I reconciled myself long ago to the fact I will never get to the end of a year without thinking I have not read as much as I should have. That said, I have read some great books this year. Fiction and non-fiction, old books and new, in no particular order, here are my top ten reads for 2018.
Red Dragon, Thomas Harris
This year, I read a few bestsellers from the past to see if I can figure out what made them so successful, and this was my favourite. The book that introduced Hannibal Lector, it is a riveting rollercoaster ride into the serial killer mind. Beautifully written and acutely observed. Harris includes some incredible detail on forensics and police procedure without overdoing it. Red Dragon is the perfect mix of elevated airport novel and hardboiled crime story.
Twisted Clay, Frank Walford
Australian writer, Frank Walford’s 1933 account of a murderous young woman, a pathological liar and sociopath, was banned in Australia until the late 1950s. The story, which contains patricide, sex work, suicide and the young female main character’s burgeoning awareness and enjoyment of her lesbian sexuality, is a wonderfully lurid read. One can only wonder what readers must have made of it in the 1930s. Not surprisingly, they seemed to like it as it was a bestseller in the UK and US, where it was published.
Saigon Dark, Elka Ray
Saigon Dark is a solid domestic noir set in Saigon and Hanoi. One night the main character, a young Vietnamese American woman, makes a terrible choice that involves her taking a Vietnamese street child and raising it as her own. She lives with the crime (although is it really a crime given the life the child might have otherwise had?), the guilt and secrets that arise from this and other things she does, for years until a combination of events threatens to reveal what she has done and unravel the new life she has created for herself. Ray pens solid characters, good dialogue and maintains great pacing and a genuine sense of dark suspense throughout the story.
1966: The Year the Decade Exploded, Jon Savage
Savage’s history of music, politics and culture in America and the UK in the pivotal year of 1966 combines an almost forensic level of detail with an engaging writing style. This book was so good I actually made an effort to read it slowly so it would last longer. I especially liked the way Savage focuses in on the lesser-discussed cultural undergrowth of the period and not just the well known big picture events.
Jack Waters, Scott Adlerberg
The fourth book by Brooklyn based crime author Scott Adlerberg is an historical crime story about a rakish New Orleans schemer, the title character, whose one great passion in life is playing cards, and whose one major dislike is people who cheat. Water’s private code gets him into trouble, forcing him to flee to a small, unnamed Caribbean island, where he quickly gets off side with the local elite and involved with a rebellion brewing in the impoverished but beautiful jungle interior. Jack Waters is a wonderfully, dark nuanced existential historical tale that confirms Adlerberg as a talented crime author with a knack for reimagining his writing.
Opening Wednesday at a Theater Or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American 1970s, Charles Taylor
Taylor posits that overlooked American B movies of the 1970s represent a rich hidden history of post-Watergate, post-Vietnam, post-Summer of Love America. A series of carefully drafted essays on individual films and their making and influence, Taylor is careful not to make exaggerated claims about many of these movies but his central point, that these films treated audiences as adults in a way many movies today do not, is an important one. As a major fan of 1970s American cinema, I just adored this book.
Bran Mak Morn: Legion From the Shadows, Karl Edward Wagner
I have been a big Robert E Howard fan since my teens but have usually been pretty disappointed with those works by other authors based on his characters. Not so, Legion From the Shadows. This is the Rolls Royce of Howard pastiches, which takes as its starting point the end of Howard’s 1932 short story, ‘Worms of the Earth’, featuring the Pictish king, Bran Mak Morn, one of his best characters.
Ripley’s Game, Patricia Highsmith
The second in the series written by Highsmith to feature the character of Thomas Ripley. Ripley has settled down, married a beautiful and none too bright French pharmaceutical heiress, and is living the good life in rural France. But he has lost none of his ruthless rat cunning, as we discover when his involvement in an art forgery scheme starts to unravel. It is a joy to read Highsmith throw every plot twist and complication imaginable at Ripley and for him to do whatever he has to extract himself from the mess.
Hard Boiled Hollywood: Crime and Punishment in Post-War Los Angeles, Jon Lewis
Lewis’s book doesn’t deliver a lot of new information or historical research about Hollywood. What it does deliver is the meticulous collection, collation and synthesis of a huge amount of pre-existing research, media commentary and popular culture folk law, which he weaves together into a cogent and comprehensive overview of post-World War II Hollywood, and the men, but mainly women, who came there hoping to make it big. An especially cogent work in light of the Weinstein saga and the #MeToo movement, Hard-Boiled Hollywood is an essential book for anyone interested in the history of America’s movie capital and how it got to where it is today.
Beautiful Revolutionary, Laura Elizabeth Woollett
Woollett’s novel spans the period of history from the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in June 1968 to the events that occurred in November 1978, when over 900 people died from drinking poison at the People’s Temple Agricultural Project, better known as ‘Jonestown’ in Guyana, founded by cult leader, Jim Jones. Although we never hear the story from his point of view, the book revolves around Jones, a self proclaimed socialist saviour, but also a sexual predator, quack faith healer and an increasingly unhinged demagogue. Around his myth and reality, Woollett creates a large cast of detailed point of view characters. Chief among these is young flower child, Evelyn, and her, somewhat ineffectual, conscientious-objector husband, Lenny, both of whom become involved in the People’s Temple. Beautiful Revolutionary is part twisted love story, part dark, noirish, crime novel. It has a wonderful prose style and is rich in historical and cultural history.
I am signing off from Pulp Curry for the rest of the year. If you celebrate Christmas, have a great one, and see you in the New Year.