RJ Ellory: A Quiet Belief in Angels (2007)
A young boy grows up in the Georgia backwoods, and from the moment his father dies on a day full of sinister omens, his whole life is lived under the shadow of a serial killer who targets little girls and might have links with his family. He gets older and moves to New York, where 50 years go by until he can finally confront the evil. A breakthrough thriller set in America by a young British writer which became a bestseller thanks to the Richard & Judy show.
William Faulkner: Sanctuary (1931)
Stung by the poor sales of The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, Faulkner sat down to write a potboiler. Sanctuary drops a judge’s daughter in with a den of bootleggers. It features rape and murder and a gallery of grotesques. But this remains a very Faulknerian breed of potboiler — a simmering gumbo of southern gothic and pulp fiction. André Malraux detected “the intrusion of Greek tragedy into the detective story”, the censors were horrified and the public lapped it up. Faulkner was on his way.
Ian Fleming: Casino Royale (1953)
No “My, James, you are a cunning linguist” style gags here. Fleming’s first Bond novel is matter-of-fact to the point of chilliness. We meet Bond at the roulette wheel, where he is simultaneously topping up his winnings of several million francs and keeping an eye on Le Chiffre, the grossly fat fifth columnist who is gambling for his trade union’s future. To modern eyes, Bond’s humourlessness and casual sexism towards his number two, Vesper Lynd, may seem unpalatable — not to mention his 70-a-day habit — but his action-packed face-off with Le Chiffre over the baccarat table is still thrilling.
Ian Fleming: Goldfinger (1959)
James Bond is charged by both the Bank of England and MI5 to discover what Auric Goldfinger, the richest man in the country, is up to, and the nature of his connection to the evil SMERSH organisation. A cheat at cards and a crook on a massive scale, Goldfinger is the archetypal Bond villain, and his plans for the greatest gold robbery in history are as grandiose as he is brutal. The seventh Fleming Bond novel, despite lukewarm initial reviews, beat Dr Zhivago to the top of the best seller lists and became one of the iconic Connery 007 movies.
Ian Fleming: You Only Live Twice (1964)
One of 007’s most absurd, and correspondingly enjoyable, literary adventures sees the agent in Japan on a mission “improbable of success”. Fleming’s playful imagination is given full reign as Bond takes on the sadistic Blofeld by breaking into a castle on an island protected by lethally poisonous plants and reptiles. There’s a girl called Kissy Suzuki! And a volcano! But there’s also a dark streak that’s missing from the films, and an intriguingly ambiguous conclusion. Proof that Fleming is a fine writer as well as a peerless entertainer.
Frederick Forsyth: The Day of the Jackal (1971)
Classic docu-thriller; a novel which, after being turned down by 17 dumb publishers, launched Forsyth into world fame, and established a genre of now it can be told political thrillers. French-Algerian revanchists hire the suavely English Jackal (never named — we know him as Carlos ) to assassinate President de Gaulle. Fee? Half a million dollars (“When you employ the best, you pay”). The subsequent narrative is done in brisk reportage style. The Jackal makes his attempt by impersonating an aged Frenchman, with a walking stick which is in fact a high-powered rifle. He is foiled at the 11th hour by the dogged French detective Claude Lebel. The information Forsyth provides on how to fake passports has caused HM Government infinite grief.
Graham Greene: Brighton Rock (1938)
Distinctive “Greeneland” mix of low crime and high Catholicism, a mixture that no one else has been able to brew. 1930s Brighton is the haunt of seedy, razor-wielding gangsters. Pinkie Brown, a juvenile killer and cradle Catholic, is a gang leader. The narrative opens with his killing the journalist, Fred Hale, who betrayed his former boss, Kite. Pinkie loathes sex (original sin), but to protect his alibi, he courts the trusting waitress, Rose. A complicated denouement involving acid and a double suicide pact leads to a final horror for Rose. The novel is permeated with Pinkie’s bleak Marlovian worldview: ‘Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it’.
Graham Greene: A Gun For Sale (1936)
It wasn’t Greene’s first entertainment , but with its combination of generic crime narrative (the pursuer and pursued) and angled moral discussion, it is arguably the most significant step on the road to Brighton Rock. The plot is elemental in its simplicity — a paid killer is tracked by a detective from London to Nottwich (Greene’s simulacrum for Nottingham), where he takes hostage the copper’s fiancée. Greene lays on the 1930s drabness with a vengeance — sadly lost in the Hollywood movie adaptation, This Gun for Hire.
Graham Greene: The Ministry of Fear (1943)
It’s hard to make a case for the seriousness of a book that starts when the wrong man wins a cake at a fete and finishes in a surreal, melodramatic spy-plot and The Ministry of Fear is often regarded as a minor work. But it’s noteworthy for more than its gleeful strangeness. The guilt-wracked Arthur Rowe who takes this “journey with the wrong map” is one of Greene’s most humane creations, while the ongoing war lent passages about the drabness and terror of London in the blitz a rare immediacy and power.
Graham Greene: The Third Man (1950)
Candidate for the best-ever novelisation , the narrative is based on the author’s preparatory screenplay for the 1949 movie, itself a best ever. The four powers have divided up postwar Vienna. Harry Lime (played by Orson Welles in Carol Reed’s film) makes his fortune smuggling the new medicine, penicillin, across the zones — using the sewer system to do so. His school-friend, the pulp novelist Holly Martins (Greene’s private joke about his own sub-literary entertainments) comes to Vienna to investigate Harry’s (mis)reported death. The novella, and film, are famous for Lime’s eloquent exposition, atop a Viennese ferris wheel, about the absurdity of morality in the new, post war world.
John Grisham: A Time to Kill (1989)
Although his name is now a byword for legal thrillers, John Grisham’s first novel was rejected by many publishers before finally appearing in a modest 5,000-copy run. Inspired by the author witnessing the testimony of a 12-year-old rape victim, it tells the story of a father who steals into a Mississippi courthouse and guns down the drunken rednecks accused of raping his daughter. It became a hit 1996 movie starring Sandra Bullock, Samuel L Jackson and Kevin Spacey, and is Grisham’s only legal novel that doesn’t begin with the word “The”.
John Grisham: The King of Torts (2003)
Tequila Watson is accused of a random street killing. His young lawyer, Clay Carter, discovers he was taking a drug that can have murderous side-effects. Carter keeps this hush-hush in return for a generous pay-off from the drug company. Grisham’s twisting novel lifts the lid on the shocking world of “tort law” where lawyers take cases purely for what they can earn and to hell with justice. Soon Carter is the King of Torts, adrift in an orgy of tainted money, luxury jets and trophy women. But, as with Greek tragedy, Grisham’s great trick is to keep you — just — on Carter’s side, as he becomes the architect of his own downfall.
Patrick Hamilton: Hangover Square (1941)
Written, as Patrick Hamilton put it, “almost for ‘fun'”, Hangover Square focuses on George Harvey Bone, a dog-like drinker in the Earls Court pubs, and his hopeless love for Netta Longden, an attractive yet incredibly unpleasant would-be actress. In his “dead moods”, of which he remembers nothing afterwards, Bone knows that he must kill her. A surprisingly funny story of murder and madness, the book memorably evokes the fag-end of the 1930s, post-Munich. It’s also one of the pre-eminent English novels of drunkenness, which Hamilton knew a lot about.
Dashiell Hammett: The Glass Key (1931)
Hammett’s fourth full-length novel, first serialised in the pulp magazine, Black Mask, is darker, if that is possible, than even The Maltese Falcon. The action is set in Prohibition-era Baltimore, against the background of a crucial election. City boss Paul Madvig fears his rule is threatened. The story is narrated by Ned Beaumont, Madvig’s sardonic, tubercular, gofer. Ned’s life is one long losing streak. When his bookmaker is murdered, Ned is subjected to days of sadistic beating by “apish” thugs, although we never quite learn why. After much mayhem and treachery, Madvig survives. The tone of the novel is ice-cold, elusive, and a bleak vindication of Ned’s wholly cynical view of American politics.
Dashiell Hammett: The Maltese Falcon (1930)
Detective fiction doesn’t come harder boiled than this novel, which encapsulates the black nihilism at the heart of the genre. Sam Spade, a San Francisco PI who looks “rather pleasantly like a blond satan”, is hired by a mysterious Miss Wonderly to rescue her sister from an unsuitable lover, Floyd Thursby. The assignment is taken over by Spade’s partner, Miles Archer, who is shot. Thursby is also shot. Investigating the murders, Spade stumbles on the Maltese Falcon, a relic of the crusades. Among the many pursuers of the priceless statuette is “flabbily fat” Caspar Gutman. Double crosses complicate the later plot beyond description. In 1941 the novel was made into a classic, if somewhat softer-boiled, film noir.
Dashiell Hammett: Red Harvest (1929)
One of the all-time classics of the hard boiled genre, in which a lone private investigator sets out to uncover a web of corruption in the corridors of power. The Continental Op, as the middle-aged and overweight PI is known, is hired by the only honest man in Personville, but after the man’s death, the hero is left to take on both the police and the gangs by himself. Hammett’s lean and uncompromising masterpiece has fascinated film makers for ages, but never made it to the screen despite efforts by Bertolucci and others (the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing was its nearest approximation).
Robert Harris: Fatherland (1992)
It is 1964 and Germany won the war. Hitler is about to turn 75 in a Third Reich that stretches from the Rhine to the Urals. Britain is ruled by a puppet government, and America long ago opted for peace. The murder of Europe’s Jews has never been admitted, and the US is normalising relations with its old enemy. Then Xavier March, an investigator with Berlin’s criminal police, begins to uncover the truth about the Final Solution … Robert Harris’s thriller was heaped with praise, and it still “grips as tightly as a Nazi’s glove”, as one overexcited reviewer put it.
Thomas Harris: Black Sunday (1975)
Harris’s first novel and a prophetic one which prefigures 9/11 by almost three decades. A group of Palestinian terrorists plan with an embittered American Vietnam veteran to detonate a massive bomb over an American sports stadium on the occasion of the Super Bowl, with the president in attendance. The FBI, assisted by a ruthless Israeli agent, fight against the clock to prevent the massacre. Exemplary and nail-biting suspense which transferred well to the big screen in the John Frankenheimer adaptation.
Thomas Harris: Red Dragon (1981)
Not only the book that introduced the seductively evil Hannibal Lecter, but a novel that launched a thousand serial killers. Still gripping and eerie and vastly superior to its two film adaptations (in which both Brian Cox and Anthony Hopkins convincingly portray the monster), it is the tale of FBI special agent Will Graham, whose talent for profiling killers is both an asset and a curse. Lecter is actually only a bit player in this case, and doesn’t come into his own until the later The Silence of the Lambs.
Carl Hiaasen: Tourist Season (1986)
The president of the Miami Chamber of Commerce is found dead inside a suitcase, sans legs and with an toy alligator stuffed down his throat. Letters from a terrorist group, Las Noches de Diciembre, link the death to recent disappearances, but it is up to private eye Brian Keyes — who thinks that someone is trying to kill off Florida’s tourist trade — to find the truth. Hiaasen’s debut mixes black humour into a frequently self-important genre.
George V Higgins: The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972)
An unblinking and convincing depiction (the author was a criminal lawyer) of the gritty criminal underworld of 1960s Boston, memorable for Higgins’s extraordinary ear for Massachusetts street talk. Coyle, a small crook, is being set up, although he doesn’t know it, by his friend, the barman and snitch, Dillon. Coyle tries to live by a code — he will go down rather than rat on his accomplices, even though it means losing his freedom and his family when his latest offence comes to court.
Patricia Highsmith: Strangers on a Train (1950)
Two strangers who meet on a train consider swapping murders: Charles Bruno says he will strangle the wife Guy Haines is desperate to divorce and asks Haines in turn to shoot the father he loathes. Highsmith’s first — and possibly finest — novel has a premise that Alfred Hitchock found irresistible. His 1951 adaptation has rightly topped critical lists ever since, but Highsmith herself thought he had “diluted” her work. Her vision is altogether darker. While Hitchcock allows Guy to step back from the brink, Highsmith pushes him over.
Patricia Highsmith: The Talented Mr Ripley (1955)
So satisfyingly does Highsmith create the character of Tom Ripley — intelligent, perceptive, thoroughly cultured — that you keep finding yourself forgiving his absolute lack of moral scruple. His first murder, committed out of a spasm of irritation, is made to seem but another small step in his utterly amoral progress. Discerning and resourceful, Ripley becomes the reader’s guide to human nature. He learns to fool people by expressing his talent for psychological analysis, and shows that, if you can act like a thoroughly civilised person, almost everyone will believe you to be so.
Reginald Hill: Bones and Silence (1990)
The BBC detective series Dalziel and Pascoe had its beginnings in Hill’s crime novels. In the 11th of these, the Yorkshire duo find themselves faced with a puzzling case. Dalziel witnesses a murder across the street, and believes he saw the culprit. The more Pascoe doubts him, the more certain he becomes. While Pascoe delves into anonymous letters sent to Dalziel threatening suicide, Dalziel is cast as God alongside the murder suspect playing Lucifer in a medieval mystery play. The book cleverly combines mystery, comedy and philosophy, helping Hill to win the Gold Dagger award in 1990.
Chester Himes: A Rage in Harlem (1957)
One of the great American exiles, Himes only began to write detective novels after moving to France in the mid-1950s following his little appreciated attempts at chronicling the bitterness of the African-American experience. A former jailbird (he was sentenced to 20 years for armed robbery in 1928), Himes put his black cops Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones at the heart of nine novels. With its instantly recognisable concoction of authentic Harlem atmosphere and head-crackingly direct law-enforcement methods, Rage was the first of these. Himes has been rediscovered at least twice: once during the early 1970s blaxploitation era, and again in the early 1990s as gangsta rap took hold.
Peter Høeg: Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow (1992)
Six-year-old Isaiah falls to his death from a city rooftop. The authorities treat it as an accident, but Smilla Qaaviqaaq Jaspersen, Isaiah’s neighbour, thinks otherwise and sets out to find the truth. Danish writer Høeg explores the relationship between the individual and society, as Smilla, who has an Inuit father and a Danish mother, clashes with the establishment. It beautifully blends in-depth knowledge of glaciology, geography and the shipping industry with what could only be described as Norse magical realism.
Geoffrey Household: Rogue Male (1939)
The book for all those who have never been able to understand why not one human being managed to get a pistol, rifle or shotgun, traverse Europe, break into a bunker or Berchtesgarten, evade all guards and Nazi boyos, and put a gun to Hitler’s head. The male hunter of this nail-biting thriller sets off to do just that, and we are left wondering why no one followed his example. Twice filmed — once by Fritz Lang, and then with Peter O’Toole — this is a short, perfect, unputdownable and much imitated classic.
Frances Iles: Malice Aforethought (1931)
Vintage golden age crime from one of the many pseudonyms of Anthony Berkeley Cox with a revolutionary opening in which, against all mystery traditions of the time (and now), the murderer is actually revealed. A scheming doctor in a small Devonshire village endeavours to murder his wife, but the best-laid plans of mice and men naturally go astray, as the hen-pecked character sees his mistress announce her engagement to another as soon as the deed is done. A fascinating insight into a troubled mind, and a gripping thriller, the novel has been twice adapted for television with Hywel Bennett and Ben Miller in the main part.
Arnaldur Indridason: Silence of the Grave (2001)
When a character in one of Arnaldur Indridason’s novels refers to “that other detective … the sad one”, no one has to ask which one she means. The author’s Detective Inspector Erlendur is melancholic in the best Scandinavian tradition; being Icelandic, he also subsists on “cold, boiled sheep head” and “tubs of curds”. He rarely expects to deal with anything more dramatic than “a pathetic Icelandic murder” (“committed without any attempt to hide it, change the clues or conceal the evidence”). Yet Indridason fills the detective’s low-key investigations with understated social commentary, poetic gestures and a pathos that isn’t merely off-the-peg.
Michael Innes: Death at the President’s Lodging (1936)
If ever an author considered the detective story a form of intellectual relaxation, it’s Michael Innes — or JIM Stewart, as he was christened, an eminent professor of English. This was his first mystery story and he has great fun with it, placing a corpse carefully in the middle of an Oxbridge college and letting the dons entangle themselves in a fiendish web of plot twists. His style may grate — Innes can be erudite to a fault, ponderous to the point of sounding like a Latin translation — but his impish glee at spilling blood in the president’s lodging is hard to resist.
PD James: Cover Her Face (1962)
James’s debut introduced the public to both Adam Dalgleish, her pensive, poetically inclined detective, and to her blunt, cool style. The victim is Sally Jupp, an unmarried mother who is working as a maid for the Maxie family. She seems meek, but when her body is found the day after the church fete, we begin to realise that the Maxie household is, as one of James’s characters puts it, “a perfect orgy of suppressed emotion”.
PD James: A Taste for Death (1986)
A spinster, an urchin, a baronet, a tramp, a priest — James starts off her long double-murder mystery with a fine cast. Two — tramp and peer — are dead, found with their throats cut in a London church. Adam Dalgleish is on the case, this time with a new assistant, the efficient Kate Miskin. As so often with James, the setting and characters take precedence over the whodunnit, with the ecclesiastical theme prompting melancholy reflections on Dalgleish’s part. But it’s a delight to watch her tease out the knotted threads that bind these lost souls together.
Stephen King: Misery (1987)
Misery was Stephen King’s revenge on his more wild-eyed devotees; a sly satire on the author and his audience, and a convincing salute to the redemptive power of art. It’s about a writer of cheesy romances who finds himself abducted, tended and eventually terrorised by his “number one fan”. Kathy Bates would later win the best actress Oscar for her turn as Annie Wilkes, the corn-fed American psycho who forces her idol to type a Mills-and-Boon-esque masterpiece from his bed of pain.
Stephen King: Dolores Claiborne (1992)
Psychological melodrama with a strong feminist theme (often attributed to the influence of King’s wife, Tabitha), written during a period when the author was moving beyond the horror stories that had made him world famous. The narrative takes the form of a long, interrogation-room confession as taken down by the police stenographer. Dolores, a housekeeper, is suspected of murdering her cranky employer. She did not. She confesses, nonetheless, to having killed her brutal husband, Joe, 30 years earlier. She’s well past “half-give-a-shit” and wants to come clean. He deserved it. It’s a novel that, together with the Kathy Bates starring movie (in which King had a hand), qualifies the author to be taken seriously.
Rudyard Kipling: Kim (1901)
Kipling’s finest study of childhood (in some of its features, the author’s own). Kimball O’Hara is the son of a drunken Irish army sergeant, stationed in India. On his father’s death, Kim runs wild in the bazaar and passes for Indian. Among his associates is the horse-dealer and British secret agent Mahbub Ali. Kim accompanies a Tibetan lama on his mission to discover a sacred river. En route, he is recognised as English and sent to boarding school, where he masters the little games of life. On leaving, he rejoins Mahbub Ali in the “great game” of espionage.
John le Carré: The Constant Gardener (2001)
Possibly the best of Le Carré’s post-Smiley books, in which he vents his anger at the social injustices and corporate practices of pharmaceutical companies in Africa. A meek British civil servant and his rebellious wife are pitted against a deep-seated conspiracy and his own superiors, and gain redemption through self-sacrifice. A compelling thriller, a delicate love story and a narrative full of brutal anti-establishment anger, which translated beautifully to the big screen with Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz in the main roles.
John le Carré: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974)
“Lamplighters”, “tradecraft”, “Moscow rules”: le Carré’s novel gave us a rich argot of espionage and convinced us that in an ordinary world of drab locations spies were doing their quiet, urgent business. The novel is memorable for its melancholy, embodied in the shabby-genteel but intellectually brilliant figure of George Smiley. He tracks the Soviet mole through files and records and the wavering memories of his fellow spooks. The plot is elaborate and beautifully engineered — one of the best in English fiction of the last 50 years — and its assured sketches of odd English characters and hampered English conversations make it as satisfying on a second or third reading.
Harper Lee: To Kill A Mockingbird (1960)
Lee draws on her own small-town Alabama childhood in this indelible tale of race, family and lost innocence. Scout, her brother Jem and neighbour Dill while away their salad days in a haze of backyard dramas, afternoon lemonade and dreams of provoking the local recluse, Boo Radley, into venturing out. Slowly, indolently, the layers of childhood minutiae are peeled back to reveal the crisis at the novel’s heart: a black man has been accused of raping a white woman. As Scout’s father, Atticus, sets out to defend him, the depth of the town’s prejudices is revealed. A classic depiction of coming-of-age.
Elmore Leonard: 52 Pick-Up (1974)
With his wife of 22 years and a steady job, businessman Harry Mitchell looks the model citizen. Until, that is, one day he slips. His secret fling with a younger woman is filmed by two masked men — and they want a hundred grand in return for the tape. As with most of Leonard’s work, the novel stays clear of crime formulae: no detective protagonists. Instead, it succeeds in its portrayal of Detroit’s sticky social milieu. Adapted in 1986 for a film by John Frankenheimer.
Elmore Leonard: Get Shorty (1990)
Leonard has never written anything less than a classic in either of his two favoured genres, crime thriller and western. This is, arguably, his funniest novel, and one that reflects his complex relationship with Hollywood. Chili Palmer, a small-time Miami loan shark travels to Los Angeles in pursuit of a welcher. The trail leads to Harry Zimm, a Z-list film producer. Chili discovers that movies are his destiny. Zimm’s complicated financial aff airs have to be sorted out, as does a consignment of Colombian drug money that is attracting criminal and police interest. Leonard satirises (it is alleged) Dustin Hoffman as “Michael Weir” in the novel. Get Shorty was filmed in 1995, starring John Travolta.
Jonathan Lethem: Motherless Brooklyn (1999)
Lionel Essrog’s nickname is Freakshow. “My mouth won’t quit,” explains the novel’s hero, a private eye with Tourette’s. He gets “the urge to shout in the church, the nursery, the crowded movie house …” and, as a rule, he gives in. Trying to keep a low profile in a Buddhist temple, Essrog finds himself screaming, “Ziggedy zendoodah!” Such behaviour hardly helps him track down his boss’s killer, but it is rich in comic possibilities. To Lethem’s credit, however, Essrog — “Liable Guesscog. Final Escrow. Ironic Pissclam” — is much more than a walking, talking, guntoting joke.
Robert Ludlum: The Bourne Identity (1980)
This spy thriller opens with a man bobbing in the Mediterranean. He has several bullet wounds, including one to his head that has given him amnesia. He learns he is Jason Bourne and, when strangers start to shoot at him, he begins to suspect he may have been an assassin. The book was voted second best spy novel of all time, after John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, by US magazine Publishers Weekly. Ludlum wrote two sequels, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. All three were turned into fast-paced, explosively violent films.
Ed McBain: Cop Hater (1956)
New York City, July 1956: on a hot summer night, detective Mike Reardon is shot dead from behind. Steve Carella and his colleagues hunt for the killer of their friend, but soon realise that this is the start of a series of police murders. William Berke directed the 1958 film, which starred Robert Loggia. McBain was also a successful screenwriter: under the pseudonym Evan Hunter he wrote the screenplay (adapted from a Daphne du Maurier story) for Hitchcock’s The Birds.