Crime fiction finds – are you better off with the backlist?

This year I wondered if I was falling out of love with crime fiction. Many of this year’s popular themes – from the domestic thriller to the lone vigilante seeking redemption – just didn’t appeal. So it’s been great to discover a handful of new favourite crime writers, whose books have drawn me in and made me want to read more.

That is, they’re new to me. They’ve all been around for several years, and some of their names were familiar to me, which proves my point in a way. Sometimes we needs to look beyond the latest trend, the avalanche of ARCs, what everyone else is reading, to find the books that really speak to us.

Chris Brookmyre

black widow chris brookmyreI’ve been not reading Christopher Brookmyre for a couple of decades now. I knew about his early novels, and even picked them up from time to time in the library, but somehow put them down again. I don’t even know why.

However, I recently picked up Black Widow and thought it was great. Brookmyre himself, in a note at the end of the book, says his later books (published as Chris Brookmyre) focus more on character.

Black Widow is about Diana Jager, a surgeon who is accused of murdering her husband. Diana is complex, prickly, not necessarily likeable, much like her nemesis, the protagonist of the series, Jack Parlabane. The book has a cleverly layered narrative structure and deals with contemporary issues in a thoughtful, non-predictable way. Storytelling for grownups.

Mick Herron

I reviewed Spook Street earlier this year and loved the prose and atmosphere and the undertone of LeCarré. Herron’s spooks are the antithesis of the invulnerable action hero. They are misfits whose personal flaws are deemed to outweigh their brilliance, thrown together in a shabby building, condemned to do the necessary but dull tasks that makes up much of the real work of the intelligence services. But for all that they do get into some scrapes…

Attica Locke

bluebird, bluebirdAnother name that was familiar to me, but I somehow had not got round to reading her till this summer when I reviewed Bluebird, Bluebird. Although I had some reservations about the plot, I loved the texture of the writing and the way Locke brings the conflicting pressures of the South to life. Straight after that I listened to Pleasantville on audio and loved it. The story centres on the experience of the Black American middle class, in a wide-ranging plot that draws in law and politics and corporate corruption as well as the conflicts within families and communities. It’s a story that’s been told in some TV dramas – such as The Wire and The Good Fight – but I haven’t seen it so much in fiction.

Helen Cadbury

Sadly Helen Cadbury died this year so there won’t be any more of her excellent series featuring PC Sean Denton. Although she follows the template of the police procedural, she brings a fresh perspective by focusing mainly on the civilian staff. In the first book, To Catch a Rabbit, Sean is a PCSO (civilian support staff) and the book also prominently features a crime-scene manager. Sean has close (and sometimes conflicted) relationships with his community in a deprived area of Doncaster and the plots tackle contemporary issues with great compassion and insight. While I’m looking forward to reading the third book in the series I almost want to save it, knowing it will be the last.

Harry Bingham

the deepest grave harry binghamDS Fiona Griffiths has an unusual relationship with death and sees the world with a unique perspective. Again, you could call this a police procedural, but it is like no other. I have come to the series quite late, starting with the sixth book, The Deepest Grave.

What I like is that  the stories are set in a modern police force, within a frame of faithful adherence to procedure, which Griffiths joyfully tramples all over.

The writing is wonderful and the plotting extravagant. There is humour and sharp observation but you also sense the underlying sadness in Griffiths’ distance from her more conventional peers.

Looking for a character-driven crime novel? Check out Brand New Friend

Brand New Friend by Kate Vane promo graphic


  1. There is very little more satisfying than discovering a new (to you) writer with a series behind them for you to catch up with. I agree completely about the loss of Helen Cadbury, whose last novel I have still to catch up with, and I am seriously jealous if you have the first five Fiona Griffiths to read for the first time. My own discoveries this year have been Matthew Frank (about ten pages in to If I Should Die I just sank back into my chair and thought, ‘oh, this man can write!’) Sarah Ward, Rob McCarthy and Helen Fields and I have just read a first novel due for publication in February by Alison James. It isn’t perfect, but for a first novel has a lot of promise.


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