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