From Nine to Nine by Leo Perutz, 1918
A year older than his Prague compatriot Franz Kafka and later much admired by Jorge Luis Borges, Leo Perutz forged his own variety of the paranoid fantastic. His early novel “From Nine to Nine,” an international best seller in its day, eschews the supernatural trappings of some of his tales (among them the superb “The Swedish Cavalier” and “The Master of the Day of Judgment”) in its seemingly down-to-earth, minute-by-minute account of an impoverished young student on the run after committing a petty crime. The handcuffed hero’s increasingly desperate maneuvers as he makes his way through the nightmarish crannies of Franz Joseph’s Vienna take on the quality of an Expressionist chase movie, and in true Perutzian fashion there is a neatly devastating reversal in the tale’s final paragraphs. The book’s original title was “Freedom”; its small-scale narrative of restraint and flight feels like a deeply meditated protest against the oppressive hierarchies of the world into which Perutz was born.
Tropic Moon by Georges Simenon, 1933
Georges Simenon spent only a short time in Gabon during a two-month African journey in the summer of 1932, but he was able to turn the experience into a devastating sketch of French Equatorial decadence, stripped of exoticism, punctuated by adultery and murder, and palpably suffused with boredom, petty resentment and moral squalor. In place of Conradian prose poetry he gives us flat photographic rendition of a place in which no one can feel altogether at ease. From the barrooms of Libreville to the commercial stations of the interior waterways, Simenon’s feckless young immigrant undergoes a quick and brutal education in colonial ways that will cost him both his self-respect and his sanity. This was the book that signaled most clearly Simenon’s ambition to go beyond his Inspector Maigret novels into the pitiless world of what he called his romans durs, or hard novels. There are scores of other outstanding Simenon novels to choose from among the hundreds he published, but “Tropic Moon” is an excellent point of entry into his harsh and disenchanted world.
The Fire Engine That Disappeared by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, 1969
The incomparable series of novels featuring the Stockholm police investigator Martin Beck and his colleagues owed much to the 87th Precinct procedurals of Ed McBain, but Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö surpassed their model—and have in turn been extensively imitated. The series reached its peak in “The Fire Engine That Disappeared,” about an intricately baffling case involving an exploding house and an inexplicable suicide note. The Beck novels were marked by a picaresque attention to urban detail and eccentric characterization. With an almost Dickensian exuberance they revealed beneath the well-ordered surfaces of Stockholm a seamy and fear-haunted network of criminals, exploiters and victims—not to mention the harried and at times bureaucratically stymied police force. These densely populated pages, animated by bursts of humor and indignation, portray a whole society in motion.
The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martínez, 2005
Set among mathematicians in an Oxford that seems, at first, as comfortingly abstract as a calculus equation, this Argentinian novel is a puzzle mystery that pays homage to that very old school of mystery-writing that thrived on mystification and decipherment: G. K. Chesterton, the creator of Father Brown, is appropriately invoked at one crucial point (along with such other high-level game-players as Gödel, Wittgenstein, and Lewis Carroll, not to mention an ancient contingent of Gnostics and Pythagoreans). The gaming in “The Oxford Murders” runs deep, but the book plays eminently fair with its mélange of serial murders, logical paradoxes and ominous encrypted messages. Most remarkable is the level of emotion stirred as the strands of convoluted speculation finally converge. While the novel is steeped in the most primordial pleasures of detective fiction, Guillermo Martínez found some brilliant new uses for those old devices.
The Water’s Edge by Karin Fossum, 2007
‘The Water’s Edge,’ which traces the investigation of a young boy’s random murder, is notably free of melodramatic complication and sleight-of-hand: Karin Fossum offers up scenes of rural Norwegian life that could pass as documentary observation. This is crime fiction as transcription of ordinary misery, with the horrors of violent death taking their place among the slower but finally no less destructive malaise of marital impasse, social rejection and children’s capacity for cruelty. The degree to which the characters are bound to their milieu is made apparent at every turn—sometimes, in didactic bits of dialogue, almost too apparent. But the sense of place is relentlessly exact. Fossum, who began as a poet, evokes haunted landscapes and claustrophobic interiors with stark precision. Her protagonist, Inspector Sejer, is just the detective for such a book, somber, laconic, almost burnt out by what he has seen.
Mr. O’Brien, whose books include “The Fall of the House of Walworth” and “Sonata for Jukebox,” is the editor of the Library of America