15 Hardboiled/American Crime Essentials
Selected stories of Edgar Allan Poe (beginning 1832) Among many other great stories, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is proto-great detective, “The Cask of Amontillado” is proto-noir, and “The Purloined Letter” is proto-espionage.
The Glass Key Dashiell Hammett (1931) Removed, politically aware, long finish. Hammett’s unfussy “hardboiled” writing style has been frequently imitated but never matched. The three private eyes, the Continental Op, Sam Spade, and Nick Charles, are all distinct from each other, while the gambler and political fixer Ned Beaumont may be the most complex “hero” on this whole page. (My ranking of the five Hammetts: 1. The Glass Key 2. Red Harvest 3. The Maltese Falcon 4. The Thin Man 5. The Dain Curse.)
The Postman Always Rings Twice James M. Cain (1934) Father of American noir. “Love, when you get fear in it, it’s not love any more. It’s hate.” Double Indemnity is also essential; both were made into classic movies. The rest of Cain is uneven.
Farewell, My Lovely Raymond Chandler (1940) Chandler reframed Hammett’s genre, making the private eye a little more stylized, sexy, and sentimental. Philip Marlowe’s outlandish metaphors and outrageous zingers have proven to be endlessly re-readable. (My ranking of the six Chandlers: 1. Farewell, My Lovely/The Lady in the Lake (tie) 2. The Big Sleep 3. The Long Goodbye — while many consider Goodbye the best I think Chandler’s trying too hard– 4. The High Window 5. The Little Sister.)
The Silent Speaker Rex Stout (1946) Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin bicker throughout 48 marvelous novels and collections of novelettes. Every detail is negotiated in the Wolfe world. Contracts are binding, each word is used just so. A hint of hardboiled comedy, supplied by the narrator Goodwin, leavens the atmosphere and renders the series irresistible. The Silent Speaker has a particularly satisfying McGuffin and conclusion; it also marks the beginning of sleek post-war Stout. Some prefer the pre-war entires for complex and at times psychological plots; I prefer the later books for the entirely settled domestic ritual. Other favorite titles include Some Buried Caesar, Murder By the Book, Champagne for One, Before Midnight.
The Talented Mr. Ripley Patricia Highsmith (1955) The implausible becomes plausible, the bad becomes good. Shocking and innovative. The first Ripley trilogy is essential, but Highsmith’s sentences are superb wherever you find them. Marijane Meaker’s candid memoir Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950’s offers a wonderful snapshot of the era.
The Chill Ross MacDonald (1964) For a long time, MacDonald was seen as the third member of a triumvirate with Hammett and Chandler. However, that was a overly generous assessment. MacDonald’s style effortlessly draws you in, but the books end up being too similar: After an old family secret causes a modern crime, Lew Archer drives around asking hard questions of those that would rather forget. It’s an effective conceit the first time around, but numbing over the long haul. (I dare anyone to successfully explain the plot of a Ross MacDonald novel five minutes after finishing the book.) The Chill is frequently chosen as MacDonald’s best, and I concur, the impact is undeniable. The first few Archers are less stylishly written but are also less predictable: The Way Some People Die stands out with rolling momentum and a great title.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle George V. Higgins (1970) Heavy-hearted game-changer where the crooks really sounded like crooks. The movie with Robert Mitchum was great too. While the first few Higgins novels, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, The Digger’s Game and Cogan’s Trade, will always have a certain timelessness, later Higgins is comparatively stiff and uninteresting. Perhaps there was simply too much dialogue.
The Glitter Dome Joseph Wambaugh (1981) Profane detectives stagger through nightmares in this former real-life cop’s violent and hilarious revenge against Hollywood.
Red Dragon Thomas Harris (1981) A rare serial killer novel that really matters. Indeed, I might argue that Red Dragon is the greatest example of this now-tired trope. The Silence of the Lambs is more famous thanks to the excellent movie, but Red Dragon is even better. Sadly, Harris could not keep his distance from his famous creation, and Hannibal is the worst kind of fan fiction.
Always a Body to Trade K. C. Constantine (1983) Constantine is our most underrated crime author and Police Chief Mario Balzic is our most underrated series character. Small town politics in a Pennsylvania mining town are enlivened by frequent trips to Muscotti’s Bar and an occasional murder. In Always a Body to Trade, Balzic gives the incoming mayor a lesson in civics.
New Hope for the Dead Charles Willeford (1985) The genre turned inside out. Willeford is an acquired taste, but for those that understand his ironic music, he’s simply the best. (DTM: I Was Looking for Charles Willeford)
When The Sacred Ginmill Closes Lawrence Block (1986) Matt Scudder was probably the last worthy private eye, especially when he was still boozing. Others might choose something from Block’s other long-term series about light-hearted thief Bernie Rhodenbarr, or perhaps the recent saga of likable hit man Keller. The last time LB wrote a bad sentence was never. (DTM: Lawrence Block blindfold test)
Get Shorty Elmore Leonard (1990) The king of unflappable is at his most sardonic and meta while taking a scalpel to Hollywood. (Leonard and Wambaugh shared the same motivation: too many dumb meetings, too many terrible adaptations of their work.) Other fans would nominate earlier and tougher books set in Detroit like Stick or City Primeval. Leonard fought against having a series character but perhaps he should have picked one, as his male leads are always cut from the same cloth.
American Tabloid James Ellroy (1995) Operatic scale and intensity; high literary value. The early books are crude and these days Ellroy has become a parody of himself, but The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, White Jazz, and American Tabloid were a sensational four book run, where toxic yet charismatic trios of anti-heroes ride “full-blast shotgun into history.”
The Ax Donald E. Westlake (1997) Westlake’s masterpiece about a downsized middle manager. Westlake was wildly prolific and wrote in different styles; others would pick one from his two serial thieves: menacing Parker (written under Richard Stark) or humorous Dortmunder. (DTM: A Storyteller Who Got the Details Right)
15 Cozy/English Crime Essentials
The Sherlock Holmes stories, especially the earlier ones, by A. Conan Doyle (beginning 1887) Still fun to read, and weirder than you remember.
The Father Brown stories by G. K. Chesterton (beginning 1911) These are even weirder. High literary value.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd Agatha Christie (1926) Christie’s vast canon is a bit inconsistent but she is undeniably the greatest deceiver of all time. Nobody else snaps the puzzle pieces together at the end quite like she does. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd justifies its fabled reputation. Other truly great Christie titles include And Then There Were None, The ABC Murders, The Body in the Library, Five Little Pigs, Curtain, and The Pale Horse. Despite a good solution, the famous Murder on the Orient Express loses momentum with endless alibi-checking in the middle of the book, a common fault of “Golden Age” puzzle mysteries. (DTM: Agatha at 125.)
The Nine Tailors Dorothy L. Sayers (1934) The perfect gentleman detective Lord Peter Wimsey is a shade annoying — partly because Sayers never makes fun of Wimsey the way that Christie does of Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple — but the glorious bells in The Nine Tailors are reason enough to include this masterful book on any list of great mysteries.
The Crooked Hinge John Dickson Carr (1938) (Carr was born American but his finest books are unquestionably British.) At his best Carr could conjure a supernatural-tinged suspense even more compelling than his famous “locked-room” puzzles. See also The Burning Court.
The Daughter of Time Josephine Tey (1951) People still argue about Tey’s redemptive reading of King Richard the Third. With an unusually small canon, Tey is the only “Golden Age” cozy author who only wrote good books.
The Moving Toyshop Edmund Crispin (1946) Lighthearted send-up of the Christie tradition. They are are a one-note riff, there’s no need to acquire all of Crispin, but fans of the genre will enjoy reading at least one novel featuring the absurd sleuth Gervase Fen.
Smallbone Deceased Michael Gilbert (1950) Gilbert was prolific but there’s a reason this smart and amusing tale of Traditional British Law is always on the “best of” lists. The later politically-themed books Flash Point and The Queen Against Karl Mullen are interesting; short stories featuring the gentlemanly and ruthless spies Calder and Behrens are eminently readable.
For Kicks Dick Francis (1965) The popular and morally unambiguous equestrian tales of Francis were a big influence on later heroic thrillers. As with Ross MacDonald, Francis’s books are too much the same, but the early ones still have vitality. Nerve is another favorite.
The Old English Peep Show (AKA A Pride of Heroes) Peter Dickinson (1969) A vivid example of decaying British empire is on view at a theme park boasting dangerous lions. Dickinson is seriously underrated, as he was one of the most poetic crime novelists of the 20th century. After the first run of policeman James Pibble books (Westlake thought Sleep and His Brother, not Peep Show, was his best) Dickinson wrote in fantasy genres; indeed, his most famous book internationally is probably Eva, a wonderful YA science fiction story about a human mind placed inside a chimpanzee. Of the later non-series crime novels, I’d recommend Hindsight. (DTM: An Unusual Blend of Poetry and Fantasy.)
Jack’s Return Home (AKA Get Carter) Ted Lewis (1970) The British prove they could write a great hardboiled novel. All of Lewis’s books are interesting, and some nominate GBH as an overlooked masterpiece. The film Get Carter with Michael Caine is splendid from top to bottom.
Judgement in Stone Ruth Rendell (1977) “Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.” Rendell might be the finest prose stylist of all the more prolific bestselling mystery writers, which is probably why she appears on Douglas Adams’s list of five favorite authors. Stone is one of the psychological standalones and it’s universally considered a masterwork; the Inspector Wexford detective series is also excellent. If Rendell allowed in some lightness and humor like Christie, Tey, or Colin Dexter, I’d read everything cover to cover. As it stands I just occasionally sample her rich bibliography.
Thus Was Adonis Murdered Sarah Caudwell (1981) There are sadly only four Caudwells, all equally provocative, nonsensical, and fabulous. The use of a narrator who lacks a defined gender was ahead of the curve! High literary value.
The Way Through the Woods Colin Dexter (1992) Dexter was perhaps influenced by Rex Stout: Inspector Morse spends much of his time correcting grammar, and Morse and Sergeant Lewis are the second best domestic comedy after Wolfe and Archie. Woods is the apotheosis of a familiar Morse theme, crossword puzzles. After the phenomenal success of the television show, Dexter eventually gave Morse a Jaguar and changed him to look like John Thaw.
10 Espionage Essentials
Riddle of the Sands Erskine Childers (1903) A bit smarmy and tiresome today, this “record of secret service” gave life to the genre, although the first generation of followers like John Buchan and E. Phillips Oppenheim were pretty bland. The nautical details in Sands may still fascinate.
Ashenden: Or the British Agent W. S. Maugham (1929) Interlinked short stories based on Maugham’s own experience as a spy. Arguably still the greatest book of these ten.
A Coffin for Dimitrios (AKA The Mask of Dimitrios) Eric Ambler (1939) Although there is a marvelous espionage section, Dimitrios is not really a spy novel as a whole, but a collection of diverse crimes under a socialist roof. This is quibbling, as the five canonical pre-WW II Amblers are universally considered the dawn of the new era of wonderful British espionage. (DTM: Come Out of the Darkness Into the Light of Day.)
Our Man in Havana Graham Greene (1958) Satirical leftist politics. Much later, The Human Factor is a significant “straight” spy novel.
Goldfinger Ian Fleming (1959) The movie franchise is far less interesting than Fleming’s sardonic novels. As with Sherlock Holmes, the original James Bond is weirder than you remember. I picked Goldfinger for the delightful golf match, a masterclass in creating tension out of the simplest of materials.
Funeral In Berlin Len Deighton (1964) Intricate yet believable puzzle box solved by swinging Sixties chum. Funeral is my favorite of the first four Deightons, called the “Harry Palmer” books thanks to the Michael Caine movies. Although perhaps less stylishly written, the “spy” books from the Seventies (Catch a Falling Spy, Yesterday’s Spy, Spy Story) are still major accomplishments and deserve to be better known. Deighton should have left it with his last great run, Game, Set, and Match, instead of going for two more increasingly complicated and interconnected trilogies featuring Bernard Samson.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy John LeCarré (1974) In the wake of Kim Philby, internal betrayal became LeCarré’s theme. The long adaptation starring Alec Guinness is extraordinary. Of the many other LeCarré classics, I especially admire The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, The Looking Glass War, Smiley’s People, and The Russia House. After the end of the Cold War, LeCarré seemed to lose his way a bit.
Other Paths to Glory Anthony Price (1975) Old wars still scar the present. The David Audley series is strong, with a long through line and many interesting characters viewed from different angles, but Price’s eternally pro-British politics wear after a while. Other Paths makes every list; for an alternate, try The Old Vengeful featuring an unusual amateur heroine.
Hopscotch Brian Garfield (1975) Hilarious and endlessly re-readable. Arguably the great American spy novel. The movie was a minor hit but is nowhere near as good.
Missionary Stew Ross Thomas (1983) Not exactly espionage, but a knowing luxuriant thriller with plenty of government involvement. One of the characters is a professional killer called Hallmark. The CIA uses Hallmark when they want to send their very best. (DTM: Ah, Treachery!)
The Problem of Cell 13 and Other Stories Jacques Futrelle (circa 1905) The most famous story remains amusing despite making no sense whatsoever.
Before the Fact Francis Iles (1932) In a fresh twist, the murderer is known at the beginning.
The Chinese Orange Mystery Ellery Queen (1934) I read dozens of Queens as a kid. Today I’m uninterested, but critical consensus suggests this is one of the best, and it holds up OK. The point of the mysteries are the solutions; strangely the novels remain more interesting than the tepid short stories, perhaps thanks to the famous “Challenge to the Reader.”
The Lady in the Morgue Jonathan Latimer (1936) Madcap period piece and easily the best of the Bill Crane series. Others would nominate later raunchy Solomon’s Vineyard as Latimer’s masterpiece.
The Dragon Murder Case S.S. Van Dine (1938) Hard to pick one from the annoying Philo Vance collection. Dragon has a bad reputation but I like the suspenseful supernatural aspect. These days I prefer reading Van Dine to Queen as Van Dine has greater camp value.
Rebecca Daphne Du Maurier (1938) Purple writing but compelling plot. An influential book.
Rogue Male Geoffrey Household (1939) Furious about Hitler, Household sends in a killer.
A Surfeit of Lampreys Ngaio Marsh (AKA Death of a Peer) (1941) Marsh is often compared to Christie and Sayers, but even more then those masters, Marsh bogs down in endless alibi-checking. The first few chapters of Marsh are usually terrific, though. Sentence for sentence she can be one of the best. Lampreys has nice sardonic social commentary, although it ends up being rather disappointing politically.
Rear Window and Other Stories Cornell Woolrich (circa 1942) Some admire Woolrich’s dark novels but I find his obsessive themes easier to enjoy in shorter form.
I, the Jury Mickey Spillane (1947) Lawrence Block suggests that Spillane was influenced by comic books. I’ve never liked Mike Hammer or his many followers, but will take a cue from Block, Westlake, and others I respect and grudgingly include him here. The last line of I, the Jury is admittedly classic.
In A Lonely Place Dorothy B. Hughes (1947) Tough and complex; bears almost no relation to the Bogart movie. Hughes is a good example of someone who should have written much more than they did. Sarah Weinman: “On the World’s Finest Female Noir Writer.”
Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye Horace McCoy (1948) Abstract hard-boiled poetry especially suitable for the French.
The Far Cry Fredric Brown (1951) Counting pennies, drinking too much, and cultivating an unhealthy obsession. Brown wrote too quickly (including much important science fiction) and therefore his focus occasionally wavers. His Ed and Am Hunter detective series is less worthy than standalones like The Far Cry, The Screaming Mimi, The Night of the Jabberwock, and The Lenient Beast. Despite his flaws, I consider Brown underrated overall, and almost included The Far Cry in the top 15. I’d even argue that Brown is stronger than contemporaries Goodis and Thompson, who are perhaps paradoxically better known today thanks to posthumous pulp cachet (Brown published in hardcover).
Tiger in the Smoke Margery Allingham (1952) Most of the Albert Campion books are fun but are just too hard to swallow. Tiger in the Smoke maintains a justified reputation as Allingham’s best: poetic and intense, with no distracting “detection” required.
Last Seen Wearing Hillary Waugh (1952) Important and influential police procedural.
Vanity Row W. R. Burnett (1953) Burnett got better over the years; early titles made famous by the movies Little Caesar and High Sierra are hard to read today. Vanity Row is a compelling look at city corruption. Westlake also liked Dark Hazard.
The Blonde on the Street Corner David Goodis (1954) The “poet of the losers” was almost never more down and out. Of the more familiar Goodis, Blonde seems to be the most even in tone and quality, with no artificial machismo or unlikely details about professional criminals.
A Kiss Before Dying Ira Levin (1954) Influential tale of a very bad boyfriend.
Beast in View Margaret Millar (1955) During this decade the form kept getting darker. It’s impossible to imagine Psycho without Millar’s groundbreaking and award-winning novel.
HMS Ulysses Alistair MacLean (1955) While not a conventional thriller in the way of later Maclean, his first book has all of his best qualities (compelling plot, satisfying military detail, “stiff upper lip”) with none of his flaws (imperialist politics, too-perfect heroes). Still, even MacLean at his worst is more fun than his obvious successor Tom Clancy at his best.
The Diamond Bikini Charles Williams (1956) While he is more famous for “swampy noirs” (Hell Hath no Fury, filmed as The Hot Spot) or “sailing thrillers” (Dead Calm), for my money Williams’s best book is this Huck Finn-esque romp.
Soft Touch John D. Macdonald (1958) The Travis McGee stories are unbearably sexist and pompous, but some of the MacDonald standalones are pretty good. The lesser-known and excellent Soft Touch came recommended by Allan Guthrie.
The Eighth Circle Stanley Ellin (1958) Ellin’s short stories are usually considered more important than his full-length books. Indeed, in this larger frame (which everyone agrees is his best novel), the plot gets a bit lost. Still, the details about this era’s private eye work are wonderful.
The List of Adrian Messenger Philip MacDonald (1959) Memorable, not least because the serial killer racks up an astonishingly high body count for an interesting reason. Nice first sentence. MacDonald oeuvre is inessential overall.
Psycho Robert Bloch (1959) Blueprint for the movie. Book excellent as well.
Murder Me for Nickels Peter Rabe (1960) Prolific but uneven, Rabe was almost forgotten but for Donald Westlake, who constantly cited Rabe as an influence. Many of Rabe’s best books (I’d also nominate The Box and Anatomy of a Killer) are unrelentingly serious, but Nickels is also comic, and the mix really works.
Death of a Citizen Donald Hamilton (1960) Matt Helm was supposed to be America’s answer to James Bond but Hamilton was nowhere near as talented as Fleming. Still, the first of the series has a great opening and a better finish.
The Light of Day Eric Ambler (1962) Two Amblers on the list? But this one has nothing to do with espionage, it’s a heist novel, and I’m also following Westlake, who snuck both this and Dimitrios on his list of ten best. Arthur Abdel Simpson should be all but impossible to spend any time with but our “tour guide” is inadvertently hilarious. (DTM: Come Out of the Darkness Into the Light of Day.)
The Grifters Jim Thompson (1963) I’m always a bit mixed about Jim Thompson, but I’ll keep trying. The plot ideas are certainly always interesting. I like the movie better than the book. (Westlake again! He wrote the screenplay.)
Friday the Rabbi Slept Late Harry Kemelman (1964) In the wake of the humble and charming Rabbi Small mysteries, many series would be set in “exotic” locales and feature “teachable moments” about cultural understanding. Kemelman’s books are pretty dated today. Perhaps building a story from the latest cultural/political stances doesn’t stand the test of time unless the author is dispassionate and pitiless soul like Hammett or Highsmith. A famous Kemelman short story, “The Nine Mile Walk,” sticks in the memory and always proves to be a quick fun re-read.
The Quiller Memorandum (AKA The Berlin Memorandum) Adam Hall (1965) A bit of dreary glamour infuses the start of a long series.
The Vengeance Man Dan Marlowe (1966) Most people seem to prefer The Name of the Game is Death, but I like the strange intensity of this weird revenge novel.
The Laughing Policeman Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (1968) Conventional murder mysteries work well against the backdrop of settled, productive societies. Sjöwall and Wahlöö opened the floodgates for Scandinavian crime fiction.
Maigret’s Boyhood Friend Georges Simenon (1968) I haven’t really read Maigret since I was a kid; this title is excellent but I don’t know if it is really one of the best. More obviously than in most crime fiction, Simenon’s famous Police Commissioner is a stand-in for the author to discuss society. I remember being fascinated by how upset Maigret was by his old friend’s use of the informal pronoun. And: Apologies for the many distinguished 20th-century international authors absent here, I just never have read that much in translation.
Such Men Are Dangerous Paul Kavanagh (pen name of Lawrence Block) (1969) Two Blocks on this list? But this exceedingly violent and dispassionate CIA story has no relationship to Block’s other work—or, indeed, to any other book I know.
The Godfather Mario Puzo (1969) Blueprint for the movie. Genuine Italian gangsters began imitating Puzo’s wild inventions.
Blind Man With a Pistol Chester Himes (1969) While of course utterly essential to the canon, I appreciate Himes more as social critic than as a crime writer, and would argue that Himes’s portrayal of Harlem is more memorable than the characterization of his cops Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones. Blind Man With a Pistol is unusually brilliant, perhaps because of the year, the height of American social unrest.
Little Boxes of Bewilderment Jack Ritchie (60’s – 70’s, pub. 1989.) Satisfying comic puzzles. Ritchie’s famous story “The Absence of Emily” is frequently anthologized.
The Day of the Jackal Frederick Forsyth (1971) Influenced by reportage, Forsyth’s style occasionally lacks flair, but the story is eminently worthy. The movie is even better than the book.
An Unsuitable Job for a Woman P.D. James (1972) While unquestionably popular and important, for my money James has neither the insight of Ruth Rendell or the glamor of Colin Dexter. I looked at the celebrated Unsuitable especially for this list and thought the plot much better than the prose. Perhaps in the end I just hear the music of Americans better? Nicholas Blake, Christiana Brand, Reginald Hill, and Martha Grimes are just a few of the other English mystery masters that should be here, but I’ve just never read much of any of them.
Let’s Hear it for the Deaf Man! Ed McBain (1972) McBain’s long-running series about Steve Carella and the 87th Precinct isn’t showing the posthumous longevity of Nero Wolfe or Parker. This episode has McBain’s most famous villain and hilarious pictures of J. Edgar Hoover.
Goodbye to an Old Friend Brian Freemantle (1973) Later his Charlie Muffin books would do pretty well, but Freemantle’s solid first non-series espionage novel should be better known.
Six Days of the Condor James Grady (1975) Innovative; perhaps a bit raw. Movie (which takes only Three Days) is one of the best.
Laidlaw William McIlvanney (1977) Sentimental, existential, and pretentious police procedural. Unfortunately very influential: The “passionate cop who can’t let go of a case that really bothers him” trope should have been retired rather than infused with new vitality. Admittedly, Laidlaw’s contemporary bite certainly trumps many other bland mysteries of this era going for something conventionally “cozy” or “shamus.” A few years later, Martin Cruz Smith would score a similarly-positioned success with Gorky Park, a book I like even less than Laidlaw. (However the straightforward Cruz Smith horror tale Nightwing is memorable and exciting.)
The Last Good Kiss James Crumley (1978) Angry and pretentious post-Vietnam Chandler pastiche, makes about as much sense as Chandler. (And I question the politics of both.) Nice juicy sentences from Crumley, though.
The Lantern Network Ted Allbeury (1978) Allbeury was prolific spy novelist without quite the talent of LeCarré or Deighton. The Lantern Network is excellent, an unclichéd look at the Resistance and its echoes.
The Rumpole stories of John Mortimer (beginning 1978) Charming tales of a mid-level barrister; a throwback to Conan Doyle and Chesterton. What literary entertainment should be. I almost snuck Rumpole into the top 15.
The Judas Goat Robert B. Parker (1978) Need some adolescent escapism? Private eye Spenser and his partner Hawk are always pretty entertaining, especially when they were younger. Few of the books have a long finish; Judas Goat sticks out with even more battles than usual. Others would suggest picking one set firmly in Boston: I’m holding a copy of the baseball-themed Mortal Stakes in my hand at the moment, which seems as good a choice as any.
The Glendower Legacy Thomas Gifford (1978) I read this as a teenager and adored it. Looking at it again recently, I thought it was still great. Perhaps influenced by Anthony Price but thankfully more cynical.
The Eye of the Needle (AKA Storm Island) Ken Follett (1978) Old-fashioned romance meets WW II espionage. Follett is unquestionably low-brow but his best books are at least fun.
The Amateur Robert Littell (1981) England has a much stronger tradition of spy fiction than America. Throughout his many books, Littell bravely makes a stab at a kind of complex, moralizing style usually found only overseas. At the end of the day, though, what carries Littell is unrepentant American action.
Prizzi’s Honor Richard Condon (1982) Blueprint for the classic movie. As I recall — I haven’t looked at them in years — all four “Prizzi” books are amusing.
Double Whammy Carl Hiassen (1987) Feverishly funny and politically acute. Florida insane. Hiassen has excellent “crossover” value: people who never read crime fiction are amazed that the genre can be like this. Striptease is another great Hiassen.
Cold in July Joe Lansdale (1989) Serious and seriously unsettling, like a drunk uncle telling you the facts of life.
Berlin Noir Philip Kerr (1989-1991) Bernie Gunther investigates among the ruins of Nazi Germany. A high point for an author who doesn’t always deliver.
Devil In a Blue Dress Walter Mosley (1990) Setting the action in the past became a thing for many Chandler pastiches. Mosley has a great eye for 40’s detail and a smooth-talking private eye, Easy Rawlins. I’m not up to date on Mosley and must read some of the more recent non-series books.
The Horse Latitudes Robert Ferringo (1990) Sex, drugs, violence; more sex, more drugs, more violence. The pre-Tarantino Tarantino-esqe ambience is interesting.
The Secret History Donna Tartt (1992) A satisfying structure: Greek tragedy played out among college-age Greek scholars.
The Dying of the Light Michael Dibdin (1993) Haven’t properly connected with Aurelio Zen yet, but the marvelous standalone Dying of the Light definitely closes the coffin on the traditional cozy.
Miami Purity Vicki Hendricks (1995) Fabulous, sexy, and influential noir.
In the Cut Susanna Moore (1995) Lurid! Serial killer novels often flirt with sadism porn or torture porn; here Moore pretty much takes it all the way. The movie changed the ending, and without the original ending, there’s no story.
Vertical Run Joseph Garber (1996) I’m not big on techno-thrillers, but Vertical Run certainly held my attention.
The Hellfire Club Peter Straub (1997) Enormous, complex, horror-tinged, unputdownable. Even better are many of Straub’s supernatural tales like Ghost Story and In the Night Room.
Tomato Red Daniel Woodrell (1998) Serious drug abuse forments crime among lost souls in the dirt-poor South. High literary value.
Secret Prey John Sandford (1999) Sandford is one of the best of the big modern bestsellers, especially when he avoids serial killers. I’m always glad that he’s stocked in airports. This Prey episode offers social and economic insight into Minnesota banking.
10 Unusual One-offs that Connoisseurs Like to Talk About
Bodies Are Dust P.J. Wolfson (1931) Existential dirty cop looks dispassionately at his tarnished soul. Allan Guthrie discovered this one for modern readers.
Fast One Paul Cain (1933) While not coherent or even that readable, it still exudes some sort of compelling, blundering savagery.
The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor Cameron McCabe (1937) A delicious and nerdy exercise in meta.
You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up Richard Hallas (1938) Future creator of Lassie writes, “How can you bear it? Don’t you want to clench your fist and smash life in the face, beat its inane illogicalities to a pulp?”
The Deadly Percheron John Franklin Bardin (1946) Not exactly a one-off as there are three readily available Bardins, all weird, humorous, and psychological. The opening of Percheron is especially fabulous.
Dark Wings Has My Angel Elliot Chaze (1953) Stephen King, Ed Gorman, Bill Crider and Bill Prozini all consider this one of the greatest books from the most famous pulp paperback imprint, Gold Medal. (Apologies to Gorman, Crider, and Prozini for not being represented elsewhere here, they are all fine crime writers I should read more of.)
The Red Right Hand Joel Townsley Rogers (1945) Agatha Christie meets H.P. Lovecraft in a masterpiece of sustained suspense.
The Big Clock Kenneth Fearing (1946) Experimental and literary thriller before this kind of “condemned man” tale became cookie-cutter. A good example of a “one-off” as none of Fearing’s other novels are known today .
Interface Joe Gores (1974) Vince Keenan: “Interface never really faded into obscurity; among the cognoscenti, it’s regarded as one of the key crime novels of the 1970s and the most hardboiled of P.I. yarns.”
The Eye of the Beholder Marc Behm (1980) This fantastical private eye nightmare has a cult following but casual fans probably like it more than serious crime readers.
5 Unlikely Suspects Show They Can Hold Their Own Against the Professionals
True Confessions (1977) John Gregory Dunne A mainstream author writes a cop novel inspired by the Black Dahlia case.
The Name of the Rose Umberto Eco (1980) A mainstream author writes long-ago historical crime.
The New York Trilogy Paul Auster (1987) A mainstream author writes meta crime.
Billy Bathgate E. L. Doctorow (1989) A mainstream author writes a gangster novel.
Harlot’s Ghost Norman Mailer (1991) A mainstream author writes espionage.
25 books I’ve really enjoyed since the Millennium
For fun I starred (****) my 5 favorites.
The White Trilogy Ken Bruen (1998, 1999, 2000) The 87th Precinct gone Irish insane. Unquestionably in the canon of essential noir.
Shame the Devil George Pelecanos (2000) Always nice details and dialogue from Pelecanos, although there is almost too much playlist for my taste. (“Can you dig how cool my taste in music is?”) I plan to eventually read more of this son of Elmore Leonard in sequence, even though I did notice that the Pelecanos-scripted episodes for The Wire were more conventional than those by non-professional crime novelists.
Run Douglas E. Winter (2001) Breathless, fun, and probably bad for you.
****One Step Behind Henning Mankell (2002) A perfect modern page-turner. After Mario Balzic, Kurt Wallender is my probably my favorite series police officer. Wallender cares but he doesn’t care too much. The final Wallender, A Troubled Man, surprises by being a convincing tale of espionage.
Without Fail (2002) Lee Child The U.S. Army shows up to kick some ass in splendid, intellectual, and violent detail. Working-class entertainment, and what’s wrong with that? Avoid Tom Cruise movie Jack Reacher.
Old Boys Charles McCarry (2004) I’m of a mixed mind about the epic series of Paul Christopher spy novels, which are superbly written but verge on being over-complicated, pretentious, and falsely heroic. Old Boys is comparatively direct, almost as if McCarry had read Lee Child, and this was an improvement.
Darkly Dreaming Dexter Jeff Lindsay (2004) A hell of read. Apologies to fans of the sequels and the hit television show, but at what point does endless glamour and understanding turn the franchise into troubling “serial-killer porn?” I would have been happier with Darkly Dreaming Dexter as a casual and brutal one-off.
The Lincoln Lawyer Michael Connelly (2005) Since lawyer Mickey Haller unashamedly loves money, he’s more entertaining than Connelly’s predictable cop Harry Bosch (“Everyone matters or no one matters”). I’ve occasionally enjoyed other modern crime fiction by Ian Rankin, Harlan Coben, Patricia Cornwell, Dennis Lehane, James Patterson, Jo Nesbo, Robert Crais, and others, but overall this kind of stuff is too overblown and sentimental for my taste. Honestly, Agatha Christie is more hard-boiled.
****The Devotion of Suspect X Keigo Higashino (2005) A modern miracle and new hope for the murder mystery.
The Wheelman Duane Swierczynski (2005) Satisfying homage to Stark’s Parker. Swierczynski has gone on to be an innovative blender of multiple genres, I especially liked the Fredric Brown-ish Expiration Date.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo Stieg Larsson (2005) And you thought I might leave this off! Actually, this book almost saved my life: on a whim (there was no buzz yet) I picked up Dragon Tattoo in Madrid airport when bone-tired, facing down a 10-hour wait until my flight left for JFK. Instead of wandering in circles or wasting money going into town, I settled into a seat and read the whole thing in one go. The trilogy as a whole has problems. At any rate Larsson is much better than the similarly ubiquitous Dan Brown, who, despite undeniable talent, I just couldn’t include here.
Oblivion Peter Abrahams (2006) Abrahams always delivers an exciting unconventional plot and fine-tooled prose. Oblivion is a lovely update of the classic “LA private eye investigates Hollywood” trope.
Heartsick Chelsea Cain (2007) A spawn of Dexter. You can’t tear yourself away even though totally disgusted. Where’s the Vicodin?
No More Heroes Ray Banks (2008) Banks’s biggest inspiration is Willeford, and No More Heroes pairs nicely with New Hope for the Dead: funny and unsettling noirs that somehow function as conventional murder mysteries.
Bad Intentions Karin Fossum (2008) Humble yet telling psychological details motivate a modern morality tale. And: In this list, Fossum is a placeholder for all the other important modern Scandinavian crime fiction I haven’t read.
An Ordinary Spy James Weisberg (2008) The first believable spy story since Ashenden? Recommended. I’m still assessing other modern spymasters Alan Furst, Charles Cumming, and Olen Steinhauer.
The First Quarry Max Allan Collins (2008) The only real “son of Spillane” on this list. The comic book approach to plot means the books blend into each other, but Collins wins points for his vivid period detail. (See also his historical Nate Heller mysteries.) Collins is a big fan of the genre and should write more criticism.
****The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death Charlie Huston (2009) One of our best never writes the same book twice. This time we learn how to clean up a crime scene.
****The Informant Thomas Perry (2011) Perry is the only living author who makes me rush to the book store the same week their latest is out. The Informant follows the The Butcher’s Boy and Sleeping Dogs in a sensational trilogy that has taken almost three decades to write. My two other favorite Perry titles are Pursuit and Death Benefits.
Choke Hold Christa Faust (2011) The lurid pulp style of Shell Scott (Faust’s admitted inspiration) meets modern porn and Mixed Martial Arts. Smart stuff.
Before the Poison Peter Robinson (2011) An honest-to-God modern suspenseful Gothic romance, although unquestionably more feminist than its forebears.
When She Was Good Laura Lippman (2012) Speaking of feminism, the last three entries on my list are by women, all currently leading the pack of innovative American crime fiction. Here, Lippman gently pulls back the sheets on prostitution in a business-like manner.
Dare Me Megan Abbott (2012) High School cheerleading meets James Cain. It really works.
****Gone Girl Gillian Flynn (2012) Modern marriage can be pretty complicated. I will avoid the future big-budget movie out of respect for Flynn’s immaculate funhouse maze.
Thanks to Sarah Weinman and Vince Keenan for giving feedback while this list was in progress: I incorporated many suggestions from both. However, since they also brought up authors that I’ve simply never read, William Hjortsberg and Vera Caspary (from Sarah) and Richard Price (from Vince), they also reminded me of how incomplete this list really is.
I started work on this page after asking Etsuko Tamazama for her top 10 film noirs. She responded:
I Wake Up Screaming (1941)
Black Angel (1946)
The Set-Up (1949)
Criss Cross (1949)
The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
In a Lonely Place (1950)
The Breaking Point (1950)
His Kind of Woman (1951)
On Dangerous Ground (1952)
Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)
Also, those two films are “minor” noirs which I love. (But I don’t think they are great films in general. So, I usually don’t recommend them to other people…)
Etsuko then asked for my top ten crime novels. I had been meaning to make a big page called “The Crimes of the Century” for a while, but making it a “personal favorite” list suddenly made the task much easier and much more fun.
Thanks also to my late mother Cara Anderson Iverson, an inveterate reader of mysteries and my first librarian. Her top five authors were probably the four “Queens of Crime” (Christie, Sayers, Marsh, Allingham) and Dick Francis; indeed, the Francis selections Nerve and For Kicks are her choices. Christie’s The Pale Horse was also chosen “In Memoriam Cara Iverson,” as that was absolutely her favorite book.