Best Reads: July through November 2021- Part 2 – Best Crime Fiction

Real life got in the way this year and I didn’t do my normal wrap up of the quarter in September, so I’ve decided to wrap up the five months from July through November together. I’ve picked my top twelve from the fifty-seven books I read in the period. 

I’ve grouped nine of the books by genre: Speculative Fiction, Crime Fiction and Horror Fiction. Then I’ve picked three series that worked well for me and three intense novellas.

For ease of reading, I’ve broken this ‘Best Reads’ into posts covering three books or series or novellas at a time.

These are three very different kinds of crime books. The only thing that they have in common is that they are all the first book of a series. Which means I now have three more series on my ‘Must Read’ list. The first one is American hooked me because it has an unusual main character. The second one is very English and hooked me because it was a joyous read. The third one is set in 1930s Singapore and is a cosy mystery told from the point of view of Chinese Singaporean woman in close contact with the Brits running the Crown Colony.

 ‘A Familiar Sight’ is not your typical psychological thriller. It felt fresh and original, was populated with cliché-free characters with sharp edges and had more than a few surprises. And the storytelling was mesmerising. Best of all, it’s the first book in a new series.

The plot unfolds in short, lean, well-written chapters that alternate between two characters: Dr Gretchen White, an allegedly non-violent sociopath who is an acknowledged expert in antisocial personality disorders and has a track record of helping Boston PD solve violent crimes, and Reed Kent, a Southey boy who made it to Harvard, married an heiress and is now best known as the father of Viola Kent, a psychopathic little girl who is on trial for stabbing her mother to death.

What really made the book stand out was the character of Dr Gretchen White and the relationship she builds with the detective assigned to ‘babysit’ her in this investigation. Gretchen thinks differently from ’empaths’. She’s good at reading power and politics but poor at reading some emotions. She controls her violent impulses, most of the time. She enjoys taking risks and pushing people’s buttons. Getting a close-up view of the recently killed is a bonus but what she most needs is to know what happened.

With ‘The Thursday Murder Club’ you can believe the hype. It’s a rare and wonderful thing. to finish a book and know that the main thing you want to say about it is that it was joyous.That may not be quite enough to get you to read it, so here are the six things I liked most about it.

  1. Deeply nuanced portrayals of people and class: how they behave, how they speak and how they think. Small things like knowing the ritual conversations people have to lubricate social interactions or that, while everyone wants to show off that the cakes they’re serving came from Marks & Spencer, no one mentions that their staples are delivered weekly by Aldi or Lidl.
  2. Understanding that old people are exactly that, old and still people. I loved that Richard Osman neither ignored the challenges and inconveniences of being old nor did he define these people primarily by what they can no longer do. He portrays his main characters as people with a rich past and a present that, while narrower and less varied than what they were used to, is still something that they shape. They have agency and sometimes it brings them joy and at other times it just gets them through the day – just like the rest of us.
  3. A story that which, although it has a complicated puzzle at its centre, is driven by the characters of the people involved and by the way that they behave towards one another.
  4. Four main characters who are vividly drawn and so diverse that I suspect that readers would debate endlessly who the best character is, and a strong supporting cast who feel so real that you feel that you’d like to spend an afternoon with each of them to learn how they came to be where they are.
  5. A playful approach to the genre, using all its tricks to distract and mislead. The story is rich in red herrings but the intent is more to tantalise than to surprise. The red herrings are like the cryptic clues in a difficult crossword, there to make you feel clever for having understood them.
  6. Lesley Manville‘s flawless narration.

The Frangipani Tree Mystery is set in Singapore, then a British Crown Colony, in 1936. It is pretty much a perfect cosy mystery and with an original voice, a novel historical setting and a lot more excitement than I’d expected.

The main character SuLin is sixteen years old, the granddaughter of a powerful Singaporean woman who is the de facto ruler of her son’s not-always-strictly-legal businesses. Like her grandmother, SuLin is sharp and independent but she carries the stigma of being the unlucky granddaughter because both of her parents are dead and she has a permanent limp as a result of childhood polio. She has had an education, speaks fluent English and dreams of avoiding the marriage her family is arranging for her and becoming a journalist.

Through a series of events, SuLin finds herself under contract as a housekeeper to the man running the local British Police but, before she can take up her post, the governess of the Acting Governor’s only daughter dies suddenly, and SuLin is roped in to fill the gap until a white governess can be hired.

SuLin comes to believe that the governess was murdered and sets about finding out by whom.

What I liked most about the mystery was the mirror that it held up to the way the English Colonial Class thought. Initially, the arrogance and casual racism of the Governor’s family is presented as amusing.

I had a lot of fun with the book. It was cleverly done. The mystery was straightforward but the resolution was more complex and more satisfying. It was original enough to feel fresh and stimulating while still being familiar enough and gentle enough to be soothing. 

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