch, teamed here with impressive new recruit Lucy Soto, goes about his work with the same quality of unobtrusive directness that Connelly brings to his prose, the deceptively understated approach disguising a pacy, powerful investigation that yields results when least expected.

Tabula Rasa, Ruth Downie
Set in Roman Britain as the natives’ festival of Samain approaches, Tabula Rasa is Ruth Downie’s sixth novel to feature medicus Gaius Petreius Ruso, who is currently serving with the Twentieth Legion as they build Hadrian’s Wall. When rumours begin to circulate that a dead body has been dumped under the rubble packed into the wall, and the young boy responsible for circulating the rumour goes missing, the already tense relationship between the Romans and the native Britons erupts into hostilities. Ruso’s investigation, which he hopes will defuse the situation, is deftly crafted by Downie, but Tabula Rasa offers far more than the mystery genre’s conventions transplanted to Roman-era Britain. Equally fascinating are the contemporary parallels to be found in the Roman experience of conquering and occupying a foreign territory: their ignorance of the local language and customs, the blinkered arrogance of military power, and the nerve-shredding presence of constant threat.

  So there it is. It’s a busy-busy time right now around CAP Towers, so if you don’t hear from us between now and the holidays, have a terrific Christmas and a peaceful and prosperous New Year. See you on the other side …

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