The cynical, whiskey drinking, mac-wearing sleuth Philip Marlow is one of crime literature’s most enduring characters. Written in 1936, The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler has stood the test of time despite a dash of homophobia and sexism which, today, seem so outlandish it just makes you laugh. The story involves the wealthy General Sternwood, his spoilt, unruly daughters Carmen and Vivian, and blackmail. Chandler was in a league of his own when it came to astute observations of people and places and it’s this that sets The Big Sleep apart from so many others in the genre.
I’m finding that bitesized, escapist fiction suits my concentration levels these days and We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, perfectly fits the bill. The story of two mysterious sisters living with their ailing uncle in a grand, ivy-covered Vermont house is unsettling from the word go. We Have Always Lived in the Castle was Jackson’s – the American queen of ghost and horror stories – last and, many think, best novel.
Sixteen people at a family birthday party are mowed down by gunmen in the shocking opening scene of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. The sole survivors, Lydia and her 8-year-old son Luca, flee towards ‘el norte’ with Acapulco’s most feared narco baron, Javier Crespo Fuentes, and his henchmen at their heels. Sounds like an action film? Yep. And that’s both the appeal and the trouble with this gripping Mexican refugee novel.
Can’t think of a better escape right now than the 1938 novel Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, a glorious cocktail of jealousy, obsession, opulence and mystery. Our modest, unglamorous heroine works as a companion to a well-healed woman on holiday in Monte Carlo. There she meets the wealthy, dashing widower Max de Winter and an unlikely relationship begins. They marry and return to Manderley, de Winter’s palatial estate in England, where the ghost of de Winter’s dead wife Rebecca and the ghoulish housekeeper Mrs Danvers rule. An extraordinary psychological thriller.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re probably aware that The Testaments by Margaret Atwood, the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, was published a few weeks ago. The dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale was a game-changer when it came out in 1985, painting a terrifying picture of a totalitarian society in which women had been reduced to birthing machines. The arrival of Trump and religious extremism propelled the book back on the best-seller lists and inspired Atwood to write a sequel. Any follow-up to a brilliantly conceived, ground-breaking creation is a tall order and as much as I found this book an interesting, page-turner (always the case with Atwood, in my opinion), it also feels like a slightly paler version of The Handmaid’s Tale.
Two pages into The Porpoise by Mark Haddon (The Curious Incident Of the Dog in the Night Time) I was utterly hooked and only emerged bleary-eyed a day later after what felt like a roller-coaster ride. The book interweaves a contemporary story with one from antiquity, and whereas that might turn some of you off, it really shouldn’t. The Porpoise is first class, breakneck paced storytelling. A sort of literary Mission Impossible.
Set in a crumbling gothic mansion at the edge of a forest on the night of a glittering ball, a beautiful young woman is about to be murdered. Using established tropes from 1920s murder mysteries, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton, winner of the Costa First Novel Award 2018, is a very modern take on the genre. It’s an intricately plotted, disorientating, dark and immersive read that will keep you guessing right until the end.
Set in Tudor England, The Shardlake Series by CJ Sansom is a series of (currently) 7 books featuring the lawyer Matthew Shardlake and a cast of both real and fictional characters. Packed with mystery, murder and intrigue and a wealth of fascinating historical insights, I admit I have become a bit obsessed. Forget taxing literary fiction, here is your new guilty pleasure.
Twenty-one-year-old Stanford drop-out Elizabeth Holmes had a game changing idea for the health care industry, a steely determination and seductive powers of persuasion; she also had an execution problem and questionable ethics. In Bad Blood by John Carreyrou, an investigative journalist at The Wall Street Journal, we get the shocking story of Theranos, the largest health care start-up fraud in recent history. A page turning real-life thriller.
I find audio books only work for me if they are not too taxing. I want something I don’t need to flick back and forward, something that doesn’t require reading a paragraph over a few times to absorb the point, check one character’s relationship to another, or admire the imagery. So when I’m gardening slash driving slash ironing, literary fiction or challenging non-fiction is not on the menu. Instead it’s got to be an audio book that is suspenseful and absorbing enough to make whatever I’m doing pass quickly but nothing so deep that I have to concentrate too much – and of course narrated brilliantly. All hail, therefore, the fabulous detective novels in the Comoran Strike Series by Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling) and read by Robert Glenister.