Twenty of my favourite crime novels: in no particular order and shamelessly mixing sub-genres. I’m not saying they’re the best and there are notable omissions. The only thing they have in common is that I love them.
1. Ross Macdonald: The Drowning Pool: Macdonald is possibly my favourite crime fiction writer. This is one of the many I devoured when I was in my early twenties. Lew Archer is a PI who is funny and tough, who leads us in an exciting and witty journey through the underbelly of Californian life. There should be a law forcing people to read Ross Macdonald.
2. Carl Hiaasen: Double Whammy: Set in Florida, Hiaasen’s novels usually have an eco-theme. They always have a humorous surreal realism. Here PI R.J. Decker is hired to investigate cheating on the Florida bass-fishing circuit. I smile when I read Hiaasen…which does make me look a bit odd.
3. Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö: Laughing Policeman: Change of genre. Here is a police procedural and an early (1968) example of Scandinavian crime fiction. It’s the fourth of the (ten) Martin Beck novels by the left-wing husband and wife team. Their aim was not only to write great crime books but to show that Sweden wasn’t the utopia people believed it to be. Much more was to follow from that part of the world.
4. Mark Billingham: Sleepyhead: I saw this in a bookshop and bought it on impulse. Good move. It’s the first DI Thorne novel and shows what Billingham fans have grown to expect – tightly written plots which show a real nasty side to our species. A London resident to boot.
5. C.J Sansom: Dissolution: There is a sub-genre of historical detectives, which can be either great or truly awful. This is the former. This is the first of the Shardlake series, which has the Tudor lawyer working for Thomas Cromwell investigating a murder in a Suffolk Monastery. Not only a gripping detective story but brings the turbulent times of Henry VIII alive. Cromwell is a looming presence. I am impatient for another one to be published.
6. P.D James: A Shroud for a Nightingale: If I was going to point a finger at my favourite Brit police procedural then it might possibly be a P.D James one. Adam Dalgliesh is honest and a poet, which in light of recent news about corruption at the Met seems rather quaint. But I still believe in him; here he investigates murders of nurses. I first opened this book, intending to read a few pages before going to sleep; I ended up staying awake for hours and reading the whole thing.
7. Chester Himes: Cotton Comes to Harlem: Written in 1965, the novel fizzes as NY detectives Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed (surely contenders for the best character names ever) investigate murder and double crosses. Himes as well as being a fine novelist had quite a life himself, with a friend list which included Langston Hughes, Picasso and Malcolm X.
8. Robert Harris: Fatherland: This features an alternative future which is far bleaker than CCR. Hitler has won WWII and is about to celebrate his 75th birthday. A high ranking Nazi is murdered and Berlin detective Xavier March investigates. Like all Harris’ novels it moves along at a great pace.
9. Stieg Larsson: Girl with a Dragon Tattoo: The phrase, ‘Publishing Sensation’ is a cliché but what else can you call Girl with a Dragon Tattoo? Also in Lisbeth Salander it contains one of the great female characters of crime fiction.
10. Val McDermid: Fever of the Bone: A good crime book needs a hero you can get hooked by and a baddie, which even if the reader doesn’t know their identity, is similarly bound to them. Both boxes are ticked by this book. McDermid’s clinical psychologist Tony Hill is a marvellously complex character.
11. Walter Mosley: Devil in a Blue Dress: Jazz, smoky bars of 1948 LA and Easy Rawlins (rivalling the pair from Himes’ detectives written 40 years earlier for the best name award) is down on his luck until he falls into investigating the whereabouts of Daphne Monet and ends with him deciding that PI-ing is his future. It also features a great character, in his friend Mouse.
12. Raymond Chandler: The Big Sleep: What’s left to say? Not only one of the greatest crime novels but one of the great novels full stop. Philip Marlowe – the greatest PI? One of the coolest characters? A novel to measure other hard-boiled detectives by? One of the greatest films? Humphrey Bogart’s greatest role? There’s strong arguments in favour of each of the these, even allowing notable contenders.
13. Dashiell Hammett: Maltese Falcon: Talking of which. A rival for all the above.
14. Sue Grafton: A is for Alibi: First of the Kinsey Millhone alphabet series. A wonderful female PI and the book which introduced me to what LBD meant. (Sad I know). I am aware that in some quarters this is a much sniffed at phrase but I think this has readability.
15. Ian Pears: Instance of a Fingerpost: Set in Oxford after the restoration of the monarchy after the English Civil War this is almost the reverse of Comrades Come Rally. It’s told by different narrators, none of whom can be taken at face value. This novel shows that crime fiction doesn’t not have to be formulaic. And is so good that numerous friends of mine received this a birthday present.
16. Asa Larsson: The Black Path: One thing’s for sure in crime novels and that is that there are rarely straight forward deaths. Murderers tend to do it grisly. Actually, make that two things: rarely are people happy. Both are true of this Swedish novel.
17. Jo Nesbo: The Redeemer: It is almost impossible to go into an airport book shop and not see Jo Nesbo books on sale. His Oslo detective Harry Hole is everywhere. This, like the others, is truly a page-turner, beginning with shots in a cold December night. Great fun. I even forgive Nesbo his support for Spurs.
18. Robert Galbraith: Cuckoo’s Calling: Most the publicity surrounding this is the fact that it is J.K Rowling. Personally, I’m not that bothered whether it’s her or if it was a bloke from Kings Lynn because I think it is a real fun read. Maybe not top of the realistic-story-list but then most crime fic isn’t. The cast of characters are exotic and PI Cormoran Strike (another fun character name) is a great creation.
19. Michael Cox: Meaning of the Night: It’s as much an evocation of the dark alleyways of Victorian London as a crime mystery but the rivalry between book lover Edward Glyver and poet and criminal Phoebus Rainsford Daunt is gripping.
20. Arnaldur Indridson: The Draining Lake: The Reykjavik Detective Erlunder investigates a case which has its roots in cold war Eastern Europe. Another quality detective creation from northern Europe. They are on a roll; it must be the cold weather and long nights.