My Five Favorite Crime Novels (so far…)

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I’m releasing a crime novella, so I guess I must have some good crime reading suggestions, right?

Well, here’s a confession, right up front: I’ve never been much of a crime genre reader. (Gasp!) I’ve never even read any Donald Westlake. (Double gasp, fall over clutching chest!!) (I know. He’s on the list, okay? There’s an awful lot of stuff to read out there, if you haven’t noticed.)

Part of the fault is that I’m not much of a “genre” reader, in general. I think readers who limit themselves to a genre are needlessly fencing themselves in. You end up reading an awful lot of mediocre (and trope-stealing) stuff just because it happens to fall in-genre, and end up missing out on some fantastic stuff because it falls outside. Same goes for writers, I think, who shoehorn themselves into a genre. With rare exceptions, they end up hitting the mediocrity mark instead of shooting us off to new and mind-f***ing places.

Some readers like being led into familiar waters, and that’s fine. Not me. I cast my net widely. I love reading genre-busters. Surprise me. Take me somewhere different.

F*** my mind, please!

Having said that, there are a few that we’ll reluctantly let fall under the “crime” label that really stand out for me. Not because they were good exemplars of the genre—because they were good stories, period. They sucked me into their dark, seedy, rain-slanted worlds and didn’t let go until I had flipped the last page and cried out in dismay that it was all over.

Here goes, in no particular order:


Elmore Leonard – Rum Punch & Fire in the Hole

Okay, so this is two titles, and one of them isn’t even a novel, it’s a collection of short stories. But Dutch is that good. If I arbitrarily made this a list of six titles he would have to occupy two spots. Rum Punch you probably know by the Tarantino version called Jackie Brown. It’s one of those read-in-one-sitting page-turners that you don’t come across very often. Reading Elmore Leonard is actually kind of a frustrating experience: you want to slow down and sip, savor how good the dialogue and the characters are, but you are forced to take huge gulps to find out what happens on the next page. I remember feeling distinctly bummed when it ended. Fire in the Hole has several memorable stories, one of which introduces the character Raylan from the series Justified. It’s tense, wonderful stuff, and leaves you shaking your head at how much Dutch makes you care about the characters in so short an amount of space.

Raymond Chandler – The Big Sleep

This is probably in any list of great crime novels, and rightfully so. It’s Shakespeare with trench coats and cigarettes and fistfights. Not only does it have the strict waste-no-words economy, but it sometimes knocks you flat with stunning description. “Big cops in slickers that shone like gun barrels had a lot of fun carrying giggling girls across the bad places.” Or: “It was a blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.” Jeez, that’s great. Marlowe is a misogynist and a bit of a prick but he’s so damned blunt and cunning you can’t help but pulling for him. The plot is an inscrutable mess, but you don’t care because you’re being taken along on such an atmospheric, twisting, poetic journey.

John LeCarre – Call for the Dead

I guess LeCarre is usually categorized in the “spy” genre, but this one reads like a great noir. Lots of lying, backstabbing, manipulating characters making life miserable for the protagonist, while he dutifully pursues a murder investigation, whilst getting beat up and slogging through a lot of heavy English rain and mud. It’s great, brooding, atmospheric stuff.

Thomas Harris – Red Dragon

I’m not crazy about Thomas Harris’s writing style. It’s the opposite of Chandleresque economy: it takes a LOT of words to get anywhere. But the trip is worth it. The fact that the protagonist is just as crazy as the villain (and must be in order to catch him) takes you into some very dark territory. It gets right under your skin and creeps you out, and is very difficult to shake after you put it down—the mark of any good story.

Dan Simmons – Hardcase

This one probably owes a lot to the Parker series, and I’ll find out one of these days, I swear. (In fact Simmons even dedicates the book to Westlake). In any case, it’s one of my favorites. It starts with extreme violence (and humor, somehow) and pretty much goes balls-out from there. I feel like Tarantino would be in familiar territory here, if ever he’s hard up for another story to adapt. Great characters, fantastic dialogue, and a protagonist that seems to open up new and awesome levels of hurt for himself every time he says or does anything. And this from an epic sci-fi writer who decided to try his hand at a crime novel! Amazing.

A few honorable mentions:

Greene – The Third Man. Hard not to picture Orson Welles running for his life through slick catacomb-like sewers. Exciting stuff!

Forsyth – The Day of the Jackal. This was actually a bit of a disappointment for me. It was a lot of talking heads in offices, dozens upon dozens of indistinguishable cops. Name soup. Except for every scene with the Jackal himself, which was engrossing, creepy and fascinating.

Doyle – The entire Sherlock Holmes canon. This would occupy the top five except there is no one novel that sticks out. The great detective shines in the short pieces, his one-upsmanship over Scotland Yard is a delight, and his contempt for the thin veneer of polite society that hides a seething underbelly of crime is as addictive as his famous seven-percent solution. (For the record: Downey Jr. is absurd. Jeremy Brett nailed it. Cumberbatch is a delightful fresh take.)

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That’s it. What do you think? Probably not even the “greatest” crime novels ever, or even the “greatest” by these authors. But my favorites, anyway. At least until I get around to Westlake. Let me know your list of favorite crime novels in the comments below!

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