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Espionage, Memoir and the Manson Murders: Charlotte Philby's Top Crime Reads

Posted on 28th April 2020 by Mark Skinner

Charlotte Philby's pulsating debut novel, Part of the Family, is a compelling cross between domestic thriller and espionage novel. As might be expected, the author of Waterstones Thriller of the Month for May was inspired by a wide array of literature, both fiction and fact. In this exclusive essay, Charlotte reveals her favourite crime-related reads.    

The Fact of a Body by Alexandra Marzano-Lesnevich

Part memoir, part true-crime, this book is a total one-off - as astounding in plot as it is expertly crafted. The author, Alexandra Marzano-Lesnevich, is a law student working on a retrial for death-row prisoner Ricky Langley, who was convicted of killing a child in Louisiana. As Marzano-Lesnevich starts to dig into the details of the case, she uncovers an extraordinary forgotten crime within her own family – of which she is the victim. The story is told in alternate chapters. On one hand it is an account of Langley’s crime and the circumstances in which it was cultivated, told with astonishing precision as the writer paints a picture of the murderer's own childhood trauma, as well as a vivid portrait of the small-town US community he tore apart when he killed six-year-old Jeremy Guillory. On the other, we move back to Marzano-Lesnevich’s own childhood in New Jersey, the writer taking us with her as she comes to terms with the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her own grandfather. There is something so exquisite about the writing that the parallels between the two stories never feel contrived and the details never gratuitous.

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A mesmerising slice of true crime interlaced with compelling memoir, The Fact of a Body traces the parallel narratives of the retrial of an alleged child killer and the disturbing backstory of a law student involved on the case. Skilfully structured to make the most of slow-burning revelations and sudden moments of jaw-dropping horror, this is a masterpiece of the true crime genre.
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The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker

I stumbled on a copy of this novel in a German airport a few years ago. It’s massive, even in paperback, but I had devoured the whole thing by the time I got to my home in London, a few hours later – I immediately started recommending it to everyone I’d ever met only to find it hadn’t yet been published in the UK. Originally written in French, the story works back to front and tells of Marcus Goldman, a gifted English Literature student who sets out to clear the name of his teacher and mentor, Harry Quebert, after he is accused of murdering fifteen-year-old Nola Kellergan. Nola disappeared in 1975 and her body is only discovered three decades later, in the fictional town of Somerset, New Hampshire. Quebert – who was a struggling author in his twenties, in love with Nola when she disappeared – is the only suspect. There are shades of Twin Peaks, Lolita and The Secret History, with the clarity and galloping pace of the most compelling cop drama.

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A stunningly accomplished postmodern murder mystery abounding in richly evoked atmosphere, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair weaves a labyrinthine, head-spinning tale of a cold case in small town America. Playing tricks with time and perception, Dicker’s great novel is a scintillating achievement.
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The Constant Gardener by John Le Carré

This was the first Le Carré novel I ever read. He was one of the authors whose books lined our shelves at home when I was a child, and I always refused those thick dusty spines when my mum told me I’d love them, in an act of misguided rebellion. I was 18 when The Constant Gardener came out and I bought my own copy of it, far more slender and stylish than those I’d rebutted in years gone by. Reading it was like being hit by a sledgehammer. Set in Africa, it tells the story of an Englishman who travels to Northern Kenya to find out what happened to his wife, Tess, an aide worker, after her body is discovered, brutally murdered. It’s a love story and a hugely tense tale of corruption and international espionage and it blew my mind. It remains one of my favourite of Le Carré’s books, along with – controversially – two more of his newer novels, A Legacy of Spies and A Delicate Truth.

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Proving as adept at the global eco thriller as he was at Cold War page turners, The Constant Gardener combines probing character study with precision plotted and gripping storytelling. Tracking a bereaved husband’s path through a web of international conspiracy and corruption, le Carre’s late masterwork succeeds magnificently on all levels.
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Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty

This is my favourite kind of crime book, because it focuses on the events around and the emotional ramifications of the crime, rather than the crime itself. Like many people, I first read Apple Tree Yard after seeing and loving the BBC television adaptation, and the book was even better. Louise Doughty has an amazing ability to turn her hand to a range of stories and characters and make them so vivid and so compelling. The combination of taut domestic drama and the energy and allure of the world the protagonist Dr Yvonne Carmichael is drawn into, through her evasive lover Mark Costley, really spoke to me.

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One of the most assured psychological thrillers of recent years, Doughty’s creepingly sinister novel is a triumph of finely wrought character and skillfully realised narrative tension. Documenting an illicit affair that soon begins to go disastrously wrong, Apple Tree Yard is a chilling depiction of dangerous obsession.
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Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry

I will never forget the moment I discovered this book. I was staying for the summer with my aunt and uncle in Arizona, aged 16, and they had dropped me off to spend a few hours browsing the bookstore nearby while they ran errands. I was already really into the Point Horror series and had a fascination with true crime stories I read in my parents’ newspaper, but this meticulous and forensic account of the Charles Manson murders, co-written by the prosecuting attorney Vincent Bugliosi, was the first time I’d read anything like it, and it felt like contraband. I’d never heard of Charles Manson or his cult before I picked this up and I became obsessed with this story, which became the basis for my first English literature dissertation along with In Cold Blood by Truman Capote and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. I can’t remember the title but it wasn’t cheery.

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An undisputed classic of true crime writing, Bugliosi and Gentry’s rigorously researched and methodically collated volume is the last word on the Manson murders. Blessed with the first hand testimony of the case’s prosecuting lawyer Bugliosi, Helter Skelter elevates the true crime genre into genuinely seminal literature.
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