Mean Streets, Deep Mysteries, and the Pursuit of Travel
Here are six wonderful novels that offer unique character studies, scintillating mysteries, and new ways of exploring the bounds of 'travel'
Below, six wonderful novels that offer unique character studies, scintillating mysteries, and new ways of exploring the bounds of 'travel.'
The Intoxicating Mr. Lavelle by Neil Blackmore
Here’s a fascinating character study that takes place during the tail-end of the 18th century, but carries enough resonance to be a scathing reflection of today’s mores. Benjamin (21 years old) and Edgar (22) are brothers, sons of a merchant seaman who owns a fleet of trading vessels, and has amassed a considerable fortune. Living in London, and under the strict rule of their Dutch mother, the two boys have been educated, but sheltered. Sent on a grand European Tour, traveling to France and Italy, it is hoped that they will meet the right sort of people, and make the connections to rise above their station in life.
What they encounter instead are facile friendships from aristocrats who at the end of day, look down on trades-people. Benjamin harbors the secret of being gay, and soon meets up with Horace Lavelle, who fascinates Benjamin for his cavalier attitude and rejecting all the values and conventions that have been drummed into the brothers by their mother. As Horace demurs when he meets Edgar, who fears for his brother being influenced by Lavelle, ‘Your brother takes me for a barbarian... but I assure you, I am well-trained’. With graphic images of sodomy, and the alternative life Lavelle represents, this is an explosive story about identity, parental authority, and being true to oneself.
The F*ck-It List by John Niven
Niven is known for his previous novels, sharp-edged satires of the music industry. Here, he ups the stakes and brings us a revenge story ripened with social commentary about the USA today and the Trump era. Frank Brill is a retired newspaper editor in a small Indiana town. He lost his 3rd wife and young son in 2017 when a lone gunman went berserk at the neighborhood school where his wife taught and son was enrolled. His estranged daughter from his 2nd marriage also passed away from complications that arose when she was terminating her pregnancy. It’s now 2026, Trump served for two terms and daughter Ivanka is now the President of the United States.
It’s when Frank is diagnosed with colon cancer and given months to live, that a plan takes root of extracting justice of some sorts, by executing the people, both personal and political, who have made his life a living hell. What follows is a wild picaresque that takes a lot of liberties with credibility, but is a scathing look at the Trump era America, and what can happen when the docile liberal is pushed too far. Gun rights, abortion rights, the leaning to the Far Right, they’re all put under the microscope in this devilish, entertaining novel of frustration and anger. It may be typically over-the-top Niven, but you can’t dispute how readable it all is.
The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman
Here’s the debut crime novel from renowned UK presenter and producer Osman. Thanks to his immense popularity and professed love for mysteries, the news that he was writing a novel sparked a bidding war, and it looks like it was well-worth the furor, as this book has shot up the charts in the UK. What makes it unique is its setting and the main group of characters. Elizabeth, Ron, Joyce, and Ibrahim all live in a plush retirement home, and are all pushing 80. To stave off boredom, they meet every Thursday to go over the unsolved crimes of the Kent police force. It’s a wonderful premise, and Osman has a grand time creating memorable characters.
The mystery begins when developer Ian Ventham announces to the inhabitants of the Home that he’ll be creating new homes on the hill beside the present home, where one presently finds a cemetery. Ventham breaks ties with Tony Curran, his go-to builder, and in less than 24 hours, Curran is found bludgeoned in his own home. The fun starts as our intrepid quartet become excited over how Crime and Murder has suddenly come very close to home, and they embark on a mission to help the local police and solve the crime. It’s wonderful ‘old school’ Crime-writing given a few twists, and one can’t help but fall in love with our four geriatric gumshoes.
Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz
If one looks back over the last decade of crime fiction, one author of the genre who has consistently produced novels that fire up the imaginations of avid readers would be Horowitz. He blends little gimmicks and tricks to his writing, but they pay real service to the overall treatment and execution of his stories, and aren’t just instances of showing off. In one recent novel, he placed himself in the book as a writer that a small-time detective approached in order to ‘tell his story’. And in this one, his latest, he positions as main protagonist a retired editor—Susan Ryeland—who edited the works of the now-deceased Alan Conway; characters that existed in his previous novels.
Now co-proprietor of a B&B establishment on the island of Crete, Susan is lured back to England and her old world when the couple who own a luxury country hotel in Suffolk, ask her to look into the disappearance of their hotel manager daughter. The hotel was the scene of a grisly murder 8 years ago, and one of Conway’s novels seems to have been his fictitious take on the murder, and had dropped clues on who actually committed the crime - and it’s not the man who ‘confessed’ and is now languishing in prison. What connection this murder may have to the daughter going missing is what Susan is contracted to unravel. The big ‘trick’ here is how halfway into this novel, we’re given the Conway novel in full—a book within a book!
Crossings by Alex Landragin
Here’s a novel that packs a lot of stories and lives between its book covers. The narrator is a bookbinder, and he confesses immediately that the story he’s about to reveal is something he acquired by stealing. A commission from a baroness comes down and it consists of three manuscripts that he is to bind into one volume. One manuscript is an unpublished self-portrait written by Charles Baudeliere, the other is by Walter Benjamin, takes place right before the Nazis occupied Paris and has to do with the very strange encounter with a woman at the Montparnasse cemetery. The third is written by a woman who calls herself a ‘deathless enchantress’, and starts off as a memoir of young lovers on a Polynesian island.
It’s this third manuscript that ties up all three into a mind-boggling tale of the transmigration of souls (the crossing), executed while the two persons are still alive, and not after death. Spanning centuries and all over the globe, this is a tale that’s reminiscent of books such as David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. What’s structurally unique is how we can read the book from front to back, or follow what the narrator refers to as the ‘Baroness sequence’. By doing so, a whole new appreciation of how the novel ‘hits’ you is achieved. Revelations and twists come in a different manner, a whole new reading experience.
Providence by Max Barry
Known for his novels that are satires of government, consumerism, and the corporate world, here’s Barry exploring the genre of science fiction in his inimitable style. This one is about alien contact; how in some far flung galaxy, a quartet of scientists from Earth encountered a species of aliens now referred to as ‘salamanders’ and were annihilated in the process. When news of this got back to Earth, it resulted in an uproar to destroy this race of aliens and extract revenge for what they had done. Military spending for space travel and AI rose exponentially; and the whole world was caught up in this ‘war of the worlds.’
Fast forward seven years later, and we meet the four-man crew of Providence Five, tasked much like a destroyer ship. The captain and the Life officer are women, the two men are there as weapons and technology experts; and it seems their social media posts and TV appearances are as important as their qualifications for boarding the space vessel. Their popularity is what helps keep the dollars coming, funding the military-industrial complex. What’s ironic is how with AI developments, they’re practically on board as passive passengers. This gets intense when the salamanders make contact with Providence Five.
Lead photos from Goodreads