I was interested to see the long-list for 2014 Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, released today. It includes five books I’ve read since starting the blog, all of which would be worthy winners. If I had to choose one… no, I couldn’t do it. The best I could manage would be a pair, two books which are my stand-out novels of the last 12 months: Adrian McKinty’s I Hear the Sirens in the Street, the second book in his grimly entertaining series set in 1980s Ulster, at the height of the Troubles; and Belinda Bauer’s gag-inducing (that’s a compliment, by the way) Rubbernecker, a book which brings the sights, sounds and smells of the dissecting room to life. Read one or other of them, or better yet both – they’ve each got heart, personality, and a plot that gallops along like a horse late for work.
But this whole idea of prizes got me thinking – how do you judge success, as far as a novel is concerned? It’s a difficult thing to call, partly because everyone’s taste is different, partly because a novel contains so many different elements. For me, it’s not only the reading experience (although this is crucial; you need to enjoy it on some level even if – as with David Peace’s Red or Dead, a book I’m struggling to finish, but determined to complete – there’s a touch of masochism in there), but also what you take away from the book. What stays with you about it, and how long does it linger in your mind?
There are some books that I’ll never be able to forget – GBH, The Pledge, How the Dead Live, The Big Sleep – and there’s also a powerful memory associated with each book on the Theakston’s list that I’ve read. To my mind, that makes them all successful in one way or another – whether it relates to a literary technique, the atmosphere a novel evokes, or just a single scene. I have a lot of good memories about Stav Sherez’s Eleven Days, an efficient police procedural about a deadly fire at a convent; but my most vivid concerns one section, where a female detective is attacked in an alleyway. At first, I thought I knew exactly where the action was heading – and then Sherez did something remarkable, and pulled a surprise which turned out to be even more shocking that the outcome I expected (and which was grim enough itself). You can read more about what I thought of the book right here.
For The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, I’ll always recall the way in which Malcolm Mackay has the action unfold from inside his character’s heads – and if you don’t understand what I mean, you’ll just have to read it for yourself (or take a look at my review). Mackay has a fine way of letting the reader see what motivates his protagonists, so whilst we may not like the way they behave, we cannot help but understand and empathise with their actions. This is also a trick that he often pulls mid-conversation, the text jumping between one consciousness and another, leaving the reader scrambling to keep up – but also a great way of illustrating how these differing motivations can overlap and diverge.
Last (but by no means least), there’s Cathi Unsworth’s Weirdo, as vivid a depiction of teenagerdom’s shifting loyalties, uncertainties and fears as I’ve ever read. It was the evocative sense of place in this book that made it hard to forget – small-town, seaside life in the mid-1980s, suffocating enough in itself but doubly so within the adolescent clique that Unsworth writes about. These are characters who behave stupidly, often recklessly – but they remain human and believable, and are never too far outside the reach of our sympathy.
The more I read, the more I look for what I can take away from a book. Part of this is a function of the blog, of course – as I’m reading, I’m thinking am I going to review this? And if I am, what am I going to say about it? Trying to ‘explain’ a book to someone else certainly helps focus the mind, and whilst I still get my fair share of duffers, I count myself lucky that there’s so much good material out there. If the Theakston’s list is anything to go by, alongside the ones listed above it includes another 13 quality novels for me to go at – confirming that, sometimes, ‘unlucky for some’ is pure bullshit.