Nelson Algren: The Man with the Golden Arm (1949)
The golden arm — golden because it deals cards automatically and brings its morphine-addicted owner his fix — belongs to Frankie Machine. A second world war vet, Frankie takes us through Chicago’s impoverished little Poland: there’s Zosh, Frankie’s wife, wheelchair-bound though doctors can’t find cause or cure; Sparrow the dog-napper; and Louie, the addict turned dealer. Algren’s novel, the first winner of the National Book Award, is as ground-breaking for its clear-eyed and sympathetic portrayal of postwar America’s no-hopers as it is angry about how little there is to come back to.
Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre: Fantômas (1911)
Few characters from lowbrow popular fiction were greeted with the same enthusiasm by the highbrow avant garde as this French villain: Magritte incorporated the character into his paintings, Robert Desnos wrote a poem about him and James Joyce simply declared the novel “enfantomastic”. Fantômas spreads terror for sheer pleasure: he slashes old ladies’ throats, stuffs strangled British socialites into trunks, robs Russian princesses in their hotel rooms, pushes witnesses off speeding trains and even rips the skin off their fingers to fake fingerprints.
Eric Ambler: The Mask of Dimitrios (1939)
Ambler has never received the credit he deserves as a pioneer of thrillers for the thinking reader. The Mask of Dimitrios captured the British population’s dark anxieties about the inevitable drift towards the second world war, on the eve of which it was published. Generally considered the best of Ambler’s works, it was filmed by Jean Negulesco in 1944. Both book and film have an intricate flashback structure, as the novelist Cornelius Leyden reconstructs, piece by piece, the elusive character of the dead Dimitrios Makropoulos — murderer, assassin, spy, drug trafficker — in his murky career from Smyrna to Paris. His corpse speaks volumes.
Paul Auster: The New York Trilogy (1985-86)
A writer of detective potboilers is driven mad by his involvement in a bizarre real-world case; a private eye named Blue is hired by a client called White to spy on someone by the name of Black; a man agrees to publish the writings of his vanished childhood friend — but is brought to the brink of destruction as his obsession with his friend’s whereabouts grows. Auster’s supple, glittering trilogy offers a destabilisingly postmodern take on the traditional detective novel: it’s not crime that is being investigated, but the mechanics of literature, authorship and identity.
EC Bentley: Trent’s Last Case (1913)
This is an archetypal golden age whodunnit by an author better known for his invention of the clerihew. Though less famous than Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, it has been as influential in a genre where meum and tuum is little observed. Philip Trent is a successful artist possessed of an uncanny skill in cracking murder cases from the examination of apparently inscrutable documentary evidence. This particular case concerns an obnoxious American financier, Sigsbee Manderson, who is found shot through the eye at his swish mansion, White Gables. Suicide or murder? The normally infallible Trent gets it wrong. Chagrinned, he marries Manderson’s widow and retires, wealthily, from sleuthing (to the relief of his fans, he returns in two later novels).
Anthony Berkeley: The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929)
From a master of the genre, this is a perfect golden age mystery in its focus on the puzzle over the plausible. A man is given a box of chocolates by an acquaintance at his West End club; he shares them with his wife. They both fall ill, and only he survives. Murder — but who was the intended victim? Six amateur sleuths get on the scent and come up with six different solutions, each more surprising than the last. Meanwhile, Berkeley uses the artificial set-up to make sly comments on the art of detection.
Nicholas Blake: The Beast Must Die (1938)
Written under a pseudonym by the poet Cecil Day-Lewis, this detective novel features the elegant series hero Nigel Strangeways (supposedly based on WH Auden). The narrative opens with a diary entry: “I am going to kill a man … I don’t know his name.” The diarist is Frank Cairnes, a civil servant who writes mysteries as “Felix Lane”. Cairnes’s only son, Martin, has been killed by a hit and run driver. Cairnes tracks down the killer, a vulgar London garage owner, only for someone to kill him first. Strangeways is called in, and cracks a fiendishly baffling murder. He records it as “my most unhappy case”.
Mary E Braddon: Lady Audley’s Secret (1862)
Braddon was one of those indefatigable Victorian women who, plagued by a useless father and needy husband, took to writing to earn a crust. This, one of the earliest and certainly the most successful of Victorian detective stories, was the sensational bestseller of the age. Could a woman be evil? The truth about the beautiful Lady Audley, the twists and turns of the discovery of murder and the unravelling of family secrets scandalised and obsessed the public. A brilliant thriller, witty and exciting — Dickens, Tennyson, Thackeray and Robert Louis Stevenson could not put it down.
John Buchan: The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915)
Buchan tossed off shockers such as this in the intervals of a highly successful public career. This yarn introduces his series hero, Richard Hannay, and is set on the nervous eve of the first world war. Hannay, a mining engineer, returns from Africa to London where he encounters an American, Franklin P Scudder, who has uncovered a German spy ring, the Black Stone. Scudder is murdered. Hannay is suspected and goes on the run to Scotland — pursued by British police and Hun assassins. He resourcefully cracks the “thirty-nine steps” code and thus saves England. The novel was filmed by Hitchcock (who introduced romantic interest) in 1935.
John Buchan: Greenmantle (1916)
This second “Richard Hannay” adventure was called for by the runaway success of The Thirty-Nine Steps and the reading public’s refusal to allow Hannay to retire. It is 1916. Our hero returns from the front for a spot of leave, only to be recruited by the director of British military intelligence (“I know that you are brave and cool and resourceful”). An uprising is being fomented in the east by the enemy. A cryptic clue, “Greenmantle”, has been brought in by a dying spy. A deeply disguised Hannay goes to Constantinople via Germany accompanied by Sandy Arbuthnot and the Yank John Scantlebury Blenkiron. Between them, they foil the German spymaster, Ulric von Stumm, and his Mata Hari, Hilda von Einem (“evil — evil — evil”).
WR Burnett: The Asphalt Jungle (1949)
Burnett’s novel opens with an epigraph from William James: “Man is the most formidable of all beasts of prey, and indeed the only one that preys systematically on his own species.” Set in Chicago, the plot revolves around a jewellery heist masterminded by “the Professor”, Erwin Riedenschneider. The hard guy in the gang is Dix Handley. The robbery goes smoothly, but various double-crosses bring the robbers to grief. Dix, mortally wounded, drives with his moll to the horse country of his youth, where he dies. The film, directed by John Huston and starring Sterling Hayden as Dix, is a noir masterpiece.
James M Cain: The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934)
Amour fou in Depression America, the hardest boiled of crime novels spawned by Black Mask magazine. Frank Chambers, a drifter, finds himself at a roadside greasy spoon on the outskirts of Los Angeles. He bums a meal, intending to leave without paying the naive Greek owner, Nick Papadakis. Then he sees Nick’s wife, Cora. Frank stays around for a violent affair with Cora, and they conspire to kill Nick in a fake car accident. Their crime is detected, but a crooked lawyer gets them off. Driving back from their marriage, there is a genuine accident. Cora is killed. This time round, Frank is convicted. The novel is his death row confession. It ends: “Here they come.”
James M Cain: Double Indemnity (1943)
This is the source of the ultra-noir film that brought together the two grandmasters of crime writing in its golden age. Walter Neff, the narrator hero, is an insurance agent who falls for a client, Phyllis Dietrichson. They conspire to murder her husband and make it look like an accident, yielding them “double indemnity” — twice the pay-off. Phyllis, however, is merely using Walter. In a final scene, they shoot each other. Walter dictates a deathbed dictaphone confession to his colleague. The 1944 film was directed by Billy Wilder and co-written by Raymond Chandler, with a much-imitated use of flashback narrative.
Peter Carey: True History of the Kelly Gang (2000)
Although Alfred Knopf billed this book as a great American novel (apparently because Carey lives in New York), it is more correctly a great Australian novel. Being the purported autobiography of Ned Kelly, Australia’s Robin Hood, this Booker winner is full of derring-do — but read it for its voice, which is based, partly, on a real piece of writing by Kelly, the Jerilderie Letter. Read it for the pungent presence of the Australian landscape; for its sense of innocence betrayed; for its humour, for its tenderness; for its wild, minimally punctuated music.
John Dickson Carr: The Hollow Man (1935)
Carr is the grandaddy of the locked-room mystery, and he took his craft very seriously, creating some of the most ingenious solutions in fiction without lying to the reader. But his books are deliciously suspenseful as well as intellectual, and this is surely the best. Professor Grimaud is found dead in an empty room from which the killer could not possibly have escaped. Later, a man is seen to be shot in the back, at close range, in a deserted street. A snowy London provides the spooky setting and evidence of footprints (or lack thereof).
Raymond Chandler: The Big Sleep (1939)
This is the opener in Chandler’s series starring Philip Marlowe, the most famous private investigator to walk the mean streets of Los Angeles. The 38-year-old PI is assigned by General Sternwood to investigate the disappearance of Rusty Regan, the husband of the general’s older daughter, Vivian. She is obscurely involved with a gambling boss, Eddie Mars. The general’s nymphomaniac younger daughter, Carmen, is being blackmailed by a homosexual pornographer, Arthur Geiger. He and the Sternwood chauff eur (Carmen’s former lover) are murdered. A cold-blooded killer, Canino, stalks Marlowe. When asked by Howard Hawks, who was filming it, what was going on in the novel, Chandler replied: “Dammit, I don’t know.” But never has corruption been more powerfully written into the fabric of noir fiction.
Raymond Chandler: The Long Goodbye (1953)
This late item in the Marlowe sequence is often regarded as the best of the series and a contender for best ever in the genre. Los Angeles, postwar, is no longer the sleepy western town it was in The Big Sleep. Marlowe, normally the lonest of wolves, befriends the drunken Terry Lennox, a man on the run It seems Lennox has murdered his wife. Later he reportedly commits suicide in Mexico. Marlowe (himself, temporarily, a suspect in Eileen Lennox’s killing) investigates. Things are not what they seem, least of all where Lennox is concerned. The novel is remarkable for its world-weary meditations by Chandler’s “shop-soiled Sir Galahad”, a hero who even his creator thought should be put out to grass soon (ie retirement in La Jolla).
James Hadley Chase: No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1939)
This novel represented for George Orwell the “cesspool” of the 1930s, for Graham Greene an interesting “entertainment”, and for millions of British readers a welcome break from the slump and imminent world war. It was hacked out in a few weeks by an opportunistic English author who had never been to the US, but had studied Warner Bros gangster movies. The young Blandish heiress is kidnapped. Dave Fenner is looking for her, in the hope of winning the “five hundred grand” reward. Her original kidnappers, the Riley gang, have been rubbed out by their Ma Grisson rivals. Slim Grisson, a slobbery-lipped psychopathic rapist, is free to sate his lusts on his delectable captive, which he does. Fascinatingly disgusting pulp.
Erskine Childers: The Riddle of the Sands (1903)
Subtitled “A Record of Secret Service”, this pioneer spy novel is written in pseudo-documentary style. Germany is secretly arming itself (“she grows, and strengthens, and waits”). “Carruthers of the FO” and his friend, Davies, go yachting on the sandbar-bedevilled Baltic waters, where they witness Germany’s rehearsal for the invasion of England. The Admiralty is informed. Childers resigned from his post as a Clerk in the House of Commons in 1910 to work for Irish independence. In 1914 he ran guns to Ireland in his yacht. In the savage civil war that followed independence, he was shot by (Irish) firing squad in 1922.
Sometimes categorised as detective fiction, but more properly the greatest and most inspirational of the Victorian sensation novels, this is where Collins perfected his make ’em laugh, make ’em cry, make ’em wait formula. Before leaving for his new position at Limmeridge House, the art teacher Walter Hartright encounters a spectral woman in white on Hampstead Heath. At Limmeridge, Walter falls in love with his pupil, Laura Fairlie (who strangely resembles the woman in white), and befriends Laura’s resourceful (but moustached) half-sister, Marian. Laura, however, is promised to the villainous Sir Percival Glyde. Aided by his fat henchman, the “Napoleon of Crime”, Fosco, Glyde has designs on Laura’s fortune. Madhouses, poisoning and Italian secret societies are involved. Good eventually triumphs — barely.
Wilkie Collins: The Moonstone (1868)
According to TS Eliot, this is “the first, longest, and best of English detective novels”. No longer the longest, but — even after 140 years of competition — still arguably the best and, unarguably, the pioneer in the genre. An English adventurer, John Herncastle, steals a sacred Indian diamond at the 1799 storming of Seringapatam. Forty years on, the gem comes into the possession of his heiress, Rachel Verinder. Three sinister Hindu thugs (disguised as street entertainers) are on the Moonstone’s trail. So are English thieves. The diamond disappears from Rachel’s bedroom while she sleeps. Was it her cousin Franklin Blake (who loves her) or some unknown thief? The denouement, involving opium, somnambulism and fake evangelists, is fiendishly ingenious.
Richard Condon: The Manchurian Candidate (1959)
Sergeant Raymond Shaw kills on command and feels no guilt. A former Korean PoW from an influential American dynasty, he has been brainwashed by Korean communists. Will this proto-Bourne find out who programmed him? It is Condon’s best-known work, partly because of two big-screen adaptations: John Frankenheimer’s 1962 version starred Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and Janet Leigh, while a 2004 remake featured Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep and Liev Schreiber. In the light of such A-list glamour, few remember that this was an idiosyncratic novel, driven on by an original starting point rather than conventional plot structures.
Joseph Conrad: The Secret Agent (1907)
Published 102 years ago, The Secret Agent remains the most relevant of Conrad’s works today. Mr Verloc, a “seller of shady wares” (soft porn in brown envelopes), gets involved in an anarchist plot to blow up the Greenwich Observatory. He makes his wife’s brother, the mentally disabled Stevie, carry the bomb. The plot goes horrifically wrong; the chief inspector calls; Verloc and his wife, Winnie, are plunged into a very modern kind of hell. Behind it all lurks the sinister figure of the Professor, a terrorist so pure as to seem almost inhuman. Anyone who knows Conrad only from doing Heart of Darkness at A-level will find this later work startlingly enlightening.
Joseph Conrad: Under Western Eyes (1911)
Conrad’s exploration of the morality of revolution bears such close resemblance to Soviet Russia that it’s surprising this book was written six years before 1917. The experience of Razumov — who finds himself unwillingly involved in counter-revolutionary espionage after betraying a political assassin — is miserable. His failure to find absolution after confessing his wrongs is a powerful riposte to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and the anger that Conrad poured into the work gave him a nervous breakdown. Small surprise, then, that this is one of his most forceful, gripping novels.
Patricia Cornwell: Postmortem (1990)
Five women have been brutally murdered by serial killer Mr Nobody , and Dr Kay Scarpetta, newly appointed chief medical examiner for the state of Virginia, is tracking the killer. Scarpetta is a rare find in thrillers: an independent woman in a traditionally male profession. The first-person narrative makes this a gripping story; we are right inside the pathologist’s mind as she searches the body for clues. It continues to enjoy phenomenal commercial success, and in 1991 made Cornwell the first author to receive the Edgar, Creasey, Anthony, Macavity and the French Prix du Roman d’Adventure awards in a single year.
Michael Crichton: The Andromeda Strain (1969)
Published two decades before Jurassic Park, Crichton’s taut, claustrophobic novel offers definitive proof that size isn’t everything: a T-Rex may look the part, but it’s got nothing on an extraterrestrial microbe that kills on contact. When a satellite crash-lands in a small US town, everyone — bar a geriatric alcoholic and a squalling baby — dies. A team of scientists must outpace the microbe’s endless, baffling evolutions as crisis piles relentlessly on crisis. Will the organism mutate its way free? Will life as we know it survive? Will you draw breath before the final page? Don’t bet on it.
Michael Crichton: Jurassic Park (1990)
Even those who haven’t seen the hugely successful 1993 Spielberg adaptation should be familiar with the basic premise. Multimillionaire clones dinosaurs; multimillionaire builds dinosaur theme park on Costa Rican island and invites our heroes for a tour; all dinosaur-shaped hell breaks loose; heroes and multimillionaire jump on a helicopter and escape (though Crichton’s original is less willing to let the moneybags off the hook than Spielberg). A rip-roaring read, Crichton’s bestseller is also a morally alert investigation into chaos theory, cloning technology and the danger of playing God.
Len Deighton: The Ipcress File (1962)
This “Forget 007, this is how it really is” secret agent thriller span off an anti-romantic genre. The name less, wholly unglamorous and chronically crooked hero (“Harry Palmer” in the 1965 film adaptation starring Michael Caine) is an agent of the ultra-secret WOOC(P) agency (the acronym is inscrutable — but “War Office” and “Civilian” are in there). A biochemist involved in research vital to the defence of the realm has gone missing. The narrative’s McGuffin, or Hitchcockian gimmick, is “Induction of Psycho-neuroses by Conditioned Reflex under strESS” — IPCRESS. The hero’s brain is duly washed; nonetheless, he solves all.
Colin Dexter: Last Seen Wearing (1976)
A teenage girl vanishes, leaving in her wake worried parents, concerned schoolteachers, a grief-stricken boyfriend. Or are they guilty parents, lecherous schoolteachers, a lying boyfriend? The trail has gone cold by the time Morse picks it up, but his leaps of whiskey-fuelled intuition carry him to an unforeseen solution. The Jag, the jokes, the disgruntled Lewis, the crosswords, the woman who answers the doorbell wearing nothing but a small, damp towel — it’s all here in this vintage Morse mystery that is all the better for not being quite as bamboozling as some of Dexter’s later efforts.
Colin Dexter: The Remorseful Day (1999)
Remorse? Tragedy! When Dexter, aged 68, decided to kill off his beloved detective, a nation grieved — including John Thaw, who memorably played Morse on TV. This final instalment sees the chief inspector confronted by the body of Yvonne Harrison, naked but for a gag and handcuffs. Morse is sleeping badly, troubled by raging thirsts and wildly erratic blood-sugar levels, but he still keeps one step ahead of Lewis in a story that expertly mixes comedy and pathos. It’s a fitting memorial that prompted Beryl Bainbridge to ask why Dexter never made the Booker shortlist.
Fyodor Dostoevsky: Crime and Punishment (1866)
Orphaned by murder, jailed as a revolutionary, reborn into Christianity, Dostoevsky was inevitably preoccupied with violence and justice, as well as the battle between good and evil. The struggle between Russia’s irreligious radicals and anti-democratic establishment filled him with both fascination and horror. This novel swills those concerns together into the story of Raskolnikov, an impoverished St Petersburg student stricken by remorse after murdering a pawnbroker. All the staples of Victorian melodrama are here, from the tart-with-a-heart to the saintly sister and lecherous suitor; what distinguishes Crime and Punishment is the intensity of the moral conflict.
Theodore Dreiser: An American Tragedy (1925)
With the possible exception of Sister Carrie (1904), this is Dreiser’s masterpiece. Clyde Griffiths, a weak-willed but ambitious poor boy from the mid-west, gets a job in his rich uncle’s collar factory in upstate New York, casts aside the affections of the girl he seduces and sets his cap at a society belle. Retribution, a murder trial and the electric chair follow, attended by some swingeing strokes of ironic fate.
Daphne du Maurier: My Cousin Rachel (1951)
As mysterious and enthralling as du Maurier’s other great novel, Rebecca, this is instead set in 19th-century Cornwall. The heroine, Rachel Sangaletti, marries the wealthy Ambrose Ashley. Six months later he is dead. His devoted nephew Philip invites the widow to the estate he has inherited and what follows, as he falls obsessively in love with the mesmerising and enigmatic Rachel, is a masterpiece of tension: is she innocent, is she guilty?
Alexandre Dumas: The Count of Monte Cristo (1844-45)
The greatest costume melodrama in all of popular fiction. It is 1815. A French sailor, Edmond Dantès, has fallen foul of four dastardly enemies. On his wedding day to the beautiful Mercédès, he is arrested and confined without trial in the island prison, Chateau d’If. Years pass. A fellow prisoner, Abbé Faria, tunnels into his cell. Faria educates and civilises Edmond, and entrusts him with a secret about a huge pirate treasure on the deserted island of Monte Cristo. Faria dies. Edmond changes places with his friend’s corpse, escapes, finds the treasure and, as the fabulously wealthy, rapier-wielding Count of Monte Cristo, returns to Paris to wreak his revenge and win the hand of the lovely Haydée.
Friedrich Dürrenmatt: The Pledge (1958)
Subtitled “Requiem for the Detective Novel” and novelised from a screenplay called “Es geschah am hellichten Tag” (“It Happened in Broad Daylight”), this short read is set in smalltown Switzerland. A young girl has been murdered; Detective Matthäi promises the victim’s mother that he will find the killer but decides the wrong man has been arrested. He lays a trap for the real killer. The first person narrator Dr H, a retired police chief, frames the narrative with his own telling of Matthäi’s story to the author. It went onto be adapted by Rudolf van de Berg as The Cold Light of Day in 1996, starring Richard E Grant, and by Sean Penn in 2001.
José Maria de Eça de Queiroz: The Crime of Father Amaro (1875)
Amaro, a young priest in small-town 19th-century Portugal, is having an affair with the teenage daughter of his hostess. Rather than condemning his actions, the clergy covers up his mistakes. Eça de Queiroz admired Dickens, and the two writers shared a gift for comic dialogue and a desire to chart society’s ills. Portugese naturalism, though, can be bleaker stuff than anything Britain produced during the Industrial Revolution: Eça de Queiroz explores a world where the innocent are condemned and the guilty prosper. In 2002, Carlos Carrera’s adaptation saw Catholic groups protesting outside cinemas.
Umberto Eco: The Name of the Rose (1980)
The year is 1327. Brother William of Baskerville travels to a Benedictine monastery to investigate a mysterious death and finds himself caught in a spate of killings apparently modelled on the Book of Revelation. William’s rational, deductive response to these events pits him against the monastery’s more traditional elements, who refuse to entertain the possibility that the deaths are the result of anything other than demonic possession, and view any dissent as heresy. Eco swells a gripping historical whodunnit with discourses on semiotics, faith and truth and a persuasive portrait of 14th-century Italy.
Bret Easton Ellis: American Psycho (1991)
This yuppie slasher-gothic tale enraged feminists even before its publication, when a proof copy was leaked. Particularly revolting was a scene in which the hero’s former girlfriend has her hands nailed to the floor, her tongue cut out, and is then forced to fellate her tormentor before being killed — all narrated in a cool, Holden Caulfield-like sub-ironic style. The hero, Patrick Bateman, a young, drugged-up, obsessively stylish Wall Street broker, also axes a gay man he encounters on the street and casually eviscerates the man’s dog. Or does he? The whole novel may be a Hitchcockian fantasy and a satire on 1980s materialism.