UNDER THE RADAR: SEVEN GOOD BOOKS YOU MAY HAVE MISSED IN 2023
Every year there are piles of books released with a fanfare of manufactured publicity by publishers, and certain reviewers, while other equally good books quietly find their way onto bookseller shelves and Kindle lists. This has particularly been the case in Australia in recent years, where the consolidation of newspapers and industry budget cuts have led to less books being reviewed and overall number of reviews greatly reduced. Meaning that some very good titles remain virtually invisible to potential readers, even though they are far better written and more enjoyable than the latest Patterson et. al., blockbuster.
In advance of doing my own summation of the year’s best crime and thriller titles, I thought I would do my usual list of seven good books that slipped under the radar and were overshadowed by celebrity releases and over-hyped domestic suspense thrillers.
Some of them may appear on my Best Books of the Year lists, but all are good and well worth checking out. In some cases they are books by smaller publishers, or those which focus on the library market, while others seemed to have limited, or no, release in Australia. This was particularly the case with a couple of very good books from our New Zealand neighbours, which are more readily available in the United Kingdom and the United States than they are in Australia! There are also a couple of books which mainly came out as Audible or eBooks.
With a bit more publicity, I think all of them would have found larger, appreciative audiences.
The order is a bit arbitrary, as all are very entertaining. I have attached links to my earlier reviews, where I have done one.
Mike Ripley’s marvellous continuations of the Albert Campion novels by Margery Allingham are always a delightful piece of fun and in 2023 we had Mr Campion’s Memory (Severn House, August 2023), which is probably the strongest entry in the series so far.
Moving back and forth between 1972 and 1932, it is a well crafted mystery that intrigues and keeps the reader guessing until the final exciting chase through the English countryside.
The story opens with Albert Campion’s nephew Christopher, an aspiring public relations guru, seeking his help with a client. Construction magnate Sir Lachlan McIntyre enjoyed a meteoric rise after the Second World War and is in line for a life peerage, but his reputation is in jeopardy when he becomes the suspect in a murder inquiry. Journalist David Duffy was found shot dead in his car close to McIntyre’s rural retreat shortly after a heated exchange with the magnate. Duffy was more interested in McIntyre’s youthful years in the 1930s than his rags-to-riches claim to success, but the businessman saw his interest as being an invasion of privacy.
Campion knows nothing of McIntyre or Duffy, but the police are curious as to why his name appears, along with others, under the heading 1932 in Duffy’s notebook. Campion is baffled by the notation and the names, but as he digs into his own past a pattern appears, and old, dangerous memories resurface.
This is a very engaging crime story. There is a good sense of mystery, and the unfolding of past and present crimes is well handled. As usual, the characters sparkle, and Campion is in good form with plenty of wry comments and the occasional laugh out loud observation.
An absolute treat.
Darcy Coates’ Dead Of Winter, (Poisoned Pen Press, 25 July 2023), is one of those books that seems to be mainly targeted at the Kindle and Audible market, although a paperback edition is available in the United States.
The story traverses familiar thriller territory, but does so in an assured and very entertaining way. A tour group becomes becomes lost and isolated in the depths of the Rocky Mountains, when a snowstorm forces their bus off the road. They are intent on waiting out the snow in an abandoned hunting cabin, but then the killings start.
This is a first rate thriller. Darcy wastes no time in setting the scene and the pace never falters from the tense ‘lost in the blizzard’ beginning to the final twisty outcome. The claustrophobia of being stuck in the cabin with a possible killer is well conveyed and believable, and the cast of characters are nicely diverse and credibly flawed. I could not put this one down.
Here is the link to the full review: https://murdermayhemandlongdogs.com/isolation-snowstorms-and-murder-new-novels-by-adele-parks-and-emma-darcy/
Alex Finlay’s What Have We Done, (Head of Zeus, February 2023), quietly made its way to Australia early in the year, with only brief appearances in bookshops. I bought a copy whilst overseas and really enjoyed it.
The story revolves around group of five friends who were raised as foster children in an institution known as Savior House. Unlike some of the children, they survived their years at the home and have gone their separate ways. Most of them have not seen each one another since they left those abusive foster-home halls, until, twenty-five years later, they are reunited for a single, inescapable reason: someone is trying to kill them. To save their lives, the group will have to revisit the nightmares of their childhoods and confront their past, a past that holds the key to everything.
This is a very well constructed and highly addictive book that brings to mind the best thrillers by Harlan Coben. The pacing is brisk and Finlay smoothly manages the shifting perspective between the surviving friends. There are some good action scenes and the suspense steadily mounts until the bloody, twisty climax in the forest near the former Savior House.
This was close to being on my top ten list and is a very enjoyable read.
Adrian Magson’s Killing Waters is another one which seems to be mainly available on Kindle.
The story features former undercover HM Customs investigator Isaac Jackson, who is looking after a gym and a canal boat owned by an army buddy. He is enjoying the change of pace teaching fitness and self-defence, but when a friend in the tight-knit boating community is murdered he is pushed into investigating. He soon finds himself caught up in a nasty web of corruption and people trafficking.
This is a good, straight forward crime thriller with a well sketched cast of characters and a briskly moving plot that quickly draws you in. The action is frequent enough to keep it interesting, and there is a good sense of mystery around what is happening. Magson’s depiction of life on the English canals is interesting and he creates a clear sense of place around the waterways and the local community. A very enjoyable read, that is cheaply priced on Kindle.
See the full review here: https://murdermayhemandlongdogs.com/new-2023-british-crime-fiction-peter-james-and-adrian-magson/
Vanda Symon is a leading figure in New Zealand crime writing, but her books are very hard to find in Australia. Her latest, Expectant (Orenda Books), came out early this year, but as far as I know it is yet to be released in Australia, although it is available in the United Kingdom etc.
Here is the review I did for Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine in July 2023:
“It has been a long wait for the latest Sam Shepard book. We last saw the New Zealand detective back in 2011, but now the very pregnant Sam is back and in very good form.
The murder of a heavily pregnant woman shocks the normally quiet town of Dunedin, especially as the gruesome details are released. For Sam the crime feels uncomfortably close to home, but because of her condition she is bitterly confined to a desk job. Desperately Sam hunts past records trying to find the missing link between this brutal crime and a string of cases involving mothers and children in the past. As the pieces start to come together, and the realisation dawns that the killer’s actions are escalating, Sam finds herself at the centre of the investigation and in trouble.
From the strong, emotional opening section through to the tense, and relatively surprising conclusion, Expectant is a powerful and gripping crime story. The characterisations are first rate and Sam is a very good lead character, with a good mix of flaws and steely determination. The other characters are also well developed and the interactions between the police officers drip with credibility.
As usual, there is a vivid sense of place to the story and Vanda also nicely captures the tempo and feel of the city and the New Zealand sense of humour.” Recommended!
Better The Blood by Michael Bennett, (Simon & Schuster UK), is another New Zealand book, which does not seem to have made its way to Australia, in any numbers.
Better The Blood was released in New Zealand in late 2022, but was released internationally in July this year, and was recently announced as the winner of the 2023 New Zealand Ngaio Marsh award for Best Debut Crime Novel.
I have just finished Better The Blood and it is a very strong novel, and it is easy to see why it has been attracting attention in New Zealand and overseas. The story about a Māori Auckland detective, Hana Westerman, confronting her own heritage while hunting a serial killer through the city’s streets is a powerful read. The mixture of crime and social commentary works very well and Bennett shines a fascinating light on New Zealand history and the violent legacy of colonisation. The descriptions are very evocative and Hana is a fascinating character, who has real depth to her.
A first class crime novel, that should be high on everyone’s reading list.
Finally, 2023 saw some very good Australian crime novels being released. One which slipped under the radar a bit, probably because of its early January release date when everyone was at the beach, was Simon Rowell’s Wild Card (Text, January 2023).
A follow up to Rowell’s The Long Game, Wild Card was a very engaging novel that once again featured damaged copper Detective Sergeant Zoe Mayer of the Victorian Police Force and her trusty service dog Harry. The story followed Zoe’s efforts to solve the murder of a notorious biker on the Victorian side of the Murray River, and was an entertaining and insightful read.
Wild Card is not a flashy novel with lots of wild twists, but instead it is a well constructed story that engages the reader and keeps them interested. Having said that, there are a couple of good unexpected turns to the plot, as well as a few shocks, as the story moves its way to a tense and surprising ending.
Here is the link to my full review: https://murdermayhemandlongdogs.com/new-aussie-crime-january-2023/
I have also just finished Rowell’s next novel, The Good Dog (Text, 30 January 2024), which is due out next year and it is another terrific read.
So some good reading, which you may have missed during the year. I will be doing a list of my Top crime and thriller titles in the next few days.