Tom Wolfe’s silver-topped cane pointed towards the future

US literature’s spat-sporting heavyweight infuriated many, and influenced many more

Fiction, history, and journalism are separate heavyweight divisions of American literature, with their own champions. Tom Wolfe, who has died aged 88, was remarkable for having been a superstar in all three.

But Wolfe also united the belts by freely importing moves and punches from one discipline into the others. His fiction was reportorial, his factual writing novelistic, and his journalism cinematic and theatrical.

Continue reading...

Hamlet on heroin: Edward St Aubyn on the 20-year struggle to get Patrick Melrose on screen

St Aubyn’s quintet of autobiographical novels are loved by critics and readers – including Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays damaged drug addict Patrick. So why did it take so long?

Three of the key roles in the career of Benedict Cumberbatch have been a hyper-intelligent drug addict (in Sherlock), an arrogant toff (in Parade’s End) and a young man deranged by thoughts of his dead father (in Hamlet). His latest TV part feels like an extraordinary combination of this trio. Cumberbatch plays Patrick Melrose in an adaptation of Edward St Aubyn’s quintet of autobiographical novels about a young man whose sexually abusive father and emotionally damaging mother lead to a heroin, cocaine and alcohol dependency that is treated first by rehab and then a writing career. The opening episode is a supreme piece of acting: a 60-minute near-monologue of craving, raving, shaking and sarcasm – occasionally interrupted by ...

London Rules by Mick Herron review – high jeopardy, big jokes and bigotry

Herron cleverly subverts Le Carré in the latest instalment of the Jackson Lamb spy series, a farce around terrorist atrocities

This is the fifth in Mick Herron’s Jackson Lamb series, which in characterisation and tone is essentially a rollicking subversion of John le Carré’s books about George Smiley. Whereas Smiley is the humane genius of the British secret service, his worst vice being reading German poetry in the original, Herron’s main spy is Lamb, a bigoted, philistine, morbidly obese, spectacularly flatulent, alcoholic chain-smoker whose newest grossness, introduced in this instalment, is spitting back into the office’s communal Haribo packet the flavours he finds unappetising.

Lamb is himself found distasteful by MI5 high command; after a previously vague disgrace, which is finally detailed in this book, he was sent as punishment to run Slough House, an MI5 naughty step for those who have suffered personal or professional reverses of fortune.

Continue reading...

The best crime books and thrillers of 2017

Mark Lawson welcomes the return of George Smiley, drunken spooks and the recreation of a real-life murder trial

In literature, as in boxing, great champions have compromised their reputations by going on too long. But entering the ring for the 24th time, at the age of 86, John le Carré remained an unmatched heavyweight. A Legacy of Spies (Viking) also showed off some new punches, ingeniously recasting an earlier masterpiece, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. In stingingly topical style, the behaviours of its characters six decades ago, including George Smiley, are examined by the modern forces of political correctness.

The long and enduring power of Le Carré leaves British espionage fiction a cramped space for newcomers. Mick Herron has carved out his own distinctive territory by focusing on a squad of failed spooks whom Sir George would never tolerate. They are known as the “slow horses” ...

The Accident on the A35 by Graeme Macrae Burnet review – games within games

A Simenon-style story from the Booker-shortlisted trickster recreates a France of francs and call boxes

In an era of fake news, the Scottish novelist Graeme Macrae Burnet is experimenting with a genre that might be called “false true crime”. In His Bloody Project, shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker prize, he presented himself as the editor of historical documents relating to an ancestor apparently accused of a triple killing in the mid 19th-century Scottish Highlands. That multi-veiled tale continued a strain of tricksy fiction that began with the 2014 debut novel The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau, purporting to be Macrae Burnet’s translation of a mystery by Raymond Brunet, a late 20th-century French writer of policiers in the manner of Georges Simenon.

Now Macrae Burnet tells us that he has anglicised a second fiction from the same source. According to a preface, L’Accident sur l’A35 was sent to a Parisian ...

The best books about the JFK assassination, from Norman Mailer to Don DeLillo

Will the release of the latest cache of classified papers unleash a slew of books about the death of the charismatic Kennedy?

If Lee Harvey Oswald was the sole figure involved in the assassination of President John F Kennedy (and hundreds of books have argued that he wasn’t), then he presumably fired his rifle from the Texas School Book Depository, because of the line of sight it provided on the route of the presidential motorcade through Dallas.

The choice of a warehouse containing educational texts has proved prophetic. When Oswald fired, he unleashed a towering stack of books arguing about the events of that day.

Continue reading...

To Kill the President by Sam Bourne review – does fact Trump fiction?

He’s not named, but the leader of the free world looks uncannily familiar in this engaging and morally serious thriller that wrestles with contemporary American politics
Since the second world war, numerous professors of ethics or theology and several science fiction writers have fretted over the question of whether a seer or time-traveller, knowing what Adolf Hitler would go on to do, could be justified in killing him as a preventative measure. Stephen King fictionalised this dilemma in his 1979 novel The Dead Zone, in which a man sees that a rising populist politician will become an American Hitler, and agonises about whether assassination would be a patriotic act. Now Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland, after publishing 2015’s The Third Woman under his own name, has re-Bourne the pseudonym under which he previously produced five conspiracy thrillers. In To Kill the President, a White House legal aide spots a plot ...

All the presidents’ authors: how politicians have helped thriller writers

Bill Clinton’s forthcoming thriller, written with James Patterson, will likely contain unparalleled insider knowledge. But many writers have benefited from a discreet word with people in power The Starr report, the 1998 inquiry into Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, contains a slight but striking detail about life as US president. Secret service agents at one point became alarmed when Clinton failed to respond to knocks on the door of a room in which a security-tracking device in his shoe had located him. It turned out that the president, exasperated by surveillance, had left his moccasin behind and gone hot-sock elsewhere. That’s just the kind of insider detail that super-selling author James Patterson presumably wanted when he approached Clinton to collaborate on a White House thriller, which was announced this week for publication next summer. Indeed, although the plot of The President Is Missing is not yet known, the title ...

Pussy by Howard Jacobson review – quickfire satire of Trump

The ‘Jewish Jane Austen’ delves into politics for this fable, but despite wit and elegance he misses his punchesAs a writer who deals with sexuality, literature and antisemitism in novels of comic exaggeration, Howard Jacobson was inevitably tagged the “English Philip Roth”, despite offering his own preferred alternative of the “Jewish Jane Austen”. Jacobson, though, often doesn’t seem to be trying very hard to escape the long American shadow, his territory consistently more Portnoy than Pemberley. An oddity among Roth’s novels is Our Gang (1971), a rapid political satire reflecting liberal revulsion at the verbal weirdness and extremist manifesto of the 37th president, Richard Nixon. Now the ascent to the White House of another leader whose temperament and intentions are widely found to be frightening has prompted Pussy, a surprise outlier from Jacobson that is very similar in scope and tone to Roth’s. Continue reading...

In the Name of the Family by Sarah Dunant review – history you can see, hear and smell

The latest instalment in a bravura Renaissance series offers a new perspective on two of history’s most notorious figures, Lucrezia Borgia and Niccolò Machiavelli
Recent advances in malice and technology have encouraged the new industry of “reputation management”, in which strategies and algorithms are used to burnish the public profile of a maligned character. Sarah Dunant attempts a literary equivalent by boldly basing a novel around two of the most notorious figures in history: Lucrezia Borgia (1480-1519) and Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527). His surname has been immortalised as an adjective for clever and deceitful ambition, especially in politicians and diplomats, while a Donizetti opera and assorted TV miniseries have established her as a mass murderer who also slept with most of the men in her own and other leading families. Continue reading...

Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust should learn from JK Rowling’s magic

The two authors have long written in step, and the His Dark Materials promised ‘equel’ will hopefully use similar tricks to Harry Potter’s author in extending Lyra’s story What Philip Pullman describes as an “equel” – a story that extends the His Dark Materials trilogy with a complementary narrative – has become the fashion for continuing entertainment mega-franchises aimed at an initial audience of children.
George Lucas’s original three Star Wars films have been expanded backwards, forwards and sideways, while JK Rowling’s stage play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – soon heading for Broadway after breaking box-office records in the West End of London – fills in a long gap in the original novels between the boy wizard’s birth and his arrival at Hogwarts Academy. Continue reading...

The best crime books and thrillers of 2016

Mark Lawson finds murder in the Scottish Highlands, terror in Paris and visions of war at the Vatican
Vote: What was your favourite book of the year?Crime writing turned up in unexpected places this year. The usually mystery-sniffy Man Booker prize shortlist found a place for Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project (Contraband), a smart amalgam of legal thriller and literary game that reads as if Umberto Eco has been resurrected in the 19th-century Scottish Highlands. Ian McEwan also blurred genre boundaries in Nutshell (Jonathan Cape), an ingenious rewrite of Hamlet as a murder story in which a foetus is both detective and possible victim. The crime reader’s dream of a long, labyrinthine novel that you never want to finish is magnificently fulfilled by Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama (Riverrun). This Japanese super-seller, translated by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies, is a police-procedural conspiracy thriller involving two disappearances that also rivetingly dramatises the ...

The Mirror Thief by Martin Seay review – a clever, time-hopping debut

From 2003 Las Vegas to 1958 California to 1592 Venice, examples of deceit and concealment constantly echo each other in an exceptionally intelligent work Though flashbacks are currently a fashionable novelistic tactic, this bold American debut makes unusual historical jumps. Starting 13 years ago in the Las Vegas of 2003, it then reverses to California in 1958 and Venice in 1592, subsequently alternating sections from these eras. While the publishers have understandably cited the epoch-crossing novels of David Mitchell as a comparison point, the characters and narratives in the three time zones of The Mirror Thief are more formally linked than the sections of a Mitchell book such as Cloud Atlas. In the most recent portions of the story, on the eve of the second Gulf war, a retired veteran of the first attack on Saddam Hussein is on some sort of civilian mission around the Vegas gaming tables. Curtis is searching ...

The Crow Girl by Erik Axl Sund review – the Swedish crime thriller tipped to make a killing

It follows in the footsteps of Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell, but Sund’s dark detective investigation struggles to find its own voice

For English-language readers, the best-known achievements of modern Swedish crime fiction are Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series; the Inspector Wallander books of Henning Mankell and the Detective Martin Beck stories written by a duo of journalists, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.

The Crow Girl feels like an attempt to combine elements of those three Swedish brand-leaders. In common with the Larsson’s books, with which it also shares the surely soon-must-end formula of putting “girl” in the title, the work was first published as a trilogy, although it has been compressed into one volume for UK release. It is credited to Erik Axl Sund, but this turns out to be a pseudonym for a Beck-like collaboration between two authors, Jerker Eriksson and Håkan Alexander Sundquist. And their novel, like Mankell’s police stories, is ...

History of Magic in North America by JK Rowling – review

Part one of JK Rowling’s new online series expands Harry Potter’s world, but amounts to little more than an ad for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

The wizards who keep the world wide web going have cancelled all leave again, their usual procedure before the release of a new piece of writing by JK Rowling. In this case, traffic, however heavy, will have been brief, as the contribution runs to only 427 words, including the names of the author and the piece: Fourteenth Century to Seventeenth Century. A movie or theatre producer would probably have urged a slightly more enticing title – maybe with the words “Harry Potter and” or “Corcoran Strike in” before that academic heading. But Rowling can do whatever she wants on her Pottermore website – and clearly does. Continue reading...









Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama – the crime thriller that is a publishing phenomenon in Japan

The plot would grip in any language, but, for readers in the west, there is an extra fascination to this prime example of the ‘box set novel’Crime fiction is a form of tourism that shows a country at its worst, showcasing mayhem in Scandinavia and previously unsuspected body counts across Oxfordshire and Suffolk. This season’s must-not-go location for English-language whodunnit readers is Japan. Six Four, the sixth novel by Hideo Yokoyama but his first to get an English translation, sold in his home country at the Rowling-like rate of a million copies in six days, making the author a potential successor to Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbø and Gillian Flynn. Those hoping for something different from translated whodunnits may find it ominous that the opening pages establish not just one but two gone girls. In 1989, Shoko, the seven-year-old daughter of the owners of a Tokyo pickle business, was kidnapped and, after ...

Highbridge by Phil Redmond review – drugland drama from the creator of Hollyoaks

In the wake of a murder, three men find different ways of dealing with the narcotics industry in a highly visual debut from the TV producerIn his career as a TV mogul Phil Redmond created Grange Hill and Brookside, series that ran for 30 and 21 years respectively, and Hollyoaks, which is still going after two decades. Those shows proved a talent for narrative and characterisation, which, after a spell spent working in the charitable and educational sectors, he now applies to his debut novel. The signature of Redmond’s small-screen fiction was the examination of topical, provocative issues in urban communities divided by generational and social tension. He imports this formula to Highbridge, which is billed as the beginning of a sequence of novels set in a fictional north-west town. A local’s accent is described as “pure Scouse”, but, as the place has a “mediocre ...

The Good Liar by Nicholas Searle review – a thriller that will trip you up

An ageing conman is not who he seems in this fantastically assured debutOne of those intermittent publishing fusses over a talked-up book by an unknown author occurred last autumn, when a debut novel by Nicholas Searle called A Reckoning was lucratively sold in the UK and US after a fight for the rights. Searle offers the media an enticing short-term backstory – as a retiree who developed the novel at a writing school set up by the literary agents Curtis Brown – and, going further back in time, an even more tantalising CV. He studied at a German university and, his author biography notes, “is not allowed to say more about his career than that he was a senior civil servant for many years” – a formulation that those familiar with the dustjacket subterfuges of certain spies-turned-writers will find a little … well, spooky. And John le Carré, it turns ...

A War and Peace for our time

Andrew Davies’s new TV adaptation of War and Peace may be racy and pacy, but how does it compare to the Hollywood and Soviet movie versions, or the epic 1970s BBC series? In English vernacular, the title of Leo Tolstoy’s 1869 epic about the Napoleonic wars does double metaphorical service. As the book is around 1,300 pages long, it has become shorthand for prolixity. Official reports – into Bloody Sunday or the Iraq war – are described by the press as being, for example, “three times longer than War and Peace”. And, because the novel’s bulk includes lengthy reflections on politics, philosophy and theology, it also serves as a standard of intellectual ambition. Critics indicting a writer for glibness or triviality will sniff that the volume on offer is “not exactly War and Peace”. Its status as an exemplar of seriousness has long made the book attractive ...

Best crime and thriller books of 2015

From Girl on the Train to Girl in the Spider’s Web – a look back on a year that lived up to the hype

Books that arrive on a tide of chatter about vast advances, foreign sales and movie rights often don’t provide an internal narrative to match the external one. But, in a welcome plot twist this year, two talked-up debuts justified the hype.

Disproving the usual rule that thrillers with the word “girl” in the title are merely cynical attempts to catch the eye of Gillian Flynn fans, The Girl on the Train (Doubleday) by Paula Hawkins is an ideal solution for those seeking immersive distraction on a beach, plane or indeed train, from which the sozzled heroine may or may not have witnessed a murder in a house backing on to the tracks. And Renee Knight’s Disclaimer (Doubleday) is an inventive and troubling literary puzzle that begins, startlingly, with ...