Thursday, January 8, 2009

Looking back at 2008 (part 4)

Well, the snow came and went, the skies clouded over, the temperatures rose, and now we're somewhere closer to a normal damp Cheshire January. 

I'm a little conscious that I've so far ended up talking about fewer books than I'd intended, due to my rambling ways.  So today perhaps I should just begin with a quick resumé of some of the books that have, one way or another, stayed with me from 2008.  First, as a long-standing Reginald Hill fan, it was a bumper year as the ever-prolific Mr Hill gave us two books to delight in.  The latest Dalziel and Pascoe, A Cure for All Deseases (intriguingly retitled The Price of Butcher's Meat in the US) unexpectedly combined the contrasting wisdoms of Andy Dalziel and Jane Austen.  Possibly a more lightweight addition to the series than some, but still a joy to read.  I really don't know how Hill manages to be so prolific and so consistently good.  This year he also gave us a new Joe Sixsmith, the wonderfully titled The Roar of the Butterflies.  The Sixsmith books are generally less substantial and more playful than the Dalziels, but I thought this was great fun.  In an odd way, it reminded me of the wonderful Duffy books that Julian Barnes used to write as Dan Kavanagh, and there's little higher praise than that. 

What else?  Well, I finally got around to trying Brian McGilloway's much-praised Borderlands, the first of his Inspector Devlin series.  A good down to earth cop with - praise be! - a wife and family, and a terrific bleak setting.  I'm looking forward to reading the next ones.  Another down to earth cop who's also, so far, managed to hold on to his family is Chris Simms's Jon Spicer.  Chris is actually a neighbour of mine (quite literally), and the world and characters he describes are the ones I see around me.  I haven't got to his latest, Hell's Fire, yet. but its predecessor, Savage Moon, was his best so far - combining a strong mystery with an intriguing exploration of Britain's colonial legacy in Kenya.

Shifting gear again, S J Bolton's Sacrifice is a fascinating mix of Gothic thriller and police procedural, set in a splendidly sinister Shetland.  I suspect I'm not really part of the target demographic for this book - just an inkling from the way she describes the handsome, charismatic doctors - but, as a long-time fan of The Wicker Man, the concept appealed strongly to me.  It's a great read, which nicely balances some border-fantastical ideas with believable characters and settings, concluding with a plot-twist which I found genuinely chilling. 

And still that's just scatching the surface.  But I suppose my greatest enjoyment this year came not so much from new discoveries as from getting to grips properly with a couple of authors I'd previously tried but, for whatever reason, hadn't fully appreciated.  The first was Jo Nesbo.  Nesbo's books have been very heavily promoted in the UK over the last couple of years.  I tried The Redbreast initially and enjoyed it, but didn't find myself rushing to read more.  I'm not sure why - it was readable enough, with an intriguing lead character in Harry Hole and at least one plot twist that left me breathless.  But, in line with Maxine Clarke's comments, the plot was a little too convoluted, the pace perhaps slightly too meandering.  This year, though, for some reason I picked up Nemesis and started to read.  All the same criticisms could be levelled at it - perhaps even more so with regard to plot convolutions.  But I found myself engrossed, mainly by the character of Harry Hole.  While he very much fits the familar middle-aged, alcoholic, disillusioned cop template, he has a wit and sense of corporate mischief that most of his equivalents lack.  I'm always intrigued by the tensions of corporate life - which are present in the police as much as is in any other organisation - and Nesbo writes beautifully about these. 

I also like the fact that Nesbo dosn't pull any punches - for example, Hole is a genuine alcoholic, whose life totters on the edge of chaos, rather than just someone who drinks too much Scotch when the going gets tough.  I'm looking forward to reading The Devil's Star - which also means that, quite by accident, I've read these three books in the right order, rather than the order in which they were published.  There's been a lot of criticism of various publishers for issuing translated books out of order - I guess it's for commercial reasons and generally doesn't matter too much.  But here it does because, as well as each individual story, there's a wider plot which develops across the novels. 

Just as I got to grip with Nesbo in 2008, I also finally got round to reading Fred Vargas properly this year.  I'd read Seeking Whom He May Devour a couple of years ago (mainly because I was staying in France near where it was set).  Again, I'd enjoyed it but hadn't felt urgently impelled to read more - partly, I think, because Vargas's Detective Commissaire Adamsberg felt almost like a peripheral figure in the book.  Earlier this year, though, I tried Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand, and enjoyed it enormously.  As with Nesbo's books, the real joys lie in the characterisation, particularly of Adamberg himself.  Vargas's plots tend to be - well, slightly batty, to be frank, but that's clearly deliberate.  She's having fun with the genre, and that's always (okay, almost always) be to encouraged.  My only slight reservation about Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand was that it was largely set in Canada, rather than France.  I was left with a sneaking sense that I was missing something in not witnessing Adamsberg in his natural habitat. 

That was confirmed when I read Have Mercy on Us All.  This is set in a Paris that's as evocative as Simenon's, and I thought it was tremendous - playful and chilling at the same time.  Yes, the plot's as bonkers as ever, but in a way that somehow seems to be exploring some profound issues.  In this book, Vargas reminded me of Margery Alllingham at her best - Vargas's eerie Paris matching the London of Tiger in the Smoke or Hide My Eyes.  In my book, praise doesn't come much higher.  Still not sure about those English titles, though...


1. Maxine said...

I enjoyed this post. I usually don't mind that much about books being translated out of order, but in the case of Nesbo I felt that the behaviour of Harry in Devil's Star is impossible to understand without having first read Redbreast. I have not yet read Nemesis but will, when Karen of Euro Crime has read it! "Slightly batty" is a good description of Vargas. I did find "The Three Evangelists" an amusing satire on academic life - she has a very good eye for details of how academics behave and think (as I believe the author is one herself, or was). The plots are just weird, though -I think I have "Have Mercy on us all" in my shelf to be read. I also have Sacrifice and one by Chris Simm, so I must get on with those in light of your reviews. I am a bit distracted by Camilleri at the moment - I am on my third in a row. Wonderful.

2. Michael+Walters said...

I imagine Vargas is a bit of a 'Marmite' author - I can imagine some readers being infuriated by the plots! But I do think Adamsberg is a terrific creation. As for Camilleri, I've got the complete set sitting on my shelves and have been treating myself to them over a period, like working through a case of good wine...

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