Sunday 22 September 2019

Chilling tales to warm up your summer days

No sun lounger is complete without a thriller. With crime fiction now so popular, readers are spoilt for choice

We have become huge fans of crime fiction
We have become huge fans of crime fiction

Claire Coughlan

If you like your holiday reading material packed with suspense, thrills and twists galore, you're not alone.

Crime fiction is currently the most popular genre in the UK, according to data revealed at the London Book Fair last month. The market value of crime books increased in 2017, up from €120m the previous year, to €134m.

Crime and thrillers now outsell general and literary fiction, at a rate of 19pc since 2015. That was the year that The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins's tense novel about an alcoholic who isn't quite sure whether or not she's witnessed something shocking on her daily commute, was the bestselling book in Ireland. Just as there are increasing numbers of crime readers, so publishers are always looking for the 'next big thing' and the number of new crime writers each year seems to shoot up on an annual basis.

However, it's rare to come across a debut as assured as You Don't Know Me, by Imran Mahmood (Michael Joseph €12.59), which was chosen as a BBC Radio 2 Book Club Choice for 2017. Mahmood is a criminal defence barrister based in London, who specialises in legal aid cases involving violent crimes.

The narrator of this novel is a young black man on trial for the murder of a gang member. He's already on remand; he knows the evidence is stacked up against him, all points to his guilt. As he sees it, he has nothing to lose. He just wants to tell his truth. Against the advice of his defending QC, the unnamed character chooses to take to the stand to address the jury in the closing speeches, to explain himself and how circumstances led him where they did. A book that is essentially one long monologue could be slow, or meandering, in lesser hands but Mahmood's impeccable pacing and the raw immediacy of the voice make this a thoroughly compelling read.

Erin Kelly is an author who's deservedly had a loyal coterie of readers since her debut, The Poison Tree, about murder and mayhem in leafy North London, was published a few years back. It was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick and was later adapted for TV. Kelly's latest twisted masterpiece, He Said/She Said (Hodder, €7.99) is also a Richard and Judy Book Club title for spring 2018 and was a bestseller when the hardback came out last year.

The plot follows long-time couple Laura and Kit, and their complicated involvement with a woman named Beth, with whom they became linked when Laura witnessed Beth's rape at a festival some years earlier. Or did she?

Laura later acts as a witness for Beth at a trial but nothing is clear-cut, as you would imagine. Kelly maximises the uncertainty by skilfully running rings around the reader and weaving a labyrinthine plot which leads to a wonderfully surprising ending. It may also contain the best last line of a novel I've read in quite a while.

Also concerning itself with the prescient question of consent, in the midst of the current #MeToo landscape, is Anatomy of a Scandal, by Sarah Vaughan (Simon & Schuster, €18.19). This novel was heaped with praise when it came out earlier in the year and it's definitely not hard to see why: it's a page-turner and a half. The crime at the heart of the novel is an alleged rape which occurs at the epicentre of power in Westminster involving a politician on the rise, James, a junior minister who is also a close friend of the prime minister.

Deftly told from several different viewpoints, including James's wife Sophie and the prosecuting barrister, Kate, the narrative jumps between flashbacks and the present day in the courtroom, where James's fate is uncertain. This is a fascinating exploration of the toxicity of power and privilege. It's also a portrait of a marriage. The way that Sophie feels that her own life, marriage and identity are also on trial is deftly and sympathetically handled.

Suspense novels are ten-a-penny at the moment, in the wake of Gone Girl and the aforementioned The Girl on the Train - shelves are heaving with a glut of 'what if' scenarios involving ordinary people thrust into extraordinary situations of mind-boggling permutations. Anything You Do Say, by Gillian McAllister (Michael Joseph, €11.20), is head and shoulders above the rest, however.

Instead of varying characters' viewpoints, we get alternating chapters with different scenarios played out. What if you chose this option? Or that one? Jo is someone who has shied away from conflict her whole life.

When she feels threatened by a drunk stranger in a nightclub, she walks away, only to imagine that she is being pursued. She pushes the man she thinks might attack her, only to realise he's not who she thought he was.

Should she flee the scene? Or call the police and an ambulance?

Brilliantly executed, this is a thought-provoking, Sliding Doors-type thriller, which may cause you a second thought next time you're walking somewhere alone at night.

Another novel that plays with its readers' perception of reality is the utterly original The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton (Bloomsbury Raven, €18.20).

It's described as "Gosford Park meets Inception, by way of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express", and was chosen by novelist Val McDermid, who is the co-founder of the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival (also known as Harrogate) as one of her 'New Blood' picks for this year's festival in July.

Every year, McDermid hosts a panel at the festival introducing just four debut novels to the audience, as well as spotlighting them for a wider readership.

It's not hard to see why the 'Queen of Crime' chose Turton's debut as one of this year's picks. It offers a completely fresh take on the country house murder mystery, working the reader's little grey cells as hard as possible as we question everything, trust nothing, and try to figure out not only the how and why, but also who, what and where.

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