Best Offences: My favourite crime reads of 2016

Well, it’s been a pretty rubbish year, what with the whole geopolitical situation and fewer five-star reads than any year since my records began. Still, there were a few high points and I’dd unreservedly recommend the following titles…

Malice_AforethoughtFrancis Iles: Malice Aforethought

Dr Bickleigh, an unassuming little chap with a distinct inferiority complex, lives in the exclusive hamlet of Wyvern’s Cross with his domineering wife Julia. Julia is one of the Devonshire Crewstantons; Bickleigh the son of a shopkeeper. She rules Bickleigh with a rod of iron. As Malice Aforethought opens, Dr Bickleigh is at a tennis party, deciding to kill Julia.

A love story of sorts, and a fascinating portrayal of misplaced desperation.

Manchurian_CandidateI was not at all expecting The Manchurian Candidate to be the book it is. It’s packaged, in this 2004 movie tie-in edition at least, as a slick-looking starring-Denzel-Washington-and-from-the-director-of-The-Silence-of-the-Lambs techno-thriller – ‘It’s not a nightmare if it’s really happening’.

But what you get is a mix of extended satire on American politics, a bit of a war story and a bit of a love story, and an absurdist black comedy.

One for lovers of Catch-22.


Miss_Pym_DisposesJosephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes is, I think, her best book. An expert psychologist meets her match in a physical education college. A wonderful cast of characters, an idiosyncratic setting, musings of the value of psychology, a massive moral dilemma…

There is a large cast of characters, which Tey brings to life so effectively that I’d read most of the book before realising that there hadn’t been a crime yet. Just watching the characters interact is a pleasure, and they are a revelation to Miss Pym too.


Prelude_to_a_Certain_MidnightGerald Kersh’s Prelude to a Certain Midnight is a like a core sample taken through inter-war Soho. According to the back of my Penguin edition, Gerald Kersh worked as a ‘travelling salesman, all-in-wrestler, night-club proprietor, cinema manager, banker’s assistant, manual labourer, bodyguard, bookmaker’s clerk, debt collector, and barman’. Assuming that’s all true, he presumably saw a lot of London’s demi-monde, and they’re all here: slum-dwellers and aristos slumming it, artists, writers, eccentrics, drinkers and addicts, retired boxers, pork butchers, sado-masochists – and one child murderer.

Stylishly written and powerful.

Red_HarvestI’d tried to read Red Harvest a couple of times previously but given up, but this year I stuck with it and I’m glad I did. It’s eye-openingly violent, unremitting in its vision of corruption, and apparently based on Hammett’s own experiences. The cast of characters displays Hammett’s wonderful gift for names – Elihu Willsson, Yakima Shorty, Reno Starkey, Chief Noonan, Pete the Finn, Whisper Thaler, Dinah Brand. The fight scenes are gritty (and indeed almost Tarantino-esque in their sweep). The prototype hard-boiled hero the Continental Op is a keen observer of human foibles, with a black sense of humour and a truly hard-boiled turn of phrase. Great stuff.

Murder_of_the_MaharajahThe Murder of the Maharajah by H. R. F. Keating is an Indian mystery with only a tenuous link to his famous creation Inspector Ghote.

The action kicks off on April Fool’s Day 1930 at the palace of the Maharajah of Bhopore. An excruciating series of practical jokes culminates in a deeply embarrassing banquet (during which the Maharajah’s A.D.C. is falsely accused of trying to poison him). At a shooting party the next morning, the beautiful scenery is shattered by the Maharajah’s gun exploding, killing him instantly.

A humorous story with a strong setting and a satisfying mystery.

Strangers_on_a_TrainPatricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train is one of my favourite thrillers. The set-up is well-known. Two men get talking on a train. One is an up-and-coming architect with a beautiful girlfriend, on his way south to start a prestigious project in Palm Beach. There is only one fly in his ointment – a wife he hates in his home town of Metcalf Texas, and who is pregnant with another man’s child. The other is a wealthy wastrel with an obsessive love of his mother and hatred of his father, ‘the Captain’. If he was out of the way, life would be perfect. Why not swap murders?

I’ve long held that the best books are not necessarily the most memorable. Looking back at 2016, the books I think I’ll remember are:

Rather_a_Vicious_GentlemanRather a Vicious Gentleman presents a sort of scurrilous antihero, a little in the vein of Flashman or Mortdecai, who is an infallible assassin. The humour is fun if a bit clunky, but I thought the book’s reverse structure was clever.

Even more idiosyncratic is Harry Stephen Keeler’s The Shark-skin Book, a roller-coaster ride through a hard-boiled wonderland which makes very little sense but is compelling in its own way.

Happy New Year everyone! Hope you have a good 2017.

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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18 Responses to Best Offences: My favourite crime reads of 2016

  1. realthog says:

    I’d say that Pym‘s number one . . .


  2. tracybham says:

    You have picked three that I want to read: Malice Aforethought, Red Harvest, and Strangers on a Train. So your high opinion of them is encouraging. Especially Red Harvest, I am a little put off by the violence and corruption in that one, but have heard such good reports on it.


  3. Great choices there Rich – we all need to hope that 2017 will be so much better. Definitely needs work!


  4. Brad says:

    Rich, thanks for the list. Red Harvest and Miss Pym Disposes are two of my favorites! Strangers on a Train is one of my favorite films, but the book has gone unread, a shortcoming I must rectify soon.

    Also, I want to thank you for the great fun you supply us with the “Year of the Month!” I’ve enjoyed both participating and watching from the sidelines! I look forward to the years of 2017 . . . Er, after 1959, of course. 🙂


  5. That’s a great list! It’s years since I read Pym but I remember thinking it was definitely one of Tey’s strongest books. And Red Harvest is a more recent read but just as striking (but in different ways!) Look forward to hearing about what you read this year.


  6. suzigun says:

    The only one that I’ve read (or remember reading) is the Murder of the Maharajah but I do remember enjoying it. If only I could squeeze some more titles onto my tbr pile…


  7. Bev Hankins says:

    Great wrap-up, Rich! I do like Miss Pym…but then I have that weakness for academic-related books, so that’s a given. I started Red Harvest once, but couldn’t do it. May have to go back to it since you’ve rated it so highly.

    I still need to do my year-end wrap-up.


  8. Faye says:

    Thanks to your recommendation of “Malice Aforethought,” I looked up Anthony Berkeley and found “The Poisoned Chocolates Case,” which became my first mystery read of 2017. It was gorgeous.

    I enjoyed “Miss Pym Disposes” very much, but found much to object to in Miss Pym’s moral positions, so much that I can’t look back on the book with any favor at all.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Guy Savage says:

    Loved Strangers on a Train. Have you read Night and the City? If not grab it.


  10. sbrnseay1 says:

    There are so many mystery books/authors on my list I’m hoping to get to them in 2017. Patricia Highsmith, Francis Iles (Anthony Berkeley Cox) and Josephine Tey are on my list. I really would love to read Anthony B. Cox’s “Before The Fact” which Alfred Hitchcock adapted to a film called “Suspicion”. I know that Hitchcock changed the ending at the time due to . . . . certain reasons I will keep disclosed to those who hasn’t read the story yet.


  11. I have read most of those, and broadly agree with you. Not the Hersh, which sounds good – a bit like Brighton Rock?


    • pastoffences says:

      Hmm, not really like Brighton Rock. More louche, bohemian, and much more satirical. I’m trying to think if I’ve read anything similar but nothing is springing to mind. The main character reminds me of a Wodehouse aunt, but trapped in a nastier world.


  12. Pingback: ‘The admiration that existed for all things American’: 1959 books | Past Offences: Classic crime, thrillers and mystery book reviews

  13. Ken B says:

    Stumbled across this today, looking for a review of the Kersh, wondering if it’s worth reading.
    Read and loved most of these. Glad you stuck with Red Harvest. Try the Continental Op stories next. My kind of list. So I start the Kersh next.


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