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fullybooked2017

LOCK 13 . . . Between the covers

 

 

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Lock 13Lock 13 features Chris Honeysett, a private detective whose cases I had never read before, despite this being the sixth in what is clearly a popular series. The previous episodes are Headcase (2005), Slim Chance (2006) Rainstone Fall (2008) An Inch of Time (2012) Worthless Remains (2013) and Indelible (2014). Honeysett, like his creator Peter Helton (more on Helton’s website here) is an artist operating near Bath in the south-west of England. His professional investigations do not pay all his bills, and he supplements his income by selling his paintings when he can, and teaching drawing and painting classes from his picturesque home, a former mill which he shares with his girlfriend, Annis.

Honeysett is engaged on an extremely dull – but possibly lucrative – case involving a gentleman called Henry Blinkhorn, an angler who, when his boat overturned in the Severn Estuary, tragically drowned. Or did he? The company faced with a hefty life insurance payout to the Widow Blinkhorn have their doubts, and Honeysett is hired to prove that Mr B is alive, well, and pulling several skeins of wool over the eyes of Griffins, the people who are taking the million pound hit over the death, or not, of the unfortunate fisherman.

A welcome distraction from the tedious observation of The Chestnuts, the Blinkhorn’s six-bedroom house in one of the many salubrious areas of Bath, comes when Honeysett’s regular model for his life drawing classes, a young lady called Verity, inexplicably disappears. With Annis – also an artist (and noticeably more successful) away painting a mural for a rich celebrity, Honeysett decides to delve into Verity’s disappearance but, as is the way with these things, he discovers that he may have bitten off more than he can chew. Verity was friendly with some rather disreputable characters, including a verminous colony of New Age Travelers who, when they are not meditating or actually traveling, have their grimy fingers in a lucrative drug dealing business.

It seems that young Verity has come into funds rather suddenly, and has realised her oft-longed-for ambition to buy a canal boat and remove herself from the stresses and strains of city life by taking to the water. By a rather fortuitous set of coincidences (both for himself and the plot) Honeysett manages to borrow a canal narrow boat in which he sets off to pursue the errant Verity. As both he and we quickly discover, “pursue’ may be over-egging the pudding, as the laws of canal boating restrict speed to 4 mph. As Honeysett makes his stately – and occasionally wayward – progress in the ironically named Dreamcatcher, he soon has a growing number of conundrums to solve. Who, for example, are the two mysteriously sunglassed gents who appear to be following him in their cabin cruiser? And what is the true story behind the tragic drowning of Neil, former owner of Dreamcatcher, in the murky depths of the titular Lock 13?

Helton-Peter-2-262x350Sometimes a novel is so delightfully written that a reader can reach the last page with a smile and sense of contentment, despite the fact that nothing very dramatic or shocking, at least by the standards of some modern thrillers, has happened during the 200 pages or so which have made up the narrative. Lock 13 is one such book. Peter Helton (right) tells the story through the eyes of Chris Honeysett, and the style is fluent, conversational, occasionally erudite, often witty – but always very, very, readable. Established fans of the Honeysett series can feel duly smug that the amiable painter-sleuth has found another convert, and they can rest assured that I shall be working my way through the file of Honeysett’s previous cases. Lock 13 is published by Severn House, and will be available from 29th December.

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THE ISLAND . . . Between the covers

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5179+K0SrKLThe Island is the latest episode in the eventful partnership between two gentleman detectives in Victorian London. James Batchelor is a former journalist, a ‘gentleman’ in manners and intelligence, if not by upbringing, while his colleague Matthew Grand is an American former soldier, and scion of a very wealthy patrician New Hampshire family. We first met them in The Blue and the Grey (2014), when Grand – who has recently served with the victorious Army of The Potomac – comes to London in pursuit of one of those who conspired in the murder of Abraham Lincoln on 15 April 1865.

It is now the spring of 1873, and Grand is treating his colleague to a holiday in American, in the shape of an invitation to his sister’s wedding. Poor Batchelor, however is, at best, an indifferent sea voyager but, after eleven emetic days on board the Frisia, the pair eventually arrive safely in New York, having left their London house in the somewhat clumsy hands of their housekeeper, Mrs Rackstraw, who is somewhat less discreet and high minded than another lady fulfilling a similar function to another pair of gentlemen a mile or so across town in the busy thoroughfare of Baker Street.

On their journey north to New Hampshire, Grand and Batchelor pick up Edward Latham, a New York Times hack, who has blagged a wedding invitation in order to track down a participant in the recent financial corruption scandal known as the Tammany Hall affair – and Grand’s Uncle Josiah, who is disturbingly rich, but often – and equally disturbingly – drunk. The wedding guests duly reach the settlement of Rye and the palatial house causes Batchelor to gasp in admiration, despite being assured by Grand that it is little more than a weekend retreat compared to their main establishment.

cruise culture 012A few words in praise of the author. Meiron Trow (right) is one of the most erudite and entertaining writers in the land. Over thirty years ago he began his tongue in cheek series rehabilitating the much-put-upon Inspector Lestrade, and I loved every word. I then became hooked on his Maxwell series, featuring a very astute crime-solving history teacher who, while eschewing most things modern, manages to be hugely respected by the sixth-formers (Year 12 and 13 students in new money) in his charge, while managing to terrify and alarm the younger ‘teaching professionals’ who run his school. I was well into the Maxwell series before I realised that MJ Trow and I had two things (at least) in common. Firstly, he went to the same school as I did, although I have to confess he was a couple of years ‘below’ me and would have been dismissed at the time as a pesky ‘newbug’. Secondly, and much more relevant to my love of his Maxwell books, I discovered that we were both senior teachers in state secondary schools, and shared a disgust and contempt for the tick-box mentality characterising the so-called ‘leadership’ of high schools.

Mark TwainI digress, so back to New Hampshire in the early spring of 1873. The guests begin to arrive, and the ‘downstairs’ staff under the stern eye of the enigmatic butler, Waldo Hart, are emulating the proverbial blue-arsed fly. Trow, at this point, gleefully takes the template of the traditional country house mystery, and has his evil way with it. Despite the title of the book, we are not quite in Soldier Island (And Then There Were None) territory, but Rye is far enough from Boston to make sure that when the first murder happens, the real policemen are too far away and too engrossed with their city crime to pay much attention, even when when of the possible suspects is a certain Mr Samuel Langhorne Clemens. (left)

With Martha, Grand’s sister, well and truly hitched to a young man who may well be an utter bounder, and two hatchet-bludgeoned corpses lying in state in the stables, the Boston police eventually arrive in the shape of Chief Savage and Sergeant Roscoe. The amateurs and the professionals regard each other with ill-disguised suspicion, while Trow scatters a healthy basket of Rubrum Clupidae to keep us all guessing. Don’t be misled by Trow’s endless enthusiasm for verbal gags into thinking that this is a ‘cosy’ novel. Far from it. The finale is dark and bloody, and shadows real-life 1873 events on the remote and windswept Smuttynose Island. The Island is published by Severn House and is available now.

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BOOK OF THE YEAR 2017 . . . All Of a Winter’s Night, by Phil Rickman

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Phil RickmanThere are no honourable mentions here, because, (if you’ve been good) you will have seen them all in the previous four posts. Regular readers of this blog, and those who read my interviews, reviews and features on Crime Fiction Lover, will know that I am a massive fan of Phil Rickman’s books and, in particular, the series featuring the thoroughly modern, but often conflicted, parish priest, Merrily Watkins. She is one of the most intriguing and best written characters in modern fiction, but Rickman (left) doesn’t stop there. He has created a whole repertory company of supporting characters who range in style and substance from the wizened sage Gomer Parry – he of the roll-up fags and uncanny perception (often revealed as he digs holes for septic tanks) – to the twin-set and pearls imperturbability of the Bishop’s secretary, Sophie. In between we have the fragile genius of Merrily’s boyfriend, musician Lol Robinson, the maverick Scouse policeman Frannie Bliss and, of course, Merrily’s adventurous daughter Jane, for whom the soubriquet ‘Calamity” would fit nicely, such is her propensity to go where both angels – and her anxious mother – fear to tread.

These actors flit in and out of the stories, but there is one other character, ever present and formidable. I am in the autumn of my days and, casting aside false modesty, widely read, and I have likened Rickman’s use of landscape to that of Thomas Hardy. The Welsh Marches – Hereford, Radnor, Brecon, Monmouth – combine to make this extra character. The windswept hills, sullen valleys, glittering streams and abandoned chapels all play a part in Rickman’s novels, and never more effective than in my Best Book of 2017 – All Of a Winter’s Night.

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The art of Morris Dancing has often been ridiculed, never better than when it was suggested that a Morris team could be an effective counter-display by the England Rugby team when faced with New Zealand’s ferocious Haka. But here, the faintly ridiculous concept of men dancing around with bells on their trousers and funny hats on their heads becomes as sinister as anything ever dredged up from the fevered imaginations of Poe or Lovecraft. Rickman has his finger on the pulse of an old Britain, a land steeped in superstition, symbolism, and distinctly un-Christian – not to say pre-Christian – traditions.

AOAWNIn All Of a Winter’s Night a young man has been killed in a mysterious car crash, and his funeral attracts bitterly opposed members of the same family. Merrily tries to preside over potential chaos, and her efforts to ensure that Aidan Lloyd rest in peace are not helped when his body is disinterred, dressed in his Morris Man costume, and then clumsily reburied. Rickman adds to the mix the very real and solid presence of the ancient church at Kilpeck, with its pagan – and downright vulgar (in some eyes) carvings. The climax of the novel comes when Merrily tries to conduct a service of remembrance in the tiny church. What happens next is, literally, breathtaking – and one of the most terrifying and disturbing chapters of any novel you will read this year or next. With its memorable mix of crime fiction, menacing landscape, human jealousy, sinister tradition and pure menace, All Of a Winter’s Night is my book of 2017.

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BLAME . . . Between the covers

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JeffAbbottI guess we all play the game. We know the rules, every one of us. No expensive equipment required and no real skill needed, that’s for sure. The Blame Game, it’s called, and when something bad happens in the world it plays out on every social media feed, every newspaper paragraph and every breathless sentence from every permatanned TV news anchor. Bestselling thriller writer Jeff Abbott (left) convinces us that it’s also very popular in the little Texas town of Lakehaven where, just two years ago, a car carrying two teenage friends plummeted off a lonely road and down into a deep gully.

When the paramedics arrived, all they could do for young David Hall was to get his body clear of the wreckage – and then zip up the body bag. Jane Norton, the driver? Well she got lucky. After a fashion. Multiple broken bones, but nothing fatal. And a major bang to the head, which has left her with partial amnesia. When a suicide note surfaces, written by Jane, the Lakehaven rumour mill starts to grind, and it grinds exceeding small. Obviously, Jane intended to kill herself, and she took David – the trusting, popular, talented, handsome David – down with her.

Two years on, Jane has learned to recognise her mother and her college friends, but as to what actually happened on that dreadful night, nothing. Nada. A big fat blank. This big fat blank makes her the perfect hate figure for many former school and college buddies, and she has shrunk into what is left of herself. She has left home, and is ‘crashing’ in the dorm room of one of the few friends who is still prepared to give her – literally – house room.

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Jane and David were inseparable childhood friends. Their parents still live next door to each other. Perri Hall and her soon to be ex- husband Cal no longer speak to Laurel Norton who is also on her own for a different reason. Her husband Brent is three years dead from a gunshot from his own weapon, either intentionally or maybe through a tragic accident; the gossip jury is still out but, like Old Jacob Marley, Brent Norton is as dead as a doornail.

The two year anniversary of David’s death is being commemorated in the modern way, along with other tragedies, baby scans, bad moods, good moods, cute cats, photos of ‘what I had for dinner’ and Trump memes on the (strangely familiar) social media hub, Faceplace. David is the martyr, Jane and her mother equally culpable as the villains.

blame017In a nutshell, the novel is an account of Jane’s attempt to find the truth about what actually happened on that dreadful night on High Oaks Road. We have to assume – because we are seasoned readers of crime thrillers – that Jane is innocent of a brutal suicide mission which claimed the life of a boy whose only crime was to be in love. As Jane turns over rock after rock, and unpleasant critters scuttle about, exposed to the light of truth, the novel builds to a dramatic and breathless finale. As might be expected from a writer of Jeff Abbott’s pedigree, he keeps his cards close to his chest, and keeps us guessing until the final few pages.

I particularly loved how Abbott works the Jane character; at the beginning, despite her having suffered a terrible physical trauma, she still comes over as being something of a pain in the butt; as the novel develops, and the web of possible suspects widens, her courage and determination not to take shit from anyone began to grow on me. Remember, as well as having lost her memory, the boy they tell her was her best buddy is also gone, and she has completely forgotten how to talk properly to people. As for normal social and conversational responses, they are also an unfathomable mystery. Blame came out earlier in the year in hardback, but will be available in paperback from 28 December.

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BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2017 … Best thriller

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What constitutes a thriller? I suppose that could be one of those ‘how long is a piece of string questions’. I would hope that any crime novel worth its salt would be ‘thrilling’ in some shape or form, but for the sake of clarity, I’m excluding books which rely heavily for their impact on police investigations, or are given added ambience by an historical setting. So, what did I enjoy? Harlan Coben always delivers, and his renegade policeman Napoleon ‘Nap’ Dumas left official procedural behind and certainly did the business in Don’t Let Go. Domestic Noir has become a very fruitful field for many authors and publishers, and I enjoyed having the wool pulled over my eyes by Simon Lelic in The House.

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Another writer who kept one or two brilliant tricks up his sleeve was Tim Weaver when he gave us another mystery for David Raker to solve in I Am Missing. Michael Robotham played the ‘unreliable narrator’ trick when he challenged us to decide just which of the expectant mums was telling the truth in The Secrets She Keeps, while Karen Perry dangled several versions of the truth in front of us in a brilliant tale about memory, old friendships and illusion in Can You Keep A Secret? 

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unleashed1So, who thrilled me the most? First across the line by a nose, in a very competitive field, was Unleashed, by Peter Laws. Laws sends his alter ego, Professor Matt Hunter, to the dull south London suburb of Menham to investigate a Hieronymus Bosch-like scene at a primary school concert, where the highlight of the evening is the music teacher being found dead in a cupboard full of recorders, plastic tambourines and chime bars – with her throat ripped out, apparently by her own pet dog. Hunter’s investigations lead him to to 29 Barley Street, where a young girl was found hanging from a beam in her bedroom. The soul of Holly Watson, however, is not at rest, and her presence still lingers in the claustrophobic gloom of her home. Occasionally – and unashamedly – playing to the gallery, and using every colour on his palette, Laws paints a picture that disquiets us. He makes us think to ourselves, “This is nonsense, but …..” The ‘but’ is his key weapon. He evokes old fears, conjure up ancient and deep-rooted uncertainties – and makes us glad that Unleashed is only a book.

My verdict?

“Laws takes a leaf out of the book of the master of atmospheric and haunted landscapes, M R James. The drab suburban topography of Menham comes alive with all manner of dark interventions; we jump as a wayward tree branch scrapes like a dead hand across a gazebo roof; we recoil in fear as a white muslin curtain forms itself into something unspeakable; dead things scuttle and scrabble about in dark corners while, in our peripheral vision, shapes form themselves into dreadful spectres. When we turn our heads, however, there is nothing there but our own imagination.”

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THE POSTMAN DELIVERS … Abbott, Greaney & Svensson

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The generous people at Sphere came up trumps (whoops, can we still use that expression?) last week with a triple whammy to make my day, but sadly add to the seasonal woes of my postman. Three lovely new books to examine, the first being from one of my favourite American thriller writers, Jeff Abbott (below left).

JeffAbbottBLAME came out in hardback and Kindle earlier this year, but is due in paperback on 28 December. We are in the author’s home state of Texas, and two years on from a fatal road accident. Jane Norton drove her car down into a steep ravine below a remote road, killing her passenger and coming within a whisker of death herself. David Hall is cut from the wreckage but dies in the arms of a paramedic. Jane survives her multiple fractures, but loses her memory. After an incriminating note is found, it becomes the received wisdom in the small town of Lakehaven that Jane Norton was hell bent on committing suicide, and had decided to take her best friend with her. Reviled on social media and snubbed at school, Jane becomes a reclusive outcast until a mysterious person calling themselves Liv Danger begins a campaign of hate against all those involved in the tragedy. Can Jane – and her tangled memories – solve the mystery of what happened that fateful night on High Oaks Road?

markGUNMETAL GRAY by Mark Greaney (right) takes us away from small-town intrugue and places us on a much bigger stage altogether. Readers who know their spy thriller genre will be well aware that Greaney has pedigree – he collaborated with the late Tom Clancy on his final three books, and has continued the Jack Ryan series under his own name. This novel sees the return of Court Gentry, ‘The Gray Man’. Gone are the days when the only international villains had snow on their boots and answered to the name ‘Ivan”. Gentry becomes involved in a winner-takes-all struggle with ruthless agents from The People’s Republic of China, and he finds that they are every bit as resourceful and relentless as their Russian counterparts. Played out against the background of of Hong Kong and South East Asia, Gunmetal Gray came out in hardback in February this year, but will be available in paperback on 4 January 2018.

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ANTON SVENSSON is the pseudonym of the successful Swedish writing partnership between Stefan Thunberg and Anders Roslund. The Sons (originally published as En Bror Att Dö För earlier this year) has been translated into English by Hildred Crill. It is the second in a series called Made In Sweden. The first novel was called, logically enough, The Father. The story is centred on that most lucrative – and dangerous – of trades, bank robbery. Leo Duvnjac emerges from a lengthy prison sentence for bank heists, but inside he has made friends with killer Sam Larsen. Released and together outside, they plan the climactic job-to-end-all-jobs, but they face a stern opponent in the hard-nosed cop Detective John Broncks – who just happens to be Larsen’s brother. If you were of a mind to question the authenticity of the tale, you should know that co-author Thunberg is the only ‘straight’ member of his family – the rest are infamous real-life bank robbers. The Sons will be out in the UK on 9 January 2018.

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THE GATHERING DARK … Between the covers

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DI Tony McLean is an Edinburgh copper who is just a tad different from your standard tick-box fictional Detective Inspector. Yes, he works long hours, to the detriment of his home life, and doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with his superiors. Yes, he is occasionally given to special insights into crimes and criminals and, of course, he always gets his man (or woman). McLean, though, is something of a breed apart. His personal background is, well, unusual. After unhappy schooldays at a private school he hated, he has inherited money and property which make him a wealthy man after his parents were killed in a plane crash. He is gifted – or cursed – with a heightened sense of perception which may, or may not be, occult in nature. Despite his unwillingness to come to terms with this, he has an interesting friendship with a transvestite spirit medium called Madam Rose, who should be a comic character, but is anything but that.

billwaters_JamesO__10525-smaller-683x1024I should add, at this point, that James Oswald (left) is not your regulation writer of crime fiction novels. He has a rather demanding ‘day job’, which is running a 350 acre livestock farm in North East Fife, where he raises pedigree Highland Cattle and New Zealand Romney Sheep. His entertaining Twitter feed is, therefore, just as likely to contain details of ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ obstetrics as it is to reveal insights into the art of writing great books. But I digress. I don’t know James Oswald well enough to say whether or not he puts anything of himself into the character of Tony McLean, but the scenery and routine of McLean’s life is nothing like that of his creator.

TGDMcLean is going about his daily business when he is witness to a tragedy. A tanker carrying slurry is diverted through central Edinburgh by traffic congestion on the bypass. The driver has a heart attack, and the lorry becomes a weapon of mass destruction as it ploughs into a crowded bus stop. McLean is the first police officer on the scene, and he is immediately aware that whatever the lorry was carrying, it certainly wasn’t harmless – albeit malodorous – sewage waste. People whose bodies have not been shattered by thirty tonnes of hurtling steel are overcome and burned by a terrible toxic sludge which floods from the shattered vehicle.

The police are desperate to reassure the Edinburgh public that this is not a terrorist attack, but a tragic accident, a fateful coming together of coincidences. McLean and his team are tasked with the grim business of identifying all those who died in the crash, but also with investigating the company which owned the lorry, and what on earth the chemical cocktail was that literally burned the flesh and bones of those who came into contact with it.

As McLean starts to peel back the layers of deception and corruption which are wrapped around the truth about the disaster, he senses a sinister element in the case which exudes the stench of pure evil, far beyond that of the already grim death toll. His own personal life – most crucially involving his partner Emma, carrying their unborn child – becomes entangled with the case. McLean’s investigations turn over a heavy stone which reveals myriad guilty and repulsive things scuttling around as they are exposed to the light.

Sometimes titles of crime and thriller novels seem to have been chosen more to catch the eye of potential purchasers rather than for their relationship to the plot, but in this case those three words are chillingly apt. This disturbing story may start off as a relatively straightforward police procedural. All the familiar elements are there: the internal rivalries between officers, the bustling incident room, decent men and women trying to keep a lid on the thousand misdemeanours a big city throws up every week. But. But. A word to the wise. No, scrap that, and replace it with a much more suitable phrase – borrowed from a nightmarish MR James ghost story from 1925 – A Warning to the Curious. I have to tell you that The Gathering Dark is superbly written and gripping from the first page to the last, but it turns hellishly black and may trouble your dreams.

Click the link to read the Fully Booked review of an earlier DI Tony McLean novel, Written In Bones. The Gathering Dark is published by Michael Joseph/Penguin, and will be available on 25th January 2018.

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CRIME FICTION ADVENT CALENDAR …Week 3

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There are 25 delightful windows for you to open in the countdown to Christmas. Each one reveals an excellent crime fiction novel, with a few seasonal images and some beautiful music thrown in for good measure. Here are the windows for Week 3. Clicking each one will open the window in another screen!

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BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2017 … Best debut novel

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Writing as an aged hack, and a commentator on other people’s creativity (having little of my own), I can hardly imagine what a mixture of triumph, joy – and trepidation – must run through the minds of writers when they finally have a book that makes it into print. I have read some very good self-published books this year, but to have actually convinced a hard-nose publisher that your novel is worth printing – that must be an amazing feeling. Likewise, it must be what sports commentators call “squeaky bum time” waiting to see if members of the public actually stump up and buy your book.

The notable debuts in crime fiction this year have been many and varied. I was much taken by the main character in RG Oram’s Much Needed Rain, whose perceptions and awareness of his fellow mortals are so acute that he is, effectively, a human polygraph. Lloyd Otis served up a dystopian London in 1977 with his Deadlands – splendidly both crime and grimy. In another urban landscape similarly blighted, Augustus Rose, in The Readymade Thief, described a delinquent girl turned loose in a Chicago that was a potent mixture of gritty realism and fantasy.

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Without doubt the most compelling three words uttered in a 2017 debut novel were, “Choose one, bitch”, the strapline for Samantha King’s The Choice, where she created a nightmare world of domestic Noir where a mother is forced to choose between the lives of her two children. TA Cottrell provided another peep between the curtains of an apparently normal house, when What Alice Knew laid bare the scars of memory, guilt and bitterness that can be borne by old relationships. Peter Laws is an intriguing chap. He is a serving Baptist minister, with a fascination for horror and the supernatural. In Purged, he introduced us to Matt Hunter, a former minister himself who, in between lecturing on comparative religions, investigates dark deeds – in this case a series of murders connected to a charismatic church and its congregation. A novel which received huge praise around the world for its power and elegiac qualities was The Dry, by Australian Jane Harper. This was a compelling account of how a Federal policeman returns to his hometown, a five hour dusty drive from Melbourne, to investigate the slaughter go a local family.

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KnoxEvery book I’ve mentioned won admirers from different sections of the reading public but, for me, the die was cast when a rather shy young man read the opening paragraphs of his soon-to-be-published novel at a book promotion evening in a smart Fitzrovia Hotel. Joseph Knox (left) may still have work to do to become a Richard Burton in the making, but Sirens is comfortably my debut novel of 2017. On a very superficial level it’s a police procedural, set in Manchester, where we share the trials and tribulations of a young copper, Aidan Waits. Waits is a complex character, attended by his own demons and obsessed with bringing down a local drug baron. That’s where any resemblance to a bog-standard cops and robbers tale ends. Knox writes with the kind of savage poetry which reminded me very much of the great Derek Raymond and the bleak world and urban eloquence of his Factory novels. I am delighted that a follow-up novel is on its way, but what a challenge, to equal such a stunning debut!

“Knox has penned a black tale which is certainly not a comfort read. There are passages which made me physically wince, but the author has the confidence to give us an ending, once the mayhem has died down, which is both bitter-sweet and poignant.”

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Click the links to see who won

Best historical crime novel

Best police procedural novel

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