My year in books

InfamyWill I ever come to the end of a year without the feeling I haven’t read nearly as much as I should have?

Unlike other years I’ve at least got a clear list in terms of my top five reads for 2013.

Here they are.

Infamy, Lenny Bartulin

Infamy is set in 1830s Tasmania. British mercenary William Burr is hired by the colonial government of Van Diemen’s Land to track down an escaped convict, Brown George Coyne. While Burr may be the hero of the novel, if one exists, Coyne and his Indigenous ‘wife’, Black Betty, steal the story. Coyne is a terrifying creation, a former convict, psychopath and cannibal, also a revolutionary working to unite a motley crew of escaped convicts with what’s left of the island’s Indigenous population, to overthrow the colonial government and rule as a self styled king of Van Diemen’s Land. 

Infamy is a superbly rendered piece of historical fiction, a dark, almost noir crime story, and a unique and unashamedly Australian take on the western. Possibly my best read of 2013.

Generation Loss, Elizabeth Hand

Cass Neary made her name in the seventies as a photographer of what was then the burgeoning New York punk movement. Thirty years later she’s a washed up, semi-alcoholic mess, when out of the blue, an old acquaintance gives her an assignment to track down a famous and reclusive photographer living on a remote island of the coast of Maine.

There is so much I liked about this book – the incredibly flawed female character, the wild setting and the ruminations about New York in the seventies and the art of photography. It is an genuinely unusual and engaging crime yarn.

Zero at the Bone, David-Whish Wilson

Zero at the Bone is a sequel to Whish-Wilson’s 2010 book, Line of Sight, which established Whish-Wilson firmly in my mind as the president of the, albeit very small, club of Australian writers who do noir fiction and do it well.

Frank Swann, the main character from Line of Sight, has left the police force and is scrapping together a living as a private investigator, when an attractive widow hires him to find out why her geologist husband decided to blow his brains out. Set in 1979, Zero at the Bone is a riveting crime story and a vivid examination of the political economy of Western Australia. The period detail is terrific. Like an expert surgeon, the author cuts away to reveal an anatomical dissection of corruption and street level history, Perth’s geography, economic and class relations, its tribes and sub-cultures, including the ruthless tribe of all, bent cops.

The Last Good Kiss, James Crumley 

I think I might have read The Last Good Kiss for the third or fourth time in 2013, but it still makes my top five books. It is that good, possibly the best piece of private investigator fiction ever written.

It certainly has the best opening line:

“When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside Sonoma California, drinking the heart out of a fine spring afternoon.”

The Last Good Kiss starts off with CW Sughrue being paid to find an alcoholic, larger than life, presumably Norman Mailer-type writer called Abraham Traheane and ends up with him searching for a lost woman in San Francisco. PI crime fiction gets a bad wrap these days. A lot of people think it’s said everything it can say, that it’s boring and derivative. And, Christ knows, there is certainly a lot of boring PI crime novels out there. But done well, the private investigator is a terrific vehicle to explore society and its underbelly. And in The Last Good Kiss, Crumley uses it to explore the battered bars and small towns of seventies post-Vietnam American.

In a Lonely Place, Dorothy Hughes

Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place is probably my favourite film noir, so this year I decided to read the 1947 book it was based on.

Dix Steele is a good-looking, amoral, manipulative lounge lizard who has bummed money from a rich relative with the excuse of coming out to LA from New York and writing a crime novel. A chance encounter reconnects him with an old air force buddy, now a cop, Brub, and his slightly uptight but decent wife, Sylvia. Brub is working on the case of a mysterious strangler who has killed a number of women. Dix starts hanging out with the couple, and when he isn’t fantasising about seducing Sylvia, pumps Brub for information about the case with the excuse that he needs it as material for his book. But does he have far darker motives for being so interested?

There’s a distinct whiff of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mister Ripley is Hughes’ book. There’s a wonderfully bleak sense of what a fundamentally atomised and alienated place post-war LA must have been and what a come down peace must have been for so many men after the adrenaline fuelled high of the war. War may be hell, but peace is much more lonely.

Honourable mentions

The Dream Life: Movies, Media and the Mythology of the Sixties, J. Hoberman

A must read for all fans of sixties and seventies cinema, an extraordinarily well-written and detailed journey through two decades of American cinema and its connection to the turbulent politics of the time.

Live By Night, Dennis Lehane

Boardwalk Empire meets LA Confidential in this terrific saga of crime and corruption in prohibition era America. Lehane’s prose has a fluid, almost effortless feel. It’s like he’s so on top of his game and knows what he’s saying so well that he can knock books out between beers over a lazy weekend.

Queer Pulp, Susan Stryker

If you visit this site regularly, you’ll know I’m a huge pulp fiction buff. Queer Pulp is not just a terrific piece of research on the subject of gay and lesbian pulp, it’s also a wonderful exploration of the connection between pulp writing and mainstream society’s fears and anxieties.

And with that, dear reader, I bid you farewell for 2013.

Thanks to all of you who have read my site over the last year and, especially those who have taken the time to comment on my posts or pass them on to others via social media. It is very appreciated.

If you celebrate Christmas, have a great one.

I’ll be taking a break for most of January and will see you in 2014.


6 Responses

  1. Excellent choices, Andrew, including a few (e.g. Zero at the Bone) that I really very much want to read. All the best to you and your family for the holiday!

  2. Thanks Margot. All the best to you and yours for the festive season. I look forward to talking to you in 2014.

  3. A good list, with a mixture of old and new. I want to read four of your top books for sure, and will look into the Elizabeth Hand book. For the David-Whish Wilson book, I would want to read the first one first. My husband is interested in photography, so might be a good one for him.

  4. Tracy,
    Thanks for stopping by. I can really recommend the Hand book, it’s a great read.

  5. Great list! In a Lonely Place is one of my favorite books.

  6. Pingback: Australian historical fiction reading list | Angela Savage

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