Multifaceted and layered, elegiac yet intensely compulsive, Dirt Town is quite simply one of the best, most sustained pieces of crime fiction I’ve read in some time ― and I’ve read some good ones lately. Hayley Scrivenor has reconfigured familiar components into a mystery focused more on character development than on reaching its “big reveal,” or “whodunit.”
In Durton, a small country town in Australia dubbed “Dirt Town” by its children, twelve-year-old best friends Ronnie and Esther leave school together on a Friday, and separate on their way home. Only Ronnie makes it back, and five days later, her best friend’s body is discovered, buried and wrapped in plastic. So who killed Esther Bianchi?
Australian crime fiction fans are spoiled for choice nowadays. Whatever your predilection, there’s an author crafting a mystery or thriller styled to your taste. For the longest time I’ve searched for an Australian answer to Britain’s Sarah Ward and Cara Hunter, and I think I’ve found it in Dinuka McKenzie. The Torrent combines clever plotting, sure pacing and fully rounded characters into a superb small town police procedural.
There’s nothing high-concept or ostentatious about the Banjo Prize-winning author’s debut: The Torrent is engaging and compelling because of the purity of its storytelling mechanics. McKenzie’s narrative is so sure-footed, it’s hard to believe this is her introduction. Whereas so many first-time authors juggle too many narrative balls, or entwine storylines that are slow to gestate, or whose complexity completely undermines the book’s momentum, McKenzie has focus. NSW Detective Kate Miles works two cases that overlap ― a brutal robbery and assault at a local McDonalds, and the reopening of a closed case involving the accidental death of a man during torrential flooding ― but there is clarity in their connection and uncoiling.
What a year, huh? Never mind Covid — a real buzz kill — but in 2021 we moved house twice, and a couple weeks ago we celebrated the birth of our daughter. Despite all that turbulence, I managed to read 151 books this year (including graphic novels; a real saviour recently, when reading prose has felt far too hard an undertaking). You can check out my favourites here.
According to Goodreads, I read 43,911 pages. Based on their stats, my average book length was 290 pages. My longest was Ken Follett’s Never (816 pages) and my shortest was The Dry Heat by Natalia Ginzberg (86 pages).
That’s 14 fewer than last year, for those keeping score, and I imagine that number is going to be reduced further in the years that follow as my regular reading time is absorbed by parental commitments. But it’s not about quantity, it’s about quality and enjoyment.
Anyway, we’ll talk about 2022 next December. Let’s carry on with my 2021 breakdown.
There’s nothing better than sinking into a big book knowing from the start you’re in the hands of a master. I’ve done it a few times this year ― namely The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters; The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon; and more recently Hanya Yanagihara’s 2022 literary epic To Paradise. It’ll come as no surprise that Jonathan Franzen’s latest ― my first sampling of his work ― ranks among these.
Crossroads is the first in an intended trilogy: a great, sweeping family epic that begins here in Christmas 1971, in the small town of New Prospect, Illinois. It’s a time of great cultural upheaval in America; it’s an equally seismic period for the Hilderbrandt family, whose six members suffer the consequences of various individual bad decisions, and misdirected faith.
After two exceptionally intricate and absorbing thrillers (Greenlight and Either Side of Midnight), Benjamin Stevenson is back with a rollicking, twist-filled Gordian knot of a mystery that maintains the thematic through-line of his work: the bond between brothers.
Set in a remote, snowed-in Australian mountain resort during the Cunningham family reunion, Everyone In My Family Has Killed Someone embraces the genre’s staples with a knowing wink and a nod to the reader. Its opening page lists the 10 Commandments of Detective Fiction by Ronald Knox, who belonged to the Detection Club; an assembly of legendary mystery writers including Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers.
Most years I split my “favourite” stacks into regular fiction and crime fiction, but this time round ― mainly because we just had a baby, and I’m typing this with one hand while my other comforts our daughter ―I decided to just grab the ten books that most entertained, moved me, or provoked the most thought, and highlight them together.
Everything below was published in 2021, but I read plenty this year, published previously, that deserve special mention, particularly “The Paying Guests” by Sarah Waters, “The Silence of the Girls” by Pat Barker, and “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” by Michael Chabon.
Hanya Yanagihara returns post “A Little Life” with a genre-hybridising, sprawling and ambitious epic, whose characters have the same sense of interiority as JB, Willem, Malcolm and Jude, but whose canvas is bigger and more operatic. It’s an impressive novel, extraordinarily constructed, that rewards assiduous readers, or those prepared to go back and properly appreciate the continuity between its three narrative strands, which are set in 1893, 1993, and 2093 respectively.
‘I believe that we are lost, at the mercy of chance and that history laughs at our attempts to make a pattern or a plan.’
“Snow Country” is a melancholic love story in which two people, irrevocably scarred by their past, find themselves on a collision course with each other, and the discovery of their own hidden selves, at the snowbound Schloss Seeblick sanatorium.
This is the second novel in Sebastian Faulks’ Austrian trilogy, published sixteen years after “Human Traces,” their connection (as far as I could tell without giving anything away) restricted mostly to geography and theme. Set in Vienna, and stretched over the turbulent period between the two world wars when Europe was torn in half, its two principals are aspiring journalist Anton, and Lena; born into poverty, to an alcoholic mother, and unable to perceive a better life for herself.
After a few lacklustre entries in the Scarpetta series (culminating with “Blow Fly,” which asphyxiated from profuse intertextuality), I was convinced Patricia Cornwell’s literary franchise had lost its way and apprehensive about continuing my journey through each instalment. But actually, “Trace” is a return to form, and in fact a perfectly suitable jumping on point for series newcomers.
Here, Cornwell brings Kay (and Pete Marino) back to Richmond (where she was previously the Chief Medical Examiner) as a consultant for the newly-installed chief. She’s there to determine 14-year-old Gilly Paulsson’s cause of death, which has the local experts stumped.
This chunky geopolitical thriller by Ken Follett — his first contemporary novel in years — weaves together several plot lines in order to portray a chain of frighteningly plausible events that lead to nuclear war. It’s speculative fiction at its terrifying best, reminiscent of Tom Clancy’s “Red Storm Rising,” and Mark Greaney’s “Red Metal.”
“Never” is crammed with incident, but its breadth of activity and ping-ponging perspectives belies a neat, assured and ultimately straightforward structure that ensures its narrative never becomes inordinately convoluted. It’s a jam-packed cast, but Follett keeps things focused on five principals, including the American President, a high-ranking Chinese Intelligence official, a CIA operative running an agent undercover in Chad, who becomes embroiled in the lives of a widow and her child desperate to escape Islamic State by any means necessary.