Reprinted from The Guardian 28/04/18
On Beulah Height by Reginald Hill
This is the perfect crime novel. It’s beautifully written – elegiac, emotionally intelligent, evocative of the landscape and history that holds its characters in thrall – and its clever plotting delivers a genuine shock. There’s intellectual satisfaction in working out a plot involving disappearing children, whose counterpoint is Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. There’s darkness and light, fear and relief. And then there’s the cross-grained pairing of Dalziel and Pascoe. Everything about this book is spot on.
Although Hill’s roots were firmly in the traditional English detective novel, he brought to it an ambivalence and ambiguity that allowed him to display the complexities of contemporary life. He created characters who changed and developed in response to their experiences. I urge you to read this with a glass of Andy Dalziel’s favourite Highland Park whisky.
• Insidious Intent by Val McDermid is published by Sphere.
The Damned and the Destroyed by Kenneth Orvis
My formative reading was before the internet, before fanzines, before also-boughts, so for me the “best ever” is inevitably influenced by the gloriously chanced-upon lucky finds, the greatest of which was a 60 cent Belmont US paperback, bought in an import record shop on a back street in Birmingham in 1969. It had a lurid purple cover, and an irresistible strapline: “She was beautiful, young, blonde, and a junkie … I had to help her!” It turned out to be Canadian, set in Montreal. The hero was a solid stiff named Maxwell Dent. The villain was a dealer named The Back Man. The blonde had an older sister. Dent’s sidekicks were jazz pianists. The story was patient, suspenseful, educational and utterly superb. In many ways it’s the target I still aim at.
• The Midnight Line by Lee Child is published by Bantam.
Bleak House by Charles Dickens
• Rather Be the Devil by Ian Rankin is published by Orion. Siege Mentality by Chris Brookmyre is published by Little, Brown.
The Hollow by Agatha Christie
This is my current favourite, in its own way just as good as Murder on the Orient Express. As well as being a perfectly constructed mystery, it’s a gripping, acutely observed story about a group of people, their ambitions, loves and regrets. The characters are vividly alive, even the more minor ones, and the pace is expertly handled. The outdoor swimming pool scene in which Poirot discovers the murder is, I think, the most memorable discovery-of-the-body scene in all of crime fiction. Interestingly, Christie is said to have believed that the novel would have been better without Poirot. His presence here is handled differently – he feels at one remove from the action for much of the time – but it works brilliantly, since he is the stranger who must decipher the baffling goings on in the Angkatell family. The murderer’s reaction to being confronted by Poirot is pure genius. It would have been so easy to give that character, once exposed, the most obvious motivation, but the contents of this killer’s mind turn out to be much more interesting …
• Did You See Melody by Sophie Hannah is published by Hodder.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
I first came to Rebecca, published in 1938, with one of the most recognisable first lines in literature, not knowing exactly what to expect. That it was a classic I was in no doubt, but a classic what? I suspected a drama, possibly a romance, a book heavy on character but light on plot and one I’d read and then forget. How wrong I was.
It is a dark, brooding psychological thriller, hauntingly beautiful, literature yes, but with a killer plot. I loved everything about it. The way Du Maurier slowly twists the screw until we have no idea who to trust, the fact that the title character never appears and exists only as an absence at the heart of the book, the fact that the narrator herself is unnamed throughout. But, more importantly, this thriller is an exploration of power, of the men who have it and the women who don’t, and the secrets told to preserve it.
• Second Life by SJ Watson is published by Black Swan.
Mystic River by Dennis Lehane
James Lee Burke
To my mind this is the best crime novel written in the English language. Lehane describes horrible events with poetic lines that somehow heal the injury that his subject matter involves, not unlike Shakespeare or the creators of the King James Old Testament. That’s not a hyper-bolic statement. His use of metaphysical imagery is obviously influenced by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Mystic River is one for the ages.
• Robicheaux by James Lee Burke is published by Orion.
The Expendable Man by Dorothy B Hughes
Today, Hughes is remembered for In a Lonely Place (1947) – Bogart starred in the 1950 film version. My personal favourite is The Expendable Man(1963). Hughes lived in New Mexico and her love of its bleak landscape comes through in carefully painted details. She knows how to use the land sparingly, so it creates mood. The narrative shifts from the sandscape to the doctor, who reluctantly picks up a teen hitchhiker. When she’s found dead a day later, he’s the chief suspect, and the secrets we know he’s harbouring from the first page are slowly revealed.
Hughes’s novels crackle with menace. Like a Bauhaus devotee, she understood that in creating suspense, less is more. Insinuation, not graphic detail, gives her books an edge of true terror. She’s the master we all could learn from.
• Fallout by Sara Paretsky is published by Hodder.
Killing Floor by Lee Child
Dreda Say Mitchell
What is it about any particular novel that means you’re so engrossed that you miss your bus stop or stay up way past your bedtime? A spare, concise style that doesn’t waste a word. A striking lead character who manages to be both traditional and original. A plot that’s put together like a Swiss watch. Child’s debut has all these things, but like all great crime novels it has the x-factor.
In the case of Killing Floor that factor is a righteous anger, rooted in personal experience, that makes the book shake in your hands. It’s the story of a military policeman who loses his job and gets kicked to the kerb. Jack Reacher becomes a Clint Eastwood-style loner who rides into town and makes it his business to dish out justice and protect the underdog, but without the usual props of cynicism or alcohol. We can all identify with that anger and with that thirst for justice. We don’t see much of the latter in real life. At least in Killing Floor we do.
• Blood Daughter by Dreda Say Mitchell is published by Hodder.
The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler
Benjamin Black (John Banville)
The Long Goodbye is not the most polished, and certainly not the most convincingly plotted, of Chandler’s novels, but it is the most heartfelt. This may seem an odd epithet to apply to one of the great practitioners of “hard-boiled” crime fiction. The fact is, Chandler was not hard-boiled at all, but a late romantic artist exquisitely attuned to the bittersweet melancholy of post-Depression America. His closest literary cousin is F Scott Fitzgerald.
Philip Marlowe’s love – and surely it is nothing less than love – for the disreputable Terry Lennox is the core of the book, the rhapsodic theme that transcends and redeems the creaky storyline and the somewhat cliched characterisation. And if Lennox is a variant of Jay Gatsby, and Marlowe a stand in for Nick Carraway, Fitzgerald’s self-effacing but ever-present narrator, then Roger Wade, the drink-soaked churner-out of potboilers that he despises, is an all too recognisable portrait of Chandler himself, and a vengefully caricatured one at that. However, be assured that any pot The Long Goodbye might boil is fashioned from hammered bronze.
• Prague Nights by Benjamin Black is published by Viking.
Love in Amsterdam by Nicolas Freeling
Although Nicolas Freeling wrote in English he was a European by choice – an itinerant chef who roamed between postwar France, Belgium and Holland, and who instilled in me a passion for crime set in foreign places. He detested the rules of the traditional British detective novel: stories in which plot seemed to be paramount. Love in Amsterdam (1962) is Freeling’s first novel and it breaks those rules both in terms of structure and of theme.
It is a tale of sexual obsession and much of the book is a conversation between the suspect, Martin, who’s been accused of killing his former lover, and the cop. Van der Valk, Freeling’s detective, is a rule-breaker too, curious and compassionate, and although we see his investigative skills in later books, here his interrogation is almost that of a psychologist, teasing the truth from Martin, forcing him to confront his destructive relationship with the victim.
• The Seagull by Ann Cleeves is published by Pan.
Laidlaw by William McIlvanney
I first read Laidlaw in 1990, shortly after moving to London, when I was aching for something with the flavour of home, and what a gamey, pungent flavour McIlvanney’s novel served up. A sense of place is crucial to crime fiction, and Laidlaw brought Glasgow to life more viscerally than any book I had read before: the good and the bad, the language and the humour, the violence and the drinking.
Laidlaw’s turf is a male hierarchy ruled by unwritten codes of honour, a milieu of pubs and hard men rendered so convincingly by McIlvanney’s taut prose. “His face looked like an argument you couldn’t win,” he writes of one character, encapsulating not only the man’s appearance but his entire biography in a mere nine words.
This book made me realise that pacey, streetwise thrillers didn’t have to be American: we had mean streets enough of our own. It emboldened me to write about the places I knew and in my own accent.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
I’m going to claim Lolita for crime fiction, something I never used to do. But it has kidnapping, murder and – it’s important to use this term – rape. It also has multiple allusions to Edgar Allan Poe and even hides an important clue – well, not exactly in plain sight, but in the text of, yes, a purloined letter. And now we know, thanks to the dogged scholarship of Sarah Weinman, that it was based on a real case in the United States. (Weinman’s book, The Real Lolita, will be published later this year.)
Dorothy Parker meant well when she said Lolita was a book about love, but, no – it’s about the rape of a child by a solipsistic paedophile who rationalises his actions, another crime that is too often hidden in plain sight. Some think that calling Lolita a crime novel cheapens it, but I think it elevates the book, reminds us of the pedestrian ugliness that is always there, thrumming beneath the beautiful language.
• Sunburn by Laura Lippman is published by Faber.
The Moving Target by Ross Macdonald
Ross Macdonald, an American who wrote in the 60s and 70s, has enchanted me since then with the beauty of his writing and the decency of his protagonist, Lew Archer. I envy him his prose: easy, elegant, at times poetically beautiful. I also admire the absence of violence in the novels, for he usually follows Aristotle’s admonition that gore be kept out of the view of the audience. When Archer discovers the various wicked things one person has done to another, he does not linger in describing it but makes it clear how his protagonist mourns not only the loss of human life but also the loss of humanity that leads to it.
Macdonald’s plotting is elegant: often, as Archer searches for the motive for today’s crime, he unearths a past injustice that has returned to haunt the present and provoke its violence. His sympathy for the victims is endless, as is his empathy for some of the killers.
• The Temptation of Forgiveness by Donna Leon is published by William Heinemann.
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
• Sunday Morning Coming Down by Nicci French is published by Penguin.
The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
Sam Bourne (Jonathan Freedland)
The trouble with a classic, especially one as frequently adapted as this, is you can lose sight of the original. And yet, looming over the Cumberbatches and Rathbones, there lives my own personal Sherlock Holmes, the one who took shape when I read the story as a schoolboy. No matter how many film or TV versions I come across, none can match the thrill of that first encounter.
And there’s a reason why producers and directors keep returning to Baskerville Hall. The book is a perfectly executed crime story: red herrings dropped in just the right places, a location full of mist and menace, a tangle of family secrets, the murderer’s apparently ingenious plan and, at the centre, an enigmatic, eccentric and brilliant detective. It is a recipe for pleasure that made me gasp as a child – and it’s never stopped working.
• To Kill the President by Sam Bourne is published by HarperCollins.
A Fatal Inversion by Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell)
Summer 1976: student Adam inherits an isolated Suffolk house from a distant uncle. The bohemian commune he dreams of goes horribly wrong. Ten years later, the bodies of a woman and child are discovered in the hall’s animal cemetery. But which woman? Whose child?
Rendell was best known for her Chief Inspector Wexford procedural novels but it’s the standalone psychological thrillers she wrote as Barbara Vine that have me by the heart. A Fatal Inversion is arguably the definitive Vine: set partly in the past, substantial in theme and language as well as length. Not a classic whodunit but who-was-it-done-to, ingeniously plotted using flashback and switching viewpoints to constantly wrong-foot the reader.
It is a murder investigation, but seen from the suspects’ viewpoint rather than the detective’s. This is the kind of crime I like to read (and write). This book has it all; murder, suspense, sex, property porn and a last-page twist that still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
What set Rendell apart was an underpinning of perfect psychological plausibility. She understood better than anyone I’ve ever read how petty obsession can spiral into violence. Rendell dealt in Middle England rather than the marginalised, with loss of control rather than premeditation. The violence is sparing and all the more chilling for it, letting readers’ imaginations do the real dirty work.
• He Said/She Said by Erin Kelly is published by Hodder.
A Quiet Flame by Philip Kerr
It was a tragedy when Kerr, one of my heroes, passed away earlier this year. He was a prodigious talent, but he’ll be best remembered for his fantastic antihero, Bernie Gunther, an investigator in Nazi Germany and in the postwar period. I love novels with an ambiguous, conflicted protagonist and, for me, Gunther is the gold standard. My favourite is A Quiet Flame, in which Bernie finds himself in Argentina, alongside a bunch of unsavoury characters including Adolf Eichmann. Bernie is tasked with hunting down a serial killer targeting young girls in a method very similar to another crime he investigated back in Berlin.
• A Necessary Evil by Abir Mukherjee is published by Vintage.
The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
It’s slightly cheating, choosing Ripley, because he comes with five novels, not one, and they are all equally gripping, tantalising and psychologically fascinating. Across the Ripliad, our hero matures – his weird, glinting, almost masochistic relationship with guilt twists and mutates – but it is in The Talented Mr Ripley that he first crosses the Rubicon from conman to psychopath. Ripley, having befriended and then taken on the identity of rich, idle Dickie, ducks and dives across Italy, using his wits to outrun the consequences of his actions and the devil of his own nature. Highsmith’s writing is deceptively simple – as when a smile is “deliberately hurled” across a table. But it’s her understanding of psychology that makes the novel so great. Like all the best confidence tricksters, Ripley reads people, each nervous twitch, each self-regarding simper, using every moment of weakness for his own gain. Highsmith does the same with the reader. She draws in your sympathies (Ripley’s right, isn’t he? How aloof and superior this character is), so that when the bludgeon comes out, half a page later, you are somehow complicit in the crime. Chilling perfection.
• Take Me In by Sabine Durrant is out from Mulholland in June.
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Graeme Macrae Burnet
Crime and Punishment is kingpin of the crime fiction prison yard. It’s a teeming, Rabelaisian sprawl, but from the moment Raskolnikov leaves his garret and sets off towards the Kokushkin Bridge it grabs the reader by the lapels. The murder scene, when it comes, is at once farcical, horrifying and enthralling. Raskolnikov is by turns irascible, compassionate, mean-spirited and astute. He infuriates, and commits heinous crimes, but Dostoevsky still contrives to make us root for him.
Of course, it is no whodunnit. Instead, in common with much of the greatest crime fiction, its fascination lies in the exploration of the machinations of the mind of a killer – it’s concerned with the psychological impact of the crime rather than the unravelling of a mystery. The big questions it asks are those of guilt, free will and redemption and it’s this ambition that makes it not only the greatest crime novel, but perhaps the greatest of all novels.
• The Accident on the A35 by Graeme Macrae Burnet is published by Contraband.
A Place of Execution by Val McDermid
This book is as close to perfection as I’ve come across. Structurally it’s extremely tightly woven and as psychological suspense, it pretty much has everything. Remote rural community harbouring secrets? Check. Dual time narrative – the original crime investigation of 1963 and current day? Check. Intrepid female lead, uncovering the truth? Check. Killer twist? Check. Ruth Rendell agreed it was “one of the best detective stories I’ve read”.
I read it a long time ago, before I became a crime writer myself, yet when I think about it now, it seems more like a classic novel than a contemporary one. What stays in the mind is the Peak District community of Scarsdale, the investigator as outsider trying to permeate its secrets. And the sheer quality of the writing.
• Persons Unknown by Susie Steiner is published by Borough.
A Perfect Spy by John le Carré
Seamlessly blending piercing psychological drama, solid procedural and geopolitical thriller plotting, le Carré tells his tales in a breathtaking style he manages to make both muscular and elegant. A Perfect Spy is perhaps the best fictional examination of a father-son relationship penned to date. And his dissection of American foreign policy (in any number of his works) should be required reading in the US state department.
• The Burial Hour by Jeffery Deaver is published by Hodder.
Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith
It was Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko series that showed me the possibilities of “voice” and “character attitude” in crime writing and how those two elements can be brought together to create a truly memorable novel. In Gorky Park we are navigating the edgy, fractious world of cold war Moscow. There is something wonderfully distinctive about the Russian detective’s way of being and seeing. I am struck by the precision and insight in his interactions with others and himself and that honed cynicism that is never moralistic or judgmental. As Michael Connelly pointed out, “a crime novel – like any story – succeeds or fails on the basis of character”. Renko confirms this for me every time. It is an incredible feat of character portrayal.
• The Bone Readers by Jacob Ross is published by Peepal Tree.
Silence of the Grave by Arnaldur Indriðason
Jar City was the first Icelandic crime novel to become a critical and commercial success. Published in Icelandic in 2001 (and translated into English by Bernard Scudder in 2006), Silence of the Grave is the second in the series, and proved Arnaldur Indriðason to be one of the world’s finest contemporary crime fiction writers. The book centres on the investigation into the origins of a skeleton found at a building site. This is intriguing enough to keep one glued to the pages, as is the flawed yet endearing protagonist, the policeman Erlendur. But it is a second storyline – which revolves around domestic abuse and its effect on the family involved – that really elevates the novel. It is heart wrenching, agonisingly disturbing and so utterly convincing that one feels present in this horrible household.
• The Reckoning by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir is out from Hodder in May.
The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain
An amoral drifter arrives at a truck stop looking for food or work and meets his soulmate, the wife of the cafe owner. The sultry self-loathing of the protagonist is mirrored by the woman and they begin a cruel, careless affair and devise a plan to murder her husband. The staccato first person delivery gives the book a thrilling, urgent tone. Neither of the central characters is given a back story and their motives are base. So far, so pulp noir, but Cain does something extraordinary within that. They are redeemed by their loyalty to each other. It takes an hour to read but you’ll never forget it
• The Long Drop by Denise Mina is published by Vintage.
Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith
This is the high-water mark of the genre, for me. Martin Cruz Smith took a familiar trope – a good man trying to keep his head down and do his job, despite the corruption all around him – and made something entirely fresh, entirely new. What begins as a murder mystery becomes a cold war thriller unlike any that preceded it, and if the label “game-changer” had existed back in the 80s, here it would have found its perfect fit. Gorky Park is perhaps the most humane thriller I’ve ever read, offering a fascinating glimpse of a society in slow-motion collapse, and its thrills never pall with rereading; every time the snow starts to melt, revealing those three corpses within earshot of the skating rink, I’m hooked again. The key to its success is its hero, Arkady Renko: brave, lonely and utterly sympathetic. “He’s a good instrument. I work better when I’m working with him,” Smith once said. We could all use such tools.
• London Rules by Nick Herron is out from John Murray in August.
• The Theakston Old Peculier crime writing festival, with Lee Child as programming chair, is at The Old Swan, Harrogate, 19-22 July. harrogateinternationalfestivals.com.