J. Kingston Pierce is the overworked editor of both The Rap Sheet and Killer Covers, the senior editor of January Magazine, and the lead crime-fiction blogger for Kirkus Reviews.
• Children of the Revolution, by Peter Robinson (Morrow):
Robinson’s 21st novel starring Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks (last seen in Watching the Dark) was among the 16 books chosen by Kirkus Reviews critics as the best mysteries and thrillers of 2014. I agree. It starts off with a dead, 59-year-old ex-college lecturer, Gavin Miller, being discovered along a disused length of railway track. We soon learn that Miller hadn’t been doing well for several years, ever since he was dismissed for alleged sexual misconduct with female students. He’d become something of a hermit, drinking himself into forgetfulness. So how did such a loser come to have £5,000 in his pocket? That’s what Banks wants to know, and it will take more than a little rummaging around in Miller’s troubled past to find out. Banks eventually determines that Miller’s murder is connected to events from four decades ago--the days
when this future professor was another “young, naïve, privileged intellectual” caught up in political protests and friendly with a woman who has since become a top romance writer, related to a man who’s in line to serve as England’s next home secretary. By the time Banks’ higher-ups start feeling queasy about where this case might be headed, and tell him to put the brakes on, he’s too invested in the outcome to comply. Beyond delivering a compelling story, Robinson does a nice job here of showing how Banks’ subordinates, particularly Detective Sergeant Winsome Jackman, have learned from his rather unconventional but determined example as an investigator.
• Darkness, Darkness, by John Harvey (Pegasus):
Introduced in Harvey’s 1989 novel, Lonely Hearts, Charlie Resnick--a Polish-descended, jazz-loving, and stalwart police detective in Nottingham, England--has since seen fictitious service in a dozen sequels as well as one collection of short stories (Now’s the Time, 1999). The redundantly titled Darkness, Darkness supposedly marks Resnick’s last appearance, though we’ve heard such claims before. In these pages we see Harvey’s man retired but still working for the Nottingham force as
a civilian advisor. When young Kenyan-born Inspector Catherine Njoroge is served up the case of a woman, Jenny Hardwick, who disappeared during the bitter UK coal miners’ strike of the mid-1980s (and whose skeleton has only just resurfaced), she turns to Resnick for assistance. He, after all, had a hand in police surveillance during that work stoppage and might shed some light on the deceased’s fate. With skills acquired after many years of penning police procedurals, Harvey weaves together Hardwick’s experiences, the story of the long-ago strike--which created fissures between friends and divided whole families--and a secondary plot line about Njoroge’s souring association with an abusive ex-lover to produce a novel that, if it does offer Resnick’s final bow, tops off that series most pleasingly.
• The Devil in the Marshalsea,
by Antonia Hodgson (Mariner):
This debut historical novel from Antonia Hodgson, the editor in chief of publisher Little, Brown UK, won the Endeavour Historical Dagger from the British Crime Writers’ Association and found a spot on Publishers Weekly’s
list of favorite mystery and thriller novels from 2014. It deserves those and other accolades. The story builds around Tom Hawkins, an almost professional good-for-nothing in 18th-century London. Finally convicted for failure to pay
his debts, Hawkins is tossed unceremoniously into Marshalsea prison, a much-feared institution in Southwark, a district distinguished at the time by its disgraceful pleasures: “bear fights and cock fights; theatre and gambling; acrobats and fortune tellers; cheap beer and even cheaper Flemish whores.” He winds up bunking with one Samuel Fleet, a thoroughly eccentric gent--viewed by many in the gaol as the devil incarnate--who may or may not have slain his previous roomie. Not surprisingly, Hawkins wants out of this nightmare post haste. But his only hope of early liberation might be to solve the recent
murder of a previous Marshalsea inmate, Captain John Roberts, whose comely wife has been pushing for an investigation into his demise, and whose ghost has allegedly taken to roaming the prison grounds. Hodgson is unsparing in her evocation of Georgian-era penitentiary life, complete with whippings, cruel restraining devices (at one point, Hawkins finds his head locked into a metal skull cap and the rest of him chained in a rat-infested chamber), and an unusual in-house economy that allows better-off jailbirds to enjoy treats such as taverns and coffeehouses. A sequel, The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins, is due out in the UK next July.
• An Officer and a Spy,
by Robert Harris (Knopf):
Twenty-four years after France’s crushing defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, the 1895 conviction of Alfred Dreyfus, an obscure French artillery officer of Jewish descent, on charges of feeding military secrets to the German Empire became an international outrage and an opportunity for French intelligence officials to get back at their nation’s old adversary. However, the Dreyfus case may be less straightforward than it appears. Not long after Colonel Georges Picquart, one of Dreyfus’ teachers, reluctantly accepts a promotion to lead the French military’s Statistical Section--which had been instrumental in gathering the feeble evidence used to exile Dreyfus to Devil’ Island in French Guiana--he becomes convinced that another highly placed turncoat was actually behind those treasonous endeavors (“[H]ow easily I am slipping into the clichés of the spying world …,” he muses early on. “Already I trust no one”). Picquart’s superiors want him to curtail his probing, but the colonel--an ambitious gent who, despite his cool demeanor, is something of a
ladies’ man--won’t give up so easily, his persistence eventually landing him in an African purgatory from which he must escape if he’s ever to act as whistle-blower in the Dreyfus affair. This is not the first novel to tackle the Dreyfus case; Michael Hardwick’s Prisoner of the Devil (1979), a lackluster work in which Sherlock Holmes sticks his nose into the scandal (at Queen Victoria’s behest, no less) covered much of the same ground. But An Officer and Spy, though slow-paced
at times, is a much more engaging take on one of history’s most notorious subversions of justice.
• Sundance, by David Fuller (Riverhead):
Finally, let me diverge from the theme to take in a work of speculative historical/Western fiction. Although we’ve been told that Harry Longabaugh, aka the Sundance Kid, perished during a November 1908 shootout in Bolivia, accompanied by fellow outlaw Butch Cassidy, David Fuller imagines an alternative scenario. As Sundance opens, we see Longabaugh--or Longbaugh, as this author prefers to spell it--being released from a Wyoming prison, where he’d spent 12 years under an assumed name, for a crime unrelated to bank or train robbing. 1913 presents the Kid with a vastly different world from the one he’d known during his misspent youth (he’d now be in his mid-40s), but he hasn’t lost his determination to reunite with wife Etta Place, who’d stayed in contact with him through most of his incarceration, but has now disappeared into the concrete wilds of New York City. Following clue after vague clue (might he be reading too much into the signs Etta allegedly left behind?), Longbaugh cuts a fascinating, dangerous path through Manhattan, encountering old friends and new foes as he struggles to find his beloved, hoping time hasn’t sapped her desire for his company. The end of Sundance is a bit too neat, but given how things might have turned out, it’s also satisfying as hell. This is David Fuller’s second novel, following 2008’s Sweetsmoke, and if I enjoy that one as much as I did Sundance, you can be I’ll be hoping for more from this author.
Let me draw attention, too, to three non-fiction books I was fond of this year, and that other crime-fiction fans should also enjoy:
• The Art of Robert E. McGinnis, by Robert E. McGinnis and Art Scott (Titan): A beautifully illustrated overview of McGinnis’
60-year career, during which he painted the covers for myriad paperback works by Erle Stanley Gardner, John D. MacDonald, Carter Brown, and others. Read more about this volume here and here.
• Goodis: A Life in Black and White, by Philippe Garnier (Black Pool): Although it was published in France way back in 1984, this book about David Goodis, one of the 20th century’s finest authors of paperback thriller fiction (his 1946 novel, Dark Passage, became a film noir classic) was unavailable in English until now. Learn more here.
• Roy Huggins: Creator of Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, The Fugitive and The Rockford Files, by Paul Green (McFarland): Huggins’ sometimes
controversial, usually successful life as an author and developer of TV shows is explored in great depth here, though anyone who knows Huggins’ career well is sure to be frustrated by not having all of their questions about his work answered.