Down the road from the Yorkshire Dales in the north of England, one can find a gorgeous idyllic small town called Harrogate. Each July, Harrogate welcomes thousands of crime fiction readers, authors, publishers, and assorted other folks who are passionate about tales with a dark side to the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival.
The festival lasts a whole weekend, and if you have the opportunity to attend, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Coming from America, it’s a journey–and will cost you a pretty penny–but it is worth every second of a screaming kid on a plane and overpriced cup of coffee.
The festival kicks off with a bang at the opening ceremonies, where the annual Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year is awarded. The selection process is different from most American awards, with an initial long list of eighteen books being whittled down to six finalists, who are then announced on July 1 and voted on by the public, with a final winner being decided by an illustrious committee, which this year includes one of my favorite authors (and festival chair) Val McDermid.
Of all the many award lists I’ve seen so far this year, this is my favorite by far. Because not all of the books have gotten a wide release (or, for that matter, marketing attention) over here, I wanted to share my thoughts on those I’ve read, and let you know how to get your hands on ’em. For the ones that are published in the US, you can, of course, also get them from your local library.
The Guilty One by Lisa Ballantyne
This is an exceptional first novel, an intricate tale of crimes in both the present and the past. The modern crime—the death of an eight-year-old by possibly at the hand of his eleven-year-old friend—was less interesting to me than the past of the accused’s lawyer, but both combine for a strong story.
Finders Keepers by Belinda Bauer
As far as I can tell, this one has not been released in the US, but it looks like a super story (I’m a sucker for flawed heroes). Here’s the jacket copy:
At the height of summer a dark shadow falls across Exmoor. Children are being stolen from cars. Each disappearance is marked only by a terse note – a brutal accusation. There are no explanations, no ransom demands… and no hope.
Policeman Jonas Holly faces a precarious journey into the warped mind of the kidnapper if he’s to stand any chance of catching him. But – still reeling from a personal tragedy – is Jonas really up to the task?
Because there’s at least one person on Exmoor who thinks that, when it comes to being the first line of defence, Jonas Holly may be the last man to trust…
Despite it not being officially released over here, you can get this one from Amazon. Also, BLACKLANDS and DARKSIDE, her first two books, are available in the US.
Rush of Blood by Mark Billingham
In a decided departure from his Tom Thorne police procedurals (which are fantastic), this stand-alone psychological thriller knocks it out of the proverbial park. Part whodunit and part whydunnit, you’ll be rooting for (and against) characters throughout. Oh, and as an American reader, it might be helpful for you to know that “pudding” in England means “dessert.”
Dead Scared by S J Bolton
This one has been on my To-Read pile for ages now. It’s gotten nothing but fantastic reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. Jacket copy:
When a rash of suicides tears through Cambridge University, DI Mark Joesbury recruits DC Lacey Flint to go undercover as a student to investigate. Although each student’s death appears to be a suicide, the psychological histories, social networks, and online activities of the students involved share remarkable similarities, and the London police are not convinced that the victims acted alone. They believe that someone might be preying on lonely and insecure students and either encouraging them to take their own lives or actually luring them to their deaths. As long as Lacey can play the role of a vulnerable young woman, she may be able to stop these deaths, but is it just a role for her? With her fragile past, is she drawing out the killers, or is she herself being drawn into a deadly game where she’s a perfect victim?
The Affair by Lee Child
Sixteen books in, Jack Reacher is still a reader favorite, and with good reason. In this one, we hang out with Reacher back in 1997.
If you don’t know where and how to get a Lee Child book, there’s something wrong with you. This one is available everywhere.
A Foreign Country by Charles Cumming
I haven’t read this one, but it looks like a cracker, especially if spy tales are your thing. Here’s the jacket copy:
Six weeks before she is due to take up her position as the first female head of MI6, Amelia Levene vanishes without a trace.
Her disappearance is the gravest crisis MI6 has faced for more than a decade. There has been no ransom demand, no word from foreign intelligence services, no hint of a defection.
Safe House by Chris Ewan
One of my favorites on this list, SAFE HOUSE introduces Rebecca Lewis, a kick-ass heroine, in the midst of a twisty mystery on the Isle of Man. It even has motorcycles!
Not Dead Yet by Peter James
Peter James’ books make me want to move to Brighton. Seriously. This is the eighth Roy Grace novel, and as always, it delivers.
Siege by Simon Kernick
This is another I haven’t read, but if you’re looking for a “race against time” thriller, it sounds like it fits the bill.
Prague Fatale by Philip Kerr
Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series is (yet) another that’s been on my To-Read list for years now. This might just be my first, and is a great choice if historical keep you turning pages. Jacket copy:
September 1941: Reinhard Heydrich is hosting a gathering to celebrate his appointment as Reichsprotector of Czechoslovakia. He has chosen his guests with care. All are high-ranking Party members and each is a suspect in a crime as yet to be committed: the murder of Heydrich himself.
Indeed, a murder does occur, but the victim is a young adjutant on Heydrich’s staff, found dead in his room, the door and windows bolted from the inside. Anticipating foul play, Heydrich had already ordered Bernie Gunther to Prague. After more than a decade in Berlin’s Kripo, Bernie had jumped ship as the Nazis came to power, setting himself up as a private detective. But Heydrich, who managed to subsume Kripo into his own SS operations, has forced Bernie back to police work. Now, searching for the killer, Gunther must pick through the lives of some of the Reich’s most odious officials.
The Rage by Gene Kerrigan
Yes, I’m biased toward Irish authors, but Gene Kerrigan really is one of those who should have a lot more visibility over here. This police procedural is a must-read, particularly for noir fans, and has received nothing but stellar reviews.
The Dark Winter by David Mark
From the Too Many Books, Too Little Time department, this one has also been resting in my To-Read pile since it was released. People I trust say it’s excellent. Jacket copy:
Hull, East Yorkshire. Two weeks before Christmas, an elderly man – the only survivor of a fishing trawler tragedy 40 years before – is found murdered at sea. In a church, a young girl – the last surviving member of a family slaughtered during the conflict in Sierra Leone – is hacked to death with a machete. A junkie, who fled the burning house where he had set his family alight, is found incinerated on a rundown council estate. Someone is killing sole survivors in the manner they had escaped death. And it falls to Detective Sergeant Aector McAvoy of Humberside CID to find out whom. McAvoy, despite being a six-foot-five, man mountain of a police officer, is not your typical bullish detective. A shy, gentle giant, he is a family man obsessed with being a good and decent cop; more dab hand with a database than gung-ho with a gun – traits that have seen him become increasingly isolated from his colleagues in the force. Desperate to prove his worth, McAvoy knows he must establish the motive behind the killings if he is to have any chance of pinning the perpetrator. And he must do so quickly, as this twisted yet ingenious killer appears to have an appetite for murder.
The Lewis Man by Peter May
Proving that no matter how hard I try, I miss some books completely. This is one, but I’ve added it to my Scotlandpalooza list for this year! Here’s the jacket copy:
When Tormod’s family approach Fin Macleod for help, Fin feels duty-bound to solve the mystery.
A perfectly preserved body is recovered from a peat bog on the Isle of Lewis.
The male Caucasian corpse – marked by several horrific stab wounds – is initially believed by its finders to be over two-thousand years old. Until they spot the Elvis tattoo on his right arm. The body, it transpires, is not evidence of an ancient ritual killing, but of a murder committed during the latter half of the twentieth century.
Meanwhile, Fin Macleod has returned to the island of his birth. Having left his wife, his life in Edinburgh and his career in the police force, the former Detective Inspector is intent on repairing past relationships and restoring his parents’ derelict croft.
But when DNA tests flag a familial match between the bog body and the father of Fin’s childhood sweetheart, Marsaili Macdonald, Fin finds his homecoming more turbulent than expected. Tormod Macdonald, now an elderly man in the grip of dementia, had always claimed to be an only child without close family.
A lie, Fin will soon discover, Tormod has had very good reason to hide behind.
Gods and Beasts by Denise Mina
Denise Mina won this award last year for THE END OF THE WASP SEASON, which I didn’t read until this year. Turns out, she really deserved to win, and I’m hoping to read GODS AND BEASTS before July. In the meantime…
A hold up in a Glasgow post office: A well dressed dotting grandfather hands his beloved grandson to a tattooed stranger, steps out of the queue and helps the robber. He seems to know that the man can’t leave the post office and let him live. He stands, passive, and lets the man do what he wants.
Morrow begins the investigation with a bad feeling about it. She wants to go home. That’s all she ever wants to do, to go home to her boys, but the robbery pulls her into the city and lives she could only begin to imagine.
Stolen Souls by Stuart Neville
So far this year, everyone’s been talking about Neville’s RATLINES, and rightfully so. I loved STOLEN SOULS, though, in no small part because of the intricately formed characters.
Sacrilege by S. J. Parris
I’m putting the fact this is another I was unaware of down to the fact that I don’t read many historicals. If you do, though, this one sounds terrific. To wit:
London, summer of 1584: Radical philosopher, ex-monk, and spy Giordano Bruno suspects he is being followed by an old enemy. Instead, he is shocked to discover that his pursuer is in fact Sophia Underhill, a young woman with whom he was once in love. When Bruno learns that Sophia has been accused of murdering her husband, a prominent magistrate of Canterbury, he agrees to do anything he can to help clear her name.But in the city that was once England’s greatest center of pilgrimage, Bruno uncovers a more dangerous plot in the making, one that forces him to turn his detective’s eye to the strange case of Saint Thomas Becket, a twelfth-century cardinal of Canterbury Cathedral whose mysterious murder is only matched by the legend surrounding the disappearance of his body.
Birthdays for the Dead by Stuart MacBride
I’m really looking forward to meeting Stuart MacBride, whose CLOSE TO THE BONE knocked my socks off (almost literally) earlier this year. His nominated title, a stand-alone novel, is one of the books I’m most looking forward to reading before July.
A Dark Redemption by Stav Sherez
This book is an excellent example of why I’m such an advocate of Harrogate. Last year, I met in person author Stav Sherez, whom I’d only known online before, and our too-brief chat ensured that I grabbed a copy of A DARK REDEMPTION before departing. (Have I mentioned that the festival has an awesome bookstore on site? It does.)
So there you have the long-list. Were I in charge of such things, my short list would comprise:
- Rush of Blood by Mark Billingham
- Safe House by Chris Ewan
- Not Dead Yet by Peter James
- Stolen Souls by Stuart Neville
- Birthdays for the Dead by Stuart MacBride
- A Dark Redemption by Stav Sherez
Come July 18, I’ll be reporting from Harrogate on the winner (on Twitter in real time, if you’d like to follow along).
Good luck to all the nominees…and happy reading!