The 16th Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Shortlist.

The shortlist for the 16th Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year has been announced, taking the reader on an international crime spree from New York to Calcutta, London to Lagos via Glasgow and the Australian outback. 

Chosen by a public vote and the prize Academy, the titles in contention for this most prestigious of prize’s – which feature five Theakston award alumni and one debut novelist – showcase exceptional variety and originality, including spy espionage, historical crime, gallows humour, outback noir and serial killing siblings.

The news coincides with updated lockdown reading research from Nielsen Book showing that the genre is continuing to soar in popularity, a trend led by younger readers and men. Alongside an increase in the overall number of crime and thriller novels in the bestseller charts, even more people are turning to the genre in lockdown, particularly younger readers (18-44). Of the three quarters saying that their fiction interests have changed, 26% say that crime and thriller has become their genre of choice.

Marking a meteoric rise since being selected by Val McDermid as a spotlight author in the 2019 Festival’s highly respected ‘New Blood’ panel,Oyinkan Braithwaite remains in pursuit of the coveted trophy with the Booker nominated My Sister, the Serial KillerBased in Nigeria, Braithwaite is the only debut author remaining, and one of the youngest ever to be shortlisted. Inspired by the black widow spider, Braithwaite turns the crime genre on its head with a darkly comic exploration of sibling rivalry, exploring society’s feelings towards beauty and perfection. 

The remaining five authors on the shortlist are all previous contenders hoping 2020 is their year to claim the trophy. The legendary Mick Herron, likened to John Le Carré, has picked up a fifth nomination with Joe Country, the latest in his espionage masterclass Slough House. A former legal editor, Herron’s commute from Oxford to London led to the creation of this much-lauded series, which is currently being adapted for television with Gary Oldman taking on the iconic role of Jackson Lamb.

Scottish-Bengali author Abir Mukherjee is vying for the title with Smoke & Ashes, described by The Times as one of the best crime novels since 1945. Accountant turned bestseller, Mukherjee was shortlisted in 2018 for the first book in the Wyndham & Banerjee series set in Raj-era India, The Rising ManSmoke & Ashes – the third  instalment – is set in 1921 in Calcutta, where Mukherjee’s parents grew up and where he spent six weeks each year during his childhood.

Authors making it through to the shortlist for the first time include Glasgow’s Helen Fitzgerald for Worst Case Scenario, which marks her first appearance on the Theakston list since The Cry, adapted into a major BBC drama starting Jenna Colman, was longlisted in 2013. Packed with gallows humour, Worst Case Scenario takes inspiration from Fitzgerald’s time as a criminal justice social worker in Glasgow’s Barlinnie Prison, alongside her experiences with depression and going through the menopause.

Despite receiving international recognition, before Belfast’s Adrian McKinty started writing The Chain – for which he picks up his second Theakston nod – he had been evicted from his home and was working as an Uber driver to make ends meet. Persuaded to give writing one last go, McKinty started on what would become the terrifying thriller that sees parents forced to kidnap children to save their own, and for which Paramount Pictures has acquired the screen rights in a seven-figure film deal.

The final title on the shortlist is The Lost Man by former journalist Jane Harper, who was previously longlisted for her debut The Dry in 2018, for which the film adaption starring Eric Bana is due to be released this year. Inspired by the beautifully brutal Australian environment, The Lost Man explores how people live – and die – in the unforgiving outback and is a moving – particularly topical – study in the psychological and physical impact of isolation.

The full shortlist for the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year 2020 is:

–                 My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (Atlantic Books)

–                 Worst Case Scenario by Helen Fitzgerald (Orenda Books)

–                 The Lost Man by Jane Harper (Little, Brown Book Group, Little, Brown)

–                 Joe Country by Mick Herron (John Murray Press)

–                 The Chain by Adrian McKinty (Orion Publishing Group, Orion Fiction)

–                 Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee (VINTAGE, Harvill Secker)

Executive director of T&R Theakston, Simon Theakston, said: “Seeing the huge variety and originality within this shortlist, it comes as no surprise to hear that crime fiction is dominating our lockdown reading habits. Offering both escapism and resolution, these exceptional titles transport readers around the world and I can’t wait to see where we settle on 23 July when one of these extraordinary authors takes home the 2020 Theakston Old Peculier cask.”

The award is run by Harrogate International Festivals and supported by T&R Theakston Ltd, WHSmith and the Express, and is open to full length crime novels published in paperback from 1 May 2018 to 30 April 2019 by UK and Irish authors.

The shortlist was selected by an academy of crime writing authors, agents, editors, reviewers, members of the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival Programming Committee, representatives from T&R Theakston Ltd, the Express, and WHSmith, alongside a public vote. 

The shortlist will be promoted in a dedicated online campaign from WHSmith, digital promotional materials will be made available for independent bookstores, and the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival’s online community – You’re Booked – features exclusive interviews and interactive content. This forms part of the Harrogate International Festival virtual season of events, HIF at Home, which presents a raft of live music, specially commissioned performances, literary events and interviews to bring a free festival experience to your own digital doorstep.

The public vote for the winner is now open on  www.harrogatetheakstoncrimeaward.com, with the champion set to be revealed in a virtual awards ceremony on Thursday 23 July marking what would have been the opening evening of the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. The legendary gathering – which formed part of Harrogate International Festival Summer Season – was cancelled, with much sadness, due to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The winner will receive £3,000 and an engraved oak beer cask, hand-carved by one of Britain’s last coopers from Theakstons Brewery.

The Sideman by Caro Ramsay – Blog Tour Review.

About The Book

Inside a beautiful Victorian family home in Glasgow’s West End, a mother and her young son are found brutally murdered. DI Costello is furious and knows exactly who did it, George Haggerty, the husband and father. The only problem is that Haggerty has a cast-iron alibi – the police themselves caught him speeding on the A9 at the time of the murders. But Costello can’t let it go. Determined to expose Haggerty as a ruthless killer, she’s gone solo. 

DCI Colin Anderson has no time to ponder his partner of twenty years going rogue, as his own cases are piling up. But Costello’s absence becomes increasingly worrying. Has she completely disappeared following the tracks of a dangerous man?

My Review

With thanks to the publisher for the copy received. I read The Sideman straight after finishing the previous book in the series, The Suffering Of Strangers. This is something I rarely do but I needed to know who had murdered the mother and her young son. 

I find this series quite refreshing, I don’t think I’ve read a novel where a relative of the deceased features so heavily, appearing to trying to get answers and justice. When you are also aware that she could be responsible. An alcoholic, alone and recovering from the events that happened to her in the earlier book. 

I liked getting to know Anderson more and being able to see how his personal life worked. His is more confusing than many but I’m sure I will get all my answers when I read the earlier books. I also had a lot of appreciation for the scenes that featured Mathieson and Bannon. One of them, at least, not likeable but I imagine they were realistic.

I could really visualise the setting. Remote, beautiful and slightly dangerous. Even if I couldn’t pronounce it, I wasn’t on my own, many of the recurring characters couldn’t either. It gave me a feeling that there was a slight North/ South divide, not just with the inability to pronounce correctly but also the attitudes of everybody from either community.

The Message by Mai Jia – Blog Tour Review.

About The Book

China, 1941.

While war rages in Europe, Japan has established itself as the supreme power in Asia. The beautiful province of Hangzhou has become a stronghold of the Japanese puppet government. One day, five officers from the code-breaking department are escorted to an isolated mansion outside the city. One of them has been sharing secrets with the communists. No-one is leaving until the traitor is uncovered. It should be a straightforward case of sifting truth from lies. But as each code-breaker spins a story that proves their innocence, events are re-framed, and what really happened is called into question again and again. Part revisionist history, part playful meta-fiction, The Message is at once an absorbing and cerebral spy thriller and a commentary on storytelling itself.

My Review

With thanks to the publisher for the copy received. The Message is the first Chinese fiction book that I have read and despite knowing nothing at all about either Chinese or Japanese history I found it fascinating. If at times a little confusing.

In three parts, the first concerns the interrogation of the five people. You don’t really get to know much about any of them, most of the focus is on the ways of getting information, the tricks that Hihara and the others tried to get the information they required. And the mercifully brief descriptions of the torture methods used when this failed. It was this part of the book that I found the most confusing, partly due to my lack of knowledge concerning the history and partly due to the number of people involved. I had no idea who Ghost was or if the right person had been found guilty.

The second part was my favourite, it was here that I realised what meta -fiction was and I stopped looking for information about the characters online. More importantly I felt I got to know at least two of the characters more. Not necessarily liking them but I understood them more and had more sympathy. It was also here, when I started to appreciate how clever this book was. 

The third part goes into detail of the history of the conflict between China and Japan, the identities of some of the characters involved and the beauty of the area where all the crimes took place. And the believable account of how it was protected.

I have never read a book like this before, not easy to read but I’m glad I took a chance. 

Hamnet by Maggie O’ Farrell – Blog Tour Review.

About The Book

TWO EXTRAORDINARY PEOPLE. A LOVE THAT DRAWS THEM TOGETHER. A LOSS THAT THREATENS TO TEAR THEM APART.

On a summer’s day in 1596, a young girl in Stratford-upon-Avon takes to her bed with a fever. Her twin brother, Hamnet, searches everywhere for help. Why is nobody at home? 

Their mother, Agnes, is over a mile away, in the garden where she grows medicinal herbs. Their father is working in London. Neither parent knows that one of the children will not survive the week.

Hamnet is a novel inspired by the son of a famous playwright. It is a story of the bond between twins, and of a marriage pushed to the brink by grief. It is also the story of a kestrel and its mistress; flea that boards a ship in Alexandria; and a glovemaker’s son who flouts convention in pursuit of the woman he loves. Above all, it is a tender and unforgettable reimagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, but whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays ever written.

My Review

With thanks to the publisher for the copy received. I have been interested in reading this book for a few months so was thrilled to be asked to support its publication. I am aware of the play, Hamlet, but don’t know what it is about or that it was named after his son who died when he was a child. I have however, visited Stratford Upon Avon a few times and know the streets and the houses that are connected to Shakespeare.

Although the book concerns William Shakespeare and his family he isn’t named. He is known throughout as his son, her husband or their father. All of the other characters are named, even though his wife is known as Agnes not Anne. I liked the way this was done, showing that whilst he was living in London writing, there was another equally important life back in Stratford. And it was because of this life that he was able to do it instead of teaching Latin and selling gloves. And more importantly keeping him away from his father.

I adored Agnes. Her spirit, her strangely modern approach to life and her way of reading people. It is implied that she could see the future but she could also accurately see a person’s true character. Especially concerning her father in law and her stepmother, and I liked how she used that knowledge to help her family. And most of all I liked the way she ignored all who tried to ridicule or insult her. I also liked her brother Bartholomew, large and protective and wise.

I have never read anything like this before. It made me want to find out more about the plays and when I go back to Stratford I will be looking with new eyes.

Second Sister by Chan Ho-Kei – Extract – Blog Tour.

About The Book

From the author of the acclaimed novel The Borrowed, a very timely and propulsively plotted tale of cyberbullying and revenge, about a woman on the hunt for the truth about her sister’s death. 

Chan Ho-Kei’s The Borrowed was one of the most acclaimed international crime novels of recent years, a vivid and compelling tale of power, corruption, and the law spanning five decades of the history of Hong Kong. Now he delivers Second Sister, an up-to-the-minute tale of a Darwinian digital city where everyone from tech entrepreneurs to teenagers is struggling for the top. 

A schoolgirl – Siu-Man – has committed suicide, leaping from her twenty-second floor window to the pavement below. Siu-Man is an orphan and the librarian older sister who’s been raising her refuses to believe there was no foul play – nothing seemed amiss. She contacts a man known only as N. – a hacker, and an expert in cybersecurity and manipulating human behavior. But can Nga-Yee interest him sufficiently to take her case, and can she afford it if he says yes? 

What follows is a cat and mouse game through the city of Hong Kong and its digital underground, especially an online gossip platform, where someone has been slandering Siu-Man. The novel is also populated by a man harassing girls on mass transit; high school kids, with their competing agendas and social dramas; a Hong Kong digital company courting an American venture capitalist; and the Triads, market women and noodle shop proprietors who frequent N.’s neighborhood of Sai Wan. In the end it all comes together to tell us who caused Siu-Man’s death and why, and to ask, in a world where online and offline dialogue has increasingly forgotten about the real people on the other end, what the proper punishment is.

Extract

When Nga-Yee left her flat at eight that morning, she had no idea her whole life would change that day.

After the nightmare of the last year, she was sure better times were ahead if they just gritted their teeth and clung on. She firmly believed that destiny was fair, and if something bad happened, something good must naturally follow. Unfortunately, the powers that be love playing cruel jokes on us.

A little after six that evening, Nga-Yee dragged her exhausted body homeward. As she walked from the shuttle bus stop, her mind busily calculated whether there was enough food in the fridge to make dinner for two. In just seven or eight years,prices had risen alarmingly while wages stayed the same. Nga-Yee could remember a pound of pork costing twenty-odd dollars, but now that barely got you half a pound.

There was probably a few ounces of pork and some spinach in the fridge, enough for a stir-fry with ginger. A dish of steamed eggs on the side would complete a simple, nutritious dinner. Her sister Siu-Man, who was eight years younger, loved steamed eggs, and Nga-Yee often served this soft, silky dish when the cupboard was almost bare—a fine meal with chopped scallions and a dash of soy sauce. Most important, it was cheap. Back when their finances were even tighter, eggs got them through many a difficult moment.

Although there was enough for that night, Nga-Yee wondered if she should try her luck at the market anyway. She didn’t like leaving the fridge completely bare, her upbringing had left her wanting a backup plan at all times. Besides, quite a few vendors dropped their prices just before closing, and she might pick up some bargains for the next day.

Ooo-eee-ooo-eee.

A police car sped past, the siren piercing Nga-Yee’s thoughts of discounted groceries. Only now did she notice the crowd at the foot of her building, Wun Wah House.

What on earth could have happened? Nga-Yee continued walking at the same pace. She wasn’t the sort of person who liked joining in the excitement, which was why many of her secondary school classmates had labeled her a loner, an introvert, a nerd. Not that this bothered her. Everyone has the right to choose how to live their lives. Trying to fit in with other people’s ideas  is pure foolishness.

“Nga-Yee! Nga-Yee!” A plump, curly-haired, fiftyish woman waved frantically from among the dozen or so onlookers: Auntie Chan, their neighbor on the twenty-second floor. They knew each other to say hello, but that was about it.

Auntie Chan sprinted the short distance toward Nga-Yee, grabbed her by the arm, and dragged her toward the building. Nga-Yee couldn’t make out a word she was saying, apart from her own name, sheer terror made her voice sound like a foreign language. Nga-Yee finally began to understand when she picked out the word “sister.”

In the light of the setting sun, Nga-Yee walked through the crowd and was finally able to make out the horrifying sight.

People were huddled around a patch of concrete about a dozen yards from the main entrance. A teenage girl in a white school uniform lay there, tangled hair obscuring her face, dark red liquid puddling around her head.

Nga-Yee’s first thought was, Isn’t that someone from Siu- Man’s school?

Two seconds later she realized the still figure on the ground was Siu-Man.

Her little sister was sprawled on the cold concrete. All the family she had in the world. Instantly, everything around her turned upside down. Was this a nightmare? If only she were dreaming. Nga-Yee looked at the faces around her. She recognized them as her neighbors, but they felt like strangers.

“Nga-Yee! Nga-Yee!” Auntie Chan clutched at her arm, shaking her violently.

“ Siu-Man?” Even saying her name out loud, Nga-Yee couldn’t connect the object on the ground with her little sister.

Siu-Man ought to be at home right now, waiting for me to cook dinner.

“Move back, please.” A police officer in a neatly pressed uniform pushed through while two paramedics knelt by Siu-Man with a stretcher.

The older paramedic held his hand beneath her nose, pressed a couple of fingers to her left wrist, then lifted an eyelid and shone  a penlight at her pupil. This took just a few seconds, but Nga-Yee experienced every one of these actions as a series of freeze frames.

She could no longer feel the passing of time.

Her subconscious was trying to save her from what would happen next.

The paramedic straightened and shook his head.

“Please step back, clear the way please,” said the policeman. The paramedics walked away from Siu-Man, looking somber. “Siu-Man? Siu-Man! Siu-Man!” Nga-Yee pushed Auntie Chan aside and dashed over.

“Miss!” A tall police officer moved quickly to grab her by the waist.

“Siu-Man!” Nga-Yee struggled futilely, then turned to beseech the officer, “That’s my sister. You have to save her!”

“Miss, please calm down,” said the policeman in a tone that suggested he knew his words would have no effect.

“Please save her! Medics!” Nga-Yee, all color  drained  from her face, turned to implore the departing ambulance crew. “Why isn’t she on your stretcher? Quick! You have to save her!”

“Miss, are you her sister? Please calm down,” said the police- man, his arm around her waist, trying to sound as sympathetic as possible.

“Siu-Man—” Nga-Yee turned back to look at the broken  figure on the ground, but now two other officers were covering her with a dark green tarp. “What are you doing? Stop  that! Stop that now!”

“Miss! Miss!”

“Don’t cover her, she needs to breathe! Her heart is still beat- ing!” Nga-Yee leaned forward, her energy suddenly gone. The policeman was no longer holding her back, but propping her up. “Save her! You have to save her! I’m begging you . . . She’s my sister, my only sister . . .”

And so, on this ordinary Tuesday evening, on the empty ground in front of Wun Wah House, Lok Wah Estate, Kwun Tong District, the normally voluble neighbors fell silent. The only sound among these cold apartment buildings was the heartbro- ken weeping of an older sister, her sobs rushing like the wind into each person’s ears, filling them with a sorrow that could never be wiped away.