Awhile ago here at Boomtron we had a contest to win a copy of The Blonde. And when the person who won the contest finished reading it he placed his thoughts in the review comments thread.
One of the things that he said was:
“Also, I know this is categorized as mystery, but when I think mystery, I think dead bodies and some kind of something that has to be figured out,”
This to me speaks to expectations and pre-conceived notions. The very name of the genre, mystery, implies the solution of a crime, but the genre isn’t limited to just that type of story. Then in a private correspondence recently I was asked the following question:
“I wonder which books are a good way to start to read mystery/crime novels more; to delve deeper in the genre.”
And it’s a good question, especially for a site like Boomtron where readers of different genres rub shoulders with one another. But also for readers at large because the genre is big with a lot of different facets and it can be hard to know where to start.
Other online communities are more concerned with asking the never dying questions of ‘Is author X hard-boiled or noir?’ or ‘What is noir?’ and reveling in the never ending debates that result. It’s a series of, at this point, redundant-hand-me-down-generational debates that exclude the new reader who doesn’t care to get into such a nuanced, inside baseball discussion and just wants a gentle nudge in the right direction.
These others also are very exclusive as to what can be included in discussion, for example a crime fiction story told in another medium may be off limits to discuss, or an author who typically doesn’t write mystery/crime fiction may find that his/her work won’t be discussed.
This list isn’t definitive, as it reflects my own reading history, and I’m sure it has its flaws, but I tried to make it as broad and inclusive as I could. I tried to answer the question as broadly as possible, taking into account the history, different trends and developments, favorites (of mine and others), the forgotten, the influential, the popular, the neglected, the famous and those that are looking forward.
Up front I will say that some sections will reflect my own shortcomings, especially if I am under read in them, and will also reflect my own opinions, especially in relation to some of the introductory paragraphs for each section. But, opinions and shortcomings put aside I think that those interested in dipping into the pool, and those who have a club membership, will find something here useful.
As a side note: Some of my groupings are arbitrary and an author or books inclusion in one section isn’t to suggest that it couldn’t/shouldn’t be included in another. Also each section is at best representational in its selections and is not in any way exhaustive.
The “Golden Age” of Detective Fiction
This is the first major era of the modern mystery genre. There are intellectuals and puzzles abound with a number of them being fair play (solvable by the reader). Socially speaking they can be more then a little on the quaint side or as I like to say; a mystery solved with the pinky raised. Traditional whodunits are the mainstay here and its here that we find an abundance of locked-room mysteries. The peak years of these stories were the 1920’s, 30’s & 40’s. A number of the works in this section can be found in the public domain, there stories are linked where appropriate.
–Edgar Allan Poe – Poe is often credited with inventing the mystery, or detective, story. C. Auguste Dupin is Poe’s detective of note here. If you didn’t in school then go read The Murders in Rue Morgue for his first appearance. Though an American Poe’s mystery writing sensibilities were very European.
–Wilkie Collins – If Poe is to be credited with the invention of the mystery then Collins should be credited with the invention of the modern mystery. It’s in his stories that we first find a lot of recognizable elements that will become predominant in later authors works. The Moonstone is his best and most popular work.
–Arthur Conan Doyle – Probably doesn’t need much of an introduction really. Sherlock Holmes is the first detective that most people in the world think of when they hear the word sleuth. To exclude him would be folly.
–GK Chesterton – His Father Brown stories are a prime example of the triumph of the intellect over the mysterious or supernatural. In Father Brown’s world everything has a rational explanation. Though it is a story that can be difficult to classify I would also recommend The Man Who Was Thursday which can be found here.
–Dorothy Sayers – The aristocratic Lord Peter Wimsey is her character. His first novel is Whose Body?. The third, Unnatural Death, uses racial prejudice as a red herring. The Nine Tailors is probably the most popular.
–Rex Stout – Over the course 33 novels and as many short stories Stout’s Nero Wolfe stands as one of the 20th century’s most popular characters. An anachronistic character who didn’t trust technology and didn’t like to leave his house in fact who didn’t really do much except sift, question and process information that was brought to him. Interestingly some have suggested that Stout is the son of Sherlock or Mycroft Holmes.
–John Dickson Carr – A major writer of this era. His stories were strongly influenced by Chesterton’s. His most famous work is The Hallow Man (US title The Three Coffins) in which the Carr’s series character Dr. Gideon Fell, is in a pub and breaks free of the narrative and gives an extended lecture, break down of methods and a defense of and on the locked room mystery. Fell even states that he is just a character in a novel.
–Anthony Berkeley – The Poisoned Chocolates Case is worth noting because in it a group of amateur detectives work on a case that Scotland Yard couldn’t solve and by the end six different possible solutions are given that are all reasonable before the final solution is given.
–Agatha Christie – Not only an important mystery writer for this era but also the most successful of all time. She has a large body of work but the following two titles of hers should be read by all; Ackroyd and And Then There Were None.
As we will see in upcoming sections the traditional detective story has been largely displaced in favor of the American hard-boiled style of mystery/crime fiction writing. A re-visitation of this time periods story style is found in the modern cozy. The two most common modern versions of the cozy are hobby mysteries and the amateur sleuth, two sub-genres that prove to be popular (if disposable) among some readers. Often times the situations and events are played for laughs and the protagonists are women who become amateur sleuths in the solving of a crime that the professionals can’t or won’t investigate.
We also see strains of the cozy in historical mysteries. There is an argument that suggests that by placing the protagonists in an older setting historical mysteries are an overt attempt by an author to strip away modern conveniences and technology that have had an adverse effect on the creation of dramatic tension instead of facing the challenge head on. For example a dark city street just isn’t as scary when you carry a can of mace and can pull out a cell phone to call for help or the changing face of research in this internet/Google day and age.
American Hard-Boiled: Pulp Fiction Vol. 1
Dashiell Hammett, in helping to create the hard-boiled tale, marks this as the second major era of the genre. The hardboiled writers updated the story lines, moved it to an urban environment and added an unprecedented element of realism, violence and sex. Most Americans couldn’t identify with English lords in the country estates lazily solving meaningless crimes with the help of their servants. The American audience, not realizing that they had a need to be filled, jumped all over the chance to read these gritty American tales. In illustrating the radical shift away from and the strong dichotomy between the Golden Age Detective and the Hardboiled Detective Raymond Chandler, in his seminal essay “The Simple Art of Murder” wrote the following two passages:
“Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley; it doesn’t have to stay there forever, but it was a good idea to begin by getting as far as possible from Emily Post’s idea of how a well-bred debutante gnaws a chicken wing. He wrote at first (and almost to the end) for people with a sharp, aggressive attitude to life. They were not afraid of the seamy side of things; they lived there. Violence did not dismay them; it was right down their street.Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with
hand-wrought dueling pistols, curare, and tropical fish. He put these people down on paper as they are, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes.”
“And there arc still quite a few people around who say that Hammett did not write detective stories at all, merely hardboiled chronicles of mean streets with a perfunctory mystery element dropped in like the olive in a martini. These are the flustered old ladies–of both sexes (or no sex) and almost all ages–who like their murders scented with magnolia blossoms and do not care to be reminded that murder is an act of infinite cruelty, even if the perpetrators sometimes look like playboys or college professors or nice motherly women with softly graying hair. There are also a few badly-scared champions of the formal or the classic mystery who think no story is a detective story which does not pose a formal and exact problem and arrange the clues around it with neat labels on them.”
For this section the single volume collection Crime Novels: American
Noir of the 1930’s and 40’s provides a great selection of books and for the next two sections the single volume collection The Black Lizard Big of Pulps is a great, if sprawling, overview of the good, the bad and the ugly of the pulp era.
–Dashiell Hammett – Helped to create the modern PI as we know him. Hammett was a Pinkerton Agent in real life and this experience influenced his writing. Honestly the best value is The Complete Novels where you get all five of his novels in one volume but the best two to start with are Red Harvest and The Maltese Falcon.
–Raymond Chandler – If Hammett is to be considered the first cornerstone of the modern mystery/crime fiction genre then Chandler is the second. His importance to the genre can never be overstated. Chandler is the first/most important stylist in the genre with a style that is often imitated. Like Hammett above all of Chandler’s novels are collected in two volumes, these are the best deal. The best place to start would be The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye & Farewell, My Lovely, these are generally considered his best.
–James M Cain – The third most important of the hardboiled writers. His key works are The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity.
–Paul Cain – Not much is know about Cain but his only novel, The Fast One, is considered by some to be a classic. Pre-internet this book had been notoriously hard to find over the years so it’s hard to tell if its classic status is a result of its own merits or because it was steeped in legend for so long. It can be downloaded here.
–Horace McCoy – One last one that should be mentioned is They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, another classic novel from this period.
Roman Noir: Pulp Fiction Vol. 2
My brother once told me that the difference between balls and resolve was a willingness to go all the way. That’s an apt way to describe this next group and is why I separated these from the above group. They upped the bleak, existential outlook and wrote dark, dark books as a result with sophisticated themes, quality writing and in some cases a sense of experimentation that was hiding in plain sight behind lurid, pulpy book covers. For this section the single volume collection Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950’s provides a great selection of books.
–Jim Thompson – Thompson was a prolific paperback author and he wrote his best books in the 1950’s. They were characterized by brutal first person narratives from the perspective (and inside the head) of psychopaths and those on the fringe of society. His best known book comes from this decade, The Killer Inside Me. Other standouts from this time frame are Savage Night, A Hell of a Woman and Pop. 1280.
–Charles Willeford – Willeford had genuine literary aspirations and was a varied and prolific author of fiction, poetry, reviews, criticism and essays. The Burnt Orange Heresy is widely regarded as one of his best and Miami Blues starts off his Hoke Mosley series. The Shark-Infested Custard is a fan favorite also, it was written in the mid-1970’s but his publisher deemed it too dark and depressing. It was published after his death. His master’s thesis, a revised version of which was published under the title New Forms of Ugly: The Immobilized Hero in Modern Fiction, is a key work for a full understanding of Willeford’s work.
–David Goodis – Arguably the master of the doomed protagonist. Down There is probably his most well known book due to the movie adaptation. The Wounded and the Slain is probably his most easiest to get due to the recent Hard Case Crime re-issue.
–Charles Williams – Probably at the top of the list in terms of waiting for/in need of a revival, a lot of his titles are out of print. Just to throw one title out there, Hell Hath No Fury.
–Chester Himes. For more on Himes see the Black Crime Fiction article. The Grave Digger Jones & Coffin Ed Johnson series books are
considered classics. Two of those titles, The Big Gold Dream and All Shot Up are being re-issued this year.
Brother’s got to work it out
There was a significant number of black crime fiction written after Himes that is often not included in a discussion of the genre. For a full course of recommendations please read my article, Black Crime Fiction. But for those that don’t, please consider giving these two books a try.
–Vern E. Smith – Smith, a life long journalist, only wrote one novel, The Jones Men, and has never returned to the fiction form. This is a novel that doesn’t deserve to be forgotten. A lot of people forget that The Jones Men was nominated for an Edgar when it was released.
–Robert Dean Pharr – Pharr is an underrated novelist and his most
accessible novel is his last, Giveadamn Brown.
The James Crumley effect
The mystery/crime fiction genre was in need of a boost in the mid-1970’s. The form had, in some ways, degenerated into a parody of itself. There was still strong fiction being produced but it was treading the same water and needed to break free from its pulp roots. Enter James Crumley.
–James Crumley – Crumley’s third novel, The Last Good Kiss, took the genre to a whole different level in terms of quality of writing and tweaked the PI sub-genre just enough for it to be different. It’s a modern classic and a must read. Of the publication of The Last Good Kiss Dennis Lehane said the following in an interview “I think that was the moment when people said: Wow, we can do all that? We can actually elevate it to that level?”
–James Ellroy – Following in Crumley’s wake (but not necessarily influenced by him) came Ellroy, who is an important and unique writer. His books are marked by a vast social and historical canvas, dense interactions of his characters and a unique writing style. His L.A. Quartet books are the best place to start. The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential and White Jazz.
–James Lee Burke – Dave Robicheaux is Burke’s series character. He is great writer and, even though the series has gone on to long at this point, Robicheaux is a strong complex character. The Neon Rain is the first book in the series.
–Michael Connelly – His Harry Bosch books tap into this vein as well. The Black Echo is the first book in the series.
–Richard Price – If James Crumley had his own effect then Price has one too. Clockers is one of the most important novels of the last 20 years and really opened readers (and writers) eyes to what could be accomplished with fictional social realism. Price had (and still does) his finger on the pulse of inner city America. In the wake of Clockers came…
–Dennis Lehane – His Kenzie/Gennaro books are among my most favorites but I would say that Mystic River is a must read.
–George Pelecanos – His recent books have been coasting but his DC Quartet are his strongest group of books. The Big Blowdown, King Suckerman, The Sweet Forever and Shame the Devil.
One if by Land, Two if by Sea: The UK-ish Invasion
The last couple of decades have seen UK writers who were weaned on and preferred strongly the American style of crime fiction story. So naturally they started writing their own, and changed, once again, the idiom of the hard-boiled, noir crime fiction novel.
–William McIlvanney – McIlvanney is a poet and novelist and his Inspector Jack Laidlaw novels should be more widely read. Laidlaw is the first in the series.
–Ian Rankin – The massive worldwide popularity of his Rebus books flung the door open for other Scottish writers.
–Derek Raymond – An important writer of UK noir. He Died With His Eyes Open, The Devil’s Home on Leave, How the Dead Live are the first three books in the Factory series. The fourth is called I Was Dora Suarez and is widely considered his best. An apocryphal story says that his publisher literally threw up all over his desk while reading it and refused to publish it.
–Ken Bruen – Bruen’s greatest accomplishment by far is American Skin. The Guards is the book that most people reach his work by, it too is a classic. Other key works are The White Trilogy and The Hackman Blues. Bruen has crafted his own unique style of crime novel. My fear is that, like Leonard, too many future crime writers will succumb to imitation of a style that really only works for him.
–Allan Guthrie – Hard Man, Savage Night. Make no mistake about it Guthrie is one of the better Grand Guignol-esque writers we have today. His style mixes in elements of crime, horror, violence and ratchets them up to absurd levels.
–Ray Banks – Banks represents the next generation of UK crime writers. Saturday’s Child is the start of his Cal Innes books.
–J.J. Connolly – Layer Cake is his only novel but its strength merits it being here. Deftly using a large cast of characters, a great first person narration, modern sensibilities and dense language Layer Cake is a strong novel.
–Val McDermid – McDermid has a couple of series characters, a good standalone place to start would be The Grave Tattoo.
This is where my weakness as a reader comes out. There are a number of other sub genres in mystery/crime fiction. But I can’t speak as easily on them because I don’t typically read a lot of them.
Police procedurals are an offshoot of the detective story that focuses on the realistic depiction of crime solving by police officers. Two of the best and most popular writers are Joseph Wambaugh and Ed McBain. McBain’s 87th Precinct books were a long lasting series (they lasted 30+ years and 50+ books) that proved to be very popular. While having a couple of main detectives the cast was large and varied with no single stand out, in other words, like a police station would normally be. Wambaugh was a second generation police officer and served 14 years. His novels are par excellence for the sub-genre. The New Centurions is his first novel and The Glitter Dome is another highlight. He is also know for his non-fiction, he wrote The Onion Field, an account of the 1963 kidnapping of two police officers and the subsequent murder of one of them. Wambaugh ushered in the modern, gritty, realistic police story as we know it today, regardless of medium, and his influence can’t be understated.
Spy Novel – As geo-politics became more well known and different countries saw the formation of modern governmental agencies dedicated to information gathering and spying it was only natural that fictional stories would be told in this milieu. Some of the best and most popular writers are: Ian Fleming, simply for the creation of the world’s most popular fictional spy, James “007” Bond; John Le Carre is in many ways the high water mark and sits on the polar opposite of the spectrum in every way from Fleming. Most important of all is that he actually was a spy. His career as a spy actually has some historical significance because he was one of the spies that was outed by British double agent Kim Philby. A selection of his novels are The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy, The Constant Gardener; Tom Clancy writes modern military-technology heavy books. Perhaps due to the proliferation of movie adaptations his most popular character is Jack Ryan; Frederick Forsyth’s (The Day of the Jackal, The Dogs of War, and The Fist of God) fiction has shown an unusually high acumen for having his finger on the pulse of geopolitical situations. On numerous occasions real life situations and acts have been anticipated by a Forsyth novel.
Serial Killer – The Silence of the Lambs ushered in the age of the serial killer that proved to be very popular in the 1990’s.
Yet another variant detective can be found in legal mysteries, where a lawyer is the protagonist. Two examples of this popular form are Scott Turrow (Presumed Innocent) and John Grisham (The Firm) but the prototype and king of them all was Earle Stanley Gardner who wrote over 80 novels that featured the immensely popular Perry Mason character.
As I stated before my groupings are a little arbitrary and they leave out some authors. So this section isn’t indicative of any trend or development but instead acts as a catch-all.
–Mickey Spillane – He is, without question, the single most divisive figure in the genre. People love him or hate him, both sides with fervent passion, with no middle ground. I, The Jury is the first of the Mike Hammer books and the ending is pointed to often in arguments by both camps.
–Patricia Highsmith – Her dark and psychological novels have stood the test of time and her Ripley books are widely regarded as classics. The Talented Mr. Ripley is the first book to feature Tom Ripley.
–Ross MacDonald – MacDonald is considered by many to be the third in the PI holy trinity, after Hammett and Chandler. His Lew Archer books are classics of the genre. The first is The Moving Target and The Far Side of the Dollar is a strong book in the series.
–Elmore Leonard – He is a giant in the genre. His entertaining and consistent books are known for their dialog and odd criminals. Like Chandler he has penned one of the most influential, and oft quoted essays of the genre, Ten Rules of Writing. He doesn’t really have a best but his influence (some good, some bad) is immeasurable. Fifty-Two Pick Up, Out of Sight and Pagan Babies would be as good a place as any to start but since Elmore is a consistent producer a new reader could probably grab almost any of his books.
–Vicki Hendricks – There is a long standing, and completely false, belief that women can’t, or don’t write noir. Well Miami Purity is proof that women can write noir.
–Laura Lippman – A solid writer who keeps improving with each novel. One of the more popular writers in the genre. She has a series character and alternates those titles with standalones. I prefer her standalones, two of which are To the Power of Three and What the Dead Know.
–Ian Pears – An Instance of the Fingerpost is a great historical mystery featuring four unreliable narrators, really solid writing and a great story.
–Lawrence Block – Matthew Scudder is generally considered to be one of the great series characters of the genre. Two of his best are Eight Million Ways to Die and When the Sacred Ginmill Closes.
–Sara Paretsky – VI Warshawski, the tough Chicago PI is her main series character. Not only solid PI novels but also one of the most notable female PI’s. Indemnity Only is the first novel in the series
–Kem Nunn – Nunn has a strong literary style, works with big themes, and creates interesting characters. Nunn carved out his own niche in crime fiction by setting his gritty stories in and around surfing communities and involving that sports history. Tijuana Straits is his most recent. Tapping the Source was unrecognizably filmed as the movie Point Break.
–James Sallis – Sallis is, quite simply, the best in the genre right now and one of the finest writers working today, period. His six Lew Griffin books are the most stylistically complex series books ever written and are, in many ways, one of the high water marks of what can be accomplished. His stand alone novel Drive attains a near perfection and his John Turner books channel Proust. Challenging, readable and rewarding.
–Paul Auster – The New York Trilogy. Whether The New York Trilogy represents the introduction of post-modernism into the genre or not doesn’t matter but it does represent a monumental leap forward as to what the genre was capable of as a form.
–Umberto Eco – The Name of the Rose. A huge hit in the 80’s. An important novel with broad appeal. I wonder if the rise in historical mysteries was due to the popularity of The Name of the Rose
–Orhan Pamuk – My Name is Red. A postmodern mystery that challenges the notion of narration at every turn. The story is told through the first person narration of twenty characters (including inanimate objects) both alive and dead.
–Dustin Long – Icelander – In terms of recent post modern mystery novels it can’t be ignored. In fact it might even be fair to call it a postmodern cozy. But Icelander refuses to take itself seriously and manages to have a lot of fun in the process of telling an inventive tale.
–Kobo Abe – Abe is a master and The Ruined Map is a weird, haunting, psychological detective novel that pushes the existential themes inherent in the form to the front.
The International Contingent
I wouldn’t want anyone to think that mystery/crime fiction is strictly a US/UK affair. There are interesting books coming at us from all around the world. Bitter Lemon Press brings readers the best in worldwide and translated crime fiction.
–Georges Simenon – French novelist who is known for his Maigret novels which are popular and acclaimed internationally, The Yellow Dog is one of the best.
–Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö – Swedish married couple who wrote novels together. The Laughing Detective is their most popular and best work.
–Arturo Perez-Reverte – Spanish novelist whose The Flanders Panel and Club Dumas found success with their translation to English.
–Arnaldur Indridason – Icelandic novelist whose series character, detective Erlendur, takes us through Reykjavik. Two of the novels are The Silence of the Grave & Jar City.
–Henning Mankell – Swedish author know for his character Kurt Wallender, the first novel in the series is Faceless Killers. One of his standalones is The Return of the Dancing Master.
–Helene Tursten – Swedish novelist who series character is Irene Huss, the first novel in the series is Detective Inspector Huss.
–Alain Mabanckou – Congolese novelist whose African Psycho takes inside the head of wanna-be serial killer Gregoire Nakobomayo.
Mystery/crime fiction has had a long standing relationship with the visual mediums of television and movies so it should come as no surprise that there is a rich history of comic stories too. I limited myself to a bakers ten; all but one should be easily attainable. There are much more stories to be had in this section and a list of mystery comics would easily go into the hundreds if not thousands.
–Scalped by Jason Aaron was one of the best crime fiction stories told last year and is largely unknown in the mystery/crime fiction community at large. A brilliant crime family epic.
–Fell by Warren Ellis is about as weird and compelling a police story that you’ll find anywhere.
–Sin City by Frank Miller is a compendium of visually striking noir stories.
–Watchmen by Alan Moore may be known as a deconstruction of the super hero but one of its many facets is oddly enough a fair play mystery (a major clue is given on the first page).
–Batman: Year One by Frank Miller takes us back to this iconic detectives roots and gives us one hell of a story.
–The Mystery Play by Grant Morrison is an allegorical, post-modern, odd, weird, visually striking, haunting story about a detective investigating the death of God.
–Fables Vol. 1: Legends in Exile by Bill Willingham takes the lone wolf image of the private investigator and casts no less then The Big Bad Wolf in the part.
–Criminal by Ed Brubaker – Brubaker want to make you his bitch with this straight up crime fiction comic.
–100 Bullets by Brian Azzarello uses a noir story and our inherent moral grey area to tell intriguing stories.
–Hawaiian Dick by B Clay Moore takes place in a stylized and
entertaining 1950’s Hawaii.
–Hard Boiled by Frank Miller is a balls to the wall tour de force of action and violence.
Whether digesting all different types of stories as part of a steady reading diet then seeing what bubbles to the surface or by making a more overt effort to mix and match genres there has been an increase across the board in cross genre mixing in mystery/crime fiction. Sometimes the results feel forced, like one of the elements was just tacked on, but the best examples result in a fresh and original look.
Like other movements this grouping too is tenuous at best because no one really claims to write it, but their work can sometimes be identified as it afterwards. Oddly though, of the 20 years or so that works that are recognizably cross genre have been written, its only within the last few years that this trend has really gathered steam in a popular or marketable way.
Any attempt at describing cross-genre fiction becomes shaggy dog at best, so I’m just going to stop here.
–Jonathan Lethem – In my mind Lethem ushered in cross genre fiction as we know it today with Gun, With Occasional Music. A wild ride of a novel that seamlessly blended a science fiction tale with a story that Chandler could have claimed as his own (you know, if it weren’t for the talking kangaroo). Motherless Brooklyn is not cross genre but is a masterpiece; a unique meditation on language told through the narration of a sort of PI protagonist with Tourette’s Syndrome, and should be read as well.
–George Alec Effinger – Lethem may have ushered in the modern cross genre age but Effinger’s Marid Audran novels paved the way. The first, When Gravity Fails, opens with an extended quote from Chandlers essay “The Simple Art of Murder” (see section 2 above) as an epigraph clearly announcing its desire to be considered as a PI novel regardless of its science fiction setting. As science fiction it’s a success, as a PI story it’s a success, as a meld of the two it’s a success as well. The three novels in the trilogy are When Gravity Fails, A Fire in the Sun and The Exile Kiss.
–David Ambrose – Around the same time as Lethem came Ambrose, whose The Man Who Turned Into Himself mixed a kind of detection story with theoretical physics to mixed results. Superstition is a super natural thriller and also the better novel.
–Joe Lansdale – Lansdale is the epitome of multi-genre writers. You just don’t know what your going to get from him with each new release other then that it will be great. The Bottoms won The Edgar in 2000 and is the best place to check out his mystery novels. His Hap & Leonard series books are worth checking out too. The first one in the series is Savage Season.
–Tim Powers – Yes, Tim Powers is a fantasy writer but his work since the 90’s has been showing more of a crime fiction and espionage/spy fiction influence. His take on these two genres is unique and doesn’t lose any of what makes his style so unique. Last Call and Declare keep the supernatural and occult in the forefront but use them to expand the tropes of crime fiction in new and interesting ways.
–Jim Butcher – His Harry Dresden book are very popular and widely read. Dresden is a wizard who works with the Chicago police department. The first book in the series is Storm Front.
–Charlie Huston – Like Effingers first book Already Dead manages the difficult task of writing each genre that he combines in a pitch-perfect way, in this case we have a Vampyre detective.
–Jon Courtenay Grimwood – All of his novels present very different and interesting mixes of science fiction, fantasy, police procedurals and thrillers. Stamping Butterflies, Pashazade, Effendi, Felaheen, 9 Tail Fox and End of the World Blues.
–Richard Morgan – The Kovac’s books are yet another vibrant and effective mix of science fiction with mystery and thrillers written in an uncompromising hardboiled style. Altered Carbon is the first.
–Tom Piccirilli – Pic’s earlier novels were horror and lately he has been writing crime fiction. Some of his novels, like Headstone City, straddle the line.
–Norman Partridge & Joe Schreiber – Both of these guys write horror novels, I want to say that up front. But if you consider hardboiled as a writing style rather then a genre these guys write horror with a hardboiled style. Especially in the case of Partridge, there’s no reason why a fan of hardboiled fiction shouldn’t love his Dark Harvest.
–Austin Williams – Crimson Orgy becomes a crime horror novel with its whose-gonna-do-it murder plot on a horror movie set.
–Toby Barlow – Barlow found a way to come up with a fun, readable and original take on the werewolf story when he mixed it with a hardboiled, urban, gang story in Sharp Teeth.
Young Guns, Up and Comers and Strong Debuts
–Sara Gran – Sara Gran has written three novels in three genres. Her third, Dope, pushes pulps secondary characters into the forefront. Her web presence has been quiet for about a year now so hopefully she is working on other compact brilliant novels. You’ll have to excuse the following, just in case she has Google alerts set up for herself: Sara Gran, Sara Gran, Sara Gran, Sara Gran, Sara Gran, Sara Gran, Sara Gran, Sara Gran, Sara Gran, Sara Gran.
–Duane Swierczynski – The wonder boy is very prolific having written 6 non-fiction books, 4 novels and recently started working on a couple of comic titles. I don’t know if it’s his best but The Wheelman is one of his strongest.
–Sean Doolittle – His fourth novel, The Cleanup, was a giant leap forward for him. It has a great story, heartfelt characters, and quiet moments that break your heart.
–Charlie Stella – Stella writes about organized crime better then almost anyone, but isn’t necessarily limited to it. Shakedown is a favorite.
–Tana French – Her debut novel, In the Woods, was met with a lot of acclaim and accolades and proved to be a vivid psychological thriller.
–David Corbett – Crime fiction, as written by Corbett, is tragedy. The Devils Redhead is his debut and his most recent is Blood of Paradise.
–Nick Stone – Mr. Clarinet is the first book of a proposed trilogy. An all around strong novel with a nuanced character, an evocative locale and some scenes that attains greatness.
–Tim Maleeny – His Cape Weathers books are quick, entertaining, fun reads. The first is Stealing the Dragon.
–Charlie Huston – The Hank Thompson are a self contained trilogy that introduce us to an interesting character. The final novel, A Dangerous Man, should be mandatory reading for any author that has a series character.
–Gillian Flynn – What happens when a reviewer decides to write a novel? Sharp Objects is the promising result.
–Maggie Estep – There are some who might remember Estep from her part rant, part poet, part spoken work, part verbal assault days on MTV in the 1990’s but she went on to write novels as well. Including a couple of novels that feature her drifter character Ruby Murphy. Hex is the first of those novels and Flamethrower is the latest.
–Marcus Sakey – The Blade Itself is his strong debut novel from 2007. Contrary to wide spread opinion The Blade Itself is not a masterpiece, Sakey hasn’t written one yet, but he shows enough talent to pen at least a couple of them in his career.
–Sean Chercover – The strong PI novel from last year was Big City, Bad Blood.
–Kevin Guilifoile – Cast of Shadows is one of my favorite books of recent years. Strong, hard and thought provoking. The ending gives me chills.
–Craig McDonald – One of the best debut’s from last year was Head Games. It defies easy categorization really.
–Richard Marinick – Marinick’s background (armored car robber, associate of Whitey Bulger, State Trooper, felon, and inmate) is intrinsically weaved into his two novels, Boyos and In For A Pound.
–Steve Mosby – 50/50 Killer – Dark, psychological novels that hit hard. Get this man a US Distribution deal please.
If James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss marked a movement away from the genre’s pulp roots, which was very much needed, then in recent years, possibly as a reaction to this movement possibly as a result of younger generations of writers wanting to, in a sense, take part in a tradition and history that was over before they were born, there has been a strong pull back towards the pulps.
A longing look is being cast over the shoulders, by an increasing number of writers and readers, at days gone past. We’ve seen reprint works, anthologies, entire lines of pulp fiction; also new books that feature stressed covers that replicate the beat up nature of the original paperbacks and sexy pin-up, pulp style original cover art. I think it was this trend that George Pelecanos had in mind when he gave the Phineas Poe omnibus the following blurb “Will Baer has located the black heart of noir, rescued it from the dry-hump clutch of homage, and dragged it back to the drunk tank where it belongs.”
Mystery/crime fiction, much more so then other genres, is far more obsessed/enamored with its pulp fiction roots. Retro, it would seem, without even a touch of irony, is in.
But this notion of modern writers spending too much time engaged with their pulp predecessors and its effect on progress isn’t a new one. The following quote is from a review written in 1976 by Richard Lupoff, which is even more relevant today, “And the people who write “neo-pulp” are doing that and worse. They’re not pushing at the boundaries … nor even standing beside them, but retreating at speed to the old limitations, the old ideas and the old ways.”
But, there are those writers who have absorbed the history of the genre without being encumbered by it, or who have chosen to ignore it. Fiction that fights against regressive trends and forces and looks forward. All of these works are in fact mystery/crime fiction but since they are informed with different sensibilities or come from different backgrounds the result is nothing less then originality. Of this diverse group some are unknown, some have been nominated for awards and others have genre street cred.
To shamelessly plunder, echo and re-word slightly a quote from Peter Straub for my own purposes: Whenever I try to describe the resonant and disturbing literature that mystery/crime fiction, whether acknowledged or not, lately has found itself capable of producing, I find myself alluding to the books in this section.
–Robert Ward – Featuring unique character types Red Baker is Wards novel about out of work Baltimore steelworkers and Four Kinds of Rain is his latest.
–Cormac McCarthy – McCarthy, like Chabon, is a writer who has garnered literary attention but is liked by genre readers as well. No Country For Old Men is the crime novel rendered as a biblical smiting.
–Pete Dexter – Pete Dexter is a no bullshit, guy and his books are the same way. Paris Trout is his classic small town, southern, psychological tragedy and God’s Pocket is another strong novel.
–Jonathan Carroll – Wha, Carroll writes fantasy you say, he doesn’t belong here. Maybe but After Silence is Carroll’s take on noir as family drama.
–Steven Hall – The Raw Shark Texts takes a tried and true thriller premise, the protagonist with amnesia, and dumps it on its ass.
–Jack O’Connell – World Made Flesh, Box Nine, The Skin Palace, Wireless and The Resurrectionist. Crime, horror, weird, surreal. Yup, all that and more. Go now. Read them all.
–Frank Turner Hollon – The God File is an unrelenting and wholly original crime fiction novel.
–Harry Crews – Harry Crews writes dark, disturbing Sothern Gothic fiction. A Feast of Snakes is as dark and violent a book as you’d be likely to find anywhere. But don’t accuse Crews of writing genre books because he might just come to your house and beat you up.
–Will Christopher Baer – The Phineas Poe trilogy is a brutal and beautiful piece of transgressive crime fiction.
–Warren Ellis – Crooked Little Vein wound up being a surprisingly divisive book in the crime fiction community. Some saw it as being an irreverent take on the PI novel and others saw it as being irrelevant.
–Laird Hunt A self-proclaimed “ghost noir” set in the aftermath of 9/11 The Exquisite is a maddening and slippery novel told in maddening and slippery language.
–Lucy Corin – Anyone familiar with Corin’s work would probably think that I’m a lunatic for including her on this list. So be it. But Everyday Psychokillers: A History for Girls is an odd and at times powerful meditation on what makes killers so appealing.
–Patrick O’Leary – The Impossible Bird is O’Leary’s mesmerizing take on the hard relationship between brothers and an alien abduction set in the form of a thriller. Sublime and beautiful.
–Rupert Thomson – In odd, unsettling and hallucinogenic language The Insult gives us the story of a man who is shot in the head and loses his vision but then discovers that he can still see at night time.
–Peter Moore Smith – A detective story unlike any other, Los Angeles, gives us Angel Veroncheck, an albino who becomes obsessed with finding his girlfriend. Chandler’s L.A. updated and distorted into a new vision. His first novel, Raveling, is worth checking out too.
–Elizabeth Hand – Hand is one of our best writers and Generation Loss finds her turning her prodigious writing talents into a mystery novel. Beautifully written with great characters it also is about sacrificing for ones art. One of the best mystery novels the year that it came out and it barley registered as blip on the radar screen of the community.
–Jeffrey Ford – Like Hand Ford is one of our best writers. His last few novels have been moving steadily away from fantasy into mystery but are still unable to fully abandon the fantastical and/or supernatural. The Girl in the Glass won the Edgar and The Shadow Year is his new one.
–Brian Evenson – The Open Curtain was nominated for the 2007 Edgar Paperback Original category. If Jim Thompson were alive today then he would hope to write a novel like this. Brilliantly written, flawlessly executed it takes the reader to places that they may not wish to go. Any one of his short story collections feature stories that could just as easily fit in over at Murdaland and his novella The Brotherhood of Mutilation needs to be read to be believed.
In the new millennium we have seen the insane worldwide popularity of The Davinci Code and the American tragedy of Mystic River; A World Fantasy Award winner take The Edgar and a Vampyre detective; President Bush as part of a story and a man’s search to prove the existence of God. Mystery/crime fiction continues to show that it is a broad genre with ever expanding boundaries and vibrant and exiting stories. There is a full spectrum of story here and I hope that those who are new to the genre, and those who aren’t, can find something.
My sincere hope is that this list will be helpful. But I also hope that it aggravates. If it does then please tell me how full of shit I am and what books I missed.
Brian loves both kinds of books — fiction and non-fiction. He is an all around book john and reviewing roustabout.