Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Crime wars! (or, Why Everyone Can Enjoy a Little Mystery)

I'm proud to admit that crime is my favourite genre. While I do enjoy a bit of children's and teen's fiction (particularly fantasy), and sprinkle in some random authors from all over the shop, chances are my request list at any one moment is going to be half mystery. You might think that's awfully restrictive. All that murder and mayhem doesn't sound like a balanced diet. However, that "crime/mystery" genre is not as narrow as you might think. Some are quite literary, taking you deep into the social fabric. Some are wonderful guides to a period of history. Some are cosy bits of fluff that make you laugh. And some are high-octane thrillers. 

Take the divide between the British and American authors. Some supposed crime aficionados won't touch that "nasty American dross" - others delight in the action and sarcastic humour you often find across the Atlantic. But is one really better than the other? What about the Europeans? Can someone who "doesn't like crime" find anything to enjoy in a crime novel? And do those who think the Americans are inferior realise that Elizabeth George and Deborah Crombie are Americans? And that Lee Child is English? Anyway.

Here are some of my favourite crime authors from around the world. Bet you there's something for everyone.

Mark Billingham (England)

The best of the best, in my opinion. Billingham's Tom Thorne series, based around a London detective, is both gritty and darkly amusing. Billingham started out as a stand-up comedian, and there are traces of that in the sharp dialogue, but make no mistake, these aren't your cosy village murder mysteries. Thorne has the usual gamut of issues experienced by literary detectives - he's world-weary, a loose cannon, and has appalling musical tastes. Instead of Inspector Morse's opera, he goes for country and western. (My apologies to country fans!) Those who haven't read crime novels before might find some of the murders off-putting - Billingham pulls no punches. However, those who are already fans of crime dramas should give DI Thorne a try. The most recent, Good as Dead, gives nail-biting tension as well as great characters. A man is demanding justice for his son, who died in police custody for a crime his father knows he did not commit. It's up to Thorne to satisfy his questions, and free the hostages he holds at gunpoint. Even if the answer is not what the father wants to hear...Number 1 is Sleepyhead.

Also try: Stuart MacBride, S. J. Bolton, Peter James

Louise Penny (Canada)

For those who like more reflective writing, Louise Penny is tough to beat. Her multi-award winning novels revolve around Chief Inspector Gamache of the Surete du Quebec and the idyllic country village of Three Pines, which attracts murderers like migrating geese. The inhabitants of Three Pines are a quirky bunch - Clara and Peter Morrow are artists and polar opposites, Gabri and Olivier are the gay owners of the local bistro, antiques shop and B&B, and Ruth Zardo is a foul-mouthed, elderly misanthrope who happens to be Canada's greatest living poet. (Penny actually uses the poems of Margaret Atwood.) In between the quips, however, is Penny's keen sense of human nature. The writing is lovely and lyrical, capable of bringing a tear to the eye. Indeed, it's possible to both laugh and cry during the course of her books. The murders are almost incidental, being platforms for an examination of relationships, psychology and the human condition. Love and hate come equally under the microscope. My personal favourite is Bury Your Dead, but you should start at the beginning, with Still Life.

Also try: William Brodrick, Christobel Kent, Deborah Crombie

Alexander McCall Smith (Scotland)

The prolific McCall Smith is the author of several series, but the most famous - deservingly so - is The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. These books, set in Botswana, are fantastic even for non-crime readers, as the mysteries are never grisly, and involve very little of the "procedural" work that can put people off. Precious Ramotswe and her rather contrary colleague Mma Makutsi totally break the mould! Instead of thrills and gruesomeness, this series is a delightfully witty exploration of the types of people you might meet in everyday life, with problems such as cheating spouses, scheming women who are no better than they should be - and didn't get anywhere near 97% on their secretarial courses, unlike a certain associate detective - blackmail and missing children. Precious Ramotswe is a woman of "traditional build" who somehow manages to solve these problems through her own understanding of how people are and litres of bush tea. In the latest, The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, she helps her friend Mma Potokwani of the local orphanage, who is fired from her job by a possibly unscrupulous businessman. Guaranteed to bring a smile to your face.  

Also try: C. Alan Bradley, Spencer Quinn, Simon Brett, M. C. Beaton

Yrsa Sigurdardottir (Iceland)

If you're a fan of Scandinavian crime fiction, you probably like them dark. Probably, indeed, a bit darker than I do. I'm an instant coffee girl, with milk and two sugars - no long blacks for me. But there are some Scandi authors I enjoy, and Yrsa Sigurdardottir is one of them. Her main character is a lawyer, Thora Gudmundsdottir, who finds herself investigating some deeply unusual crimes. Her first novel, Last Rituals, involves cases of witchcraft, and she also investigates bodies discovered in houses buried under volcanic ash, and strange disappearances in Greenland that may or may not be connected with some dark secret from the settlement's past. If you're after puzzling plots with a difference, this is the series to read. Unlike some Scandinavian detectives, Thora is a very likeable person, with a nice sarcastic sense of humour, but the froth sits on top of a real strong brew. Be aware, when searching for this author in the library database, type "Yrsa Sigurdardottir" in the order it's written, not backwards - Icelandic surnames are actually based on the first names of their fathers, so we don't reverse them. Strange but true.

Also try: Camilla Lackberg, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Fred Vargas

Gregg Hurwitz (USA)

This is the guy to read if you like something a bit pacier, usually involving regular guys in dangerous situations. He's been compared with Linwood Barclay and Harlan Coben, and I thought You're Next in particular was as good as anything either has written. Each are stand-alones, so they're great for someone wanting to dip into a crime thriller, but without having to worry which one you pick up. The pasts of the characters are gradually revealed as you go through the books, and there are twists and turns galore. In this one, Mike Wingate doesn't know many details of his childhood, or anything about his parents, but that's about to change. Something in their past has been dredged up, and someone's out to kill him and destroy his family. Once you read this one, you'll want to read the rest of his books! Just be careful - like many authors, he's published on both sides of the Atlantic under different titles. Make sure you're not reading the same book twice by reading the blurb, and checking whether an alternative title is listed. (Louise Penny's books also have this problem sometimes.)

Also try: Meg Gardiner, Jeff Abbott, Rick Mofina, C. J. Box

Christopher Brookmyre (Scotland)  

Yes, it's another author from Scotland, although this time the books are actually set there as well. Christopher Brookmyre (now writing as Chris) is renowned for his extremely violent, extremely funny thrillers, especially the Jack Parlabane series. While I adored most of those, I am also enjoying his new, more standard, detective procedural series set in Glasgow. This time the main characters are two strong women, and Brookmyre writes from their perspective very well. One is a policewoman, the other a "resting" actress who's forced to become a private investigator, finding corruption and cover-ups on both sides of the thin blue line. Where the Bodies Are Buried is the first, soon to be followed by When the Devil Drives. If you were a fan of Ian Rankin, you should enjoy these. Despite Brookmyre's previous oeuvre, they're not gorefests or over-the-top comedies, and not nearly as dark as those by fellow Scot Stuart MacBride. (Read those if you dare!) But if you do want belly laughs - and you have a very broad sense of humour - go back and read Quite Ugly One Morning. A satirical classic!

Also try: Carl Hiaasen, Alex Gray, Quintin Jardine

Jim Kelly (England)

Two series to choose from here too - the first is the Philip Dryden series, set in the Cambridgeshire Fens. Dryden is a journalist (as Kelly was), who investigates mysteries from the past that have spilled into the present, with the aid of his obese taxi driver, Humph. They're atmospheric, with the murk and gloom of the Fens themselves, but with a quirky humour. Dryden lives on a houseboat, as he has ever since his wife was put in a coma in a car accident, from which he escaped. He suffers terrible guilt, and regularly visits her in hospital. He often eats pies he finds in his pockets. Humph never gets out of his taxi, but is learning a new language on audio tape in each book. There is little humour in the other Kelly series, starring Norfolk detectives Shaw and Valentine, but the stories are better. If you like strong characterisations, and realistic English settings, I recommend these. Valentine was a colleague of Shaw's father's, but both were demoted in disgrace. He is now working for Shaw junior, and the relationship between the pair is an interesting one - half father/son, half distrustful. What happened during that past case is not made clear until book three, and develops during the series. The first books are The Water Clock and Death Wore White.

Also try: Michael Robotham, Jane Casey, Belinda Bauer

Andrea Camilleri (Italy)   

People who love reading about Italy, regardless of whether they like crime or not, should try the Inspector Montalbano series. Although, to be sure, they're not set in Italy at all - Montalbano is a Sicilian, head of a little police force in the fictional Vigata. There is more than a touch of the screwball in his antics - he is probably in the Italian dictionary as the definition of "loose cannon" - but the mysteries involve serious issues, giving a really strong flavour of modern Sicily. The mafia make frequent appearances, as do human traffickers and refugees, doting mammas and inept or corrupt officials. And of course, the local food. Montalbano's long-suffering staff put up with his mercurial childishness because he is, quite simply, a genius at putting two and two together, and ultimately a very humane man. Strange dreams and intuition have as much to do as traditional policing. Justice - whatever that means - is always served, amid Montalbano's musings on his own ageing, and Catarella's bumbling malapropisms. And the dialogue is fantastic. Camilleri is a national treasure in Italy, and is equally big in Germany. He deserves to be better known here. Book one is The Shape of Water.

Also try: Shamini Flint, Reginald Hill, Martin Walker

Anna Dean (England)

History time! I found it so hard to narrow down my choice of historical crime authors to two, because the range of period and place (and quality) is just as huge as that of contemporary crime. So I've chosen authors that may not be well known. Anna Dean sets her mysteries in the Regency period, writing very much in the style of Jane Austen. To the point, sometimes, where I can pick out exact quotes from Jane Austen's novels - very irritating for an Austen fan!! However, there's not all the rather Mills and Boon romance or silliness you often find in novels of this period. Instead, they are rather gentle mysteries of the country house type, just as you might expect Jane Austen herself to have solved, if she were a bit of a busy-body. Miss Dido Kent is a spinsterish woman who fears her marriageable days are gone, but makes herself useful solving the mysteries that occur wherever she goes. There is a bit of romance in her future, but nothing beyond the bounds of decorum. Dido has a quiet wit and a strong curiosity, and the sense of period is very good. The books get better as they go on, too - and a new one is coming out this year! Sit back with a cup of tea and enjoy number one, A Moment of Silence (aka Bellfield Hall).

Also try: Imogen Robertson, Roz Southey, Tasha Alexander      

Lisa Lutz (USA)

Female readers who like off-beat American tales, here's one for you. The Spellman Files series should appeal to fans of Janet Evanovich, but without the sizzle - and while often silly, they're not quite as surreal! The Spellmans are a deeply dysfunctional family of private detectives living in San Francisco. Mom and Dad are more into their work than they should be, pesky teenager Rae doesn't know the meaning of "boundaries", rebel Isabel is in dire need of therapy after her bizarre upbringing, and older brother David is perfect. Or is he? The family think nothing of tapping each other's conversations or bribing family members for dirt on the others - even when they're investigating cases. Every chapter is in the form of a case file or a dossier, which adds to the fun. Some valuable lessons are learnt as well, putting the series a cut above the average "chick-lit". The titles are all confusingly similar, but start with The Spellman Files.   

Also try: K. J. LarsenKate White, Sue Ann Jaffarian

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