Crime books of the year: Murder, they wrote

Ian Rankin. Picture: Jane Barlow
Ian Rankin. Picture: Jane Barlow
Share this article
Have your say

REBUS returned, and in less than a fortnight Stephen Fry’s adaptation of Rankin’s Doors Open will be on TV.

Denise Mina won the Theakston’s Crime Novel of the Year and her graphic novel adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (DC Comics, £14.99, art by Leonardo Manco and Andrea Mutti) has just hit the bookshelves. Scotland has just had its first crime-writing festival and William McIlvanney, who many people thought was its true star, is about to have his Laidlaw novels republished by Canongate.

Scotland’s love of crime fiction, in other words, continued to flourish in 2012 just as surely as did the world’s love of Scottish crime fiction. It remains both our favourite genre and one of our biggest cultural exports.

In Rankin’s case, what marks out Standing in Another Man’s Grave (Orion, £18.99) – more than the writing or even the serial killer plot – is the assurance of his characterisation. Time after time, where another writer would feel the need to spell out why his central character is acting the way he does, or explain what he is most afraid of, Rankin’s portrait of Rebus allows us to – literally – take that as read. These days, Rebus is passing his days rather impotently as a civilian in the Serious Crimes Review squad, mulling over long-forgotten cases but unable get out into the field and crack them wide open. When he is allowed to join a live, ongoing hunt for a killer, Rankin shows us his desperation to make the most of the few days before he is reassigned to his normal duties without once needing to mention it.

Denise Mina is starting to put together a portrait of Glasgow that is every bit as nuanced as Rankin’s Edinburgh, and Gods and Beasts (Orion, £12.99) takes that an important step further. DS Alex Morrow, now a mother of twins, could hardly be more different from Rebus. Here she’s faced with a triple whammy of corruption, blackmail and an apparently motiveless post office murder. As ever with Mina, the social and political backdrop is detailed and credible and a reproof to anyone who thinks that genre fiction is necessarily limited to plot.

For those of you who have put down a crime novel having already worked out whodunit and why, and felt cheated as a result, Sophie Hannah’s fiction could be the perfect solution. Kind of Cruel (Hodder, £12.99) is a case in point: a baroquely plotted story about a woman investigated for a murder she knows nothing about because words she has said under hypnosis turn out to echo the only clue left at a murder scene.

If intricate plotting and playing games with the genre’s clichés – in this case, a mysteriously locked room – were all she was good at, Hannah would be impressive enough. Unfortunately for her rivals, she is also a superb portraitist of the psychologically dysfunctional, able to get under their skin and behind their eyes better than anyone I can think of.

Except, of course, Ruth Rendell. In The Saint Zita Society (Hutchinson, £16.99) – her 77th novel, no less – Rendell reminds her readers why she is Britain’s reigning queen of the psychological thriller. Here she takes as her canvas an entire street of white-painted stucco Georgian houses in that part of London where Belgravia shades into Pimlico and the super-rich live with their Asian nannies, down-at-heel au pairs, and the occasional butler, cook or chauffeur.

All of this is done with such breathtaking assurance that it almost seems a shame that there has to be a crime in the first place. Indeed, in my book, that’s not such a bad acid test for the genre: just how much of its fictional world would remain standing if it were not propped up by plot? 
On that score alone, Rendell is simply unassailable.

But so too is Allan Massie. Even if he were not this newspaper’s chief fiction reviewer, I would still want to highlight the extent to which his Death in Bordeaux series illuminates the moral complexities and compromises of everyday life in German-occupied France. Take away the crime from Dark Summer in Bordeaux (Quartet, £12) and it would still work as a portrait of a decent man (his Inspector Lannes) living in a time when moral decency had become all but impossible, when the rules of justice had been so badly bent that he’s hardly allowed to do his job in the first place. In such a setting, with the Jews about to be deported, one is as far away as possible from the conventions of the crime novel: the game of clues, blind alleys, false trails and swift denouements.

Yet, provided they pass what we shall call the Rendell test – take out the crime and see what remains standing – even the conventional crime novel has its pleasures. Gyles Brandreth’s Oscar Wilde and the Murders of Reading Jail (John Murray, £18.99) and James Runcie’s Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death (Bloomsbury, £14.99) are both worth recommending on that score.

Yet the best crime novel I read in 2012 is none of the above. I got round to it late – a whole 42 years late – though I feel I can include it here because it was republished a couple of months ago. But if anyone 
has written a crime novel better than George V Higgins’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Orion, £7.99) please tell me 
about it.