While I usually devote my energies to indie crime novels listed with my favorite book club, Book Club Reading List, from time to time I’ll offer some mini-reviews and impressions of recent bestsellers. These mega million bestsellers don’t really need any more press from the likes of me, they receive more than enough as it is – making it difficult for equally deserving crime novels on the fringes to get noticed. And they tend to follow the winds of fashion, which are not known for their taste and judgement.
I’ve just finished the hugely popular Girl on a Train, which – with tedious predictability – has been compared to the blockbuster of several years ago, Gone Girl. I read Gone Girl in two days and really wished I hadn’t bothered. While I found it wickedly clever and stylishly written, it left me feeling completely empty at the end – and even feeling I needed to take a bath. This is slick, escapist entertainment at its most hyped – empty, shallow and pointless. But there is a huge market out there for just such a book, alas alas and alas. Girl on a Train, I’m afraid, is much the same, at least in my opinion – even though several of my friends raved about it. Yes, it has Hitchcockian echoes as a young woman riding on a train sees an incident in a backyard as she passes which may or may not offer clues to the solution of a murder. The book contains three unreliable and very unlikeable female narrators, their stories all intertwined, but I found the experience of immersing myself in their sordidness endlessly tedious, and the wicked cleverness of the plot ultimately pointless and unfulfilling. I hate to be so harsh, but when there are so many far more worthy crime novels out there of real depth and substance which cannot manage the hysteria (and money) generated by books such as the two above, it is frustrating in the extreme for a reviewer and aspiring crime novelist such as myself.
I give both books three stars only: ★ ★ ★
Despite this reading experience, I continue to feel obligated to punish myself by reading these blockbusters – just to keep abreast of fashion. I’ve now just started another in the same mode, The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson. I’m happy to say that so far at least it appears to be a cut above the other two. It is also being compared to Gone Girl and described as ‘devilishly clever’ and ‘Hitchcockian,’ the standard cliches of marketing hype. Let’s see if it rises above the din.
Having indulged myself in that rant, here are three superb crime novels that I feel are truly worth the hype – except that there is no hype, only qualified and highly intelligent praise. None of these three have sold in the millions or are they likely to. Yet they amply reward a discerning reader’s patience, the kind of reader looking for substance and depth in a crime novel and an insightful look into society’s dilemmas and conundrums. These are books with genuine humanity and culture behind them.
The first is Burial Rites by Australian author, Hannah Kent. It examines in harrowing detail the final months of an Icelandic maid, Agnes Magnusdottir, condemned to death by execution in 1829 for her alleged part in a brutal dual murder. This is based on actual historical events, as Agnes Magnusdottir was the last person to be executed in Iceland. While we already know the final outcome for the central figure, the story Hannah Kent weaves around this enigmatic figure is mesmerizing. We are taken so deeply into an alien misogynistic culture of poverty, oppression and religious superstition, very much male dominated. We discover what little chance a poor, orphaned indentured female servant could have in such a culture controlled by blind and powerful men. Hannah Kent has given her protagonist a stirring voice of courage and independance , and the subsequent exploration of her true guilt or innocence is riveting and profound. Well worth the investment in time and emotional commitment.
Five Stars without a doubt. ★ ★ ★ ★
My second choice for comment is a work by one of my very favorite crime novelists, Val McDemrid and it is her latest, Skeleton Road. This is an in-depth exploration of the brutal Yugoslav Wars of the 1990’s, seen through the plot device of a series of revenge killings. The protagonist is a woman academic, a specialist on the Balkans, whose husband, a former general in the Yugoslavian army, has gone missing for some nine years. Is it his skeleton investigators have discovered on the roof of an old building in Glasgow or is he in fact responsible for the spate of revenge killings of former war ciminals from the Balkans? Ms. McDermid gives us a deeply moving history lesson interspersed with the engrossing crime investigation itself, and the level of her writing is uniformly intelligent and highly cultured, with many cultural references that I dare say would fly over the heads of the average readers of Gone Girl or Girl on a Train. How many crime readers can handle discussions about Derrida or Foucault or complex political analyses devoid of stereotypes?At the heart of the book’s mystery is a horrendous war crime, the summary execution of some twenty children in a field in Croatia during the war. This is a thinking person’s crime novel that grapples with monumental crimes of social injustice and the complicity we all share in their perpetuation – simply by not caring enough about our own responsibilities as citizens. Val McDemrid never disappoints. I also appreciate her Lesbian sensibilities and the way she integrates Lesbian characters into her fiction, without directly turning her books into ‘gay novels’. Lesbian and gay characters are simply ‘there’, living out their lives in the same normal fashion as the rest of us.
A resounding five stars:★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Saving the best for last! Finally a mystery thriller worth all the hype – yet how often is that statement made, so as to become a cliche in itself. “Worth all the hype.” In this case, it’s Emma Healey’s 2014 Costa Book Award winning debut, Elizabeth is Missing. This was such a richly rewarding read, a journey into the complex mind of Maud, an 82 year old woman struggling with dementia while also trying to solve two intricate mysteries all on her own The first is the disappearance of her sister, Sukey, some 70 years earlier, a disappearance that shattered her family and left Maud haunted by memories ever since. Now that Maud’s memory is deteriorating, bits and pieces of the past come into greater clarity within her shattered mind, leading to a surprising resolution. The second mystery is the disappearance of Maud’s good friend, Elizabeth, but this turns out to be a mystery more easily resolved than the first. The two mysteries are intertwined and towards the end of the book, as Maud’s condition deteriorates further she has trouble keeping the two stores separate in her memory. Ms. Healy’s ability to capture the subtle shifts of a mind slowly unraveling is nothing short of astonishing. This is a carefully controlled and crafted work of true originality. A richly humane study of a shattered mind, this novel finally blurs the distinction between so called ‘serious fiction’ and mystery thrillers.
A true original and worth every one of it’s five stars:★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Coming up next:
The next book I’ll be reviewing in depth, chosen from Book Club Reading List, is Divine Intervention by Cheryl Kaye Tardif. This continues my series of book reviews examining crime novels that respectively incorporate spiritual and psychic dimensions into their plots. Goodness knows, we need more of those – to end on a rhyme:)