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Bella Mackie Recommends Her Favourite Crime Novels

Posted on 14th July 2021 by Mark Skinner

Bella Mackie, journalist, podcaster and author of Jog On, has delivered a compelling blend of black comedy and crime thriller called How to Kill Your Family. In this exclusive piece, Bella recommends the crime fiction that informed her writing - much of it laced with a wickedly dark wit.     

In his essay, Decline of the English Murder, George Orwell set out the factors which one needs for a really good crime. The backdrop is suburban and sedate. There should be a solid motive, usually based on the threat of lost respectability. There must be utmost cunning and meticulous plotting, nothing to be done in haste. The weapon is usually poison, and only the smallest slip up will result in the perpetrator being found out.  

Exacting stuff, which also happens to fit quite nicely with what I seek out in crime fiction. I too want meticulous plotting and a well-conceived plan. I don’t go in for random violence. Give me a quiet and restrained atmosphere, beneath which a simmering darkness will slowly reveal itself. Most importantly, I look for an element of humour, some note of brevity to balance the vicious acts being described. Here are five books which fit the bill. 

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie   

I have read every single book by the original and unsurpassed queen of crime fiction. Picking a favourite is nigh on impossible, but this story is one of her cleverest and most intricately plotted. Ten people arrive on the remote Soldier Island for a weekend celebration, only to start being picked off, one by one, by someone amongst their ranks. The secrets each guest carries tumble out as they become increasingly desperate, and the final chapter is one almost guaranteed to make you gasp. A perfectly formed murder mystery, one I have read countless times and never found wanting.

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Christie’s most perfectly constructed mystery places a motley assortment of guests on a remote island and then picks them off one by one in a triumph of ingenious plotting and sinister atmosphere.
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The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith 

This book was one of the first crime novels I read where I found myself rooting for the murderer. Ripley is a sociopath, a shapeshifter, taking on the characteristics of others whose lives he covets. He meets the wealthy Dickie Greenleaf, and becomes infatuated with him, desperate for the life Dickie leads. What follows is a fascinating look at obsession and the dark places that it can take us.

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Tom Ripley, charming yet petulant, reckless yet calculating, is one of the great literary anti-heroes, and his shocking actions across the jet-set Europe of the 1950s have thrilled and appalled millions of voracious readers.
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Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan 

A legal thriller, set between the heart of government and the buttoned up world of Oxford academia, this novel looks at how far loyalty can stretch, and examines issues around power and misogyny. It's also a brilliant book about revenge. Sophie is married to James, a politician who is accused of rape when they were both at university. Did he do it? Can she trust him? The reader is forced to make judgements, then asked to re-evaluate them. Dark and clever, the ending rewards your efforts.

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Serving up a winning blend of perjury and prejudice, this knife-edged political thriller unearths a rot at the heart of Britain’s corridors of power.
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My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite 

I didn't let myself read this novel until I'd finished writing my own, because I'd heard such great things about it and I didn't want to risk being influenced by it, or worse, intimidated by it. It was worth the wait. The opening scene shows a woman called Korede scrubbing blood off the bathroom tiles, and follows her as she attempts to protect her sister - a woman who has killed three of her boyfriends - from suspicion. Throw in a love triangle, and you have a perfect crime caper with dark humour to boot.

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Not just an inventive take on the serial-murder thriller, Braithwaite's blistering debut is also a tender examination of sibling relationships in an oppressively patriarchal society and a story that turns the tables on the woman-as-victim trope.
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Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers 

Perhaps Sayers is not quite as famous as Agatha Christie, but she certainly deserves to be. In this tightly plotted novel (inspired by true events), Harriet Vane is convicted for allegedly murdering her boyfriend. Our hero Lord Peter Wimsey is determined to prove her innocence, and so unfurls a tightly plotted race to save Harriet from a death sentence. The book is full of Orwell’s requirements for a good English murder while also being clever, funny and at times touching. Most importantly, the ending is fabulously done. Harriet Vane is still my icon to this day.

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The sixth outing for Lord Peter Wimsey finds the redoubtable sleuth charged with keeping crime-solving colleague Harriet Vane from the gallows in a deft whodunit laced with wit and character.
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