Jean’s best books of 2015

blockbusterBlockbuster! Fergus Hume and The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, Lucy Sussex

The Mystery of a Hansom Cab was published in 1886 (predating the first Sherlock Holmes story by a year) and has never been out of print. Hume himself died in poverty although the book sold millions.

Blockbuster explores the mystery of Fergus Hume and uncovers fascinating details of his life – for example, that he was born at a county pauper and lunatic asylum. Well-researched and scholarly, this is also a charmingly witty book by an author who is a literary detective herself (Sussex ‘discovered’ the first Australian mystery writer, Mary Fortune). You don’t have to have read Hansom Cab to enjoy Blockbuster – though you may find yourself driven to buy it afterwards.

last policemanThe Last Policeman Trilogy, Ben H Winters

I read the first two of these novels (The Last Policeman and Countdown City) last year and the final book (World of Trouble) in 2015.

The series follows the activities of Henry (Hank) Palace, an American policeman living in the last six months or so of the Earth’s existence, before the asteroid known as Maia collides with the planet. Hank is a surprising hero – neither exceptional or gung-ho, his heroism lies in his determination to keep going, to do his job as well as he can, whether the world is ending or not.

The novels are a successful combination of police-procedural and apocalyptic fiction, with Hank continuing to investigate crime while civilisation crumbles around him.

The trilogy is notable for its posing of eternal questions, like what it means to be human and whether morality is circumstantial or absolute. It’s an example of the best SFF – indeed the best fiction – available now. (You can read my review here.)

thedefencelessThe Defenceless, Kati Hiekkapelto

I’m a sucker for Nordic crime and I’ve read lots again this year, many of which have been great reads so it’s hard to pick the stand-outs. But Finnish Kati Hiekkapelto is definitely one of the more interesting new Scandinavian writers. Her first crime novel, The Hummingbird, was published in English in 2014 and introduced police rookie Anna Feketa, a refugee from Serbia. In The Defenceless Anna’s more experienced and her relationship with her older colleague, the loner Esko, develops further into friendship.

As with The Hummingbird, the plotting is intricate and compelling, involving refugees, a drug gang trying to move into Finland and a possible murder. It’s beautifully written; the landscape fascinates; the characters are well-drawn and their development is something to watch through what I hope will be a long series.

silentdeadThe Silent Dead, Claire McGowan

This is the third book (after The Lost and The Dead Ground) in a series featuring Paula Maguire, a forensic psychologist reluctantly back home in Northern Ireland and working for a missing persons unit.

Five years after a bomb attack the suspects, found not guilty at the time, disappear – then the bodies begin to turn up.

It’s hard for the police to put aside the feeling that the victims aren’t worth much time or effort, and this moral dilemma infuses the story – what is the difference between justice and revenge? As well, the memory of the Troubles hovers over these books like a dark cloud that just will not go away, adding historical complexity and the dramatic tension of sectarian feuds and old grievances still simmering. It’s this sense of an insoluble problem at the heart of things, as well as the clean, engaging writing, that provide depth and texture, lifting these books well above most police procedurals.

beulahheightOn Beulah Height, Reginald Hill

I’d read most of the Dalziel and Pascoe series before, but I had a bit of a binge this year with a couple I hadn’t read leading me back to re-read some favourites.

On Beulah Height is the 17th in the 24-book series  (some of which are short-story collections) that began with A Clubbable Woman in 1970, and while I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s the best – they are all good – it’s the work of a writer at his peak.

Fifteen years ago three young girls vanished after their remote Yorkshire town was flooded to create a reservoir.  Now Dalziel’s never-solved case rises to the surface again with another child missing and the return of local-girl-made-good, opera singer Elizabeth Wulfstan, to present her idiomatic translation of Mahler’s Songs on the Death of Children.

Police-procedural, history and a ghost story, combined with Pascoe coping with a major family problem, this multi-layered novel shows Hill’s elegant writing to perfection. Fat Andy Dalziel (pronounced ‘Dee-el’) and Peter Pascoe are familiar characters from the TV series, but if you haven’t read the books, you’ve got 24 treats in store.

Originally published in the Newtown Review of Books on 24 December 2015

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