My Top Ten Crime Novels
There’s something peculiarly seasonal about crime fiction. It belongs to foggy autumnal evenings and to the darkness at the heart of a December night. So in the spirit of the best winter’s tales: close the curtains and light the lamps, draw up a chair to the fire, pour yourself a glass of something warming, and read on…
1. No list of this type would be complete without at least a nod to Agatha Christie. Poirot and Hastings, Miss Marple and the village of St. Mary Mead, the cast of retiring vicars and choleric Colonels, of dim and dashing bright-young-things and amateur sleuths – these characters are part of our culture now.
I can’t pick just one book from Christie’s entire oeuvre, but The Murder of Roger Ackroyd deserves a mention for the delicious twist at the end, and for illustrating how a plot can turn on a single line. I have a soft spot for Mrs McGinty’s Dead (because of the gloriously sinister cover image on my copy, and because it begins with a newspaper article about true historical crime) and also for Lord Edgware Dies. In the latter, I admire the way that Christie takes a character who first made an appearance in a Miss Marple short story, and puts her smack in the centre of a Poirot novel, as well as the lovely eye for detail which enables Poirot to unmask the murderer, and then the odd little letter which that murderer writes to him at the end of the book.
2. It’s impossible to live through a winter in London thinking about murder without being reminded on every foggy street corner of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. As with Agatha Christie’s work, this is at least partly because of the memorable visual portrayals of his characters. I remember Monday evenings as a child sprawled in front of the fire watching BBC2: The Adams Family, the Munsters, and then Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce bringing Holmes and Watson to life in black and white. By the late 1980s I was hooked on the portrayals by Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke, and now I’m waiting impatiently for series four of Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman and Mark Gatiss. Each portrayal is very different – each focuses on a different way of telling the stories and on a different quirk in Holmes’ character, but each is a standalone masterpiece.
With such a large body of work about the same central characters, it’s difficult to choose a favourite, but I love the central premise of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Holmes and Watson live in ‘modern’ London, they are civilised men at the heart of the British Empire – and then they are summoned to travel just a few hours by train to a setting where a beast dwells that embodies our most primitive fears: a monster that leaps out of the darkness to kill. It’s difficult to think of a more apt or a more horrible end for a literary villain than the slow suffocating death that Conan Doyle gives the stoker of the legend of the Hound: “Somewhere in the heart of the great Grimpen Mire, down in the foul slime of the huge morass which had sucked him in, this cold and cruel-hearted man is for ever buried.”
3. The simultaneous variety and quality of Ruth Rendell’s work is enviable. Every book is written with depth and care: from the measured pace of her Wexford novels, where – unlike Christie and Conan Doyle – Rendell makes her central character’s assistant intelligent and resourceful; to the imaginative psychological thrillers she wrote under the name of Barbara Vine, to her often creepy and disturbing standalone novels, such as my favourite, A Judgement In Stone. This is a short, perfectly-executed masterpiece, and contains the best opening line I’ve read in any crime novel: ‘Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.’ It’s a beauty: we know the names of the killer and the victims, we know the motive – and sheer curiosity about how these are linked makes us read on.
4. The same is true of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. By the end of the two-page prologue, we know the identity of the victim, the location and manner of his death, and who was present at the time. It’s a fantastic opening – intriguing, confident, confiding. We read on because of the beautiful lyrical rhythm of her writing, and because we need to understand how a friendship ended in murder, and why, and what will happen to those responsible. One thousand words in, and we’re already caught up in the crime, already complicit. This is the book that made me realise, at twenty-two, that crime novels could be literary, and that the question of why was as fascinating as the question of who.
5. I love everything about The Murder Room by PD James: the careful elegant prose; the rounded and rich and very real cast of suspects, especially the wonderfully self-reliant Tally Clutton, my favourite of all PD James’ characters; and most of all, the idea that a museum of curiosities ‘dedicated to the interwar years, 1919-1938’ might exist on Hampstead Heath, with a room devoted to real-life murder cases at its heart. This is partly because I’d obviously give my eye teeth to visit a museum that specialises in my own favourite period of crime, and partly because the book gives us PD James’ own summaries of some of the most notorious cases of the 1920s and 1930s. I’m rather in awe of the kind of mind that would set a murder inside this Murder Room, and place the body inside the same trunk which the second Brighton Trunk Murderer used to conceal his victim.
6. When I’m asked to name my favourite novel, Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith usually comes somewhere in the top three. Sarah Waters writes with Dickensian richness about Victorian London and the den of thieves in which one of her main characters is brought up. The writing is sumptuous and gorgeous, the historical detail unobtrusive, and the plot dense and horrible, with both heroines in constant danger, exposed through wonderful unexpected twists all the way to the final page.
7. I’ve cheated with this one. I was going to choose either Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on the Train or one of her glorious Ripley novels, but I recently read Jill Dawson’s splendid biographical novel of Highsmith, The Crime Writer, and I’m going to mix them all up and just say: read some Highsmith, and then read The Crime Writer.
I find Patricia Highsmith a fascinating character in her own story. Her difficult life has been well-documented: her terrible love-hate relationship with her mother, her periods of deep depression, her alcoholism, her chronic ill-health. She never had an intimate relationship that lasted for more than a few years, and famously preferred animals to people. (I rather agree with her on that last one: generally they’re better conversationalists and they approve of random naps. And I’ve never met a cat who thought racist jokes were funny.)
Highsmith adored cats and snails, and bred the latter in her Suffolk garden. My favourite story about her is that she once attended a cocktail party with a huge handbag that contained ‘a head of lettuce and a hundred snails’ which she said were her companions for the evening.
And yet, despite – or perhaps because of – all of these oddities, Highsmith produced twenty-two novels and countless short stories in a career that spanned over fifty years, each one a gift of intelligent elegant prose and originality. Her work is consistently pleasurable to read.
In The Crime Writer, Jill Dawson mixes these ingredients to create a fully-realised and richly-drawn portrayal of an unhappy woman trying to be herself in a world where she doesn’t fit. Highsmith is renting a cottage in Suffolk, struggling to write, drinking too much, and distracted by an unhappy love affair with a married woman who has a child. The woman visits her and an accidental death results. The attempts to dispose of the body and cover up the death are cleverly reminiscent of Ripley’s murder of Freddie Miles. While the book – and presumably the death – are fiction, reading it feels like a perfectly-constructed snapshot of a few weeks in the life of this most interesting of women. You feel privileged to be allowed to peer in.
(And yes, Dawson does manage to get the snails-in-the-handbag story into the book.)
8. Tana French is one of those writers whose work doesn’t sit easily within a single genre. Her first novel, In The Woods, is about a recent crime and one long-buried, and French writes about the present-day police investigation in a thoroughly believable and pacy style. What makes this more than just a thriller about a missing girl is that it’s also a very moving and poignant novel about first love, loneliness, betrayal and loss. Like all of her novels, it’s beautifully-written and the ending is simultaneously satisfying and heart-wrenching.
9. I discovered The Poison Artist by Jonathan Moore accidentally, in a dusty second-hand bookshop on a wet grey London afternoon. It evokes a similarly dark and foggy San Francisco, populated by a flawed hero, macabre events and an unforgettable femme fatale. It’s lush, intoxicating, unnerving, and very very accomplished – a tall glass of noir with a cool modern twist.
10. Dennis Lehane is my guilty pleasure and, together with Jeffrey Deaver, gets my vote for the best crime writer working in America today. I was introduced to Lehane’s work years ago by a bookseller friend. “We sell loads of his books,” she told me. “You’ll love him.”
First, I read his series of novels featuring private detectives Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro: they talk as though Tarantino scripts their wisecracks, everyone they meet wants to kill them or fuck them – or both – and the sexual tension crackles between them. They’re fun to read, but the stories they inhabit are solid rather than outstanding. I couldn’t work out why my friend rated Lehane so highly.
Then I read Shutter Island and Mystic River, and I got it. Mystic River is written with heart and soul. It’s about a crime, yes, but it’s mostly about love: the love that parents have for their children, that people have for their community, that kids have for their friends.
However, if one of Lehane’s characters – perhaps the simultaneously adorable and terrifying Bubba Rogowski (arms dealer, psychopath and babysitter) – held a gun to my head, I’d pick Shutter Island as my favourite Lehane novel. Imagine a tightly-plotted thriller in a Fifties B-movie setting, shaken with a measure of And Then There Were None, seasoned with a generous splash of spooky Gothic throughout. It has everything: murders on a desolate island, an insane woman who escapes from a locked room, a secret code, a series of nightmarish twists, and a memorably horrible ending.
If there are books that appear to be missing from this list, it may be because I’ll be writing a separate post next month about debut novels to look out for – and then later in 2017, one about my favourite books based on true crimes.