Books by the Beach: Barry Forshaw: my top 10 crime novels

Barry Forshaw
Barry Forshaw

Critic and writer Barry Forshaw is a regular host for Books by the Beach, which runs in Scarborough from Wednesday April 11 to Sunday April 15.

He returns this year as his latest guide to crime writing – Historical Noir – is released.

Here he gives a taster of his book and names his top 10 historical crime novels.

Fancy a trip back in time? There is now a slew of historical sleuths operating from the mean streets of Ancient Rome to the Cold War era of the 1950s.

This astonishingly varied offshoot of the crime genre is winning a slew of awards, notably the CWA Historical Dagger.

After the Ellis Peters Brother Cadfael novels (beginning in 1977), the historical crime filed began a trend that grow to this day.

The reach of the genre is as wide as history itself, from the ancient world with such writers as Lindsey Davis, Steven Saylor and Ruth Downie to the Tudor period stomping ground of multi-prize-winning CJ Sansom, SJ Parris/Stephanie Merritt and beyond.

Barry’s Top TEN

The American Boy by Andrew Taylor (19th century England)

The multi-award-winning British writer Andrew Taylor invents a secret history of Edgar Allan Poe’s childhood, concentrating on an episode in 1819 (Poe lived in England from 1815 to 1820).

Taylor’s book reflects as accurately as possible the manners and mores of the period.

He researched how people spoke and thought and acted in late Regency England, from the mansions of Mayfair to the slums of St Giles and Seven Dials, from the leafy village (as it then was) of Stoke Newington, (where Poe went to school) to a country estate in Gloucestershire.

It’s a formidable, epic achievement.

The Jupiter Myth by Lindsey Davis (Ancient Rome)

For many years Lindsey Davis has been one of the most reliable names in the realms of the historical thriller – few would argue with the proposition that she is the market leader in the ‘crime in Ancient Rome’ genre.

Her books featuring the intelligent Roman sleuth Falco marry a great deal of authentic-seeming historical elements with storytelling nous of a rare order.

The Jupiter Myth followed such earlier Falco novels as Ode to a Banker, and is just as enjoyable as its predecessors. Falco is on a holiday trip with relatives in Britain when he finds himself in familiar murderous territory: he’s soon involved in a savage killing.

Heartstone by CJ Sansom (Tudor England)

CJ Sansom is the gold standard for historical crime fiction. A variety of writers elbow for position at the top of the tree, but for many aficionados one name has maintained an unassailable pole position for some considerable time: the British novelist CJ Sansom, a man who shuns the limelight of publicity.

His lengthy, energetic novels featuring the lawyer Matthew Shardlake are catnip to those who seek something a little more challenging in the field, and it’s not difficult to see why.

In Heartstone, Shardlake is presented with a difficult case via an elderly servant of Queen Catherine Parr, one that will plunge him into the labyrinthine toils of the King’s Court of Wards.

The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson (18th century London)

Antonia Hodgson proved with her first novel, The Devil in the Marshalsea, that she was, at a stroke, one of the most impressive practitioners of historical crime fiction.

Her territory is London in 1727, and her protagonist, Tom Hawkins, has been enjoying the fleshpots of the capital, luxuriating in the brothels, coffee houses and gambling dens.

But he is about to enter a world grimly familiar to anyone who reads Charles Dickens: the debtors’ prison, Marshalsea.

As sweepingly evoked by Hodgson, this is virtually an entire city within stone walls, with its own ruthless rules and hierarchies.

Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith (Soviet Russia)

Forget the underachieving film with its cod Russian accents – Child 44 is a wonderfully accomplished novel. The setting is the Soviet Union in the year 1953; Stalin’s reign of terror is at its height, and those who stand up against the might of the state vanish into the labour camps – or vanish altogether.

With this background, it is an audacious move on Tom Rob Smith’s part to put his hero right at the heart of this hideous regime, as an officer in the brutal Ministry of State Security. Leo Demidov is, basically, an instrument of the state – by no means a villain, but one who tries to look not too closely into the repressive work he does. It’s a superb debut.

The Printer’s Coffin by MJ Carter (Victorian Britain)

MJ (Miranda) Carter took a header into ripping yarn territory with The Strangler Vine, which fused Wilkie Collins with Sax Rohmer via Conan Doyle. That book introduced her ill-matched sleuths Jeremiah Blake and William Avery in a colourful Victorian India.

The Printer’s Coffin, the second outing for the duo, is even more fun, with the same audacious blend of derring-do and elegant writing.

Back from India, Blake and Avery find Britain in 1841 a changed place and struggle to readjust, not least to the English cold.

But a series of brutal killings in the world of London’s yellow press re-energises their faltering association as they track down a killer enjoying the protection of people in high places.

Dead Man’s Blues by Ray Celestin (Early 20th New Orleans)

With a variety of unlikely real-life figures being dragooned as sleuths in crime fiction, perhaps jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong is not such a stretch – Ray Celestin’s remarkable (and much-acclaimed) debut novel places him as one of a group on the trail of a serial axe murderer in early 20th New Orleans.

The Axeman’s Jazz gleaned prizes and sports an acute sense of period, shored up by an echo of the sound of early jazz – no easy thing on the page. Its lively successor, Dead Man’s Blues, which also features Louis Armstrong, moves forward to Chicago in the 1920s.

A Necessary Evil by Abir Mukherjee (Raj India)

Abir Mukherjee’s first Captain Sam Wyndham novel, A Rising Man, was widely praised as an odyssey into the dark underbelly of the British Raj in 1919.

In his second, equally successful novel, A Necessary Evil, the heir to the throne of a fabulously wealthy kingdom is both liberal and a moderniser and has (unsurprisingly) upset the hard-line religious elements of his country.

Mukherjee draws some provocative modern parallels with theocratic intolerance. The heir is assassinated in the presence of Captain Wyndham and the investigation that follows proves to be very dangerous indeed.

A Necessary Evil is every bit as lively and mesmerising an experience as its predecessor.

A Man Without Breath by Philip Kerr (1940s Germany)

Kerr’s striking Berlin Noir trilogy featured the German wartime detective Bernie Gunther. In the later A Man Without Breath, the year is 1943. Bernie has a new job at the German War Crimes Bureau in Berlin.

There are unsettling reports of a mass grave in a forest near Smolensk, rumours that are validated when a wolf unearths human remains.

Polish officers killed by the Russians?

This would play into the hands of the regime: a propaganda victory over the Russians. And there is one man who will be able to discern the truth: Bernie Gunther.

But Bernie is to find – as so often before – that the truth is not always a welcome commodity.

The Red Riding Quartet by David Peace (1970s Britain)

Toweringly original, gritty and groundbreaking, David Peace’s magnum opus remains the celebrated and influential Red Riding Quartet (successfully adapted for television), beginning

with the caustic Nineteen Seventy Four and Nineteen Seventy Seven and continuing with Nineteen Eighty and Nineteen Eighty Three.

The ambitious and sprawling quartet deals with the corruption that was so common in the police force in that period, and his antiheroes traverse a society where justice is elusive.

The author’s youth in Ossett during the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper was drawn on by the author as the basis for the Red Riding Quartet.

Barry Forshaw’s Historical Noir is published by Pocket Essentials/No Exit Press