New(ish) Crime Writers, part 1.

by Harry on July 17, 2015

Ruth Rendell died in May. I never exactly loved the Wexford novels (I did love George Baker as Wexford on TV, though), but her non-Wexford novels were great, especially the mature Barbara Vines. I stopped reading her altogether in the late 1990s, only on the very sensible grounds that at some point I would have a lot of her novels to read (I started devouring them about 8 months ago, co-incidentally). She is the last to die of what I thought of as the post-Julian Symons triumvirate of great English crime writers—her, PD James, and Reginald Hill.

But in the past few years I’ve been discovering a host of fantastic successors to recommend to you [1]. Here’s the first.

William Shaw. Of my candidates, Shaw is the one you are most likely to have missed. I can’t even remember how I came across the first book She’s Leaving Home (UK title, inferior in my opinion: A Song from Dead Lips ). It is the first in a projected trilogy all set within a few weeks at the end of 1967 and beginning of 1968; focused on an Irish-English cop in his thirties with a female side kick (or, as my son sometimes confusedly calls it, ‘kick-butt’ about 10 years his junior. I just finished the second, The Kings of London (inferior UK title: A House of Knives ) and already find it hard to believe that Shaw will stop at three. Prerequisites for qualifying as a successor to the triumvirate are tight plots that, while complex, do not strain credibility too much, good characterisation, and fluent prose. Shaw does all that. But he also creates the feel of a world which is changing rapidly in ways that some of the protagonists only dimly understand: he is early-Mad-Men-like in his insistence on period detail. And Mad Men-like, for that matter, in both his portrayal of the casual sexism of the time, and of the interesting women who are the recipients of it. It takes a while—quite a while—to get used to his sparse, depressive, prose, but that is a key part of the immersive experience of reading the novels. As I’ve indicated, the first two books both have different titles in the US than in the UK (incredibly annoying!!) and for what it is worth, better the US titles are better (in fact, about half way through the first I wondered why it was not called “She’s Leaving Home”—and then found that, indeed, that was the US title). So be warned if you are buying—only buy each one, once.

An aside: also well worth reading is his other book, Spying in Guru Land: Inside Britain’s Cults, in which he does numerous things that no IRB would approve, is a very balanced assessment of cult life, and is genuinely illuminating about the Waco massacre.

[1] Warning: as will become clear later on, not all of these successors are English, I’m including Scots and Irish, and will include Welsh if anyone can either recommend a good Welsh one, or convince me that one of my candidates is, in fact, Welsh.

{ 41 comments }

1

MPAVictoria 07.17.15 at 5:23 pm

I have very much enjoyed JK Rowling’s dive into crime novels under the Pen Name Robert Galbraith. Her prose is sharp, her characters flawed but interesting and the mystery is believable enough. Give it a shot.
:-)

2

Lynne 07.17.15 at 6:35 pm

Hey, if we’re recommending mystery writers, I have to put in a good word for Gail Bowen. I’ve been reading her books for twenty years. They are set in Saskatchewan and the protagonist, Joanne Kilbourn, is a political science professor. In the early novels Joanne is a widow with children and I love how Bowen anchors the story in the day-to-day minutiae of living with children, while dealing with crime and bad guys.

I also read John Sandford, who is more thriller than mystery writer, I guess. I pace myself with him because of occasional hints of misogyny, but he brings his characters to vivid life and his dialogue and pacing are great.

3

Trader Joe 07.17.15 at 7:08 pm

I would recommend:

Jim Kelly who has two different protagonist/detectives one series is Philip Dryden who investigates as a journalist and the other is Shaw, who investigates as a cop…I like the Dryden better since being an ‘outsider’ crime solver creates a bit of additional plot complexity in solving things, but both are very good. All of his plot lines involve the North East coast of Englan.

Ian Rankin is also commendable – and while I like his detective (Rebus) I find the stories a bit more hit and miss (there are loads of them though).

4

Phil 07.17.15 at 7:59 pm

I find Boris Akunin very readable, and much more engaging on the character level than the rather arch setup of the Fandorin series* would make you expect; either he’s a storyteller despite himself or he’s good at selling the literary sizzle.

*Russian über-Sherlock in series of novels set in immediately pre-revolutionary period and written in different styles

5

Bloix 07.17.15 at 8:27 pm

Harry, I will give Shaw a read – I haven’t been very happy with mystery heroes in years, and I look forward to trying a new one.
For a different sort of light read, you might like Nick Hornby’s new novel Funny Girl, which is set in early ’60’s Blackpool and London and to my admittedly ignorant mind has a strong and believable sense of place and time.

6

harry b 07.17.15 at 9:40 pm

MPAV — I’m on top of Rowling — my daughter and I are eagerly awaiting the third one!

http://crookedtimber.org/2013/08/27/j-k-rowling-for-grown-ups/

Others- suggest away! I’ll follow up with additional suggestions in a week or two.

7

Alan White 07.17.15 at 10:18 pm

Harry–was the title She’s Leaving Home taken from the Sgt Pepper cut? Just curious.

Thanks for the recs; we have a faculty/friend reading group (together over a dozen years!) and are always looking for a good read. Our last, discussed over dinner and wine (of course) just last Monday was The Whites, which was a good twisty crime novel.

8

Bruce Baugh 07.18.15 at 1:20 am

He’s certainly not newish in any meaningful sense anymore, but I’m really fond of Michael Connelly’s books. A Darkness More Than Night, one of the Harry Bosch novels, remains one of the few crime stories I’ve seen take up how the post-9/11 security apparatus messes with actual law enforcement.

9

grackle 07.18.15 at 2:16 am

I’ve just started reading J aquiline Winspeare’s Maisie Dobbs books which seem very promising. Mystery plus World War I and it’s aftermath in London.

10

grackle 07.18.15 at 2:17 am

Make that Jacqueline Winspear

11

dr ngo 07.18.15 at 3:43 am

For a Welsh (presumably) mystery writer, there’s always Malcolm Pryce, author of Last Tango in Aberystwyth and other Aberystwythian titles.

12

Philip 07.18.15 at 8:42 am

Trader Joe, I just had a look at the Jim Kelly books and they are set in East Anglia not the Northeast, I will still try to get round to reading one.

13

Agog 07.18.15 at 9:12 am

Outraged Cornish Nationalist: “Hey! Dismiss us too!”

14

Barry Freed 07.18.15 at 10:52 am

Ross Thomas is not new in the least and American to boot but IMO one of the greatest yet sadly forgotten and neglected crime writers of the 20th century.

15

Elizabeth 07.18.15 at 12:02 pm

I cannot rrecommend highly enough Harry Bingham’s wonderful Fiona Griffiths series. Well-written and quirky. Authentically Welsh.

16

Layman 07.18.15 at 1:19 pm

Benjamin Black’s (aka John Bannville) Quirke books are very good, as is his most recent take on Phillip Marlowe.

17

Peter Hovde 07.18.15 at 1:49 pm

On the Irish side, I’ll put in a plug for Tana French-I found both “The Woods” and “The Likeness” quite good.

18

mrearl 07.18.15 at 8:42 pm

Absolutely yes on the late Ross Thomas. Characters like Artie Wu and That Fucking Durant, Otherguy Overby, Boy Howdy, and the entire cast of The Fourth Durango are not to be missed.

19

harry b 07.18.15 at 9:14 pm

Benjamin Black is coming up, don’t worry — a favourite in my house.

20

steven johnson 07.18.15 at 10:12 pm

Yes, P.D. James, Ruth Rendell and Reginald Hill are a commanding set of figures. But a ruling triumvirate? Michael Dibdin, H.R.F. Keating and Robert Barnard are an impressive set who also survived Symons for a time. And they need to potential successors too. We could have a triumvirate of Peters? Peter Dickinson, Peter Lovesey and Peter Robinson, that is. And of course, women have always been highly competitive in the mystery field. Minette Walters, Denise Mina and Mo Hayder, perhaps?

21

Bill Murray 07.19.15 at 7:31 am

I would add in

Lisa Lutz’ Spellman Files books

Cara Black’s Aimee LeDuc books

Christopher Fowler’s Peculiar Crimes Unit books

For more Urban Fantasy/Mystery

Laura Resnick’s Esther Diamond books

Ben Aaronovitch’s River’s of London Series

Anton Strout’s Dead series

These are all series with at least 3 books and started within the last 10-15 years, which I’m going to count as new(ish), most strive for some to quite a bit of humor or at least good snark

22

Phil 07.19.15 at 8:15 am

Malcolm Pryce’s books are set in a semi-jokey alt-Wales. I went mad for them at one time & then lost the taste equally rapidly. If you like Jasper Fforde you’ll probably find them a bit tame, but if you’re coming straight from Rendell or James you might be a bit thrown.

Turning this round, has anyone read Ian Sansom’s Golden Age homages/pastiches? I’m running out of unread Nicholas Blakes…

23

chris y 07.19.15 at 12:10 pm

Chris Brookmyre’s more or less straight crime novels (as opposed to the early, funny ones by Christopher Brookmyre) are worth a shot, and decidedly Scottish. Also endorsing Tana French. I’m not sure Robert Galbraith can be spoken of in the same breath as Rendell, James or Hill, but they’re quite good – better written than HP anyway.

Does anybody have a take on Chris Ewan? I though the first couple of Good Thief’s Guides were excellent and I definitely recommend them, but the later ones have seemed patchier.

24

harry b 07.19.15 at 6:04 pm

Tana French is also on the list — she’ll be coming soon. Surprised no-one has mentioned Kate Atkinson yet, on whom more soon also. For some reason I can’t get into the Peculiar Crimes Unit books — whereas I can’t get enough of the Rivers of London.

I’m doing with Nicholas Blake what I did with Rendell — saving them for a guaranteed joy on a long rainy day.

25

Neil 07.20.15 at 12:29 am

Kate Atkinson’s Brodie novels are excellent, but the more recent books are even better.

26

Alan White 07.20.15 at 1:59 am

Strong second on Tana French. I think I’ve read every Peter Dickinson.

27

Helen 07.20.15 at 2:09 am

Although I’m a great devotee of the scary psychological thriller, I have to recomment Carl Hiassen. His crime novels are unusual in that they will have you crying with laughter.

28

TheSophist 07.20.15 at 4:27 am

Philip Kerr, anyone? Doesn’t count as newish, I suppose, but he’s only come back to Bernie Gunther fairly recently. The most recent, Lady from Zagreb, is set in mid-WWII Croatia, and is as traumatizing as you might expect. I saw him on his promo tour, and he was polite, interesting, and lots of fun.

Also (OT) just saw Mark Knopfler in Cologne a couple of weeks ago. Just as awesome as one might expect. Here’s the encore:

29

Meredith 07.20.15 at 5:09 am

Ruth Rendell. Yes. In any of her incarnations. Thank your for the William Shaw recommendation.
I have a few Rex Stouts (Nero Wolfes) that I haven’t read yet (all via my mother)– saving them for some mythical day of retired ease and serenity.
Hell, at this point I could re-read nearly everyone and it would be as if for the first time. Maybe there lies the beginning of retired ease and serenity?

30

Trader Joe 07.20.15 at 11:25 am

@12 Phillip
You’re of course correct, East Anglia is the setting for Jim Kelly – I called it North East in context of its direction from London, without pausing to think that description meant something different to those with local knowledge, my error.

Peculiar Crimes Unit (Fowler) – I enjoy these as the plots tend to be quite clever and the books are a bit more lighthearted than many of the ‘darker’ writers. My difficulty with them is that the plot turn tends to revolve around some particular tidbit of arcana that exceedingly few people might know which makes it all but impossible for the reader to solve the mystery along side of the detectives. Indeed in a lot of stories the bad guy gets his own chapters so you know what he’s thinking, which has the effect of sometimes robbing the big ‘whodunit’ reveal.

The two detectives and the ensemble cast are pretty delightfully funny though.

31

Teachable Mo' 07.20.15 at 12:52 pm

Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun books.

I’ve come to rely on The Soho Press writers. The ones I’ve read have all been good, and their stylized packaging means I can find them on the bookstore shelves by their spines. Like the old Penguin books. I know my wife likes the Cara Black books. (Also published by The Soho Press.) And seconds the Maisie Dobbs books by Jacqueline Winspear. (Not published by The Soho Press.)

Back in the late 70s and early 80s, my wife also read lots of Simenon which I avoided for some reason. I suspect that at my rate of reading I’ll still have new Maigret titles waiting until dementia makes reading moot.

32

Philip 07.20.15 at 3:40 pm

Trader Joe, I did get a bit excited for a minute as my dad was a policemen in the Northeast. There is a BBC adaptation of Inspector George Gently books where the books are set in the Northeast and the books are Norfolk. I’ve only seen a few and they seem okay but not great and mainly enjoyable for the period (60s) and local details. there’s also an ITV production called Vera, I saw the first one but the accents and details were a bit off so I didn’t persist. Of course the iconic film for Northeast crime is Get Carter.

33

Peter Hovde 07.20.15 at 10:21 pm

Re-read “Midnight Fugue” yesterday-had me tearing up. James got me there with “Devices and Desires.”

34

David Irving (no relation) 07.21.15 at 4:08 am

PM Newton’s “The Old School” is pretty good. (Australian.)

35

Bloix 07.21.15 at 6:29 pm

#7 – yes. Beatles fandom plays a role.
Thanks for recommendation, Harry. I’m enjoying it very much. And it’s got all the makings for a nice BBC mystery series.

36

harry b 07.21.15 at 9:55 pm

For the Northeast — David Mark, also on my list. Bloodthirsty, and odd, but great.

37

harry b 07.21.15 at 9:55 pm

Hull, btw.

38

Alan White 07.23.15 at 2:32 am

Thank you Bloix.

39

hylen 07.23.15 at 3:42 am

Yes on Reginald Hill and Ross Thomas. And on Peters Dickinson and Lovesey.

40

DavidMoz 07.23.15 at 4:19 am

If we’re expanding beyond the UK, then South African born Peter Temple, now living in Australia, is a writer of power and beauty, in the crime genre.

41

Philip 07.23.15 at 7:28 am

Also for Yorkshire there is David Peace. I didn’t readthe red riding quartet but the TV version was good. GB84, focusing on the miner’s strike is good as are the first two books of the Tokyo trilogy. His style is very repetitive and difficult to get into but I found them definitely worth sticking with.

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