Ten Books That Bite Back by Paul Burke

Article published on November 11, 2017.

I like gritty fiction, grounded in reality, and I relax with noir detective novels. This list of literary novels and crime masterpieces is just that bit darker. Hannibal Lector is fun, it’s meant to be pure entertainment, with no serious purpose. The heart of a really good dark novel isn’t about the blood spilled or the body count, it’s about the real human threat, impending danger and tragic events thrown into focus. Sounds a bit morbid, a bit depressing maybe? I admit these books genuinely disturbed/moved me, but there is not a book on this list that isn’t important as literature or at least within its genre. Mostly, these novels increase our understanding of the human condition and are beautifully written.

1. The White Hotel by D.M. Thomas – This book deals graphically with the Holocaust through the experience of a woman survivor who is undergoing therapy. If you don’t want to face up to man’s inhumanity to man, don’t go there.

2. The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber – (plot spoiler) – The finale involves the kidnapping of an innocent young child. It’s the uncertainty over the kidnapper’s intentions that chills the reader to the bone. That sense of trepidation and mounting tension is almost unbearable.

3. A Child in Time by Ian McEwan – A haunting novel of loss. A man loses his young daughter in the supermarket during a moment’s distraction. The sense of pain, dislocation, fear and tragedy that inhabit the reader when tackling this novel bring the nightmare to life.

4. The Chosen Ones by Steve Sem-Sandberg – Austria, 1941. The Am Spiegelgrund clinic poses as a reform school for boys and girls and a home for chronically ill children. The institution, its doctors and staff should be looking after their charges, instead they are implementing the most depraved Nazi policies, including euthanasia. You want to look away. This is scary but we can’t hide from this terrible chapter in history because it goes to the core of the Nazi mentality.

5. Zulu by Caryl Ferey – Set in South Africa and reflecting the brutal nature of the society, lack of police resources, the tidal wave of murders, the endemic corruption and AIDS. Thrillers don’t often frighten me but this one did. There is a conspiracy of evil in motion and one man is trying to fight against it.

6. Blackout by Gianluca Morozzi – (I must stress, not the silly thriller about lights out across Europe by Marc Elsberg) – This is a thriller where you think something bad is happening but it’s actually worse than that, it’s almost a horror story. A superb thriller for those who like the different and the very frightening.

7. All Souls Rising by Madison Smart Bell – This is the work of a poet, academic and novelist who even turned his hand to crime writing early on to make a living. This is a monumental work, the first in a trilogy about Haiti. Slavery in all its cruelty and casual brutality, an amoral world where some of the most horrendous violence is perpetrated by those who can. The novel is the remarkable story of the rise of Toussaint L’ouverture; it leaves you breathless. And with some idea of how Haiti got to be what it is now.

8. Felicia by William Trevor – Felicia is pregnant and alone and comes to England to find her boyfriend. Instead, she gets a job and befriends a chef. He is a kindly man who offers to take her in as she has nowhere to live. The problem is, he’s a serial killer and she is just his type. Will she survive? That’s the terrifying bit!

9. Death of a Murderer by Rupert Thomson – Thomson is never afraid to tackle tough topics but this is dangerous stuff. It about the Moors Murders. Do I need to say more?

10. The Art of Murder by Jose Carlos Somoza – You won’t believe what people do to people in this book; I won’t give any clues. This is truly original and startling and very scary. You will not spend a comfortable moment reading it but you just have to on. I hope this is satire, a warning about how we treat each other.

11. Purge by Sofi Oksanen – We have the atrocities of WWII in Estonia, communist oppression after the war and people trafficking in the present. For some people and some parts of the world, things just haven’t got much better. It’s a thriller with a very real point, who do you turn to when you can’t trust the police?

12. The Quality of Mercy by Barry Unsworth – A quiet and uplifting novel, the superb sequel to The Sacred Hunger, about the slave trade, but the cruelty, immorality and most of all the hypocrisy and greed of it all get to you. It makes your blood boil.

Oops! Two too many there, I hope you don’t mind.

Paul Burke
November 2017

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