It’s been a great year for crime fiction and trying to narrow the books I have read down to a top five is not easy. Before I get onto that, however, as has been my past practice I’m going to cheat and hand out a few honourable mentions. Scott Wolven’s wonderful short story collection, Controlled Burn: Stories of Prison, Crime and Men, Nearly Nowhere by Summer Brenner and Don Winslow’s Kings of Cool were all in contention for my best of list. But my top five reads for 2012 are:
5 – He Died with his Eyes Open by Derek Raymond
This one wasn’t released in 2012, but I read it this year and it’s so good it goes in. A police procedural like no other, He Died with his Eyes Open starts, like so many other crime novels, with the discovery of a body. The unnamed cop – the story’s narrator – who catches the case is a tough-talking sergeant from the Department of Unexplained Deaths, also known as A14, at the Factory police station. There’s no apparent motive and all the cop has to go on are a series of old cassette tapes in the dead man’s property that contain the deeply unhappy ramblings of a deeply unhappy man. Most police procedurals deal with crime from the point of view of the police. What’s unusual about this book is that the cop concerned is more like his victim. Derek Raymond was the pen name of English writer Robert William Arthur Cook, who eschewed his upper middle class family for a life of odd jobs, bohemian travel and frequent brushes with the law. Although he wrote for years, success eluded until with the publication of He Died with His Eyes Open in 1984, the first of five Factory books.
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4 – The Darkest Little Room by Patrick Holland
A dark and totally original take on one of the standard plots of crime fiction set in Asia: foreigner-falls-for-bargirl-who-ends-up-much-more-than-she-seems. So… Joseph is an Australian journalist living in Saigon with a sideline in blackmailing high profile philanderers who he photographs in compromising situations in brothels. One day a foreign businessman approaches him with a picture of a physically abused but beautiful woman held prisoner in a brothel known as ‘the darkest little room’. Before long, Joseph has rescued the woman, who is mysteriously free of any physical wounds, and fallen in love, only to have her snatched back again by the gang of traffickers who bought her to Vietnam. Wonderfully drawn characters, acute and often painful observations about the expatriate condition, a vivid depiction of Vietnam, and a break neck plot make this a mesmerising read.
3 – Wake in Fright by Kenneth Cooke
Here’s another blast from my past which had to be on my list. Wake in Fright is a story of masculinity, drinking and violence in regional Australia, written in 1961, and it still packs a punch today. John Grant is a mild mannered teacher working in a tiny speck of a town called Tiboonda. He has six weeks leave ahead of him and £140 in his pocket. All that stands between him and six weeks in Sydney is an overnight train stop in Bundanyabba or ‘the Yabba’ as the locals call it. That is until he wanders into one of the Yabba’s local pubs and loses nearly all his money in a two-up game. He wakes next morning, broke and at the mercy of the locals who, as he discovers, can literally kill a stranger with their brand of kindness. Cooke handles Grant’s slow descent into the nightmare landscape that is the Yabba with slow burn ferocity, heightening the tension through a series of bizarre interactions with the local residents. Wake in Fright is a genuinely menacing story. It was also made into an excellent 1971 film, which helped re-kick start the Australian film industry in the 70s.
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2 – Dare Me by Megan Abbott
Abbott is one of the best crime writers working today and Dare Me is her latest book. Addy and Beth have been best friends for years and the top dogs of their high school cheerleading squad. Beth is the captain, Addy always her faithful lieutenant. Cheerleading and their commanding place in it is the ground zero of their world. Their carefully constructed social hierarchy is thrown into chaos by the arrival of a new cheerleading coach. Addy finds herself particularly drawn to the new coach and away from her old friend. But Beth is not someone to take rejection lying down. When a peripheral male acquaintance of the girls is found dead, it’s unclear whether murder, suicide or an accident is to blame. As the final game of the season approaches, Addy begins to wonder exactly what her old friend may be capable of. In the hands of a lesser writer, Dare Me could have so easily been just another tale of teenage angst with an edge. But Abbott delivers a much more challenging story that’s not afraid to question some major sacred cows about young women and what they’re capable of. She nails all her characters and transforms their cadence, feelings, fears, and secrets into something very sinister – part dark noir, part suburban Lynchian nightmare.
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1 – The Devil all the Time
I read this book in the first week of January and it remained my best book of 2012. The Devil All the Time is a multi-generational gothic novel set in the backwoods Ohio and Virginia. It opens with the return of a soldier from the carnage of the Pacific war and his drift into religious madness over the terminal sickness of his wife. Other characters include a couple of revivalist Christians performers (one of whom has a bizarre side-line involving spiders), a corrupt backwoods law man and a husband and wife team of roaming serial killers, one of whom likes to photograph their victims in sexual positions. This is rural noir with major kick. But no matter how sexually and physically deranged things get – and they get very deranged – Pollock avoids the temptation to play the story for cheap thrills. There is real humanity in these tales, even the most wretched of his characters struggles for meaning.
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