Arnold Bennett found publishers’ catalogues depressing; so many books, so many eager authors, so many hopes raised, so many to wither quickly. Spending a day going over the spring lists makes me sympathise with his gloom, and there are many more books and authors now than when he was writing more than 100 years ago.
One of the interesting, and in some ways depressing, changes over my own writing lifetime is a shift in the balance between what is styled literary fiction and crime – not of course that many crime novels aren’t literary too. More people are murdered every week in crime novels than in crimes recorded in a year, many more. The reading public has an insatiable demand for corpses, and novelists being tradesmen with an eye to the market as well as – sometimes – artists are ready to supply them.
So, for example, we have Philip Kerr’s Prussian Blue coming from Quercus in April. It’s the 12th in his bestselling series about Bernie Gunther, the wise-cracking cop and later ex-cop who kicked off in Hitler’s Berlin. Now, post-war, he is on the run from the Stasi, pursued by a former colleague from the even worse old days.
Peter Manuel, Scotland’s most infamous serial killer, is the anti-hero of Denise Mina’s new novel, The Long Drop (Harvill Secker). I’ve read a proof copy, and was gripped, impressed by her insight into the mind of a psychopath, and her re-creation of a drink-sodden 1950s Scotland. Manuel dismissed his counsel and conducted his own defence. Mina brilliantly shows what a mistake this was. A grim novel, but a very good one.
Crime novels flood in, unstoppable as an Atlantic tide. There are new ones from Peter May, Chris Brookmyre, Greg Iles and the rather more gentle James Runcie, while the flood of Scandinavian crimes continues to pour in from these generally law-abiding countries. The excellent Pushkin Press is publishing the work of the French “master of ‘noir’”, Frederic Dard – The Executioner Weeps comes out in March.
Happily too, Penguin continues its publication of all Simenon’s Maigret novels, month by month. February and March bring two of my favourites, Maigret’s Revolver and The Man on the Bench.
Still it’s not all crime, thriller and mystery, though all elements are naturally to be found in ostensibly straight literary novels too.
In January Canongate publishes The Automobile Club of Egypt by Alaa Al Aswany, author of the worldwide bestseller The Yacoubian Building, and in March the same firm will bring out two novels by Ron Rash. There will be crimes there too, but also beauty. There’s no living American novelist I would rather read.
Helen Dunmore is one of the best and most versatile of English novelists today. Birdcage Walk (Hutchinson, March) is a historical novel set in London and Bristol in the 1790s, a time of radical enthusiasm and State repression.
Another historical novel that sounds interesting is The Kingdom by Eugene Carrere (Penguin, March). A couple of years ago Carrere wrote a fascinating biography/memoir of Limonov, the Russian criminal, punk-poet and would-be revolutionary. This new novel is set in Corinth in the first century AD and the subject is the growth of Christianity from its early beginnings as an underground cult in the Roman Empire.
There is no novel I am looking forward more eagerly to reading than To Die in Spring by a German novelist, Ralf Rothmann, which Picador will publish in May. It’s the story of two young farm boys conscripted into the SS in the last terrible months of the Nazi regime. One German reviewer has called it “a sublime novel of damaged lives and of fathers and sons” – fathers and sons being, of course, the most problematic of relationships in post-war Germany. Another critic claims that “there is nothing comparable in contemporary German literature”.
Bloomsbury is enthusiastic about Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, a novel which begins with the night-time visit of Abraham Lincoln to the grave of his young son Willie. Jonathan Franzen, generously praising a rival novelist, says Saunders “makes the all-but-impossible seem effortless”.
In March Quercus will publish a very interesting double-time first novel by Polly Clark. Set in Helensburgh, on the Firth of Clyde, Larchfield moves between the present day and the 1930s, a young woman who has recently come to the town now, and the poet WH Auden who was a schoolmaster there at the prep-school. Another promising first novel, set in a Paris apartment block, is These Dividing Walls by Fran Cooper (Hodder & Stoughton, April).
Two other points: first, Virago Modern Classics is re-issuing a complete edition of Shena Mackay’s novels and stories; Mackay has a delightful unmistakable voice; second, may all publishers who can’t be troubled to supply their catalogues with an index pass uneasy nights.