As part of a series of blogs about crime and thriller novels, September’s blog focused on the top ten locations. This month I take a look at unusual narrative forms. While we probably all recognise the groundbreaking work of those writers from the Golden Age of Detective fiction – Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L Sayers – today’s writers often push the boundaries of what counts as crime fiction.
1. His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet. I’m sure that the unusual narrative of this novel was partly responsible for its shortlisting for the Booker Prize. Set in 1860s Applecross, a remote West Highland peninsula, it is narrated as a true recounting of a murder by the perpetrator through a series of discovered documents. These documents read so authentically, I have seen Macrae Burnet accosted at book festivals and cross-examined about his sources. It’s a gripping read and a really skilful unfolding of, what we come to realise, is an unreliable narration. And talking of unreliable narrators…
2. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. There is something extremely satisfying about reading a book through the eyes of an unreliable narrator, and it seems to fit crime writing so well. Gone Girl is probably one of the best of the recent ones. Several other unreliable narrators to be recommended are Girl on a Train by Paula Hawkins, which was published around the same time. Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey is a twist on this format in that, because she has dementia, no-one believes the main character when she talks about her friend going missing, In the Shadow of the Hill by Helen Forbes is not so much an unreliable narrator but does have a fantastic narrative twist in that ilk. And of course there is the very famous Agatha Christie unreliable narrator, which is still a brilliant read and whose title it’s impossible to share without spoiling it completely for those who haven’t yet discovered it!
3. The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I wouldn’t say the highlight of this book is the unreliable narrators – though they are important – it’s the fact that the book starts with the crime fully revealed. We know who has been murdered, we know who did it; what we have to discover, in the gripping 600+ pages which follow, is why.
4. Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz. Magpie Murders and the rest of this series consist of what I think we could call “meta” crime novels. A crime writer is murdered and his editor can only solve this crime by reading the writer’s work in progress and following clues within that. It’s a book within a book – technically this is called an embedded narrative, and is not a new device, but I’m not sure it’s been used in crime fiction before.
5. We need to talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver. A huge best seller at the time, and rightly so; but if you’ve only seen the film (starring Tilda Swinton) then you’ll have missed the narrative style. This is an epistolary novel, which means that the whole event – a school massacre – is told through letters from Kevin’s mother Eva to her husband. The book won the Orange prize and it’s an emotionally demanding book but definitely worth it.
6. The seven deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton. A confined setting of a country house with a limited cast, this feels like a nod to the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, but the reading experience is like playing a computer game. The protagonist has eight days and eight incarnations to prevent or solve the death of Evelyn Hardcastle, and each time he fails, he awakes in the body of another of the house residents. It’s certainly an original take on the crime novel, and it zips along, though you do need to concentrate, and at times I felt the author was looking over my shoulder saying, ‘see what I did there? that was clever, wasn’t it?’
7. Haven’t they grown? by Sophie Hannah. If you haven’t yet discovered Sophie Hannah, I would urge you to go and seek her out. Her crime novels are all exceptionally clever, unusual and well written. The premise of this one is so catchy – a woman sees an old friend with her two children. She hasn’t seen her for at least 10 years, and yet the children are still exactly the same age. Haven’t they grown? I’d also recommend Little Face in which a new mother goes out for a short time; when she comes back there is a different baby in the cot, but her husband and mother-in-law both deny the baby has changed.
8. Mr Mercedes by Stephen King. published in 2014, Stephen King calls it his first ‘hard-boiled detective book’. It’s brilliant. A retired policeman is caught up in the search for someone who drove his Mercedes car into a line of people waiting for a jobs’ fair. There are two more books in the series and I’ve devoured them all. (Oh, and even though these are classic crime novels, terse and gripping, there is also a wee bit of supernatural – well it IS Stephen King).
9. Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch. Another series to get you hooked. Peter Grant is training to be a policeman in London when his skills in interviewing dead witnesses sees him recruited into a sub-department of the Met and trained up to be a Detective Constable and wizard. Clever and funny, this is Harry Potter for grown ups. And if you like that, you’ll also love…
10. The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde. Thursday Next’s job is solving crimes against literature, which does not involve, as you might think, rejecting terrible manuscripts, but instead involves entering classic novels to stop them being re-written by criminals. In this first in the series, Jane Eyre has been kidnapped.
Well I do hope you enjoy any of these you have not yet discovered! Do send me recommendations.