Crime fiction makes the world go round. It keeps publishing buoyant and gives us all something to watch on Sunday nights. We love detectives, we love suspicious death (purely fictional, of course) and there is hardly a greater pleasure in the world than wrapping yourself in a good murder mystery.
There’s something very special about the intimacy between story and reader, or crime drama and viewer, which is why so many detectives have made the transition from book to screen – Morse, DCI Banks, Vera, Poirot, Miss Marple.
They solve puzzles, they tweak the nerves of communities sundered by murder. What’s not to love?
Maybe there’s a future Sunday staple in the shortlist for the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year award. I’m on the judging panel, but now it’s over to you to add your vote before the winner is announced later this month. I think Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy with its troubled cop, Fin Macleod, could stroll, fully formed, onto BBC1. While down-to-earth forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway is just made for ITV.
See what you think. Happy reading.
Elly Griffiths’ Dying Fall
If you have a clever heroine but don’t want your audience to be too alienated by her intellect, then make her a little bit overweight. Even better, give her a cute daughter, the result of an unwise one-night stand with a married policeman. Elly Griffiths’s amiable central character, Ruth Galloway, likes cake and occasionally gets a bit breathless as she uses her talents as a crack forensic archaeologist to solve murders.
She’s a comfortable creation, the pivot of a series of novels that at least gets away from standard maverick-cop-chases-serial-killer territory. In Dying Fall, Ruth, her sweet daughter Kate and their wacky, caring Druid friend Cathbad, decamp from Norfolk to Lancashire after Ruth receives an enigmatic email from an old university pal. He’s found a skeleton during an archaeological dig. But something’s worrying him and he wants Ruth’s advice. Unsurprisingly, the friend dies horribly before he can share his fears.
For fans of… Silent Witness
Malcolm Mackay’s The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter
I don’t go in for hard-boiled gangland crime fiction, apart from a brief Raymond Chandler flirtation in my teenage years, but this clipped, chilly novel is an admirable essay on the nature and mechanics of murder-to-order.
The staccato style can be trying, but it’s a style as coldly clinical as the hit that freelance professional killer Calum MacLean carries out. He is hired to bump off small-time Glasgow drug dealer Lewis Winter, a shambolic and pathetic figure routinely humiliated by his grasping, much younger girlfriend, Zara.
Despite its taut, flinty deliberation, Mackay still manages to put soft flesh on his characters, particularly the unfortunate, doomed Lewis Winter, a sap who is way over his head in a dirty and unforgiving business. Zara, too, leaps from the page as an ill-used but thoroughly pragmatic young woman who seizes every chance life throws her, however grubby.
For fans of… Luther
Denise Mina’s The Red Road
Mina, whose book The Field of Blood was adapted for BBC1, has won the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year award for the past two years (with Alex Morrow novels Gods and Beasts and The End of the Wasp Season). Her Glasgow detective heroine, Morrow, returns in The Red Road, another sticky-palmed encounter with the city’s reeking underbelly. You can almost feel the greasy walls and the slimy cobbles of its byways, slick with blood and fetid with murder.
On the night of Princess Diana’s death in Paris in 1997, Rose, a terrified 14-year-old, lonely and adrift in the care system after being abandoned by her alcoholic mother, kills a man who’s pimped her out for sex with strangers.
Mina paints an overwhelmingly powerful picture of child abuse and the legacy that blights the lives of its victims for ever. Rose is brilliantly drawn – she’s vulnerable but not pathetic, bubbling with rage yet desperate for someone, anyone, to love her.
For fans of… Happy Valley, The Vice
Stav Sherez’s Eleven Days
It’s 11 days before Christmas and a fire in a west London convent kills ten nuns and one other, unidentified person who died a terrible, fiery death locked in a confessional. The nuns, it seemed, were curiously supine and made no attempt to escape their fate, dying where they sat, around the dining table in a locked room.
It’s a case for chalk-and-cheese detectives DI Jack Carrigan and DS Geneva Miller, a classic cop pairing – he’s quite moody and introspective as he nurses a Terrible Personal Pain; she’s a free thinker who isn’t afraid to go out on a limb and she listens to her iPod a lot. Unfortunately, they both suffer the dead hand of jobsworth bosses who want to get the job done as quickly as possible.
Eleven Days strikes out into some very odd territory but Sherez is a massively confident writer who isn’t afraid to do that Dan Brown thing of having a cliffhanger at the end of every single chapter.
For fans of… Absolutely any TV drama with a chalk-and-cheese cop duo
Peter May’s The Chessmen
It’s a Scotland-heavy, “Tartan-noir” shortlist, you’ll have gathered, but instead of the oppressive urban hellholes lurking in Glasgow, Peter May takes us to the eerie emptiness of the Outer Hebrides and the Isle of Lewis for the final volume in his brilliant, bleak Lewis Trilogy. (If you haven’t read the first two instalments, The Blackhouse and The Lewis Man, then please, please do. They will tear out your heart.)
I love anything about closed-in communities with dark secrets, and May masterfully mines big, rich seams of historical enmities and decades-old pain. Ex-cop Fin Macleod is back on Lewis, where he’s hired to catch poachers on a huge estate. The most active and accomplished poacher of all is an old friend, Whistler Macaskill, and the two share a wounded past. Everyone has secrets, many of them nursed and nurtured over a long, long time.
May is exquisitely good at unpicking his characters’ souls as he pulls you straight on to Lewis’s empty moors beneath lowering skies.
For fans of… Line of Duty
Belinda Bauer’s Rubbernecker
Belinda Bauer is an extraordinary writer with a remarkable ability to burrow into the minds of children and young people. She knows their thoughts and feelings and conveys both with an articulacy and an ear for profound emotional resonance. She’s funny, too – her books (Blacklands, Darkside, Finders Keepers, The Facts of Life and Death) shimmer with humour. And she plots with Kate Atkinson levels of assurance.
Her psychological thriller Rubbernecker is constantly surprising and once again Bauer listens to someone who isn’t used to being listened to. He’s Patrick, a medical student with Asperger’s syndrome. He’s literal, hates disorder, is remorselessly logical and has no social filter.
Patrick is fascinated by death – his father was killed by a hit-and-run driver right in front of him when Patrick was just a child – and he latches on to a mystery in his university dissection room.
For fans of… Waking the Dead