Last year I resisted the temptation to add to the cacophony of ‘favourite book’ lists, but 2014 has supplied such good reading that I can’t help but make a few recommendations. The twist on my top ten is that it’s split in two: five books from 2014, five published longer ago. Much longer ago as it turns out, with those books having a vintage of anywhere between 30 and 85 years. There really is nothing finer that discovering a new author, whether they’re long dead or still at work. Writing that speaks directly to your heart is a rare thing, and you should celebrate it whenever you get the chance.
Anyways, without further ado, here’s the five non-2014 books in my list:
Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest (1929) – This is the oldest book reviewed on WAYRF this year, but despite its age it still managed to be one of the most violent, amoral books I’ve ever read. Red Harvest probably isn’t as influential as Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, but it still has his trademark amoral protagonist, focused exclusively on his goal. The book is also set during Prohibition, and gives a vivid picture of the period, and is a useful reminder that the modern vogue for dark stories about dark men has been around much longer than we think. Review here.
Friedrich Durrenmatt, The Pledge (1958) – Originally subtitled ‘Requiem for the Detective Novel’ (mysteriously cut from my 1964 Penguin paperback edition), The Pledge really is a book as striking as that presumptuous phrase suggests. I don’t re-read books, but I’m already on my third run through The Pledge this year. It’s short, which helps, but more than that it’s also a book that would smash its way onto my ‘best of’ list any year it likes. Coolly, devastatingly written, the plan which Inspector Matthai devises to catch a child killer turns out to be a noose tightening around his own neck, with far-reaching consequences. I’ve seen its influence everywhere, not only in other books but also television – both True Detective and recent BBC series The Missing. Review here.
Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) – I finally got around to breaking my Highsmith duck this year, and Ripley was as good a place to start as any. Highsmith’s prose takes a while to engage the reader, but Ripley is a wonderful creation – multi-layered, charming, and with a deep darkness behind the facade. My review centres around one particular paragraph, which has stayed with me long after finishing the book. I’m looking forward to reading more of Highsmith’s work next year.
James Crumley, The Last Good Kiss (1978) – Opening paragraphs are not easy to get write, but Crumley’s is a cracker. The Last Good Kiss is a book that single-handedly redefined the detective novel for the post-Vietnam generation – there’s a PI, a missing writer and a missing girl, plus a labyrinthine plot that wends its way through some very shadowy places. As the book progresses, the suspicion that his protagonist is being manipulated grows, until it ends with one of the most quietly unnerving climaxes I’ve read in a long time. Review here.
Kem Nunn, Tapping the Source (1984) – One of the most beautifully written books on my list, I fell in love with Tapping the Source immediately. Nunn’s writing is pitch perfect, and his central character remarkable for just how unprepared he is for the quest he is about to undertake. It’s a cliche to say that characters need to develop over the arc of a story, but Ike Tucker really does – unrecognisable by the end from the young man who let his uncle speak for him at the book’s beginning. Nunn’s descriptions of the book’s surfing community are also steadily accurate and clearly drawn from life – the Darwinian struggle to catch the best waves one element of the violence that runs through the book like a red seam. Review here.
If contemporary writing is more your bag, here’s my top five reads published during the past year:
Doug Johnstone, The Dead Beat – This was the first of Johnstone’s books that I’ve read, but he’s an author I’ll surely be going back to. The Dead Beat is a terrifically pacy, well-written thriller with an intriguing protagonist. Martha Fluke’s first day on the job at an Edinburgh newspaper’s obituaries desk (the eponymous ‘dead beat’) starts off with a seeming suicide, and before long she is uncovering secrets lurking in her own family background. In telling the story of how Martha’s parents came together there was also a pleasing whiff of nostalgia; Johnstone’s recreation of a mid-90s world of gigs, heavy drinking and irresponsibility reminded me of my own youth, albeit one a great deal less murderous. Review here.
Pierre Lemaitre, Irene – Okay, this is bit of a cheat. Originally published in France in 2006, Irene wasn’t translated into English until earlier this year, largely off the back of the success of Lemaitre’s Alex (which I also reviewed, and is also well worth a look). The books were translated in reverse order; Irene is the first book in Lemaitre’s Camille Verhoeven trilogy, with the last part scheduled to be published in English early next year. So start here, with Commandant Verhoeven up against a killer who uses crime fiction as his inspiration. So far, so meta, so French – but don’t let this tricksy-sounding summary put you off. The book is violent but also touching, especially the emotional bond between Verhoeven and his wife; and the revelation towards the end will either make you laugh in surprise, or toss the book across the room. Review here.
Adrian McKinty, In the Morning I’ll Be Gone – the third (and, I feared, last – incorrectly, as it turns out) book in McKinty’s Sean Duffy series, set in 1980s Northern Ireland. Duffy is such a great protagonist, surprising and human and likeable; and here he guides us through both the dark, uncertain landscape of Ulster and a long unsolved locked room mystery. McKinty uses the latter to make some amusing riffs on crime fiction in general, whilst also ensuring that the real world – and some of the era’s real personalities – are never far away. You may think you know where the climax is heading, but McKinty still has some surprises for the reader. Review here.
Henry Marsh, Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death & Brain Surgery – This is the only non-fiction book on my list, and not something for anyone squeamish of gut. I’ve long been fascinated by surgery, but even for someone who isn’t this is a riveting, visceral and overwhelmingly human read. Marsh’s book is an important reminder that our surgeons are human beings as well, prey to the same tempers and moods and mistakes as anyone else. They are also people concerned ultimately (and quite rightly) with the best interests of their patients, and Marsh’s book is a fascinating window onto a world few of us know in detail. Review here.
Lavie Tidhar, A Man Lies Dreaming – If I had to choose one 2014 book as overall winner, Tidhar would take the honours. With A Man Lies Dreaming Tidhar re-writes the rules of pulp detective fiction, using them to make wider points about the Holocaust, and the modern political landscape (and in particular those seemingly obsessed with immigration and the ‘harm’ it inflicts on this country). The book contains some beautiful and joyous riffs on Raymond Chandler, sprinkled like jewels through the text; it also lends the genre a weight quite unlike anything else I’ve read. An expanded edition is due some time in 2015, and which I can’t wait to get my hands on. Review here.
So those are my favourites – how about you? Who else should I be reading in 2015?