Here is a visual list of the books I read this year. It’s slightly pitiful, in terms of quantity rather than quality. I always think to myself “I wish I’d read more this year” – and I genuinely mean it at the moment of thinking. But the truth is that I go through periods of time when I’m less interested in reading fiction, and perhaps a book every two weeks (on average) is my level, even though I can read one a day when the mood takes me. As always, I endeavour to do better next year. Etcetera.
Anyway, in no particular order aside from the last, these were my favourite five books this year.
1) Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn
It’s almost redundant to pick this, as I’m sure it will be on a lot of people’s ‘best of’ lists, but the fact is that it deserves to be. Amy Dunnes vanishes on her wedding anniversary; we follow the investigation from her husband Nick’s first-person perspective and from Amy’s diary entries leading up to the disappearance. The book starts slowly, then begins to pile on the twists at a frankly alarming rate. Somehow, it always manages to stay on the tracks, emerging finally as a riveting take on the gender wars. I loved Sharp Objects, but only liked Dark Places. Flynn’s third novel, though, reads like an author who’s shifted gears and is now in total command of her material.
2) Jack Glass, by Adam Roberts
Roberts, writing as beautifully as ever, marries golden age SF to golden age crime, with a novel told in three parts. Summarised (for ease), we have a prison escape, a whodunnit and a locked room mystery, all set in a future solar system, with the eponymous rebel the known culprit in all three apparently impossible crimes. The pleasures are various: the revelation of how each murder was committed; the fascinating, shifting character of Glass himself; Roberts’s brilliant prose; the humour. The first section in particular – the prison escape – is so good that I immediately read it again after finishing it.
3) Rubbernecker, by Belinda Bauer
This is a cheat, as the book isn’t released until January, but I was lucky enough to read a proof copy, and it’s extraordinarily good. It’s the story of Patrick, a young man with Asperger’s, who enrolls on an anatomy course, trying to understand the secrets of life and death. With his particular focus, he’s the only person who notices evidence of a possible murder. What makes the book so good is primarily Patrick – he’s a tremendously likeable protagonist, and Bauer renders him perfectly – but also the way the plot completely eschews melodrama, often refusing the obvious directions a story like this could take, never engaging in a set-piece for the sake of it. It’s low key – and is told deceptively simply – and a pleasure to read from first page to last.
4) Ghostman, by Roger Hobbs
Another cheat, but never mind: this is a top-notch thriller. The main character – an expert armed robber – is drawn out of semi-retirement to help a gangster locate the missing money from a botched casino job. And with ruthless efficiency, he goes about doing so, moving through an increasingly messy web. The book has been likened to Lee Child (the page-turning aspect, I guess) and Ocean’s 11 (it involves heists) – and also to Drive; Ghostman’s protagonist shares a similar rung on the criminal ladder to Sallis’s – a pawn, effectively, but far smarter and more deadly than people realise. I’d add JJ Connolly’s “Layer Cake” as a touchstone, as well, as well, as the books share a similar level of authenticity and voice. The book would succeed on the main character’s charisma alone, but there’s far more besides. This is highly likely to eat the world in 2013.
(… drum roll …)
5) Hawthorn and Child, by Keith Ridgway
My favourite novel of the year. It’s actually eight short stories, all of which feature, either centrally or as cameos, at least one of the two titular detectives, along with a handful of recurring characters and the same North London setting.
It’s a composite novel, then, although no clear narrative as such emerges from the whole. The shooting in the first story is quickly forgotten about and remains unsolved; the gangster that casts a shadow over various stories is never shown doing anything obviously illegal; other investigations fade away or barely begin. Fantastical elements creep in: an editor, who may or may not be a serial killer, investigating a manuscript about gangs of wolves and rats operating in the city; a football referee who sees ghosts; various delusionals and their visions.
Connections exist between the stories, but they’re often oblique, and you’re unsure what, if anything, they’re supposed to mean. The links that matter appear to be missing; there is a sense that the narrative exists in the spaces between what is being said. Like Hawthorn, the reader is almost forced to scribble the details in a notebook and attempt – ultimately fruitlessly – to make sense of them. At times, the book feels like the text of a fantasy-crime crossover novel that has been dropped, with an assortment of salvaged pieces then assembled by someone who never read the original. The book ends almost at random, with a lovely subversion of the kind of domestic buddy-cop scene you’d find in something like Lethal Weapon.
If this sounds frustrating in theory, it isn’t in practise, and for a number of reasons. The first is that this is all, of course, part of the point. Fictions usually provide a narrative: a beginning, a middle, an end. Detectives – especially in crime fiction – engage in that construction explicitly. But of course, we all know real life is not like that. What happens tends to lack a three- or five-act structure; characters are rarely nailed down; much of what happens to us is messy and unresolved. Reading Hawthorn and Child reflects that in a satisfying way.
The second reason is that all eight stories function as self-contained pieces, each of them pleasing and complete on their own terms. The order matters, to an extent, but you could read any single story on its own without wasting your time. The second – “Goo Book”, in which a sympathetic character is drawn into chauffeuring a gangster – is one of the best noir stories I’ve read in a long time. That and “Rothko’s Eggs” were the highlights for me, but none of the pieces here are less than brilliant.
Finally, the writing is simple and superb. It is pared down and to the point (and there is always a point). There is so much here that is admirable and perfectly done, from the structural – “How To Have Fun With A Fat Man”’s juxtaposition of Hawthorn’s engagement in an orgy with his experiences on the frontline of a riot – to individual sentences and paragraphs, such as this urgent and telling passage:
“I know that something has gone wrong. I know that the fault is visible. You can discern it in everything I say to you. In most of what I say to you. In how I say it. I know this. I am cracked like ice. I know this. But listen. Listen to me. This is important. Beneath the fault there is solid ground. Beneath the ice. Under all the cracks. Under all the cracks there is something that is not broken.”
An interesting question, I suppose: is this crime fiction? The answer is – I think – a resounding yes. It is not detective fiction, strictly-speaking, although it has elements of that, along with nods to noir fiction and thrillers, here and there, but it is a crime novel. In the wearying literary versus genre wars, one familiar shot can be summarised as “when genre fiction is very good or does unexpected things, it can end up being slipped, via some nighttime sleight of hand, into the category of literary fiction”. I’d suggest Hawthorn and Child is a good example of that; it takes many staples of crime fiction and uses them in interesting ways to interesting effect. But while the furniture might be chopped up and stuck to the walls and the ceiling, it is still recognisably the furniture. Regardless (and with reference to another familiar saying: that in terms of genre, there are only good books and bad books), let’s just observe that this is a very, very good book indeed.