Best genre fiction of 2009: Dan Brown and Stephen King the salvation of the publishing industry?
Sunday 13 December 2009
This was the year that e-books made their presence known, and bookshops increasingly showed signs of strain, meaning that key publishers found their fortunes ever more dependent on a handful of superstar genre writers. But do theses novels deserve the power they are afforded, or indeed the critical snipes they so often receive?
Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol (Transworld, £18.99) was bestowed upon us in early September amid a frenzy of global publication, midnight openings and stunt speed- readings. Professor Langdon remains loafer- and black polo neck-clad, this time in Washington, battling shoddy sentence construction and faux-science as much as tattooed villains... but Brown's joyful sense of pace is undeniable. You might scoff, but you can't stop turning the pages.
Similarly, Stephen King's Under the Dome (Hodder, £19.99) used a plot that by now looks rather well-worn thanks to The Simpsons Movie (giant dome lands on a town with ghastly consequences), but he is an almost peerless storyteller. Readers might require physiotherapy after ploughing through its 900 pages, but his consistent handle on the town's characters, his ability to conjure the fantastical and render it credible, and the gobsmackingly vivid first 100 pages are worth the read alone.
After the lacklustre Doors Open, Ian Rankin returned to Edinburgh-based detective-led crime with The Complaints (Orion, £18.99), introducing his new copper, Malcolm Fox. The twist lies in the fact that Fox is investigating his own: working at Edinburgh's police-complaints department and thereby making enemies on both sides of the crime game. A proper page-turner that continues Rankin's chronicling of his home city, this time in the wake of RBS's shaky year, it will keep fans happy – and rightly so.
Crime fans were also rewarded this year with The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (MacLehose Press, £18.99) the final novel in Stieg Larsson's Lisbeth Salander trilogy. His peerlessly plucky heroine finds herself hospitalised at the novel's opening and overcoming myriad fresh enemies before its end. Some of the prose is clunky but Larsson's trilogy is a masterpiece in plotting, all the more treasured for the knowledge that his premature death means no further sequels.
Back in the US, Jeffery Deaver continued to focus on his new Special Agent, Kathryn Dance. Roadside Crosses (Hodder, £18.99) uses the potential horrors of online bullying as its springboard. Ever the master at combining properly drawn characters with jaw-dropping twists, Deaver proves he doesn't need his best-known detective, Lincoln Rhyme, to be a bestseller.
Doing it for the girls, the Boston-set Keeping the Dead (Bantam, £6.99) by Tess Gerritsen and Sophie Hannah's Home Counties-based The Other Half Lives (Hodder, £6.99), are spectacularly gory and utterly gripping in equal measure. Gerritsen uses her considerable medical expertise to focus on CSI-style autopsies and a centuries-old victim, while Hannah brings us spectacularly sinister characters and throws them into some wincingly creepy dilemmas.
Those who find such gore unpalatable were well-served, too: David Nicholls' One Day (Hodder, £12.99) is a romantic comedy that the gents needn't be ashamed to read. Chronicling a friendship spanning two decades, Nicholls perfects the will-they-won't-they trick, starting with his leads at university in the 1980s and poking gentle fun at the decades following. A genuine tear-jerker as well as laugh-out-loud funny.
For more romantic comedy, albeit bittersweet, there was Marian Keyes' The Brightest Star in the Sky (Michael Joseph, £18.99), in which a house full of disparate characters sees their lives gently coincide. Keyes has just enough bite to do sentimentality without provoking fury in readers, despite using a curious device with an unnamed narrator. Keyes makes her chick-lit beginnings seem both far away but reassuringly close: there's more to her than whimsy.
And what's genre fiction without Jackie Collins? The woman who invented the bonkbuster returned with a brace of resplendently named characters in Poor Little Bitch Girl (Simon & Schuster, £18.99). As ever, the biggest fun is to be had in guessing which real-life tabloid fixtures it might be based on. This time, readers are also treated to Lucky Santangelo's slippery son as a key protagonist.
It's easy to complain that the market's getting smaller, but a look at their novels makes it obvious why these authors are doing so well: each excels at either plot or character, and often both. The only real quibble with most is that they need proof-readers who stand up to them more often. For example, Mr Brown, we don't need to be told that the same character has "gray eyes" four times in the first 100 pages: we will remember.
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