Having struggled all day and part of the night to decide which of my two nominees was the very best book I read in 2008, and finding myself this morning with no conclusive verdict in sight, I went with the easier solution - I split the award in two. So lady and gentlemen, let me introduce to you the proud winners:
An English Murder by Cyril Hare
The Beckoning Dream by Evelyn Berckman
These are very different books by very different authors. One is a traditional mystery, the other is more of a suspense novel, and both are somewhat at odds with their respective genres as we shall see. No surprise I found it so hard to decide between them.
Let's start with Hare's. This was my first introduction to this author, and boy do I regret I didn't check him sooner. What makes An English Murder so fabulous is that it's both orthodox to a fault and quite subversive. While omitting none of the required components of that quintessentially English form, the country house mystery, Hare delivers a biting satire of the old British class system in a time of collapse - well, sort of, for old habit( die hard despite social reform and ideological affiliations. Aristocrats remain aristocrats even when members of a government committed to equalitarianism and the 'exploited' can be counted upon to play their due part in this masquerade. The murder and its motive no surprisingly turn to stem from this particular system and mentality for quintessentially English people can't kill but for quintessentially English reasons. I don't know whether Hare was a film-goer and saw Renoir's Rules of the Games but his book has more than a flavour of it. All in all, it's perfection on every level. The plot, albeit simpler than your average whodunit, is exquisitely logical and drives the novel's point nicely, and the characterization is excellent, with a wonderful detective in the person of Dr. Bottwink. So sad that, like Dermott Kinross, his greatest case turned to be his only outing. And, finally, Hare's writing is a marvel of understatement. Such a book would be said nowadays to "transcend the genre" but Hare, unlike many of his followers, never lets his preoccupations get in the way of the plot - and reciprocally.
Now with Berckman's, and we move from cozy Britain to America - and to another territory altogether. Its French title, Enquête sur un cauchemar - roughly "Investigating a Nightmare" - sums it up perfectly, which is rare enough to be mentioned. Some years ago, Archibald Gedley did something he's not proud of and it now comes back under the form of a cryptic, terrific nightmare to haunt his last days. When he dies of natural causes, his personal effects fall into the hands of his niece by marriage Connie. Archibald wrote extensively about his dream, hinting that his brother and two sisters may have contributed to his wrongdoing. Connie who is seeking both money and revenge from her much-hated stepmother thinks this affair provides her with a good occasion to achieve both goals, and sets on deciphering her late uncle's dream. Bad conscience seems to be inheritable, though, as the surviving forfeiters suddenly find themselves plagued with nightmare, each one providing another piece of the puzzle until the big picture finally appears in the last chapter, complete with a final ironic twist. I had read two other books by Berckman, the second making my list for 2006 but none matched the originality and power of this one. The Beckoning Dream is as good as anything written by Millar, Armstrong, Curtiss or any other suspense queen of the era, thanks to an original premise, a flawless execution and a protagonist you won't forget, though not for the same reasons as Hare's Dr. Bottwink. Egoistical, greedy, ruthless, Connie is almost entirely devoid of any kind of conscience and the reader follows her with both repulsion and something akin to fascination and whether she'll get her comeuppance ends being just as important as the usual questions of who, how and why. Of course I won't answer none - the book is hard to find, but it will repay your efforts.