Crime & Thrillers: Sleuths in battle

 

Let's avoid saying that 2011 was the best of times, the worst of times for the crime and thriller field - but it has been a turbulent year, with regular visits by authors to both the heights and the depths.

The host of dispiriting, maladroit thrillers has (thankfully) been counterpointed by some exemplary writing, both from veterans and fresh-faced young pretenders. Of the latter, one of the most talked-about novels was produced by a shy NHS audiologist, SJ Watson. Word of mouth on Before I Go To Sleep (Doubleday, £12.99) was already impressive even before Watson bagged a CWA Dagger, and though he may have borrowed a premise from Christopher Nolan's film Memento, the assurance with which he finessed his narrative rivalled such old hands as Robert Harris.

Not that the latter was resting on his laurels, with The Fear Index (Hutchinson, £18.99) demonstrating why he has remained at the top of the tree. As usual, we're given a provocative central notion (involving hedge funds, sinister artificial intelligences and the collapse of the world economy), delivered with storytelling nous. Critics were also struggling to come up with new adjectives to praise the South African writer Deon Meyer's Trackers (Hodder & Stoughton, £12.99, trans. KL Seegers), a menacing tale of smuggling and disappearances on a sprawling canvas of post-apartheid South Africa. Historical crime may have moved into ever more unlikely territory in its attempts to re-energise the genre, but sterling work was still being done by such writers as Andrew Martin. The author produced one of the most impressive novels with The Somme Stations (Faber, £12.99), locating his railway detective Jim Stringer in the grim trenches of the First World War: a mesmerising mystery and a sober meditation on war. Still with historical crime, RN Morris's final outing for his revivification of Dostoyevsky's sleuth Porfiry (The Cleansing Flames, Faber, £12.99) wrote a poignant finish to an exemplary series. The Scandinavian invasion showed little sign of abating. Håkan Nesser's typically quirky The Unlucky Lottery (Mantle, £16.99; trans. Laurie Thompson) demonstrated that the author's idiosyncratic skills were still firmly in place.

But in the translated crime field, dispensers of Nordic Noir didn't quite have it all their own way. Keigo Higashino's The Devotion of Suspect X (Little, Brown, £12.99; trans. Alexander Smith & Elye Alexander) sold two million copies in Japan, creating a cult and delivering a tale of urban murder and bizarre psychology. One of the most venerable names of the thriller genre, Gerald Seymour, showed that age was not withering him with A Deniable Death (Hodder, £19.99), including a relatively sympathetic portrait of an Iraqi bomb maker.

And 2011 offered one serendipitous find - a lost crime novel by CS (Hornblower) Forester (The Pursued, Penguin Classics, £12.99), plus three dangerous cities to be visited: Moscow in Martin Cruz Smith's Three Stations (Pan, £7.99), London in Christopher Fowler's Bryant & May and the Memory of Blood (Doubleday, £16.99) and Istanbul in Tom Harper's Secrets of the Dead (Arrow, £6.99). All should be remembered when the lacklustre crime fare has settled into the silt.

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