I wrote my ‘best of‘ 2018 fiction recently and it was, to be honest, a pretty poor list.
Not in terms of my choices of the good, the bad and the indifferent – I stand by them.
It was more in the breadth, or lack of it, of new stuff I read last year.
It’s not that I didn’t read a lot, it was more that I decided I had so much stuff on my virtual or actual shelves I’d accumulated over the last few years that I really should start reading some before I bought even more to try and fit into space into my house (have you ever seen one of those ‘hoarder’ shows on TV? Yeah – it’s getting a bit like that: one day they’ll come in and find my decomposing body under a mountain of books, one hand nibbled away by my cat…and I don’t even have a cat…but how will they know that?
Anyway, here’s some of the stuff I found or rediscovered in the last year…
The Chet and Bernie series by Spencer Quinn
Spencer Quinn is the pseudonym of Peter Abrahams – author of a number of adult and youth fiction. I read Abrahams years ago after Stephen King said that he was his favourite thriller writer in America. I read two books – The Perfect Crime, and Crying Wolf. When I came across the Chet and Bernie series (and I have no idea how that came to be), I had no clue who Spencer Quinn was. Would I have read any of them if I had known they were by the same author? I have no idea: the books I had previously read were perfectly fine, but they didn’t set my pulse racing. Moot point – I did read the first in the Chet and Bernie series, and I’m so glad I did.
In a nutshell, the Chet and Bernie series are light-hearted romps about Bernie Little, an amiable, handy in a fight/ heart of gold/ slightly hapless Private Investigator and his partner Chet – an occasionally confused, tough-as-nails, loyal-as-hell sidekick who loves Bernie more than anything in life and would lay down his life in an instant for him. The stories are told from Chet’s point of view.
Oh- and Chet’s a dog. That’s quite important.
The result is a series of genuinely funny crime tales. As an unreliable narrator, Chet’s a unique voice and the repetition/ slow-build of slowly exposed facts are a real strength of the series. (We know, for instance, that Chet got kicked out of K9 academy on his very final test…’something to do with a cat’ as he reminds us constantly in his foggy-doggy memory, and we know there was one terrible case that he and Bernie didn’t manage to solve in time which resulted in some tough justice – the ‘cat incident mid-jump’ has been explained, but the latter has only been hinted at and not, so far as I know, gone into full detail. But we know it was bad…and in the lightness of the novels’ tone that makes it stand out all the more.)
Sometimes, when a series goes for some time, repetition can become a bit of a bore…in the C&B stories they’re an asset. (“as I may or may not have already mentioned” becomes a bit of a mantra in Chet’s short span memory throughout the books – and it may have been something from three books ago or three scenes ago…)
How much do I like these books? Put it this way: I read the first one almost by accident via a random Kindle recommendation on my first day on holiday – by the end of the holiday the rest of my downloaded list had taken a bit of a backseat (something Chet wouldn’t approve of, as we’re constantly told whenever he’s forced out of his shotgun position in Bernie’s Porsche) and I’d got through a fair amount of the series.
Probably my favourite find of 2018 – and always nice when you’re late to the party and there’s a whole bunch of books waiting for you…
Body and Soul is one of my favourite books of all time and the best description of being a musician I have read. I was given it many years ago by a waitress in an Oxford cafe I used to dip into during breaks at work. (And I realise that could sound wrong…come on, we’re better than that.) I’ve written about it elsewhere, but at its most basic it’s the story of a young man’s life: a life changed for ever by his musical ability. It’s a beautiful piece of writing and has been known to make the most heartless of friends shed a tear. It’s also not the easiest book in the world to find which is annoying when you keep giving your own copy away because ‘you MUST read this’ – although Amazon seems to have copies in now.
So it was with great happiness I discovered that, although Body and Soul is his only full length fiction piece, Conroy did also publish a memoir, a collection of short stories and there are collated pieces of various non-fiction writing available. I managed to find a number of them during 2018 and am so pleased I did…read the novel first if you haven’t already – you’ll thank me for it.
Thomas H. Cook
Thomas H Cook has long been one of my favourite writers – while never seeming to reach the heights of popularity many of his mystery writer contemporaries have (at least in the UK), he is a consummate author: his writing is beautiful, and his twists are often brilliant. In a world where too many crime books are completely implausible or contrived to the point of just making you feel cheated, Cook writes twists that are both thoughtful and thought provoking – often playing on conventions that make you realise your assumptions were lazy, while others are finely crafted writing that are never contrivances and make you start again from the beginning just to check all the clues were there (they were. Always). Cook’s books may have twists, but they’re never just about the surprise: they’re natural, organic builds toward it and a wonderful read along the way.
As a writer he can make you feel jealous, as a reader, he’s a joy.
Not all of his books are readily available in the UK, which is a damned shame, but in 2018 I managed to find, via Amazon re-sellers, a few of his older titles I hadn’t yet got around to reading, and I wasn’t disappointed by any of them.
If you haven’t read him, pick up any title you can find – I haven’t been disappointed by one yet.
I like Lawrence Block’s books.
For regular readers, that may be a statement worthy of Chet the Jet in the aforementioned review: yeah, I know- I go on about the man a lot.
One of the better things about Kindle is how much previously unavailable stuff is now readable – often by the author themselves. Likewise, with the emergence or re-emergence in some cases, of small specialist presses, the republishing of previously out-of-print material is a treasure trove for mystery lovers.
I read a few old tales from LB this year – including the pictured Sinner Man , and The Girl with the Long Green Heart both published by the quite wonderful Hard Case Crime : if you’re any sort of mystery/ crime lover, you really should check out their offerings – reprints and new works from classic authors. If I was to pick one publisher I go to more frequently than any other these days, it would be those guys.
This is praise for both the publisher and the author: I love that Block will be completely honest about his early releases: as he himself says, many ask for a memoir- you start to get it in his introductions to some of these works. And I love that there is a publisher out there that are both bringing back the ‘lost classics’, but also encouraging some of the biggest names out there to write more hard-boiled fare (Hard Case Crime published ‘Joyland’ by Stephen King, which I consider to be one of the best things he’s written)
And lastly…you know I’m going to do it…but it’s true.
In deciding what stories to include in Basement Tales and You Could Make a Killing, I spent quite a lot of time re-reading my old stuff. Both the published and the unpublished – the completed and ‘never-quite-finished-that-one’.
And I was struck by what a lot of crap I have written over the years.
But I also found not all of those hours were wasted, and you know what? I still like some of that stuff I wrote at 20, at 30, at 40, even as I sit here tapping away at my electronic typewriter thingamajig.
Some of them I really like, and some of the unfinished stuff I decided were good enough to not leave dangling there unfinished…and then I started to think about Doris Day telling Frank Sinatra in Young at Heart about…oh, Chet the Dog’s not the only one who goes off on tangents.
Anyway – I enjoyed reading some of my old stuff again, and if you want to try it out, you can do – books available on this site, or via Amazon…and if you have Kindle Unlimited it won’t even cost you anything.