Cormac McCarthy: No Country for Old Men (2005)
The bag-of-loot thriller is as old as the hills, but McCarthy makes it lean and fresh and ready to run. No Country For Old Men drives its hero hell-for-leather along the Texas border with an implacable killer on his trail and a good-hearted sheriff dawdling some distance behind. This is possibly the author’s most pared-down and populist piece of work, a pure rush of storytelling brio that read like a film script even before the Coen brothers wheeled their cameras in front of it.
Ian McEwan: Enduring Love (1997)
The novel that McEwan’s many admirers thought should have taken the Booker that year. Joe Rose, a scientific journalist, and his partner, Clarissa, a literary scholar, picnic in the Chilterns. A balloon breaks from its moorings. Along with others, Joe attempts to secure it. They fail, and one of the would-be rescuers is hauled up and falls fatally to the ground. Jed Parry, another would-be rescuer, instantly falls in love with Joe and later stalks him in London. It turns nasty. Joe acquires a gun. Jed is ultimately confined in a mental institution, diagnosed with erotomania. Joe and Clarissa, having been separated by the stress, are reconciled and adopt a child. Their love endures but what, the novel queries, is love?
Henning Mankell: Sidetracked (1995)
Mankell’s best-selling Kurt Wallander mysteries chart the fortunes of a morose, dogged police inspector in the south of Sweden. Sidetracked (which won the Gold Dagger award) is the best of the bunch: a gripping procedural thriller that pits our hero against a shadowy serial killer while uncovering a rat’s nest of abusive families, corrupt politicians and exploited migrant labour. Mankell’s Sweden is worlds away from the sterile, tourist-brochure version of the country. His bright, airy landscapes are as black as any urban jungle.
Walter Mosley: Devil in a Blue Dress (1990)
Mosley is the most obvious inheritor of Chester Himes’s trailblazing African-American genre fiction, but Easy Rawlins — as concerned with his mortgage as with catching villains — is a world away from Himes’s gun-wielding ‘tecs. Devil in a Blue Dress set the Mosley template: a languid, almost nostalgic evocation of postwar Los Angeles, still struggling with segregation but well before the cataclysmic social breakdown of the mid-1960s. As Rawlins is commissioned to find a missing woman, Mosley can get into all the race and gender issues that bedevilled the late 1980s.
E Phillips Oppenhein: The Great Impersonation (1920)
A novel written “against the menace of German militarism”. Despite his name, the author was — as he furiously insisted in print — English “for three generations”. The story opens with an English aristocrat and big-game hunter, Sir Everard Dominey, being rescued in the African bush by some Germans. Among them is Baron Leopold von Ragastein. The two men bear a striking resemblance to each other (think Prisoner of Zenda). It is 1913, and war looms. Von Ragastein resolves to kill Sir Everard and impersonate him in English society, the better to advance the interests of the Kaiser. There follows a plot twist on every page.
E Phillips Oppenheim: The Strange Boarders of Palace Crescent (1934)
Forgotten now, Oppenheim churned out more than 150 novels between 1880 and 1940. The haste shows, but if it’s good old-fashioned period suspense you’re after, he’s a winner. This one lives up to its marvellous title. We enter the boarding house in the company of the impoverished but game Roger Ferrison, who perceives that beneath its respectable veneer the place is a riot of peculiar glances and queer fancies (no, not those sort of queer fancies). Why is the beautiful, disabled Miss Quayne so eager to seduce him? Who shot the quiet-living Col Dennett? Where did the spinster disappear to at 3am? And will the boarders ever get a more appetising meal than rissoles, mutton chops and blancmange?
Orhan Pamuk: My Name Is Red (1998)
Pamuk cunningly frames his novel about the clash between eastern and western ideas of an artist’s duties as a historical mystery. Set in Istanbul at the end of the 16th century, it is ostensibly the story of a painter’s murder, the solution of which, by the reader and the novel’s clever amateur detective, requires understanding the aesthetic codes of Islamic painters. The reader reminded of The Name of the Rose should beware, for in his denouement Pamuk also overturns the expectations that we bring from other historical whodunits.
Sara Paretsky: Toxic Shock (1988)
The third novel to feature VI (Vic) Warshawski appeared as Blood Shot in the US. Vic agrees to investigate the paternity of Caroline Djiak, whose mother, Louisa, is dying. Following some leads, Vic visits Louisa’s old workplace, the Xerxes chemical plant. What she finds is corruption and cruelty on a horrifying scale, where profit has more value than human life. Paretsky was not only one of the pioneers in featuring a realistic if troubled positive heroine in the lead, but also made Vic a credible character with powerful humanitarian and political views, who always lands on the side of society’s underprivileged.
Sara Paretsky: Blacklist (2003)
Tough as nails Chicago private eye VI (Vic) Warshawski returned to the fray in this novel after a lengthy absence. When she stumbles upon the dead body of a female journalist and the police are curiously uninterested if not obstructive, Vic is convinced that the woman’s colour and associated family secrets are at the root of the case. As always, the sleuthing takes on a personal note and the sleuth’s emotional involvement and social conscience are ill-advised and inevitable.
David Peace: Nineteen Seventy-Four (1999)
Right now Peace is hot, cinematically speaking: the film of his account of Brian Clough’s Leeds tenure, The Damned Utd, is set for release, and a TV series of his seminal Red Riding tetralogy is going into production. It all began with Nineteen Seventy-Four, a highly charged, highly wrought account of a gruesome police investigation into sex crimes in West Yorkshire. Dominated, inevitably, by the Yorkshire Ripper killings, Peace attempted to do for the Leeds-Bradford conurbation what James Ellroy had done for Los Angeles. The screen adaptation has been a long time coming.
David Peace: Nineteen Seventy Seven (2000)
In Peace’s sequel to Nineteen Seventy Four, detective sergeant Bob Fraser (“Bobby the bobby”) and alcoholic reporter Jack Whitehead follow a trail of hunches, hoaxes and other dead-ends on the path of the Yorkshire Ripper. Both men compromise their investigations — and personal relationships — by carrying out secret affairs with prostitutes. The locations are spectacularly pungent: the pair’s inquiries unfold in stale holding cells, grease-lined pubs and rotting Chapeltown slums. Peace’s shocking crime scenes and cast of bent coppers evokes James Ellroy but his fever-dream prose is unlike any other writer’s.
The first instalment in the DC Quartet, a history of his native Washington from the Great Depression to the century’s end, The Big Blowdown is the foundation of Pelecanos’s entire oeuvre and establishes his recurring characters’ family tree. Set mostly in the 1940s, the story is blue collar and hardboiled. Pete Karras is a debt collector who goes straight and finds work at a diner. He helps find a friend’s drug-addled sister, but then his former boss comes knocking. Criss crossing the city with a local historian’s affection for long-lost bars and fight nights, Pelecanos delivers an urban western and detects a social malaise that spreads through his other novels.
George Pelecanos: Hard Revolution (2004)
After writing three investigations for middle-aged black private eye Derek Strange, Pelecanos created this portrait of Strange as a young beat cop in Washington DC in the spring of 1968. When his brother is killed for preventing a grocery store robbery, Strange goes in search of the culprit; meanwhile, Martin Luther King is assassinated and rioters and looters flood the streets of the nation’s capital. As ever, plot is secondary to social commentary for Pelecanos, and Hard Revolution — his personal favourite among his novels — has the force of a protest song.
Richard Price: Lush Life (2008)
When a young writer is murdered at 4am in Manhattan’s Lower East Side after a night’s bar-hopping, his friend says he was shot for standing up to muggers. The investigating cops are workaholic divorcee Matty and Yolonda, a Latina with the emotional intelligence he lacks. Price (whose other work includes scripts for The Wire, and Clockers, which became a Spike Lee film) shows his in-depth knowledge of police methods, but his eighth novel’s most striking features are its portrayal of a tense multicultural neighbourhood and its stunning, jazz-like dialogue.
Mario Puzo: The Godfather (1969)
Clear contender as the best gangster novel of all time. The don, Vito Corleone, godfather of one of the five New York mafia families is ageing. His anointed successor is his hot-tempered Santino (Sonny). A younger son, Michael, has served with distinction in the second world war. Against his father’s plans for him, he is drawn back. A bloody war between the New York families results in Sonny’s death and Michael taking over as the Corleone godfather. His moral fi bre decays, and his wife, Kate, is alienated from him. The novel ends with Michael moving the family interests to Nevada, where they will rise in the world. The man with the briefcase, Vito says, always earns more than the man with the gun. Neither the novel nor the movie dared mention the M-word.
Thomas Pynchon: V (1963)
This elaborate and bewitching debut interweaves two plots, one set in Europe and Africa in the early 20th century. V is a mysterious woman spy who pops up whenever apocalypse seems imminent. In spoofing different kinds of thriller (eg John Buchan’s), Pynchon also mocked the paranoia shared by the era’s statesmen and writers such as Yeats and Eliot — V is anti- as well as post-modernist. The same pre-apocalyptic madness, he implies, is latent in the characters in his novel’s other half, set in the cold-war America of 1956.
Thomas Pynchon: The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)
Los Angeles, 1964. Mrs Oedipa Maas learns a mega-rich ex-lover has died and made her his executor. As she traces his myriad and often sinister assets, her quest follows Raymond Chandler’s formula: she interviews odd balls, learns of crimes past and present, beds a witness, is menaced and scared, and develops a theory that links all she’s discovered. But this theory, in Pynchon’s dazzlingly funny, multi-layered short novel, is not Philip Marlowe’s sort: the housewife gumshoe believes all America’s outsiders are using a secret postal system. Has she discovered a real, centuries old conspiracy, or just become another LA paranoid?
Ian Rankin: Black & Blue (1997)
This was Rankin’s breakthrough novel, transforming a crime-fiction also-ran into a bestselling award-winner. It would be an outstanding performance even if it confined itself to self-destructive Edinburgh detective John Rebus’s efforts to trace the 60s serial slayer Bible John, his present-day imitator Johnny Bible, and those responsible for a gangland killing. But it’s also a state-of-Scotland novel, written with devolution imminent, probing the oil industry and taking in Aberdeen, Glasgow, the Highlands and Shetland as well as Edinburgh.
Ian Rankin: The Hanging Garden (1998)
The novel that followed Black & Blue, and which vies with it for the title of Rankin’s most ambitious — both reflect his ability to introduce into British crime-writing social and political themes rarely present before. The main plot pits grumpy, alky DI Rebus against an alliance of local, Russian and Japanese gangsters intent on a gigantic drugs heist. But the more testing and unusual storyline involves a lecturer who may be a former SS officer responsible for a massacre.
Ian Rankin: Exit Music (2007)
Fictional police detectives don’t usually retire. Morse died in harness, while Reg Wexford and Adam Dalgliesh exist in a fuzzy kind of time that allows them to carry on sleuthing. DI John Rebus, in contrast, is now “pushing 60”, and begins Exit Music 10 days from compulsory retirement. This gives him a deadline both for solving his final case — the murder of a Russian poet in Edinburgh — and for putting away his arch-enemy, the gangster Ger Cafferty. Rankin handles his departure very deftly, leaving open the possibility of a Holmes-like return.
Ruth Rendell: Judgment in Stone (1977)
Perhaps unburdened by the tradition of Brit TV crime, foreign film-makers have found Rendell’s non-Wexford novels fertile territory — none more so than Claude Chabrol’s La Cérémonie, taken from this murder story. It’s something of a proto yuppies-in-peril parable. A well-off family called Coverdale are murdered by their apparently harmless housekeeper, the gloriously monikered Eunice Parchment. Owing equal debts to Simenon and Highsmith, Rendell’s vision of seething, class-riven village life couldn’t be more different from Agatha Christie’s cutesy Marple murder yarns.
Ruth Rendell: Live Flesh (1986)
After 10 years in prison for shooting — and permanently crippling — a young policeman, Victor Jenner is released to a strange new world and told to make a new life for himself. It’s hard to fill in the days, but at least there’s one blessing: he was never convicted for all those rapes he committed. Then Victor meets David, the policeman he shot, and David’s beautiful girlfriend, Clare. And suddenly Victor’s new life is starting to look an awful lot like the old one. A fiery film by Pedro Almodovar, starring Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, was adapted from the book.
CJ Sansom: Dissolution (2003)
It’s 1537: Henry VIII has declared himself supreme head of the church and the country is facing the greatest changes since the Norman conquest . Against the backdrop of political upheaval, Robin Singleton, one of Thomas Cromwell’s commissioners, is beheaded at a Scarnsea monastery. Cue entry of our unlikely hero: Dr Matthew Shardlake, an irritable lawyer with a hunchback. Sansom has a greater talent for animating period detail than most of his contemporaries; his rendering of the Tudor winter in the first of the Shardlake series makes you reach for thick fleece blankets. KS
Dorothy L Sayers: Whose Body? (1923)
The novel that introduced amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey — with Holmes and Poirot, one of the most famous of his crime-breaking kind. A naked corpse is found in a bathtub. “An entertainin’ little problem” thinks Wimsey. The corpse is supposed to be that of Sir Reuben Levy, a “Hebrew” magnate in the City (circumcision is hinted at as the identifying mark). Wimsey — by judicious use of his monocle — determines that the corpse is not Sir Reuben. High-finance shenanigans are involved, notably skullduggery by the American financier John P Milligan. Having eliminated various suspects (not at all helped by the Yard’s flatfoots), Wimsey unmasks the killer. He is never the “bally fool” the world thinks him.
Dorothy L Sayers: Murder Must Advertise (1933)
Sayers famously coined the phrase “It pays to advertise”, and this novel, based on her own experience as a copywriter, is her best. Witty and inventive, it is a fascinating snapshot of the dawn of the consumer age. Sayers’s arch detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, goes undercover at a London ad agency to investigate a suspicious death. The murder mystery itself is sidelined, which is just as well, because it’s tosh; but it does let Sayers introduce a side plot of cocaine smuggling, which, though equally implausible, ties in beautifully with the illusory glee of the flickering lights advertising Sopo, Nutrax and Crunchlets.
Georges Simenon: The Madman of Bergerac (1932)
Inspector Maigret has been played on screen by a variety of actors in various countries, and his better known British impersonations remain by Rupert Davies and Michael Gambon. But in the numerous Simenon books there is assuredly an added dimension to the dour and doughty French cop. In this novel, Maigret leaves a train to pursue a villain and gets shot. As he recovers in the small, provincial town of Bergerac, he gets caught up in a local case involving a woman killer, and the game is on. Maigret is the classic, obdurate cop who never strays from the course of justice — and this is one of his best outings.
Georges Simenon: The Blue Room (1965)
Although Simenon is best remembered for Inspector Maigret, his best books were his romans durs, lean, intense novels full of tortured characters and unhealthy relationships, in which crime always serves as a background for a waltz into darkness for his hapless protagonists. The Blue Room is a fascinating variation on Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, a novel about the impossibility of really knowing the ones you love or are with. An adulterous couple meet on a regular basis in a hotel room and gradually tear each other apart in an allegedly autobiographical story inspired by one of Simenon’s many affairs, with an added zest of crime.
Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö: The Laughing Policeman (1968)
When eight people are gunned down on a Stockholm bus in 1967, all the victims’ families and colleagues have to be interviewed as Martin Beck’s homicide squad try to identify the killer. Long before Kurt Wallender, Beck was the original stoical Norse Morse , and this is among the finest novels in the series featuring him — Jonathan Franzen is one of its many admirers. Unusual in showing detection as team work, it’s an enthralling whodunnit that uncovers the grimier, weirder side of shiny 60s Sweden. JD
Martin Cruz Smith: Gorky Park (1981)
When it first appeared, Gorky Park was a glimpse into another country, a land of state repression, paranoia and petty corruption. Now it’s more like a slice of history. But while the collapse of communism may make it harder to understand some of the characters’ motives, this is still a superb example of the police procedural, as honest cop Arkady Renko (“We can’t trust anyone”) investigates a triple murder in a snowbound Moscow park.
John Steinbeck: Of Mice and Men (1937)
Two drifting field workers — Lennie, bull-strong but slow-witted, and his quick, cynical friend and protector, George — pitch up at a ranch in California, where they plan to work up the cash needed to buy a farm of their own. But when Lennie’s childishly innocent desire to pet soft things leads him accidentally to kill the pretty wife of the boss’s son, George is no longer able to defend him. Steinbeck is at his lyrical best in this Depression-era fable of loneliness, poverty and unrealised dreams.
Patrick Süskind: Perfume (1985)
One reviewer likened this bestseller to The Phantom of the Opera, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Beauty and the Beast. The Lloyd Webber/Disney associations are unfortunate, but the comparison was just: the novel’s hero, Grenouille, would once have been called a monster. Born with no natural odour into the stench of 18th-century France, he makes all who come into contact with him uneasy. Then there’s his habit of turning young women into perfume … What makes this more than a serial-killer extravaganza? Süskind’s ability to describe a country, a time — the world, even — in terms of smell rather than looks.
Donna Tartt: The Secret History (1992)
Tartt was not yet 30 when her debut became a critically acclaimed bestseller — Ruth Rendell said she wished she’d thought of its plot. The Secret History unfolds at a college in Vermont (not unlike Bennington, where Tartt and Bret Easton Ellis were contemporaries); Richard, the narrator, initially discloses that amiable Bunny was murdered by fellow classics students. The rest of the story reveals why, and traces guilt’s subsequent effects on the killers. Yet to be filmed, the novel has been called a mix of Euripides, Dostoevsky, Ellis and Waugh.
Josephine Tey: The Daughter of Time (1951)
Classic armchair detective story, and one of the cleverest. Inspector Alan Grant has been confined to a hospital bed after falling through a trapdoor in pursuit of a thief. The inspector, renowned for his ability to read criminal faces, finds in the cabinet by his bed the famous National Gallery portrait of Richard III. It is not, Grant deduces, a murderer’s face, although “surely 40 million schoolbooks can’t be wrong?” By logical sleuthing, Grant clears the king. Shakespeare (along with the 40 million) is wrong. Richard did not kill the Princes in the Tower. It was Henry VII. Historians, Grant concludes, are lousy detectives.
Jim Thompson: The Getaway (1959)
One of the great boozy geniuses of American pulp fiction, Jim Thompson — aka the dime-store Dostoevsky — brought surrealism, humour and existential despair to the compulsively readable crime novels he churned out in great quantities in the 50s and 60s. A master of trick narrative (see Pop. 1280) and criminal lore (see The Grifters), Thompson plays it fairly straight to begin with in The Getaway, which follows the charming killer Doc McCoy and Carol, his wife, on a frantic chase across a landscape of roadblocks and seedy motels. Their destination, however, is like something out of a more moralistic Kafka.
Mark Twain: Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894)
Boasting one of the first uses of fingerprinting as a plot device, Mark Twain’s most adult novel concerns the uncovering of Valet de Chambre. Assumed to be a freeborn independently wealthy white man, he is proved to be a mulatto slave — and a murderer to boot. Burdened by debts, Twain cranked out 60,000 words of Pudd’nhead Wilson in one frantic month. Unsurprisingly, it lacks the polish and joy of his earlier work, but there’s compensation in the electrifying anger at slavery and injustice, while his trademark wit remains as sharp as ever.
Barbara Vine: A Dark-Adapted Eye (1986)
This was the first of the sombre psychological thrillers written by Ruth Rendell as Barbara Vine. England in the 1950s proves a suitably bleak background for this tale of two sisters, one prim, the other beautiful and younger, locked in a dark and bitter combat over family secrets, including drastic murder. Brilliantly plotted, it takes the reader through a steady walk down the mean streets of the mind, and long lingers in the memory. Intricately plotted, and exploring murky psychological depths that Rendell had until then stayed clear of in her Inspector Wexford procedurals. Winner of the Edgar Award.
Barbara Vine: A Fatal Inversion (1987)
It is 1976, and Adam Verne-Smith — 19, bearded, tie-dyed — has inherited a country pile. With a few friends and strays he turns it into a sort of middleclass commune, all dirty dishes and bottles of wine in the sun. Years later, two sets of remains are discovered in the grounds: a woman and a tiny baby. Ruth Rendell’s books as Barbara Vine tend to be relatively low on action and heavy on atmosphere; this one is particularly potent in its depiction of the delirious summer heat.
Barbara Vine: King Solomon’s Carpet (1991)
A recluse lives in a crumbling schoolhouse overlooking a tube line, compiling an obsessive history of the London Underground. Into his orbit are drawn a fascinating bunch of misfits: a young woman who has run away from her husband and child, a busker, a habitual truant, and the mysterious Axel. Their destinies and secrets are intertwined as the outcasts are brought together in violent and unforeseen ways by London’s forbidding and dangerous underground. The best novel ever written about London Transport and a winner of The CWA Gold Dagger.
Edgar Wallace: The Four Just Men (1905)
A vigilante novel (loosely derived from Dumas’s Three Musketeers), this appointed Wallace king of the thrillers. The plot centres on a locked-room mystery so ingenious (the author thought) that he offered a £500 prize to anyone who could come up with the solution. So many did, it practically bankrupted Wallace. The “Four Just Men” administer vigilante justice across state borders. The British foreign secretary, Sir Philip Ramon, has introduced an aliens extradition act — manifestly unjust, the quartet believe. Unless the bill is withdrawn, Ramon will die. The just men announce the date of his execution in the Megaphone (ie the Daily Mail). The minister takes refuge in closely guarded Downing Street, but justice is done. Ramon dies, alone in his office. But how?
Sarah Waters: Fingersmith (2002)
Raised by thieves in a London slum, orphan Sue readily agrees to aid dashing, dastardly Gentleman in his scheme to defraud a young heiress, Maud, by taking a position as her maid and convincing her to elope with him. But Sue’s doubts deepen as her sympathy for her mistress grows — right up to the moment Gentleman’s plans bear fruit and it’s suddenly unclear who’s been swindling whom. Pickpockets and aristocrats, asylums and prisons, seamy backstreets and shadowed country houses, all crammed into a plot that twists like a corkscrew. Waters’ sumptuous slice of Victoriana sets the bar for historical pastiche.
Richard Wright: Native Son (1940)
Richard Wright’s landmark thriller took the bogeyman of mainstream America and shoved him centre-stage. Bigger Thomas is a black ghetto criminal, a product of South Side Chicago who goes on the run after killing a white woman. Does Wright ask us to pity Bigger Thomas? Not exactly — but he does demand that we understand who he is and where he comes from. Raw, urgent and angry, Native Son lifted the lid on an oppressed underclass with nothing to lose.
Emile Zola: Therese Raquin (1867)
Therese works in her aunt’s shop in Paris, and is married to her sickly cousin Camille. She feels passion for the first time on meeting lazy, sensual Laurent; they begin an affair, and decide Camille must die. As well as the sex, murder and lower-class characters, the young author’s shockingly neutral, scientific tone repelled his primmer readers. The same mixture of cold writing and violent deeds reappears in noir fiction — Zola’s influence is most obvious in The Postman Always Rings Twice, which reworks his fatal triangle. JD