Updated: Jun 19, 2021
Crime-fiction: a popular term used wide and often by bibliophiles the world over. A genre that’s not really a genre, yet seemingly always has it’s own section in book shops. To my ears at least, the words automatically conjure up images of steely grey detectives standing over the mangled body of a victim done over in a violent way. One can practically taste the grittiness of the alleyways in suburbia or the industrial wastelands; see the police tape cordoning off the dumpster behind the string of flashing blue lights. But why is this? The world of crime fiction has a whole spectrum of approaches from the quaint, witty and surreal to the darkest and most perverse corners of the horror genres, and everything else in between.
It’s common to see the likes of Jo Nesbo, John Grisham, Patricia Cornwell and Agatha Christie selling vast quantities and stealing the top spots on all manner of best crime fiction lists, so today I thought I’d run off a list of brilliant books that fall under the crime umbrella but approach the genre in a more unusual and possibly less mainstream way. That’s not to say these are better or worse, or less successful when compared to genre heavyweights. They are merely great books to look out for if you want something different from your criminals and crime solvers. Here is my top 10 offbeat crime novels.
10: Adam Christopher – Made To Kill (2015)
Book one in the Ray Electromatic Mysteries, Made to Kill follows the exploits of Ray, a private investigator who happens to be a robot. Set in an alternate 1960s Hollywood where years before the world had been over run by robots, Ray is the last left functioning. With only Ada, a sentient computer, in his office for company, Ray is hired by a familiar woman to help find a missing movie star. The problem is that his memory only lasts twenty-four hours and each night he must give his memories to Ada to store. As Ray goes about the seedy Hollywood underworld uncovering dastardly plots in the hope of solving the case, he also tries to conduct his own investigations into how he came to be and whether or not Ada is actually on his side. A funny pastiche of the noir genre, as well as a raucous adventure that stands up on its own, Christopher’s trilogy of books are excellent quirky reads with a brilliant twist conclusion.
09: Dot Hutchison – The Butterfly Garden (2016)
This psychological thriller takes place in the form of a police interview with the central character Maya who has just been freed from the titular butterfly garden. She and a host of other girls have been held captive by an obsessive sociopath known as the Gardener, who drugs them, tattoos them with butterfly wings and essentially keeps them as sex slaves until they grow too old. The story flips between Maya narrating her story and the detectives trying to work out how much of what she’s saying is true. The sexual violence is graphic and Maya revels in giving you the gory tales of her time as a captive, but with strong characters and Maya toying with the interviewing officers as she drip feeds them her tragic back story, there is so much to keep you turning the pages as you piece together the events before and during her ordeal. This book would have probably been higher if not for a revelation at the end that I thought was weak compared to rest of the book, but it’s still an addictive read and truly original in its execution.
08: Mark Hodder – The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack (2010)
Probably the furthest removed from traditional crime fiction on this list, Mark Hodder’s homage to real-life Victorian Boogeyman Spring-Heeled Jack is thick with plot, dripping with fully rounded characters and so action packed that the five-hundred-plus pages absolutely fly by as though you were reading a newspaper article. Famous explorer Richard Burton and somewhat obscure poet Algernon Swinburne find themselves teaming up when enlisted by Lord Palmerston to investigate attacks on young women in London by the titular Jack. Their detecting will drag them into the murky criminal underworld where eugenicists, libertines and rakes all vie for power and try to push forward their nefarious ideologies onto anyone they meet. With a plethora of detailed research clearly put into the writing juxtaposed against flashes of vibrant imagination, this alternate history steampunk extravaganza will leave you hungry for the next part in the series, the equally brilliant The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man.
07: Charles Bukowski – Pulp (1994)
In something of late career surprise, legendary beat poet Charles Bukowski dropped some of the biographical dirtiness of his previous novels and treated the world to his take on the noir genre with this genre pastiche mocking the cliches of Raymond Chandler and those derived from him. Written shortly before his death and keeping some of the excessive drinking, self deprecation and brutal honesty that he is best known for, Pulp sees Bukowski dropping his usual narrator Henry Chinaski and instead sees us introduced to PI lowlife Nicky Belane. The tone of the novel is very similar to Bukowski’s other works, with a cynical take on life exacerbated by excessive drinking, but this novel actually attempts to have a plot, albeit in the loosest sense of the word. Lady Death hires Belane to find missing writer Celine, Bukowski’s real life inspiration Louis Ferdinand Celine. What follows is often incoherent as Bukowski never planned an ordered narrative, but instead showcases a writer facing up to his own mortality, accepting his flaws and writing something to send himself up. A fitting epitaph to his career. Complete in its incompleteness, Pulp is a thrilling and funny read that will make you want to dig up an old copy of Post Office or Ham on Rye and revisit what gave Bukowski a cult following in the first place.
06: Josephine Tey – The Daughter of Time (1951)
A hugely influential name in the crime genre thanks to the success of her classic Inspector Grant novels, it’s the fifth book in the series that tries something unique. Whilst the rest of the series sees Tey dabbling with traditional whodunnit murder mysteries, The Daughter of Time follows Inspector Grant delving into history to prove whether or not Richard III killed this nephews (the infamous princes in the tower). Stuck in hospital recovering from a broken leg, Grant is given a series of pictures linked to unsolved historical murders to help him pass the time. Fast paced and genuinely intriguing, no book about a hospital stay should be as engaging as this! It’s also worth noting that this novel won the title of greatest mystery novel of all time by the British Crime Writers’ Association in 1990.
05: Hubert Selby Jr – The Room (1971)
Possibly a controversial choice for number five, The Room is something of an oddity. Described as “a terrifying journey into the darkest corners of the psyche” by The Guardian in 2007, the book tells the story of a man accused of burglary and assaulting two police officers stuck in his remand cell as he awaits the outcome of his trial. Consumed by disturbing fantasies of vengeance, the book follows his arrest and time on the witness stand from his own point of view as he tries to fill his hours with only his mind for company. The book is often shocking and not for the faint of heart, but with that comes an addictiveness based around wanting to find out how horrific the narrative can get, culminating in an infamous and gratuitous rape scene. But with intriguing set pieces, realistic characterisation and a real ear for dialogue, The Room remains a standout of courtroom dramas and will stay with the reader long after they’ve turned the final page.
04: Ariana Franklin – Mistress Of The Art Of Death (2007)
At number four, we head back in time to medieval England for Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death. The story follows Adelia Aguilar, a woman skilled in the art of autopsy, as she travels from Europe to Henry II’s England to aid in solving a grisly murder. This is the first of a four book series; each one presenting a fascinating mystery for Adelia to solve. Whilst at times Adelia feels like something of an anachronism, in that women in this time period did not enjoy the liberties that she does, she is still an interesting, unique lead character who is flawed, fearless and funny. Another plus of this series is the humour is spread liberally throughout, yet never detracts from the mystery, and at times, the tension. Overall, this book is a great opening to a series that gives readers a peek into a world not typically explored in crime fiction, and by adding in appearances from real historical figures offers a little extra for any history buffs out there.
03: Ben Aaronovitch – Rivers of London (2011)
Given the runaway success of The Peter Grant series, this choice may stand out or seem ill-fitting on this list, but Rivers of London basically re-wrote the rulebook on what contemporary crime fiction is allowed to be. Occasionally and unfairly described as an adult Harry Potter, the book follows the exploits of Peter, a twenty-five year-old recently qualified police officer as he starts to reveal the supernatural secrets that lurk behind London’s rainy metropolitan facade, with the help of the mysterious Nightingale. Full of wit, history and well researched Police procedure, the book sees London practically turned into a character itself as Peter tries to solve supernatural murders with the help of fellow officer Lesley. Brimming with wonderful characters, laugh out loud moments and an irreverent narrator oozing with classicly British cynicism, if you’ve managed to avoid the series this far, it’s probably about time you surrendered to the hype!
02: Chester Himes – A Rage In Harlem (1957)
Stylish isn’t a word that usually springs to mind when talking about crime fiction or the criminal activity in Harlem in the nineteen-fifties, but it’s definitely fitting for the brilliant A Rage In Harlem. This comedy-thriller follows Jackson, a loser who empties his boss’ safe to replace money he was scammed out of, only to lose the money gambling. Enlisting his twin brother Goldy, a man who makes a living pretending to be a nun and selling tickets to Heaven, to help get the money back, the two are quickly chased by police officers Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, two rough, tough no nonsense African-American police officers who will stop at nothing to get the job done. Fast paced, beautifully written and with Himes’ unique voice and style, this novel is both a true groundbreaking classic of the genre and also one of my favourite books I have ever read.
01: Jasper Fforde – The Eyre Affair (2001)
Clinching the top spot is a book written by and for lovers of classic literature. Based in a version of nineteen eighty-five where everyone is a bookworm, time travel is routine and cloning is common, The Eyre Affair sees heroine Thursday Next embroiled in a dastardly plot to kill Jane Eyre and erase her from all copies of her novel. This description covers only a small amount of the story, but to give away more is to risk spoilers and ruining some of the hilarious twists and turns Fforde’s madcap manuscript takes as it expands his rib-tickling world and meets many well known giants from within the realms of classic fiction. Oodles of fun, written with flair and enthusiasm, and tight-rope walking expertly between sophistication and silliness, The Eyre Affair is a unique fun-filled literary gem that surprises and delights in equal measure.
Sara Gran – City of the Dead
Kyril Bonfiglioli - Don’t Point That Thing At Me
Ray Celestine - The Axeman’s Jazz
George Mann - The Affinity Bridge
Robert McCammon - Speaks the Nightbird