11 May 2020

Lockdown Lit: Five Fab Crime Novel Series

Like many people, my prime time for reading was on my commute, which gave me a total of 90 minutes to two hours per day with a book or my Kindle. I read 135 books in 2019, most of them on the bus, but when the lockdown was brought in in London, I found it hard to motivate myself to read initially. I had so much more time to myself but I couldn't quite tear myself away from the Sisyphean search for scintillating shows on streaming services, or random rabbit holes on the internet.

Part of the problem was that I was being too ambitious. I started re-reading one of the set texts from my Italian degree — Boccaccio's Decameron, which is delightfully bawdy and lockdown-relevant, but also very long. Then I came across Jane Casey's new novel, The Cutting Place, which was being serialised in The Times. But when I realised it was part of a series, I decided to start with the first DC Maeve Kerrigan novel instead.

Well-written detective novels are a great choice for lockdown reading matter. They're gripping and have good characterisation (albeit with a predominance of demon-ridden detectives), and in the case of detective series, they provide a steady stream of literary entertainment. Regular readers of this blog will know that I'm a fan of the genre and these books feature regularly in my end-of-year book lists. As such, I've picked five of my current favourite series; if you're looking for literary distraction during 'these uncertain times', I'd recommend checking them out.

1. Tana French — Dublin Murder Squad
I've waxed lyrical about Tana French's books many times before but despite an OK, if not outstanding, BBC TV adaptation of the first two books (yes, Cassie Maddox is played by the same actress as Connell's mum in Normal People!), my admiration has not diminished. French writes beautifully and her characterisation is impeccable. In the Dublin Murder Squad series, each book features a main detective who narrates the story, flitting between the current crime under investigating and his or her own, usually troubled, past. There's also a secondary detective who then becomes the protagonist of the next novel, allowing deeper insights into their very essence. French's Dublin is a gritty place and her cast — the detectives and others — often fall victim of their own poor choices. I particularly rate her exquisitely detailed interrogation scenes. These novels are slow burners but if you stick with them, they will stay with you long after you've turned the final page.

Detective demons: 5/5 (average)

2. Sophie Hannah — Waterhouse and Zailer
Sophie Hannah's series, set in a fictional county near Cambridge, features perhaps the most frustrating, and yet still compelling, pair of detectives, Charlie Zailer and Simon Waterhouse. I first read one of the later books, The Carrier, without realising it was part of a series. I found the terse relationship between the two — and all that was left unsaid — slightly confusing, but it made much more sense once I started from the beginning. The crimes tend to be of the domestic noir variety, but with an apparently impossible puzzle at their heart. If you've ever seen Jonathan Creek, you'll know the sort of puzzle I mean. Sometimes, you have to suspend your disbelief slightly when all is revealed, but that never stops you racing through to get to the solution. Hannah's standalone novels are good too, although I missed the Simon-and-Charlie factor.

Detective demons: 4/5 (Charlie), 5/5 (Simon)

3. Elly Griffiths — Dr Ruth Galloway
The protagonist of Elly Griffiths' books is a forensic archaeologist rather than a police officer, but she is brought into regular — professional and personal — contact with the local Norfolks constabulary, including DCI Harry Nelson, as a consultant on murders new, and less new. Ruth is a fantastic character — stubborn and spiky, but clever, fiercely independent and kind. I often recommend this series to people who aren't in the mood for the bleaker, darker crime series I enjoy. Don't get me wrong; here be murders most horrid, but there are lighter, more humorous and quirky moments too that balance things out. Griffiths' descriptions of the North Norfolk coast also make me want to visit, although I didn't get round to it before lockdown.

Archaeologist demons: 2/5

4. Cara Hunter — DI Adam Fawley
It was the Oxford setting of Cara Hunter's first novel, Close to Home, that attracted me. I grew up in the city and I always enjoy seeing its representation in books and films, especially those that look beyond the glitz, the glory and the honeyed-stone buildings of the university. Domestic crimes feature heavily, with DI Adam Fawley and his team brought in to investigate. The latest book, All the Rage, set in North Oxford, features what sounds like a fictional version of my school (and the same fictional name I use in my own fiction). If you're in need of a quick crime fix, these suspenseful novels are real page-turners and although there are some continuations of the detectives' storylines between books, it isn't quite as essential to read them in order as some other series.

Detective demons: 4/5

5. Jane Casey — Maeve Kerrigan
The first novel in Jane Casey's series about DC Maeve Kerrigan hit home perhaps a little too hard, featuring, as it did, a woman called Rebecca, who worked in PR, lived near Tower Bridge and went to Oxbridge! Nonetheless, I was quickly charmed by the brilliant and outspoken young Irish DC, a rising star on a high-profile Metropolitan Police murder squad. The rich tapestry of London, from grand houses in Wimbledon to north London council estates, comes out in this series — like the others on this list, the setting and sense of place are important characters. It's hard not to root for Maeve, even as she remains her own worst enemy. DI Josh Derwent, brash and sexist but an adept detective, serves as a good foil, as much of a bad influence as a mentor.

Detective demons: 3/5

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