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Our theme for this week’s book group is Crime. Here are what members wrote about their favourite crime writers and books:

Christine A:

The Cutting Room – Jane Casey

For this theme I thought I’d better read something current and, as Jane Casey frequently features in The Sunday Times bestseller list and the ST is serialising her latest book, I decided to download that. I like reading about the River Thames and the fact that the body (parts) are discovered by a licensed mudlarker got me intrigued too. I was soon into very messy graphic descriptions of violence, murder and body disposal – not my usual reading at all but I found the protagonist engaging and believable and against all my expectations I enjoyed it – partly because in the current lockdown I’m looking for anything that will distract me.

After finishing it I decided that reading crime fiction, the deal seems to be that you have to accept improbable coincidences, once done you go along for the ride.

Dissolution – C J Sansom

The first in C J Sansom’s Shardlake series, the Dissolution in question is Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries and is about the murder of one of Thomas Cromwell’s inspectors during a monastery visit. Usually I can’t stand books that take liberties with history but this book hooked me in all the same. It’s a nice bit of escapism with good writing and the main character, a hunchback lawyer called Matthew Shardlake, is a very sympathetic character who bears his physical deformity with good grace. The worst part of the book is the ending – an improbable scenario set in a belfry. I was particularly interested in the historical note at the back where I realised that the author had done his homework properly and his broader historical facts were reliable.

Both these books are part of larger series. The Cutting Room is #9 in its series but for me as a first time reader it worked fine as a stand-alone. Apparently this is not so with the Shardlake series which should be read in sequence as there is an ongoing story and characters reappear later on.

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Tim: 

Dear Criminologists,
I confess to not being a reader of Crime fiction and only recall Murder on the Orient Express read at the age of thirteen on a family holiday in Spain; perhaps it rang a bell as we travelled a few times by train from Victoria to the Mediterranean, 3rd class, not in Orient Express grande luxe.
          My only other crime read which comes to mind is Appletree Yard by Louise Gough, which I think we may have read in the group. Not the usual detective sleuth genre, but a horrifying insight into being prosecuted for a crime one did not commit.
          Not that, having spent a career in criminal law, I am uninterested in crime, just because perhaps fact can be stranger than fiction. There is a murderess somewhere out there against whom I failed to secure a conviction at the Old Bailey! Look out!
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Ted:

I have read very little crime fiction.  On the recommendation of friends I have in the past year read Sleep No More by PD James [ Six murderous Tales]  and one of The Dublin Murders called In The Woods by Tana French. They both had their moments but were not that memorable. Inspiring suggestions anyone?
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Kay:

I rarely read crime novels now, other than for my work as a book editor in which I’m often editing or proofreading crime or thriller books. Starting to think about this theme, it then made me ponder on whether there was a difference between ‘crime’ and ‘thriller’. It seemed to me there should be but I googled the question and found this article in the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/14/perfect-crime-fiction-bestsellers-whodunnits-thrillers-leave-rivals-for-dead. This seems to put the genres together. However, I do believe there is a difference. A crime novel, to me, usually involves the solving of a particular crime and usually a detective or amateur sleuth, or perhaps a lawyer, is the protagonist, the central character, whose ‘job’ it is to solve the mystery of the crime. And the ‘solving’ is the very essence of the book; its purpose to the reader. Often a few red herrings are thrown in as devotees of the genre usually like to try to solve the crime themselves, examining the ‘evidence’ and characters as they arise. My mother was a great fan of Agatha Christie and loved being able to guess which character was the murderer before all was revealed on the final pages. In more recent years I’ve enjoyed this little challenge of guessing who the murderer is through watching the wonderful Inspector Montalbano on TV. I’ve also read and enjoyed some of the books, written by Andrea Camilleri, and once bought an Italian version in the hope of it improving my Italian, but it turned out to be written in Sicilian, so was quite difficult to understand!

Thrillers usually involve spies or someone who is running from some evil or threat. Think John Le Carre’s spies, Robert Harris’s historical thrillers and the dark psychological thrillers of Daphne Du Maurier.

I was for many years, back in the 1990s, a great fan of Robert Goddard. I remember even staying up until 4am once because I couldn’t stop reading one of his books (I was on holiday so such a mad thing was more easily done!). His most well-known book, Into the Blue, was the first I read and that got me hooked. I had friends and family similarly hooked so we passed copies round and talked about them, which is always fun.

P.D. James certainly sits in the traditional crime genre and for a few years I became totally hooked on her work. She managed to combine great tension and mystery, a strong engagement with the solving of the crime, with fantastic writing and strong characters.

There are some crime writers I get to read regularly through work and the ones I’m always particularly pleased to be given are books by US writers Jonathan Kellerman and Harlan Coben. When you have to read every single word because you’re being paid to, then a book that not only holds your interest but even sometimes makes you not want to stop working although it’s getting late, has a lot going for it.

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Margaret: 

They are all old-fashioned murder mysteries, and their presence on my shelves displays battered covers, fluffy pages and stains from my reading in bed with tea and biscuits – all the hallmarks of much loved rattling good yarns. All three concern carefully plotted crimes.

The first two, Brat Farrer by Josephine Tey, and Crooked House, by Agatha Christie, are well known, but I think worth revisiting. Brat Farrer was based on a famous impersonation case (the Tichbourne Claimant), and serves up an ingenious, detailed plot, with fully-fledged characters and a peculiarly unsettling atmosphere which builds up superbly to its climax. Suspense is powerfully maintained to the end, which, while being thoroughly satisfying, is truly sad.

Agatha Christie named Crooked House her own favourite book. It is her classic puzzle, relying heavily, as usual, on dialogue to drive the plot, a device which has kept her books fresh. The final unveiling of the killer in the crooked house inhabited by its family is clever and unexpected, but psychologically sound.

Both these writers’ murderers share a very distinct set of characteristics. I say no more.

The third book, by Margery Allingham also needs no introduction. Many readers think The Tiger in the Smoke – published in 1952 – is her best book. Here, we meet her detective, Albert Campion, wrestling, as so often, with a complex family and local London scenario. The description of a killer on the loose in the fog of fifties London is vivid and chilling. The events and incidents that lead to Jack Havoc (wonderfully named) becoming a calculated and cold-blooded killer form the main thrust of the book. Allingham puts together a clear picture of the makings of a killer. But only Allingham would also offer a measure of compassion and a picture of a torn and desperate nihilism, which leads to miserably anonymous end.

 

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Christine B:

I enjoy the books of the  present group of crime writers who set their stories in Italy – Donna Leon, Michael Dibden and , above all, Andrea Camilleri with his mouth watering descriptions of the delicious meals he needs to feed his brain, so very important for the detective, Montalbano,  in beautiful Sicily.
But, a big but, my absolute favourite is Dashiell Hammett author of The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, The Thin Man and his first novel written in 1929 Red Harvest.  He led the way in the States showing the corruption, rival gangs, labour disputes, massacres, a laconic femme fatale and the excitement of New York.  The  laconic narration throughout is shown with the detective going to talk to the female suspect :
She drew her brows together and asked:
“You mean he knew someone meant to kill him.”
“I don’t know.  He didn’t say what he wanted.   Maybe just help in the reform campaign.”
“But do you- ?”
I made a complaint:
“It’s no fun being a sleuth when somebody steals your stuff, does all the questioning.”
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Louise: 
I have three authors to recommend – but not much more to say.  I couldn’t find their books among my mess of a library (now the weather has turned, time for a sort-out) so cannot review them,  but I just recall devouring them in my youth – nearly always read in a single ‘binge’ sitting.
One is the great Dashiell Hammett – 1894 to 1961 – and whose lover was equally great writer Lilian Hellman, of The Children’s Hour, and I recall in her memoirs her revisiting of their discussions about writing and how much he taught her. Hammett is the author most famously of The Maltese Falcon, but I remember him most for the Thin Man in a book of three crime novels I bought in a single volume (was fond of volume reading in those days). He is said to be the creator of the modern American Crime Novel. Also I believe the inspiration for Raymond Chandler – 1988 -1959 – creator of Philip Marlowe, whose books my father treasured and I still have, although I don’t remember enjoying them as much as Hammett’s.
The third is the Belgian writer Georges Simenon, 1903 to 1989.  His heady combination of sex and crime were enthralling to a young woman in her late teens. For me he captured an era of seedy thrills laced with grit and intoxication and grit,  just as Hammett did. I headed to Paris on my honeymoon partly in memory of reading his books (which may not have been set there) and we did find ourselves, being low in cash, spending our week in what turned out to be a former (I thought) brothel on the Left Bank in view of Notre Dame. But the glamour and the thrills had gone. As has that era of crime.   And now I am hooked on TV crime drama which, somewhat sadly, has taken the place of great, thrilling crime reading.
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Do let us know about your favourite crime writers!