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…
Francis 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.
I 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.
Josephine 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.
Gerald 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.
I’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.
The 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.
Patricia 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 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.