The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

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Bestselling cult Japanese thriller The Devotion of Suspect X doesn’t ask you to find the murderer is- it’s quite clear as single mother Yasuko kills her ex-husband for threatening her daughter.

You’re instead asked to figure out how it was covered up, as her innocuous maths teacher neighbour, Ishigami, pops around the door and offers to help her. Inverting the structure of a traditional murder mystery, this is now a how-dunnit. 

It’s a battle of wits as Professor Yukawa, helping the investigating police team, plays criminal chess with the mathematical mastermind teacher. The conceit is clever and deceptively simple when explained, although I’m not sure I was given enough information to have a fair shot at working it out. For something so intellectual, it’s surprisingly emotional. It shows how, behind quiet suburban life and everyday behaviour, love, fear and guilt are powerful forces.

It’s also perfectly paced. I wondered how it could work knowing the murderer from the beginning. Surely whatever is revealed is an anticlimax? But Higashino doesn’t miss a beat, building from a slow start to a frenzied and shocking climax in a police station.

Read: For ideas on how to cover up the theft of your housemate’s biscuits

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

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The Marriage Plot sounds all twee and rom-commy, like a modern Jane Austen. Beautiful and privileged Madeleine studies Victorian writers at Brown in the 80s. She falls in love with cool scientist, Leonard, whilst her friend, geeky theological student Mitchell, is secretly in love with her. 

A bit more sentimental than I’d expect from the author of the Virgin Suicides, it nevertheless delivers emotional truths about growing up. This is about coming of age, as the three try to find purpose in different ways and navigate adult relationships. Mitchell goes to India on a proto-gap year. Madeleine effortlessly cycles through literary theory trends. Eugenides is good at bottling youthful nostalgia. 

He’s actually at his best when writing on darker, more complex subject matter such as the book’s compelling exploration of mental illness. Leonard’s manic depression is a nuanced look at the highs and lows, the self-medication, the internal struggle, and the impact on others. 

It’s ironically the romantic love triangle that falls down a bit. Structuring the novel against the marriage plots of old makes me shrug my shoulders. So what? It’s a literary construction that bears no relevance to the ache of young love and introspective angst captured. 

Read: When flicking through old essays and photo albums from university

The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy

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I had a complicated relationship with The Black Dahlia. I didn’t really enjoy it, but I equally couldn’t stop reading it. Filled with obsession and self-loathing, I devoured Ellroy’s classic in a sitting.  

In real-life 1947, a young woman named Elizabeth Short is found mutilated and murdered in LA. An aspiring actress dressed in black, she’s nicknamed by the press ‘The Black Dahlia’. In fictional 1947, Bucky Bleichert, LAPD officer and amateur boxer, investigates. He gets sucked into the murky underworld of Hollywood, riddled with exploitation, crime and corruption. Even the good guys are either morally bankrupt and emotionally damaged (or both).

The book itself is deliberately exploitative as a literary device, mimicking news coverage of the time. Actually, the novel isn’t really about Elizabeth but about the impact her death has on others. Bucky’s first-person narrative perspective fills the book with unhealthy obsession and a hint of existentialism.

Is it the pinnacle of LA Noir? Did it spawn it? The tropes and cliches are now so familiar that it’s hard to tell what came first. Irrespective, it’s so nihilistic and seedy that it has my usually-optimistic self wanting a warm bath and my dressing gown to recover.

Read: If you like your eggs (and fiction) hard boiled 

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

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You’ve woken up, but have no idea where you are or even who you are. You have to solve a murder that happens at midnight. You relive this same day in the body of eight different people, and have those eight days to solve this murder. 

Confused? Yes, me too. 

These are the parameters of The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. It’s a recognisable English country house whodunnit, but it has a strange video game vibe too. The layers within layers and multiple parallel narratives feel very modern. Pleasingly, it’s marketed as ‘Gosford Park meets Inception’- There’s definitely a Christopher Nolan influence but it’s actually more like Memento. It’s very stylish, whatever it is.

A common criticism is that it’s too clever- it takes a lot of mental energy to keep up with the twists and turns that accompany each ‘host’ or revelation of another clue. Examining the parameters of the universe disturbs the complex conceit a bit. Thankfully there isn’t too much of that- enough to explain why things are happening, but not enough to spoil the 1920s period feel.

I enjoyed it. I think. I also felt quite stressed throughout. The pace is frenetic and adrenaline pumping. But it’s like they say, if you can’t take the heat, stay out of the terrifying stately home time-warp.

Read: For a fresh new take on the murder mystery genre

The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen

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The premise of The Heat of the Day would make anyone’s pulse race: a love triangle and thrilling espionage in London during WWII, at the height of the Blitz.

Stella Rodney is an attractive middle-aged woman with a lover, Robert, an heroic injured soldier. Harrison, a strange intelligence officer who sporadically appears in Stella’s life, warns her that Robert is a spy for the Germans and suggests he’ll withhold this information if Stella leaves Robert for him. Also in the mix are Stella’s enlisted son Rodney, an inheritance from their rich cousin Charles, and Louie, a flighty young woman on the town whilst her husband is at the front.

Despite such exciting subject matter, I found it absolutely unreadable. The characters all speak in subjunctive convoluted sentences, laden down with multiple sub clauses (who knows? Maybe this is how they spoke back then). It’s all the back-and-forth of Noir and none of the directness, laced with some extra Edwardian politeness and stuffiness in case you weren’t bored and confused enough.

I wanted sexual tension, double crossing, and impulsive blackout trysts. Instead I got long conversations about inheritance, social propriety, and eating arrangements. Each conversation hints at exciting subtext, but it’s so deeply buried beneath that I can’t be bothered to find it.

It’s such a shame. I was so predisposed to love this but it barely raises an eyebrow, never mind a pulse.

Read: Not in the heat of the day. You’d definitely fall asleep.

The Circle by Dave Eggers

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A topical read in light of the recent Cambridge Analytica and Facebook revelations, The Circle looks at data, privacy and the way we interact online.

Mae goes to work at The Circle; a futuristic tech company focussed on linking you to your online identity to create a ‘TruYou’. Through her induction and work, she witnesses innovative concepts as to how the analogue world can be digitised: camera feeds to digitise and make accessible visuals around the globe, chips implanted in children to stop abduction, voting systems moved online.

It is simultaneously paranoia-inducing and fascinating, effectively summing up my attitude to technology generally. It is very convincing, exploring hard-to-articulate contemporary topics and their moral implications.

Sometimes it verges on silly- any theory extended to its furthest logical conclusion is. It’s more a thought exercise than other science fiction like Fahrenheit 451 or Brave New World. Characterisation mostly falls flat at the expense of the technological concepts being explored.

Aside from a couple of moments between Mae and best friend Annie, there’s not a lot of soul to this book. Like it’s subject matter, it is a data-driven, emotionless algorithm- incredibly effective at what it does but without humanity.

Read: If you’ve been thinking about deleting your Facebook profile

Dear Life by Alice Munro

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Dear Life is just so…Canadian. I mean that as a genuine compliment, by the way. It’s just so considered, moderate and lovely.

Nothing that extraordinary happens in this collection of tales. Nobel Prize-winning Alice Munro writes of characters who are farmers, teachers, clerks, and housewives. Played across these snippets is the spectrum of hope, happiness, melancholy, disappointment, anger, and confusion arising from everyday situations. As a collection, they form something lovely from very basic ingredients.

Individually, they are beautifully written in meandering, gentle prose and are elegantly constructed- concise but with exactly the amount of colour to capture character and feeling. Each is just enough to satiate but not too much that you don’t want more.  Munro’s best writing is as a child or adolescent- her narrators have a touching naivety about them.

The best are the last four; she calls them autobiographical in feeling if not in content. The one called Night is particularly special- a sleepless young girl finding peace in the still of the night. It is the pinnacle of Munro’s skill in elevating the ordinary, in a most un-showy Canadian manner.

Read: To gently soothe you to sleep at night

Christodora by Tim Murphy

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Welcome to the Christodora- a charming historic building in East Village, New York, witness to decades of life. Residents include a young artist couple with their adopted son and an old down-and-out man, using young lovers as an antidote to deep depression.

Tracing their antecedents and stories back and forth over four decades, the book becomes less about the building itself and more about a setting where societal issues like activism or gentrification are played out, where art is created, where addiction creeps into lives.

I think the best parts are those about the AIDS activists, a subject I don’t know much about but whose pioneers fill me with deep awe. This is a part of history that is gradually being forgotten or disregarded as the struggle is considered ‘over’. It’s also a good, easy-to-understand fictional depiction of how class, sexuality, and race intersect in minority or political movements.

It’s a lot to take in. The book is lengthy from a richness and attention to period detail. Sometimes thematically it doesn’t tie neatly together. Which is fitting because like its historic namesake, Murphy’s novel is complex, charismatic and bursting with anarchic free spirits.

Read: For a slice of New York history

A Column of Fire by Ken Follet

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Reading A Column of Fire is to swashbuckle your way through the important historical moments of Reformation Europe. We witness the French Wars of Religion, the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots, the attack of the Spanish Armada, and even Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot. Follet squeezes a lot in.

I loved the first two books of the series. The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End were original in that they accessibly showed the intersection of religion and everyday life within small Medieval communities. They really demonstrate the power of good historical fiction to both illuminate and entertain.

This riffs off similar themes: Protestant merchant’s son Ned Willard falls in love with Catholic local entry Margery Fitzgerald. Religion and social mores divide them and so we follow the course of their (inevitably exciting) lives, amongst those of a whole cast of other characters.

Fans of the first two books might feel disappointed as this feels quite a different style. Because of the huge scope, some of the narrative suffers as reader attention is spread too thinly and not much action happens in Kingsbridge, diluting the bubbling community feel that made the first two immensely readable.

As a stand-alone, it’s as entertaining as watching pirates plunder a ship with all guns blazing (perhaps because that’s an actual scene for the book). Which is to say, very.

Read: For an armchair Tudor adventure

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

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Imagine hearing voices in your head- a cacophony of people all burbling away at once.

No, you’re not going insane, you’re just reading Lincoln in the Bardo.

The multiple-voices style takes some getting used to but, once you’re in, the rhythm the effect is startling, charming and invigorating. Saunders’ experimentation pays off with great momentum.

The Bardo is a place between life and death where souls reside. It is liminal, a half-life purgatory where ghosts try to cling onto their lives in perpetuity. Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie dies and thus the President visits the Bardo to grieve, watched and narrated by the community of spirits.

If it sounds deeply tragic and feverishly morbid then that’s correct- it is. There’s a dead printmaker obsessed with his young wife, a grotesque young man with multiple eyes and limbs who has committed suicide, a dead civil war soldier on the rampage, a mute violated slave and many others. Surprisingly, it’s very funny because of some sharp sitcom-esque humour.

Not everyone will like this. There is a trite moment around emancipation and slavery. Some characters are easier to listen to than others because of their vernacular. It’s very stylised. Saying that, it’s easy to criticise someone for taking a risk and the rewards here are great.

Read: For a great example of experimental contemporary literature.