Paul Burke’s Ten Thrillers That Should Have Won The Man Booker Prize

Article published on May 16, 2018.

The Man Booker Prize is approaching its 50th anniversary. It was founded in 1968 and the first prize was awarded in 1969 (P.H. Newby – Something to Answer For). For me, the shortlists were a great way of finding new reads when I was a teenager, so I have a lot of affection for the Booker. This list is a bit tongue in cheek; that said, you won’t go far wrong with any of my choices below. I have applied the same rules for entry: literature published in English, only including American authors after 2014.

2016. His Bloody Project – Graeme Macrea Burnett. Based on a real case and set 1868, this is Macrea Burnett’s reimagining of two terrible murders that rocked a small Scottish community. It was short-listed for the Booker. A young man brutally murders his neighbour, Lachlan Mackenzie, the local constable, and his small infant. He appears to lack remorse for the crime but his confession paints a picture of how a quiet boy becomes a murderer. His confession reveals a history of abuse by the corrupt and cruel local constable and the harsh reality of poverty and the crofting life. His Bloody Project not only brings to life the time and place but also humanises the murderer. It’s a psychological novel that tackles the theme of what makes us human. Actual Winner [AW] – Paul Beatty – The Sellout.

2011. Snowdrops – A.D. Miller. This tale set in post-communist Russia was also short-listed for the prize. It’s a story of corruption and morality. How far will a person go when faced with the consequences their actions have on other people? Snowdrops are the dead bodies floating on the river in the winter thaw, murdered souls are hidden among the drunks and the homeless people society has little concern for. Bright young British lawyer Nick falls for Masha and is inveigled into a scheme to rob vulnerable Moscow residents of their properties. It’s a novel that made me angry and left me emotionally drained. AW: Julian Barnes – The Sense of an Ending.

2002. Fingersmith – Sarah Waters. One of the rare books that went round all the family. It’s a brilliantly crafted Victorian psychological drama. A pastiche/homage to an era of gentlemen and ladies that exposes the veneer of respectability and conventions of the time for the hypocritical delusion they were. A maid helps a man seduce a woman into marrying him with the intention of having her committed to an asylum. As the plan progresses, the maid falls for Maud and eventually it is she who is detained. She now has to get out and figure out what happened and why she was betrayed. Looking at the obsessions of Victorian novels, including pornography and the frailty of the “fairer” sex (melancholia). This is a heart stopping, emotional and educational mystery. AW: Yann Martel – Life of Pi.

1995. Morality Play – Barry Unsworth. A philosophical proto-detective story. A rogue priest joins a travelling company in Medieval England. Instead of the usual Christmas fayre, the leader of the troop and the priest decide to write a play based on the murder of a local boy. A young woman has been apprehended for the crime but as they progress with their enquiries they see that the facts do not fit. The novel deals with the philosophical understanding of the age, the line between superstition, old beliefs, Christianity and new potentially heretical thinking. AW: Pat Barker – Ghost Road.

1990. Lies of Silence – Brian Moore. The most adept novelist at taking grand themes and rendering them into readable and entertaining thrillers. Michael and Moira Dillon are held hostage in their house by the IRA. Dillon is forced to drive a bomb to the hotel he works in to kill a Protestant preacher and his Orangemen audience. As well as the taut plot, the novel deals with mental health issues, infidelity and the morality of human actions. Moore really get under the skin of the characters who populate the pages. AW: A.S. Byatt – Possession.

Also:

1990. A Very Private Gentleman – Martin Booth, This novel about a hitman was renamed The American I think because of the Anton Corbijn movie starring George Clooney (2010). A hitman is hiding out in the Italian Apennines, keeping a low profile. His next job will be his last and then he will retire, but others have a different ending in mind for the man they call Signor Farfalla (butterfly). This is almost Greek tragedy, a tale of love and loss. Farfalla must decide whether to stay or run.

1986. A Perfect Spy – John le Carré. If you want to know how a spy thinks then read any of the Smiley novels. This is a imagined biography of a civil servant who becomes a spy. As we look over his life we see the key moments, the things that made him the man he becomes. What is betrayal? There are a number of similarities in this story with the life of le Carré, his father was a notorious conman. When you get to the end and can say I understand why he was what he was, the novel has achieved its aim. AW: Kingsley Amis – The Old Devils.

1985. Hawksmoor – Peter Ackroyd. One of the most atmospheric novels I have ever read. Nicholas Dyer is an assistant to Sir Christopher Wren, a fictionalisation of Nicholas Hawksmoor, who was a pupil of Wren’s? He has been commissioned to build seven London churches as beacons of the new age of enlightenment. But Dyer’s plans conceal a dark secret at the heart of each church – to create a forbidding architecture that will survive for eternity he has buried human sacrifices. Dyer is a Satanist. Two hundred and fifty years later, East End DCS Nicholas Hawksmoor is investigating a series of gruesome murders by strangulation near the sites of Dyers eighteenth-century churches. These are crimes that make no sense to the modern mind. Ackroyd explores the void between the two periods and the nature of the historical novel, I dare you not to be spooked. AW: Keri Hulme – The Bone People.

1984. The Pork Butcher – David Hughes. Ernst Kestner is a pork butcher in the German town of Lübeck; he has been living with a terrible secret for 40 years. He relives the day he participated in a massacre of a small French town during the war in his nightmares. Now, as terminal cancer has taken hold, he closes his shop and drives back to Lascaud-sur-Marn in France for the first time since the war. The village was razed to the ground in what we would now call a war crime. This is a novel of guilt and redemption, of memory and recrimination. As Kestner confronts his past and settles accounts, his daughter and the locals have their own demons to deal with. Not a conventional crime novel but the novel of a crime; actions have consequences, this is dark territory. AW: Anita Brooker – Hotel du Lac.

1973. The Honorary Consul – Graham Greene. Greene should have won the Nobel let alone the Booker. Charley Fortnum is Britain’s ‘Honorary Consul’ to a south American country. A booze-sodden man of dubious character and no consequence, he is kidnapped by a group of rebels. A local doctor, Eduardo Plarr, negotiates with the revolutionaries and the authorities for Fortnum’s release, the situation complicated by corruption on both sides. This is a spare, tense novel, but also a very witty tale that explores the morality of the political system and the individual. Religion and it’s role in society also feature. AW: G. Farrell – The Siege of Krishnapur.

What crime novel would you pick as a worthy winner of the Man Booker Prize? Any contenders for this year?

Paul Burke
May 2018

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