Crime at the year’s end

I very, very rarely read crime, of any persuasion; Golden Age or noir, Old World or New, it just tends not to draw me. Or so I thought. For some reason, this year, between about the 22nd and the 31st of December, crime was nearly all I wanted to read. (Perhaps this is because we discovered all twelve series of David Suchet’s Poirot are available on ITV’s new streaming service. Who can say?) Anyway, here’s what I made of it all.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles, by Agatha Christie (1916; pub. 1920): I hate to say this given it’s the novel that introduces the famous Hercule Poirot, but… largely forgettable. It’s a poisoning murder, set in a country house, with clues that include a false beard and a lethal dose of strychine. Poirot is brilliant from the start, but the other characters are quite forgettable (with the possible exception of Hastings, our narrator, whose voice is just daft and pompous enough to reveal his own self-delusions, and to showcase how much potential Christie had even at this early stage of her career).

Sparkling Cyanide, by Agatha Christie (1945): Much, much better all around. Another poisoning mystery—a young and beautiful woman, recently married, appears to commit suicide by drinking a cyanide-laced glass of champagne at a public party for her birthday; one year later, her husband, convinced that her death was murder, gets all the possible suspects together in the same venue, and promptly dies in the same way. Because the novel starts with a section in which each chapter is focalised through a different suspect, and because the novel starts well after the first death, it’s a more structurally exciting and sophisticated fiction, and the characterisation is much improved. It’s odd that the killer’s identity is, in many ways, very similar to the solution in Styles; the books were published twenty-five years apart. But that said, the solution here is more satisfying than in Styles, precisely because of that improved insight into character. A really good entry in the Christie canon.

The Norfolk Mystery, by Ian Sansom (2013): Sadly disappointing. The premise was very promising: shocked into near-nihilism by his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, ex-soldier Stephen Sefton takes a job as amanuensis to Professor Swanton Morley, a prolific autodidact who intends to write a guide to every county in England in under a decade. On their first jaunt, in Norfolk, the body of a local vicar is discovered hanging in his vestry, but Morley is convinced all is not as it appears… and he’s right. Or, well, actually, he’s wrong. Frustratingly [mild spoilers, I guess?], what originally appeared to be the case is in fact the case. It’s not quite a murder. We do figure out what happened, eventually, but the route of deduction is circuitous and greatly obstructed by Morley’s characterisation; Sansom was obviously aiming for a sort of lower-middle-class Sherlock Holmes figure, someone who knows a lot and spouts off about it endlessly, but most of Morley’s observations aren’t to the point the way that Sherlock’s are. Sefton, meanwhile, remains largely a cipher. It’s difficult to imagine what Sansom’s purpose in writing the book might have been. I won’t carry on with the series.

The Outsider, by Stephen King (2018): Half horror, half crime, this one, which is a subgenre I’m finding myself attracted to. Beloved Little League baseball coach Terry Maitland is accused of an appalling crime against a child. Forensic evidence and eyewitness testimony both put him at the scene; it was definitely him. But it can’t have been… because he was also captured on tape at a conference hundreds of miles away at the same time, on the same day. From this premise, King spins a story of a supernatural, superhuman predator out of legend, and brings together a band of misfits with skin in the game to catch the creature. Holly Gibney appears again in this book; I gather she featured in the Bill Hodges books (Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, and End of Watch), which, on the basis of The Outsider, I would happily read. Contemporary King has often misfired for me (couldn’t finish The Institute, for example), but this feels like some of his quintessential work.

The Lost Gallows, by John Dickson Carr (1931): My very first British Library Crime Classic, and an excellent choice! This one has a crackerjack premise: a wealthy man is apparently abducted, his car somehow driven around London by his unfortunate chauffeur’s corpse, and a message received that he has been “hanged on the gallows in Ruination Street”… which doesn’t exist. The note is signed “Jack Ketch”—London’s historic name for an executioner. I absolutely loved this: the atmosphere of gloom, fog, and miserable gentlemen’s clubs is second to none, while the intrigue of a street that doesn’t exist and the creepiness of the little model gallows that keeps appearing on tables create proper shivers. As the foregoing may have suggested, I really like mysteries whose solution seems like it must be supernatural (but isn’t); the sense of impossibility tickles my brain. Inspector Henri Bencolin, the detective protagonist in this story, is a remarkably dark character, repeatedly described as “cruel” and “malicious” by the narrator (who’s supposedly his friend!) It gives the story a more modern feel, and it also makes Bencolin more of a person, instead of a detective “type”. Highly recommended, and I’ll be reading more of Carr’s work very soon.

Green for Danger, by Christianna Brand (1944): A tremendously plotted crime novel, my second BLCC (there’s a 3 for 2 deal and I was in the British Library bookshop a few days ago… I couldn’t resist), set during the Blitz in a Kentish military hospital. In the opening chapter, a local postman delivers seven letters to the hospital from doctors and nurses accepting posts there. One year later, that postman dies on the operating table, and one of those seven doctors and nurses is the killer. Why anyone would want to kill him, and how they could possibly have done it in the operating theatre with multiple other people present, is the core of a totally fiendish puzzle—but what I loved so much about Green for Danger was the character work. The complex social ecosystem of V.A.D.s and ward sisters is described perfectly, the bravery and boredom that go hand in hand when bombing is a regular threat, the appeal of illicit sex in a newly topsy-turvy world characterized by stress and danger. Fantastically misleading at times, and with a false-bottom reveal I genuinely didn’t see coming (though, to be fair, I rarely do). Top drawer.

The Mysterious Mr Badman, by W.F. Harvey (1934): Delightfully subtitled “a Yorkshire bibliomystery”, this is another great premise: the splendidly named Athelstan Digby, a humble blanket manufacturer, is on holiday visiting his nephew on the North York Moors. One day he agrees to mind his landlord’s shop, which happens to sell secondhand books, and receives three separate requests for John Bunyan’s The Life and Death of Mr. Badman—not in stock until the very end of the day, when a young lad sells him a parcel of secondhand books containing that very title. Soon after, one of the customers who’d inquired for the title is found shot dead on the moor, and Athelstan—plus his doctor nephew, Jim Pickering, and the delightful Diana Conyers, who Jim seems to have met during the first world war when she was a V.A.D.—determines to investigate. This is mostly a novel about politically motivated blackmail, and less a novel about books as murder-worthy objects in their own right, but the character interactions are marvelous. I would love to read more fiction featuring Athelstan Digby; sadly I don’t think Harvey wrote any more novels including him.

From this I have concluded that I held out on the BLCCs for far too long. I thought I wasn’t keen on Golden Age crime—turns out, what I’m mostly not keen on is subpar contemporary parodies of Golden Age crime. The real stuff is proving fantastic!


2023 biblio-lutions and reading plans

This year I’m committing to very little in the way of reading plans, hoping to keep enjoying reading at whim. I want to encourage myself to jump into series and backlists that I like, and to keep using the libraries as much as possible. There are a number of directions I’d like to explore: more Russians (Bely, Turgenev, another Dostoevsky, short stories); Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature challenge; improving my knowledge of classic writers from Continental Europe; choosing a category from the Guardian 1000 list to shape each month’s reading. But truly, I don’t want to overextend, or get too caught up in planning and not enough in the reading. There are two (maybe three) projects I’d really like to prioritize:

  • Kaggsy and Simon’s #1940Club in April. I’ve never done one of these and they’re so very famous in the litblogosphere! 1940 looks like a good year in publishing: Richard Wright’s Native Son, Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Norman Collins’s London Belongs to Me, John Dickson Carr’s The Man Who Couldn’t Shudder… Some of these would also count for my other project(s), too.
  • The Great Reread of 2023. Partly inspired by Laura’s 20 Rereads of Summer, I’d like to see what I think now of some titles that I remember making a huge impression on me a few years ago. In the half-decade after graduating from university, in particular (approx. 2014-2019), there were a lot of books that I recall feeling strongly positive about, but I haven’t reread most of them since. Time to see if all the fuss was worth it! I’m thinking a minimum of one reread a month.
  • A new personal reading-list project, probably themed around American Classics. Some of this could be part of the Great Reread, but there’s plenty that I haven’t read yet. Most of Edith Wharton and Henry James, for example; Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man; any James Fenimore Cooper; Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie; Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. The list goes on!

There’s also some travel coming up, including a long flight to San Francisco in February (and a flight back, of course), and a week of walking Hadrian’s Wall in May. I’ll need to determine some foolproof airplane reading—they’ll be the longest flights of my life so far!—and something for May that’s portable enough to go in a rucksack, but not so short I finish it on the first evening… I can’t wait to start planning.

Do you have any bookish resolutions or reading plans for 2023?

Best books of 2022

I had a really, really good reading year in 2022. At the time of posting, my tally is at 164 books read, and I’ll get through a few more over the holidays. Perhaps it’s been almost too good—I have a perpetual feeling I shouldn’t be reading this much stuff that’s not related to my academic work. (Some of it is, I guess.) On the other hand, it’s not like my productivity is too shabby: I wrote a rough draft of my first chapter between January and May, and am steaming through a rough draft of my second now, plus I went to a summer school in Prague, presented at Birkbeck’s graduate conference and the Women’s Studies Group in Bloomsbury, and fit in a short research trip to Oxford. I read all the time; it is not only my displacement activity but my literally-everywhere-and-in-all-moments activity. I do it while I’m cooking and crossing the road and standing in line and on the bus. If that means I end up reading and loving a huge amount of literature that falls outside of my area of academic interest, that ought to be seen as a good thing.

This year I did a couple of things to direct my reading at various points. I set myself a short list of Russian books to read during the spring, and another of African novels for the summer months. I read a whole bunch of nonfiction about death and dying in May, when my mental health wouldn’t let me stop thinking about mortality. I did the RIP challenge in the autumn, which led to a lot of new discoveries in the Gothic/creepy/horror field. I have also started using libraries for pleasure reading as never before, and it has been an absolute boon. In November, I left my long-time bookselling job, which is definitely going to have an effect on my reading: I’ll have less immediate access to the new and shiny, I’ll lose some of that up-to-the-minute knowledge, but on the other hand, my increasing hunger for backlist gems will be indulged to the hilt in the months and years to come.

For now, here are twenty books that I absolutely adored reading in 2022.

Kristin Lavransdatter – Sigrid Undset (1920, 1921, 1922). Technically a trilogy, and the first book of the year: I brought it with me on the plane when we flew to visit my parents and brother in January. It’s a remarkable story set in medieval Norway, about a woman who marries for love, and pays the price. Utterly immersive and hypnotic.

The Family Chao – Lan Samantha Chang (2022). A sideways look at Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, set in a Chinese-American family restaurant over the Christmas and New Year period. Wonderful, fluid, darkly funny writing, with some extraordinary character interactions (and a dog!)

Buddenbrooks – Thomas Mann (1901). More family saga, this time set in Germany at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth. It’s about the three-generation cycle of rising fortunes followed by a slide into ruin, and much of it concerns the falsity of the narratives that individuals, families, businesses, countries choose to propagate about themselves. Remarkably readable; I’d been told Mann was dense and dry but I tore through this.

Putin’s People – Catherine Belton (2020). Like a lot of people, I sought out some context when Russia invaded Ukraine last spring. Belton’s book is a few years old but still the most comprehensive account of Vladimir Putin’s strategic acts of financial domestic terrorism, designed to shore up his power by consolidating the control of Russian wealth in his own hands. Followed by a trip to the theatre to see Peter Morgan’s new play The Patriots, about Boris Berezovsky, this was extremely useful and surprisingly gripping.

Sketches from a Hunter’s Album – Ivan Turgenev (1852). The first of a number of authors whom I discovered this year and immediately dove into. Of all the Turgenev I’ve read in 2022, Sketches from a Hunter’s Album (my second of his books) is still the favourite, partly because I love the compiled, cumulative effect of its short pieces which describe country landscapes and manners so beautifully, but also partly because I read it in a pub beer garden with a big glass of cider after a long walk along the South Downs, just as the weather was getting warm again, and it was one of the more perfect reading experiences of my life.

The Last House on Needless Street – Catriona Ward (2021). Ward is the second of the authors I discovered this year and got a little obsessed with. I’ve now also read Little Eve and Sundial (the library doesn’t seem to have Rawblood). The Last House on Needless Street has the most bonkers premise and the wildest twist, and is so well written that none of it feels hard to swallow. It could have been done so badly and has instead been done so well, which always feels like an extra mark in a book’s favour.

Pale Fire – Vladimir Nabokov (1962). I said I wanted a Pale Fire Finishers Support Group when I finished this, and I still do. It is totally brilliant, though. As I also said, people talk about how funny it is, but what struck me most about it was its sense of loneliness.

NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy (2015, 2016, 2017). These have been well dissected elsewhere, so all I’ll say is that reading all three of these in a row, in big hungry gulps, was both absolutely engrossing and gave me a terrible book hangover. A world that’s as hard to shake off as Jemisin’s The Stillness is worth celebrating.

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain – George Saunders (2021). Reading Saunders’s thoughts on a handful of Russian short stories—taking them one page at a time, as he does with his students at Syracuse—made me a better reader, at least temporarily. It also gave me a better framework for appreciating short fiction. And he’s such a stylish writer himself, even when writing chatty, accessible nonfiction.

The Dispossessed – Ursula K. LeGuin (1974). A mind-blower. It’s probably very Undergraduate Philosophy 101 of me, but I’d never read it before and it crystallized a lot of thoughts I’d been having about work and art and creativity and money. I’m sure this is all highly characteristic of my generation, but the fact remains that The Dispossessed presents as possible a way of living that Western capitalism encourages us to believe can’t be achieved at all. Truly groundbreaking for me.

Palace Walk – Naguib Mahfouz (1956-7). Another trilogy, technically; Palace Walk is just the first volume. Another entrancing family saga, this time set in Cairo before, during, and just after the First World War. Huge international events filtered through private individual experience is one of my favourite ways to read historical fiction. Mahfouz’s tyrannical patriarch character, al-Sayyid Ahmad, changes and diminishes as the years pass and the world changes, as do the other members of his family, and by the end I felt I’d come to know them all like my own.

The Night Ship – Jess Kidd (2022). This dual-strand historical novel focuses on two protagonists: Mayken, a Dutch girl in the seventeenth century, and Gil, an Australian boy in the twentieth who has been sent to live with his grandfather on the archipelago where Mayken’s ship was wrecked hundreds of years previously. There’s the faintest hint of slipstream in their odd connection to each other across centuries, and Kidd’s slightly whimsical, slightly unsettling prose style is perfectly suited to the material, which is fantastical and uncanny and eventually explodes into violence. I cried at the end, which is very rare indeed.

The Grass is Singing – Doris Lessing (1950). My second Lessing, but my first in a very long time, and it really packs a punch. As a character study of Mary Turner, a white Rhodesian woman whose mind gives the reader an understanding of how racist ideology grows in a person, it’s extraordinary. Sad and disturbing, but incredibly incisive and succinct.

Memoirs – Harriette Wilson (1825). The first book on this list to have actually been part of my PhD project reading! I read a lot more than just this, but Wilson’s Memoirs stick out for a number of reasons. Her narrating voice is extremely funny, fresh, immediate; her pen portraits of society’s finest are well observed, mean, and hilarious. She’s smart and sarcastic and occasionally seems to wish she’d been taken more seriously as an intellectual; her major obstacle in some ways was herself, as she also seems to have been unable to resist returning to the role of quippy, witty woman of pleasure. You can easily see why men paid money for her mere company. Four volumes of delight.

Armadale – Wilkie Collins (1864-6). Contains extreme melodrama, secret identities on every other page, laudanum addiction, poison gas, a dodgy doctor, marriage certificates and legal shenanigans, supernatural dreams of forboding, convenient but mysterious deaths, and one of the best villainesses of all time in the person of flame-haired Lydia Gwilt. An absolute corker, certainly on a par with the more famous The Woman in White. I’d love to read more critical engagement with Lydia’s character, who (apart from the poisoning stuff) struck me as more sinned against than sinning.

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow – Gabrielle Zevin (2022). One of the best reading experiences of the latter half of the year. It’s about two friends who meet as children in a hospital, bump into each other again at college, and start a video game company together. It’s also about disability and love and sex and depression and friendship and money. It’s also, and most deeply, about stories and how they’re told and how people need them and engage with them and why they matter so incredibly much. I am too mal-coordinated to play any console game but Mario Kart, and I still found myself falling in love with this book. Wonderful.

Ghost Story – Peter Straub (1979). One of my favourite kinds of book: chunky, plotty, compellingly written, with a time span of many decades and a structure that you know will reveal things slowly and gradually as you read, so you start out knowing how much you don’t know and also knowing that it will all fall into place. Straub’s writing is so confident and so confiding. He’s also very metatextually engaged with the American horror tradition (two of the characters are named Hawthorne and James!) I’m bummed that most of his work is only available in e-format in the UK at the moment.

The Beginning of Spring – Penelope Fitzgerald (1988). Very little happens in this pre-revolutionary-Russia-set novel, but it doesn’t matter. I’ll stick to what I said about it last month: “The writing! And the grasp of human feelings that the characters don’t themselves understand! And oh, my God, the scene with the baby bear. It’s so rich in so few pages. It’ll be one of those books that keeps being rewarding, read after read.”

Barnaby Rudge – Charles Dickens (1841). I was by no means expecting to enjoy this as much as I did. It’s one of Dickens’s lesser-known works and it shouldn’t be; the political commentary is as good, and the actual scenes of public disorder and violence are as scary, as anything in A Tale of Two Cities. I can’t help feeling that in its depiction of ordinary working people—but particularly a vulnerable young adult—being manipulated and egged on to violence by a cynical, privileged individual who is protected from the consequences of his actions by virtue of his wealth, it’s an alarmingly contemporary novel. Also, there’s a talking raven. Win.

Babel – R.F. Kuang (2022). I loved this and read it too recently to talk sensibly about it. Imagine His Dark Materials, then add the light touch of Natasha Pulley’s narrating voice in The Watchmaker of Filigree Street and a pinch of China Miéville’s linguistic focus in Embassytown, and place at the centre of the whole thing a strong awareness of the mechanics of mercantile colonialism. And yet to compare it to other things is in some ways to do it a disservice, because Babel does stand on its own, as an Oxford novel and a fantasy novel and a novel about being young and going to university and finding your people and then having that friendship be changed and affected by the very process of growing up, as a novel about revolution and efficacy and solidarity and complicity and abuse and bigotry and loneliness and the contingencies of seeking redemption. It’s really very good.*

*let it be noted that I have read the critiques and accept that there are weaknesses to Babel‘s execution, some of them very serious. That said, it is unbelievably readable and I had a fantastic time reading it, so I feel it deserves its place here.

Soon, I’ll be posting my biblio-lutions and reading plans for 2023, but for now, have you read any of my top books of 2022? And what were your favourites of the year?