The Holiday Bookcase

No matter how well I pack, there almost always comes a time on holiday when I find myself turning to someone else’s bookcase.  If I’m staying with friends or family, or on home turf, there probably won’t be many surprises; I can generally find something by someone I know.  But if I’m abroad – particularly where English isn’t the first language, and the bookcase has acquired all manner of old waifs and strays – then all bets are off.  Yet often that’s when I’ll find a new author I really like.

Three weeks in southern France (ah, the pleasures of the freelancer!) have reminded me of the pleasures of the holiday bookcase.  I’d never come across Joseph Finder before (to my shame, never heard of him before I saw him on a Theakston’s panel in July), so ‘Buried Secrets’ was a treat; a taut economical thriller, not too heavy on the angst, whose private eye protagonist had enough of a derring-do backstory to make him credible, and not so much as to get in the way.  I was delighted to find an Alex Berenson I hadn’t read before (‘The Silent Man’), which I devoured – it really is difficult to put the John Wells thrillers down.  But it was two proofs by utterly unfamiliar writers – found, in all places, in the second-hand shelves of Le Bookshop in Montpellier – that will stay with me.

I’m a sucker for small-town slice-of-life crime stories, so Bryan Gruley’s ‘Starvation Lake’, published in 2009, was a treat.  Set in backwoods Michigan, it’s about a small-town journalist who’s come home, tail between his legs, after big city failure, and finds himself having to deal with all the people he’d fled from a decade before – and the legacy of the disappearance of the town’s much-loved ice hockey coach.  The plot made a couple of turns I wasn’t expecting, and the cast of local oddities was economically and sympathetically drawn.  Quality holiday reading.

Then there was Simon Lewis’s ‘Bad Traffic’, published in 2008.  This is a cracker of a novel – an extraordinary act of projection into the mind of two Chinese protagonists, a spoiled Chinese student who walks herself into the clutches of people-traffickers in Leeds, and the middle-aged Manchurian policeman, her father, who comes to Britain to find her.  The world of triads, gangmasters and indentured prostitutes, and the scabby bits of England in which they prosper, is superbly realised. 

Above all it’s Lewis's hero, Inspector Jian, who stayed with me – a man who can barely talk to the daughter being educated on his (stolen) dime, whose investigative experience involves duffing up the chosen suspects, and yet who finds himself in backwoods Britain without a word of English, detecting his way to setting his daughter free.  Two political and social cultures – the British and the Chinese – thrown into relief by convincing characterisation.  Marvellous.