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 as an MP 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.
Wilkie Collins: The Woman in White (1860)
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.
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 Pentonville, 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.
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.
George Pelecanos: The Big Blowdown (1996)
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