I have very much enjoyed compiling this list of my Top 10 Crime Novels to Read Before You Die, not least because it gave me the perfect excuse to loll about re-reading some of my favourite books and claiming it was work.
There is, however, a difficulty with lists like this, which is that they tend to be greeted with howls of "Wot, no Raymond Chandler!" (or Edgar Allen Poe or Arthur Conan Doyle or who you will) and the implication that failure to include the howler’s personal choice is a sure sign that the compiler is, on this topic at least, entirely clueless.
What follows is, therefore, an entirely subjective list, in strictly chronological order, of ten of the crime novels which I have found most inspiring and which have given me the most pleasure, with no attention paid to how influential or otherwise ‘important’ the writers may be. In any case, as Kingsley Amis said when praising the wonderful but underrated novelist and short story writer Elizabeth Taylor, 'Importance” isn’t important. Good writing is.
Malice Aforethought by Francis Iles (1931)
Malice Aforethought is surely inspired by the case of the ‘Hay poisoner’, Herbert Rowse Armstrong, who was hanged in 1922 for the murder of his wife; this early example of the ‘inverted detective story’ is the tale of an adulterous, hen-pecked Devon physician who slowly poisons his wife and then gets to work eliminating those who suspect him. Told from the point of view of the self-deceiving Dr Bickleigh, who has his eye on a greater – and richer – prize than the domineering Julia, it’s psychologically convincing and beautifully paced, with a nifty twist at the last minute.
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy (1935)
Set during the Great Depression, amid the desperation, barbarity and pathos of a dance marathon, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is every bit as shocking and moving today as it must have been for its original readers. Gripping from the beginning – when we are given to understand that the narrator is being condemned to death for an unknown crime – it’s the story of two losers stumbling endlessly round a grotty Hollywood ballroom in a grotesque and ultimately futile struggle for survival. The writing is tersely perfect and the ending almost unbearably moving. For my money, the best example of American noir ever written.
Night and the City by Gerald Kersh (1938)
Kersh (1911-1968) is part of the pantheon of almost-forgotten writers of British noir. He specialised in low-life morality tales and conjured, with Hogarthian relish, a socially realistic world. Night and the City, his best-known work, is the story of Soho denizen, pimp and would-be gangster Harry Fabian, small-time flash with a head full of Hollywood, fooling nobody, even his devoted source-of-income, the credulous Zoe, as completely as he fools himself. An attempt at blackmail fails, as does a foray into boxing promotion. Harry is, if not admirable, then oddly likeable – at least until he betrays both Zoe’s trust, and ours, and, of course, it all ends badly for him. An incredibly vivid, and, for me, unforgettable read.
Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie (1942)
My favourite Christie novel. Hercule Poirot is tasked by artist Amyas Crale’s daughter to investigate his murder by poisoning 16 years earlier, for which her mother Caroline was convicted. Caroline having died in prison, Poirot interviews the five other potential suspects. With all the Christie hallmarks – superb plotting, ingenious sleight-of-hand, and a satisfying last-minute reveal – plus unusual (for this author) psychological depth and complexity, Five Little Pigs is considered by many to be the Queen of Crime Fiction’s finest work.
Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith (1950)
The premise of Highsmith’s first novel is simple: two men meet on a train, each with encumbrances (an unfaithful wife and an inconvenient father). One, the psychopathic Charles Bruno, suggests a ‘murder swap’ to hotshot architect Guy Haines. If Bruno disposes of Miriam, Haines' wife, Haines, in return, will kill Bruno's father. Initially, Haines does not take the proposal seriously, but when Miriam is found strangled at a fairground in his hometown, he is forced to act. This brilliant and amazingly assured psychological thriller, with its themes of guilt, complicity, conscious behaviour and unconscious desire, is all the more remarkable for the fact that its author was in her twenties when she wrote it.
Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene (1958)
Set in Cuba during the Batista regime and published just three months before its overthrow by rebel forces led by Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. Our Man in Havana is the story of Jim Wormold, vacuum-cleaner salesman who inadvertently becomes agent 59200/5 of the British Secret Service; lacking real information or the means to get any, Wormold writes fake reports, invents sub-agents and passes off fake sketches of a secret military installation. His superiors are delighted, but things start to get very complicated when the London HQ decide to send out a secretary and a radio-operator to help him... Funny enough to be right up there with the film Dr Strangelove (1964) as the best of Cold War comedy.
The Collector by John Fowles (1963)
I have never managed to get more than a few chapters into any other book by John Fowles, but I love this two-hander. Loner Frederick Clegg wins the pools, ditches the clerical job and decides to stop collecting butterflies and collect – that is, abduct – beautiful young art student Miranda Grey. What he’s after is the ‘girlfriend experience’ but without ‘anything nasty’ – he doesn’t take advantage of her sexually and panders to her every whim, but won’t let her leave her specially adapted cellar prison unless she is gagged and bound. Both are products of their environments, Clegg as trammelled by his sense of inferiority as Miranda is by her snobbery, priggishness and art-school brand of liberal-humanism. Thoroughly imagined and very creepy, with two pitch-perfect voices – brilliant.
Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry by B.S. Johnson (1973)
Frustrated by life’s petty injustices, Christie Malry, a young accounts clerk in a London confectionery factory, decides to apply a system of moral double-entry bookkeeping to his life: for every aggravation he suffers, he feels entitled to take revenge in order to ‘balance the books’. At first his grievances are small, but as his anger at society grows, he graduates from minor acts of vandalism to full-scale terrorist atrocities. Published shortly before its author’s suicide at the age of just 41, this short novel is a black comedy - engaging, funny, and startlingly original.
A Judgement in Stone by Ruth Rendell (1977)
Gripping from its now famous opening line – "Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write" – this whydunnit isn’t the first inversion of the traditional structure (see Malice Aforethought), but it is certainly one of the best. On the next page, we are told that Eunice and a woman named Joan Smith shot four members of this ‘peculiarly literate’ family on St. Valentine’s Day while they were watching opera on television. "But" writes Rendell, "there was more to it than that". How can you not read on? The author performs merciless vivisection on the British class system as well as delivering a top-class mystery.
Laidlaw by William McIlvanney (1977)
The teenage daughter of a local hardman has been found murdered in a Glasgow park, and the killing is investigated by D.I. Jack Laidlaw: bloody-minded, intellectual, isolated and a maverick, totally immersing himself in the case, who understands that law and justice are rarely the same. If all this sounds very familiar, it’s because poet and literary novelist McIlvanny is the father of Scottish noir and Laidlaw is a classic of the genre. A maelstrom of gangland violence, brutal sentimentality and sectarianism told in richly gothic prose.
The Riot by Laura Wilson is out now from Quercus hardback £16.99.
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