Festive Felony: Anthony Horowitz Recommends the Best Crime Books of 2017
For Anthony Horowitz, time spent in the company of a good crime novel this year has had to take second place to busily writing his own second crime novel, The Word is Murder - the first in a new series following the bestselling Magpie Murders. Nevertheless, he’s crossed paths with some unmissable crime fiction this year and he’s chosen the highlights of his findings exclusively for Waterstones. From contemporary thrillers to historical mysteries it’s got something for everyone; perfect for those readers for whom Christmas wouldn’t be complete without a murder or two under the tree.
Waterstones have asked me to review five or more books but I’m afraid these are the only crime novels that passed across my desk this year. There are two reasons for this. When I’m writing my own series of murder mysteries, the last thing I need in my head are other writers’ suspects, clues and red herrings so generally I avoid them. It’s worse than that. Occasionally I’ll stumble across an idea which had already occurred to me but which I then cannot use without worrying about plagiarism. There’s an example in this brief selection; a clue relating to a car seat in Sophie Hannah’s novel. I’d had a very similar idea stored up and I’m quite annoyed to see it used so deftly in her book.
I will mention four wonderful crime novels which I also read this year, although they were all written some time ago. The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr (1935) and The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux (1907) are two wonderful examples of the genre known as “the locked room mystery” – one which I’ve always enjoyed. The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shamada (1981) also has a locked room element – and a rather gruesome but ingenious method of committing multiple murders. Finally, The Secret House of Death by Ruth Rendell (1968) has a brilliant and original construction. I wish I’d thought of it.
Did you see Melody? by Sophie Hannah
It’s one of the most intriguing premises in crime fiction: the murder victim who doesn’t actually seem to be dead. So here we have Cara Burrows seeing refuge from her loving but selfish family for a two-week stay in a vast hotel and health spa in, of all places, Arizona. She’s given the key to the wrong room and bursts in on a father and daughter…but the daughter is “America’s most famous murder victim” and her real parents are in jail for the crime. What follows is a twisty, psychological thriller with an edge of social satire, particularly in its depiction of a truly scummy reality TV show – Justice With Bonnie – a sort of Judge Judy with real murders! I hate books like this when they fall apart at the ending but Sophie Hannah ties all the knots perfectly in a suspenseful and satisfying conclusion. A fun read.
The Mitford Murders by Jessica Fellowes
This was something of a guilty pleasure. What’s not to like in a book that begins on Christmas Eve 1919 and weaves in characters named Clout and Spilsbury, Christmas pudding, Turkish Delight, a wicked uncle and the murder of an elderly nurse (Florence Shore) on a steam train? The story divides itself between the heroine, Louisa Cannon, beginning work in the nursery of the Mitford family – yes, the real Mitfords – and a murder that seems to echo back to the trenches of the First World War. It’s a slightly bonkers concept, an unholy marriage between Downton Abbey and Midsomer Murders – but it’s exactly the sort of book you might enjoy with the fire blazing, the snow falling etc. The solution is neat and the writing always enjoyable. Apparently there’s going to be a whole series focusing on the different Mitford series and I can’t wait to see what she does with Unity and her love affair with Adolf Hitler!
Lie of the Land by Amanda Craig
Amanda Craig might flinch, seeing her latest novel described as a crime book and certainly it’s much more than that. But it qualifies for this selection because there is a crime and an investigation at the heart of it and anyway it’s the only way I can slip it in and recommend it as one of my favourite reads of 2017 and by far her most accomplished novel so far. Lottie and Quentin (two characters we already met in Hearts and Minds) are bankrupt, unemployed and about to divorce. The only way for them to survive is to rent out their London house and move together to a dystopian Devonshire countryside where they live, reluctantly, in an old farm house. But why is the rent so low? Gradually they discover that somebody was murdered there, the remains are buried in the garden and the killer is still at large. Craig’s characters – old pop stars, failed poets, casual racists – are perfectly drawn and the writing is sharp, witty and very well-researched. I swear I’ll never eat another meat pie after reading this. It works on every level… a social satire, a family drama and, yes, a mystery.
An English Murder by Cyril Hare
I have always had a fondness for “golden age” detective fiction and this book, first published in 1951 was re-released this year (with a rather lovely cover) by Faber and Faber. An English Murder is so true to the genre that it could almost read as a parody. There’s an aristocratic family, a butler, a country mansion snowed in on Christmas Eve, a secret love affair and a bottle of cyanide handily kept in the pantry. As the visitors gather at Warbeck Hall, we’re invited to wonder not just which one will be the killer but who will be killed – and the murder duly takes place at a suitably melodramatic moment. But it’s not a parody; it’s the real thing, an absolutely delightful read written by an author I’d never heard of but who comes close to rivalling Agatha Christie. That said, I did find the solution a touch arbitrary – and almost impossible for the reader to solve without a good knowledge of the English constitution. But that’s how the book got its title.